#KeepKidsReading Book Review #2 – “Into the Sideways World” by Ross Welford

Going on holiday can play havoc with your writing goals so my July #KeepKidsReading week has turned into a #KeepKidsReading fortnight, my second book review being a full ten days after the first! So I am writing this from a very sunny south-west France where I am holidaying with my family. We escaped the heatwave in the UK last weekend, but exchanged it for very high temperatures in Paris, where nobody seemed particularly bothered. We spent a lot of time doing indoor things like enjoying the shops and visiting museums. It is very hot here in the Gironde today so I have chosen to stay inside for a couple of hours, fair-skinned English woman that I am. Thankfully the terrible fires that afflicted this part of France (and indeed Spain and Portugal) seem to be largely under control, or extinguished, and although it is hot here today, the termperature is set to drop to the (still very hot in my opinion) mid-twenties from tomorrow.

Preparations for my trip meant that I did not manage to write my review of Ross Welford’s latest book for children. Published earlier this year, it is his seventh and he has quickly become one of the leading authors for children in the 8-12 age group. I read his his first novel, Time Travelling with a Hamster (published in 2016), with a primary school book club I was running at the time and all the kids loved it. It was the first book we read in the club and I’m afraid they found every subsequent book a disappointment! I read Welford’s next two books, What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible and The 1,000 Year Old Boy, and loved those too, but he has written a further three books in the meantime that I have not yet caught up on. So, his latest novel felt like a good opportunity to dive back into Welford’s world.

Welford’s world is one that is familiar to me, the north east of England, the coastal area to the east of Newcastle upon Tyne, Whitley Bay, to be precise. Welford sets his books in the fictional area of Culvercot, equivalent to Cullercoats. I lived some happy years in Tynemouth, the next town along, and so I know the area well. I also love the fact that Welford’s character are really ordinary kids – they are not super clever with perfect lives. In Into the Sideways World, the narrator and main character Willa, who is twelve, has wonky teeth, is teased at school, her parents are stressed by their business problems and bicker constantly, and she is generally unexceptional. Wonderful! Kids can see themselves in this character without feeling they are somehow wanting.

Willa’s parents run a holiday camp in Whitley Bay that was set up by Willa’s grandfather, but which is now in decline. One of Willa’s closest confidantes is Maudie, on-site general handywoman and ageing hippy with a passion for learning and for chocolate. Maudie has worked on the site since it was opened and her main claim to fame is that she met briefly President John F Kennedy before he was assassinated and told him about her vision of a World Without War. The novel is set some time in the 2030s. Maudie’s vision seems even more poignant given that there is the threat of a third world war looming. References are made to “the great pandemic” that killed thousands, including Willa’s grandfather, and climate change is wreaking ever greater havoc.

Willa’s life seems mostly pretty dull and occasionally difficult, with more than a little sadness, until she meets Manny Weaver, a new boy at school who has spent his short life to date moving from one foster home to another. Manny is bolder and more confident than Willa and while he is not exactly delinquent he is more willing to push boundaries. When he learns about the Whitley Bay cog, a mysterious and shy sea creature, having been spotted in a cave on the beach at Culvercot, he encourages Willa to go searching for it with him.

Once inside the cave, Manny and Willa, experience a violent meteorological event and when they emerge, they do so into a very different world. The date is the same (this is not quite time travel), but it is most definitely a parallel universe where everything is different, where President Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and, influenced by the great and distinguished Lady Maud Fry, led the world to make different choices. In this new “sideways world” the worst effects of climate change have been averted, science has devoted itself to finding alternatives to fossil fuels and meat consumption, world leaders choose dialogue over conflict, and everyone is happy.

Once they have arrived in the sideways world, Willa goes “home” and finds the environment very different: firstly, she is now Mina, not Willa, she no longer has an older sister, rather her older brother Alex, who in her own world died as a baby from cardiac abnormality, has survived. Her parents are (embarrassingly!) still very much in love, their business is successful, and there was no pandemic so her grandfather is still alive. Cars as we know them have gone, rather there are strange floating scooters that run on some advanced hydrogen/solar technology. It is a utopian vision. Crucially, Manny’s longed-for mother, who in their own world disappeared for many years and has been tracked down to a psychiatric facility in Scotland, is getting well and they are about to be reunited.

Manny and Willa do not know what to make of the new world. It turns out that Manny is one of a very small number of people with a hypersensitivity to the moon and tides and who can switch between these different worlds at certain times. At the time of the novel, the moon, a Supermoon, is closer to the earth than it has been for decades or will be again for many years, which enables Manny to take advantage of the conditions to transport himself, and Willa, to an alternative reality.

The rest of the novel follows the two children as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. They make a couple of journeys back and forth and it becomes clear that, although the sideways world is, in countless ways, better and happier than her own world, Willa comes to the conclusion that the world she knows is where she belongs. She also realises that she has switched places with her doppelganger, Mina, who will be finding the old world extremely challenging compared to what she has been used to. For Manny, the decision is less clearcut – the old world has nothing to offer him, but he has a life with his mother to gain in the sideways world.

Thematically, the book is similar to the other Welford novels I have read, although I love the way he has incorporated climate change and the pandemic into this one. At this difficult stage in history, I also love the way he is showing children that things can be better, change is possible, they can be hopeful of a better world in the future, and the power will soon be in their hands to make it so. Welford achieves this without being preachy though, because he wraps it in yet another brilliant story with great characters, adventure, action, a chase (of course!) and all the little references that will draw children in, the social media and technology references, sibling rivalries and relationships with parents.

Highly recommended, brilliant summer reading for kids, and for me too!

#KeepKidsReading book review #1 – “The Fire Cats of London” by Anna Fargher

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour accompanying the launch of Anna Fargher’s latest book The Fire Cats of London, which was published just a week ago. This is Anna’s third children’s book; I reviewed her first book The Umbrella Mouse (published in 2019) on here and thoroughly enjoyed it. The follow-up, Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, came out in 2020, reprising the same central character and historical period (the Second World War).

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS SINCE IT IS MEANT AS A GUIDE FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS

Anna’s latest book introduces us to a new, feisty central character, Asta, a wildcat, and explores a different historical period, the 17th century and specifically the Great Fire of London. Asta is a young wildcat living in the forests on the outskirts of London with her twin brother Ash and their mother, when hunters capture the young pair (killing their mother in the process) and sell them to a shady London apothecary, Rathder. He plans to use the wildcats to harvest their whiskers, blood and fur, which are rare and valuable ingredients in the potions he makes and sells to his customers. Rathder has his own pet cat, a wily British Blue named Beauty, who flirts with Ash and wins him over, convincing him that he will be safer in captivity with Rathder than in the outside world. Asta refuses to be drawn in, however, and maintains a strong desire to escape back to the wild.

The Great Fire occupies only the last quarter or so of the book. In between the wildcats’ capture and the Fire, Asta is used as a fighting cat at the Bartholomew Fair, where she makes friends with a bear and her young cub. The bear, Tilia is also desperate to escape captivity, most especially for the sake of her cub Lipa. Asta and Tilia plot a daring escape, aided and abetted by their raven friend Jet. Jet lives with Miriam, a wealthy widow and a herbalist, protege of the famous Culpeper, whose mission is to free animals that are used for human sport and quack remedies. She hears about Asta and the bears and determines to help them in whatever way she can.

Asta and Lipa do escape the Fair, though sadly Tilia dies in the attempt, and they make it to Miriam’s. She is a sworn enemy of Rathder and his accomplice Moore, both of whom suspect that she is behind the chaos caused at the Fair and the escape of the animals. This has had a direct financial impact on them both and they are determined to make her pay.

Miriam hides Asta and Lipa and plans to take them to Epping Forest (in Essex) to release them. Their plans are thrown into jeopardy however, when the Great Fire begins in Pudding Lane and they are forced to make a much more hasty departure. All the while, Asta has never forgotten her brother Ash and wants to free him from Rathder and Beauty’s clutches. This leads her to make a bold and high-risk move at the very last minute when she is close to safety.

Anna Fargher is a clever writer and as with The Umbrella Mouse has created a charming cast of animal characters in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows. Asta is a powerful central character, brave, loving, principled who, when faced with adversity, rises to the challenge and emerges triumphant, all good characteristics in a role model! I think she also weaves in some brilliant history lessons, about the period in London, the Great Fire and the various social tensions between different religious factions and races.

There is a lot of peril in the book – at the beginning when the wildcats are hunted, at the Fair, where the animals are brutally treated, and at the end with the Fire itself. There is also the fact that two mothers die! (Tilia the bear, and Ash and Asta’s mother). Younger children might find aspects of it challenging, or indeed triggering. There is something to be said for not sugar-coating the world for our children, especially our history, but some readers may need a bit of support.

The author has brought in some fantastic contemporary themes – the unequal and controlling relationship between Ash and Beauty, showing children that not all friendships are good ones even when someone seems to be nice to you. The importance of true friends and family, filial love, the importance of believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe is right. The impact of humans on the environment, the animal world in particular, is another powerful theme and one which is clearly close to the author’s heart. She has spoken of the decline of biodiversity in the British Isles, and the plight of Britian’s wildcats in particular seems to have captured her imagination.

Wildcats are Britain’s rarest mammal. They are now found only in Scotland. On the brink of extinction, only 30 native cats remain. The decline began with Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s Vermin Acts, where Bounties were paid for culling animals believed to pose a risk to livestock and grain.

No wildcats have roamed England and Wales for at least 150 years, and although the current numbers are woefully low, there is hope. Rewilding programs are in motion, and the more we know about them, the more we can fight to preserve them.

Anna Fargher, 2022

There is much in this book for children to learn about, as well as a cracking good story for them to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for an advance review copy of this title.

#KeepKidsReading

Summer is here and school is almost out so it must be time for another #KeepKidsReading week. Many parents and teachers know all about the phenomenon of ‘learning loss’ and after two years of disruption to school this may be a very acute problem this year more than ever. The rigours of school life can also bring pressures so many children need and deserve a break from formal studying.

The long summer holiday can be an opportunity for many kids to discover the joy of reading for pleasure. Choosing a book because they like the look of it and not because their teacher tells them to. I have long been a fan of the summer reading challenge for children that is run every year by council libraries. When they were young my children always loved the weekly visit to the library to choose a new book, getting stickers and tracking their progress on a chart. Oh for the simple pleasures! A visit to the library is free and therefore even more attractive with pressures on family budgets as they are at the moment.

The theme of this year’s summer reading challenge is ‘Gadgeteers’, which will appeal to youngsters with an interest in science and technology, who may perhaps think they are less interested in books! Kids can sign up at their local library, which may also be running tandem events, and if they have internet access there are various online activities they can do too.

If you are looking for ideas for books, I have a couple of reviews for you to look out for this week. On Friday I will post a review of Anna Fargher’s new book The Fire Cats of London. My review will be part of the book tour this week.

At the weekend I’ll have another suggestion for you, the latest from one of my favourite children’s authors writing at the moment, Ross Welford.

So, if you have any children in your care this summer, do get them along to the local library (they need our support, use them or lose them, not everyone can afford to buy books), get them signed up and #KeepKidsReading.

Non-fiction book review: “The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund De Waal

This was my my fourth non-fiction book of the year and, very helpfully, also my book club read for June (now only two behind!). I have to admit I was a little sceptical at first. It was suggested by one of my fellow book club members and I had not heard about it before. I thought it would be just another rich family  memoir, but it seemed to have a bit of history about it, so I was game.

The author is a British ceramicist whose grandmother was part of one of the richest Jewish families in Europe, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, before the Nazis confiscated their property and they were forced to flee their native Vienna in the late 1930s. At the start of his journey the author apparently knew very little of his family history and it is only through the discovery of a collection of ‘netsuke’ tiny Japanese carved figures of people and animals in ivory or wood, that he decides to explore further. The author was on an academic sabbatical in Japan, where his great uncle Iggy (Ignatius) lived when he sees the collection for the first time. He is fascinated by the netsuke and this prompts him to dig deeper into their history and how they came to be in his family.

The book does begin as something of a rich family memoir. Originally from Odessa, the accumulation of wealth through banking enables them to live variously in Paris and Vienna, mixing with the highest-calibre thinkers and artists of the day. It is Charles Ephrussi, an enthusiast for ‘japonisme’, which was popular at the time, who put together the collection of netsuke. Later, they would be considered more like minor trinkets (compared to other parts of the collection), played with by the children of the family, as taste for japonisme waned and the market became saturated with lower quality objects. Because of the family’s wealth and importance, the author has been able to compile a detailed history of the family and imagines the scenes and events at their various homes, the salons they held with the famous people of the day present. It is fascinating but a touch sterile for me.

As the narrative moves into the twentieth century, and the inevitable decline of the dynasty, I felt it became more interesting. The first world war changes everything, of course, for that stratum of society, but the author writes most movingly when describing the decade or so before the outbreak of the second world war, with the gradual demonising of Jews, particularly the wealthy ones. As various members of the family see the writing on the wall and flee the continent, the dynasty begins to break down. The final humiliation comes when the Nazis confiscate their mansion in Vienna and all its contents. The netsuke only survived this process because the family’s long-serving maid, Anna, who was kept on at the house, gradually spirited them away and hid them in her mattress. Later they were smuggled out of the country.

This part of the book is also most moving because it is within the author’s living memory almost, his grandmother having been one of those to flee Vienna, arriving in Kent with next to nothing and having to start her life again. De Waal also becomes increasingly reflective as the history gets closer to the time of the war and to his living family members. It is as if he becomes able to feel their pain. He is also philosophical about how relatively lucky his family were – yes, they lost everything (and they had a lot to lose), but they survived and prospered, unlike many other European Jews. Their wealth meant they were able to leave more easily than most. He is also deeply moved by the loyalty of Anna, the family maid, who risked her own life by trying to save something of the family’s collection, the netsuke.

I listened to this on audio and it was beautifully read by Michael Maloney, but it would have been useful to have the family tree that is in the print edition to refer back to as I did lose track of the members of each generation. The book won the Costa Book Award in the Biography category in 2010. Since its publication, some historians have challenged some of the facts in the book, I gather, for example suggesting the standing of the Ephrussi family has been overstated. I suspect some misrepresentation is inevitable in this kind of book, where the author has fleshed out bare facts with imaginings about day to day life, and this does not detract too much.

It is a fascinating account – recommended.

My next non-fiction read is a book I have had for a while now, Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions – a collection of essays and comment pieces. It is another big book, so I suspect I am not going to be catching up too easily on my non-fiction challenge for the year, but I plan to take it on my summer holidays so we’ll see!

Summer reading book review – “The Break” by Marian Keyes

The second holiday reading recommendation I’d like to share with you is The Break by Marian Keyes. For years I eschewed Marian Keyes (though I always enjoyed hearing her whenever she popped up on the radio) in the mistaken belief that her books were a bit too ‘chick-lit’ for me – I say this completely ironically, since I loathe that term – it’s so pejorative and patronising! I would argue all night that no genre is better or worse than any other, it’s all just about what you enjoy reading. I might just draw the line at ghost-written autobiographies by very young minor celebrities, but that would be a personal line, and I would be happy to be proven wrong. Back to Marian; my book club read Grown Ups a couple of years ago, after which I was completely hooked and vowed that I would work my way through all of her eighteen novels and five non-fiction books – I’ll write that again…EIGHTEEN novels! She has apparently sold more than 35 million books worldwide. She is one popular writer, and deservedly so.

As with Grown Ups I listened to The Break on audio, and I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t Marian herself narrating this time, but Aoife McMahon does an excellent job. The plot is simple but effective. Amy and Hugh are seemingly happily married with three daughters – Niamh is from Amy’s first marriage, Keira is their own and Sophie is her niece, who came to live with them after her own two parents (Amy’s feckless brother and his equally feckless Latvian girlfriend) separated and showed no ability to care for their daughter. Hugh hits a difficult patch after the death of his father and best friend, and announces to Amy that he wants to take a complete six month break. He doesn’t just want a holiday on his own, he wants to spend six months in Asia with a backpack living as if he was single, with all that this entails.

Naturally, this comes as a tremendous shock to Amy. By the time he tells her, Hugh has already made most of his plans and so there is little time for her to influence his decision. He insists that he loves her completely and fully intends to come back and resume their life as it was before, he just needs this ‘time out’. After he leaves, Amy goes through something like a bereavement, trying to come to terms with the practical and emotional implications of his actions. Amy’s family (sprawling, loving and a bit chaotic, typically Irish, you might say, and a common characteristic in Keyes’s work) has challenges of its own – her father has dementia, which puts a strain on the offspring, there are sibling rivalries and each of Amy’s daughters is going through their own turmoil, partly connected and partly unconnected to Hugh’s departure.

Amy has a job as a PR executive, working two days a week in London with her two partners in their small company. Life as a single parent therefore presents her with many practical challenges; even though the girls are old enough to look after themselves on one level, it is clear that they still need a lot of support. Amy’s life is busy and Hugh has left her in the lurch.

Amy’s friends encourage her to embrace her own bit of single life while Hugh is on the other side of the world having his fun. (Amy cannot help stalking his Facebook account and when she sees him with another woman, it is a devastating blow.) Amy’s relationship adventures turn out not to be as easy or exciting as might be expected, and neither do Hugh’s.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but needless to say, the book is not just about what each of them does while they are apart, but also what happens when Hugh returns, how they are changed and what the implications are for the relationship. Keyes keeps you guessing and it does not pan out quite how you expect. Part of this author’s skill, I think, is in taking the everyday mundane aspects of life and making out of them something special. It is so engaging because the characters, and therefore the events that befall them, could easily be us. There is an impressive cast of characters in this novel and yet they are all distinctive, well-drawn and multi-faceted. The narrator of the audiobook does very well also to give a slightly different voice twist to each one.

So, another ‘highly recommended’ for your summer reading!

Audiobook review – “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For many of us (lucky enough to have a passport and the funds to do so), thoughts are turning to summer holidays. Even if you are not getting away this year, perhaps you will have some relaxation time to enjoy the warmer weather from the comfort of your own garden or a local park or beauty spot. I am seeing quite a few ‘best books for the summer’ type features in newspaper supplements, magazines and in online newsletters so I thought I would join in and share a couple of my own recommendations this week.

What do we want from summer reading? Well, I read Ulysses on a trip to Spain many years ago, but life has changed somewhat since then and that would be a bit ambitious for me these days! Generally, holiday reads should not be too taxing, can be picked up and put down as we take a dip, that we don’t mind getting sand over and which we might just leave on the holiday let bookshelf to make space in our luggage when we leave. Oh, and long enough that they will definitely last the whole trip plus any potential waiting time in stations or airports!

The first book I’d recommend is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was actually recommended to me by sixteen year old daughter who read it cover to cover in days, could not put it down (AND she was revising for GCSEs). It tells the story of the life of ageing film star, Evelyn Hugo, giving a rare and possibly final interview to accompany the auction of a number of her gowns for a cancer charity. Evelyn agrees to the interview (a major scoop for the magazine Vivant) on the basis that it is conducted by one of its least-known writers, Monique Grant, a condition which irks the magazine’s editor.

Monique, who is going through some difficult life events herself, her husband having recently left her, is surprised when at their very first meeting, Evelyn reveals that she has in fact hand-picked Monique to write her biography, NOT to do a magazine interview, though she will not reveal the reason. Evelyn begins to tell Monique the story of her life, from the very beginning when she lost her mother and as a teenager married Ernie Diaz (husband number one), as a way to escape Hell’s Kitchen in New York and her violent father and go to Hollywood where she plans to find fame and fortune. She quickly finds roles in a number of films and after divorcing Ernie she marries her handsome and popular co-star Don Adler. Evelyn is a huge success and is nominated for an Oscar for her role in an adaptation of Little Women. She finds herself embroiled in scandal however, when she leaves Don who, after a brief honeymoon period turned out to be abusive. But as a woman, it is Evelyn who is publicly ostracised and the Oscar goes instead to her co-star Celia St James, with whom Evelyn will go on to have an important friendship.

The story goes on, with Evelyn recounting the events of her life, how she came to have seven husbands and the circumstances behind each of her marriages. She had a daughter, the result of her fifth marriage to Hollywood producer Harry Cameron, one of her very few true friends. But Connor, their daughter dies of breast cancer, hence the sale of Evelyn’s gowns to benefit the charity. Evelyn tells her story in parallel to the reader learning of Monique’s relationship troubles. Through her meetings with Evelyn, Monique gains a certain courage which enables her to confront some of the issues in her life and begin to take control of her destiny rather than being the victim of circumstances.

I listened to this on audiobook and it far exceeded my expectations. My daughter told me that I would “never get the plot twist”. There are in fact quite a few very clever plot twists, some of which I foresaw (and felt rather smug about) and one or two jaw-droppers I did not. The book has become an international bestseller of course, since its publication and the author, Taylor Jenkins Reid has had other popular and critical successes, most notably Daisy Jones and the Six (which I picked up secondhand the other day and which might be one of my own summer reads). Monique and Evelyn were voiced separately and both were very good, I felt.

The book is everything you could want from a summer read – doesn’t require too much brain power, engrossing, a fantastic plot, great characters and an interesting premise. Highly recommended.

Non-fiction book review – “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami

The non-fiction reading challenge that I set myself at the beginning of the year has not been going quite to plan – I set myself the goal of reading one non-fiction book a month, so I should be well into my sixth by now, but I have only completed three. My reading has been quite erratic these last few months; my two daughters have been doing their GCSE and A level exams and have needed a lot of support from me, including taking them to and from school for the exams themselves. Happily, they finish this week and I am pleased to report that they have both coped really well with the enormous pressure.

After the challenge of Andrew Arsan’s Lebanon, I went for something completely different for my third non-fiction, a book by the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, who is much better known for his novels, such as Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. He is considered one of the world’s greatest living writers and has published fourteen novels, several short story collections and a number of essays and works of non-fiction.

I came across What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by complete accident when I was looking for books to give my son for a foreign trip he took recently. He is a keen runner too and I thought he might find it interesting. Reading the blurb I determined that I would give it a go myself.

I decided to listen to it on audiobook, and to listen while I was running! It’s fairly short, less than five hours listening time, around 200 pages, so I got through it fairly quickly. In it the author talks about his experience of running marathons, which he does once a year, and an ultramarathon in his home country of Japan. He writes about his highly disciplined approach to running; he has run six miles a day, six days a week for more than two decades. He wrote the book in 2007, when he was in his late fifties, and was still managing to maintain this schedule. Despite his busy life as a world-famous writer, international lecturer and academic, he has stuck very successfully to this schedule. He is now in his early seventies – I wonder if he is still doing it?

He writes of the benefits to his mental and physical health from his running schedule, but he is not fanatical about promoting his particular method. He is simply writing about what works for him. He draws parallels between his approach to running and his approach to writing – the meticulous attention to detail, the obsession with timings, the need to remain on task. It is also fascinating when he writes about what he notices when he runs, the landscapes and people around him, how it makes him see the world in a certain way. This is the continuous practice of the writer, observing what is happening in the world they inhabit.

This felt like a very intimate book; Murakami lets us into his very private running world. As a runner myself I do not talk very much about the strange thoughts that go through my mind when I’m running, how I feel when approaching a known hill or what my legs feel like after 7km, but Murakami takes us there. Some of the narrative is extremely detailed, for example when outlining his training schedule for an upcoming marathon – this could be the literary equivalent of showing someone your holiday photos! In other words not really interesting to anyone else! But if you are a runner and interested in the process you will be drawn into his world of measurements, timings, footwear and clothing considerations, like it was all completely normal conversation. As with running the book has a meditative quality.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend listening while running.

My next non-fiction title is actually one my book club is reading – The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, about the well-known potter’s search for his family history as he traces the origins of a cache of Japanese miniature sculptures. Let’s hope I can catch up on this challenge!

The Women’s Prize – winner announced tonight

The Women’s Prize has really gained in profile in the last few years. I think it’s actually been better since it stopped being sponsored by, first, Orange and then Bailey’s. By calling itself simply ‘The Women’s Prize’ it seems to have been able to be truer to its purpose. It also seems not to have suffered from some of the criticisms that other literary prizes have attracted around diversity. I make it my intention to read the Booker Prize shortlist each autumn; perhaps I should do the same for the The Women’s Prize.

This year, I have read three of the six titles on the shortlist, although one of these, Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, was shortlisted for the Booker last year too, so I was one step ahead for a change! I have already written about how much I loved that particular book.

When the shortlist was announced, my book club decided we’d read The Sentence Louise Erdrich. Erdrich is an American author. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for her novel The Night Watchman. I know very little about her, except that she has Native American heritage on her mother’s side, and that this cultural inheritance influences her writing.

The Sentence is a complex book. The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who is convicted of drug smuggling and given a prison sentence. She has had a difficult upbringing (in common with a disproportionate number of Native American and African American young people, an issue which underpins many of the novel’s themes), but during her incarceration she discovers literature. When she is released she marries Pollux, the man who arrested her, a kind of tribal law enforcement officer, and gets a steady job in a bookstore. Her life is good, on track, and she and Pollux live very happily.

All that changes on All Soul’s Eve in 2019 when a former customer of the bookshop, a cantankerous elderly woman called Flora, dies. Tookie is convinced that Flora is haunting the bookstore, more as a poltergeist than a friendly ghost, and the impact this has on Tookie’s mental state is mirrored by wider social events which seem to signify a kind of societal breakdown. The novel is set in Minneapolis (where Erdrich herself lives so she will have been close to events) and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 is a totemic moment that causes grief and chaos. Then there is the Covid pandemic, the lockdowns, the visceral fear of disease and the social isolation that it leads to. Tookie and Pollux at least have each other (plus Pollux’s daughter Hetta and her baby son, who come to live with them), but it is clear that this is a period during which the things they have thus far taken for granted are being swept away.

The Sentence is a powerful novel which explores many important issues, but I cannot say that I really ‘enjoyed’ it. It is one of the first ‘pandemic novels’ I have read and it will have been written when the world was still in the grip of Covid, not really knowing how or if we would get out of it. That comes through strongly in the novel, the sense of entering an unknown state, whilst also observing things falling apart. The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder will also have been quite raw and the sense of history repeating itself, of lack of justice for minorities and fear of the police, a sense of social structures collapsing, is expressed in Tookie’s despair. For me, though, the novel feels a little under-cooked. I’m not sure many of us have fully processed the events of 2019-21 and the novel seems to flounder a bit on not really having a clear direction.

My feelings about another of the shortlisted books, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss could not be more different. It too deals with a pressing social issue, mental illness, but it deals with it through, for me, a much stronger narrative. Martha is unwell. She has her first bout of depression, or ‘episode’ we might call it, when she is seventeen. Her family might be described by some as bohemian, dysfuctional by others. Her parents are artists, her father a poet and her mother a sculptor, and neither is especially successful. Her mother, Celia, was brought up largely by her older sister Winsome, after their mother died. Winsome married a rich man, lives in Belgravia, and largely supports Celia and her family. Martha has one sister, Ingrid, to whom she is very close.

Every year, the whole family gathers for Christmas in Belgravia, and included in their number is Patrick, a boarding school friend of one of Martha’s cousins. Patrick’s mother is dead and his father lives abroad and appears not to care very much about his son. Patrick is one of the few people able to empathise and show genuine care when Martha is first unwell, that Christmas in Belgravia, and we later learn that he has been in love with her ever since. Martha makes a very brief and disastrous marriage to wealthy and obnoxious financier Jonathan, who bolts at the very first sign of her illness. Later she will marry Patrick (not a spoiler since the book begins with what is described as the end of her marriage to him after Martha’s fortieth birthday). Their life together is entirely dominated by her illness, which is misdiagnosed, misunderstood, mismanaged, and incorrectly medicated. Eventually, Martha receives a new diagnosis from a new psychiatrist – significantly, the name of her condition is left blank. This is not a book about a condition, it is a book about how mental illness tears lives apart, and not just the lives of those who have the condition. Martha is prescribed medication which finally seems to work, but when Martha seems to be getting ‘fixed’, her life actually begins to fall apart.

This book is an astonishing account of a severe mental illness from the point of view of the person experiencing it. We see the world entirely through Martha’s eyes for most of the book, until the final, correct, diagnosis is made. As the fog clears for Martha, the experience of being a loved one of someone with a mental illness, partner, sibling, parent, is given air time. It is astonishing and I have not read anything quite like it before. Meg Mason writes concisely and brilliantly, with a style that is both spare and completely exposing. She also has the most extraordinary dark humour – the trauma is so deep that you do actually need the laugh out loud moments. It reminded me a bit of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in that respect. The characters are powerfully drawn and I loved the exploration of the relationship between Martha and her sister Ingrid – brilliant, comic, intensely loving and brutally honest.

I don’t know much about the remaining books on the shortlist, but I would be delighted to see Meg Mason or Maggie Shipstead win – both their books rank in the top five titles I have read in the last twelve months.

So, Sorrow and Bliss highly recommended, The Sentence, I am more lukewarm about. You can watch a live stream of the prize-giving event and the announcement by following the link here.

Non-fiction book review – “Lebanon: A Country in Fragments” by Andrew Arsan

At the start of the year I set myself a non-fiction reading challenge. I realised that although I loved non-fiction, it was a genre I had neglected a bit. I set myself the goal to read one non-fiction title a month. It has not been going well! My January book, BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits, took a while to get through. My February book was Lebanon by Andrew Arsan, which I spotted in my local bookshop at the end of last year and bought on impulse. It was big and not cheap, so not the usual kind of book I would buy, so it was very much a treat to myself – I know, most people would go for a new lipstick or something!

There is a story to this. I had the privilege of visiting Lebanon about twenty five years ago. My closest friend at university was half-Lebanese and lived most of her life between Lebanon and the UK. Some of the time she was forced back to the UK due to civil unrest in Lebanon, but she always had a foot in each camp. At the time (the second half of the 1990s), Lebanon was relatively stable and I spend a wonderful few weeks there. The people I met could not have been warmer or more welcoming and I loved every minute of my trip. The history of the region is the history of civilisation and it is heartbreaking to see that that part of the world endures so much suffering and destruction today.

The ancient Roman ruins at Baalbek – a UNESCO World Heritage site

Lebanon is a tiny country, one of the smallest states in the world, but its strategic importance means it has a higher profile on the international stage than its size might suggest. Its population is though to be close to seven million now, but well over 1.5 million of these are thought to be refugees from the various conflicts going on nearby. Over a million refugees from the war in Syria are thought to be living in Lebanon.

I always knew that the country was comprised of a fragile balance of different religious interests, known as confessionalism. I also always knew that much of its political system was characterised by corruption and vested interest. I also always knew that it was a country whose people have endured the worst effects of that corruption and the factionalism. Who could forget the terrible explosion of out of date and highly combustible fertiliser at the Port of Beirut in 2020, which killed in over 200 people, and for which no-one has yet been held fully accountable? Lebanon is also a country that its other more powerful neighbours, particularly Israel and Syria, have sought at times to control. The story of Lebanon is fascinating if also rather tragic.

The aftermath of the explosion at the Port of Beirut (Copyright ABC news)

What I was expecting from Andrew Arsan’s book was a history of the country which would give me a more detailed perspective of its present conditions. I was expecting a textural narrative which would tell me more about the Lebanese people, their nature and character, and about the culture. That’s not quite what I got!

Andrew Arsan is a Cambridge scholar of Middle Eastern history, with Lebanese origins. This book is a work of great scholarship that focuses on the period 2005-2019 – the references alone run to almost fifty pages. The book begins with the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the great political hope of the Lebanese people at the time. The Syrian government are thought to have been behind his killing. It triggered a period of political turmoil in the country that the author describes in great detail. I found much of this very difficult to follow. I suspect, however, that anyone with some prior knowledge of the country and its politics, or who was from Lebanon, would be able to appreciate this account more. The overwhelming impression that I was left with, however, was that the government is corrupt; it’s about who owes what to whom, is influenced by outside interests, and is more interested in itself than improving the lot of the population.

The second half of the book was more interesting to me as it followed many of the social developments in the period, the cultural changes, how corruption has compromised the basic rights of Lebanese people, for example, the extensive privatisation of beach areas, previously unowned public goods, to the exclusion of all but the wealthiest citizens. The very basics of life have become increasingly difficult – there are frequent power cuts, intermittent access to the internet, and there is a whole chapter on how government incompetence and corruption led to a months-long failure in refuse collection services, with predictable consequences.

The book is extensively researched – I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like it. It looks like the kind of book you would dip into, but in fact it is a book that is meant to be read as a single narrative work. It is extremely well-written, with dark humour as well as profound irony. It is a shame that it is unlikely to be read widely.

I could only read this book about ten pages at a time, so it took me almost two months to work through. It is not bedtime reading and it won’t be top of many wish lists, but it is the kind of book that deserves to be read and understood, because Lebanon is a country that deserves more of our attention and to be better understood.

The next book I read in my non-fiction challenge was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – much longer title, much shorter book. I listened to it on audio over the course of about three runs. Look out for my review next week.

The Platinum Jubilee #7 2010s to present

And so we find ourselves at the end of this Platinum Jubilee weekend, four days of events and celebrations that have been quite enjoyable, actually. I’ve been to two parties and for a change the British weather did not let us down! It does not seem so very long ago that we were celebrating the Diamond Jubilee (2012) in which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, being sprightly 80-somethings, played a much more active role. It had not been too bad a decade for Her Majesty – we had two major royal weddings, William and Kate in 2011, then Harry and Meghan in 2018, plus a host of minor royal weddings. And all those newlyweds have produced the next generation of royals. Sadly, the last couple of years have been very difficult; the Queen lost her husband in 2021, a few weeks short of his 100th birthday, her son Andrew brought disgrace to the family when he was forced into an out of settlement in a sexual assault case, and rifts between Prince Harry, his brother, his father and ‘the Palace’ have seen him and his wife give up their royal duties and move to California. Their public pronouncements have been uncomfortable to say the least.

But all that has been set to one side for the moment. We were even able to forget the mess that passes for British government at the moment to enjoy a truly once-in-a-lifetime moment in history. Whatever you may think of Queen Elizabeth, monarchies more generally or the British Royal Family, the world will not see her like again.

I started this blog in 2016 and have probably read more in the last ten years than in any previous decade. A few of my favourite books since 2010 have been by American authors. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was one of my favourite books from the 1990s. Her third novel The Goldfinch, published in 2013 certainly ranks in my top ten for the last decade. It follows the story of Theo Dekker, who loses his mother in an explosion at an art gallery. He manages to escape and takes with him a small but extremely valuable Dutch Renaissance painting. He spends the subsequent years concealing his crime and the book follows his story and the events that arise out of his concealment. It’s an extraordinary book.

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life was another highlight, a novel of epic proportions following the lives of four college friends, all of them drawn together by their quirkiness, but also their relationship with Jude, the most vulnerable in the group. Set in New York city it is a novel of our times, dealing with sexuality, depression, self-harm, isolation and being on the outside. It is heartbreaking and completely compelling.

One of my other most enjoyable reads of the decade was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014. Set in St Malo, Brittany, it tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl in second world war France and Werner, an orphan and member of the Hitler Youth and invading German forces, and how their worlds collide.

Sally Rooney took the literary world by storm in the last few years with her books Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018) and Beautiful World Where Are You (2021). Normal People was made into one of the televison events of the decade and I loved both the book and the series. Exceptional writing from a very talented young woman, who is still only thirty.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels were another highlight of the decade. Published 2011-2014, I devoured them all and cannot choose between them for brilliance. I have yet to see the television series as it is currently only available on a channel I do not subscribe to. The two central characters Lila and Elena have stayed with me and the relationship between them has shed a whole new light on the nature of female relationships. Outstanding.

In the UK, Dame Hilary Mantel completed her Wolf Hall trilogy with Bring Up the Bodies in 2012 and The Mirror and the Light in 2020. It is a truly outstanding literary achievement. Having won her second Booker with Bring Up the Bodies, she did not quite get the hat trick with the final instalment. That honour went to Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, although she shared that honour with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.

Two other award winning novels by slightly lower profile authors I thoroughly enjoyed were Milkman by Anna Burns, which won the Booker Prize in 2018, and Birdcage Walk by the late Helen Dunmore, which was published posthumously in 2017. Milkman tells the story of a young woman growing up in Belfast during the time of the Troubles and struggling just to be herself and live the life she wants to without the threat of violence. Dunmore’s novel confirmed her as foremost among authors of historical fiction telling the story of a young woman in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution.

If I had not confined myself to British authors, my book of the decade would have been Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a book about trees and people trying to destroy them, versus people trying to protect them. But my parameters were set and Powers is American, so my book of the last decade, for sheer enjoyment, writing brilliance, masterful storytelling is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. It tells the story of a young William Shakespeare and his wife, and the 11 year-old son they lose to illness. Powerful, poignant, and a creative imagining of an event that actually happened but which we know so little about.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this exercise, looking back over books from a big chunk of the last century that I have enjoyed. Every day I have thought of more that I should have added to a previous decade and I am sure you can think of many others I have forgotten. I would love to hear your thoughts on any of my choices.

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