A superbly unconventional novel

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If you are going to Canada for your holiday this year, this would be a fantastic read. I hope the background I’ve given in the opening paragraphs of my review below doesn’t give away too much information!

Etta and Otto are an elderly married couple. Russell is their friend and neighbour. The three have known each other all their lives. They are all in their twilight years, but there is a sense that they each have something left to do. The narrative is non-linear and as the book progresses Hooper fills in the details of their early lives, how they all met, the circumstances of their childhood and upbringing, and how this human triangle evolved.

We learn that Otto and Russell lived on neighbouring farms, Otto one of a large number of children in a dirt-poor rural family, Russell the nephew of a childless couple who had come to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother left in circumstances that are not fully explained. Etta comes from a more middle-class background, but her early life is devastated by the loss of her beloved sister Alma, who was sent to a convent far away on the coast after becoming pregnant, but who dies in or after childbirth from blood poisoning (there is no word on the child so we must presume it died too).

Etta goes to teacher training college and seizes an opportunity to take a job at a rural school (where the existing teacher had been forced to leave after losing his voice). Here she meets the two boys who are near contemporaries of hers. It is sometime in the late 1930s/early 1940s and, presently, Otto volunteers to join the war and is sent to Europe. Russell remains behind; he was left with a disability after sustaining a childhood injury to his leg, playing on a tractor with Otto and his siblings.

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Powerful memories made on a visit to London

I’m just back from a weekend in London with the family. My teenage son is on an exchange trip in Spain at the moment so it was just the four of us (my husband and two daughters). An interesting change in dynamics!

On Saturday we went on a tour of the Houses of Parliament, a great value experience which I recommend highly. It was empowering and at times quite emotive. Both girls really enjoyed it and the timing was serendipitous; they have become very aware of politics in recent months – the Referendum, change of Prime Minister and, sadly, the death of Jo Cox, have put it at the forefront of their young minds. It was an amazing experience for them to stand in the Chamber of the House of Commons, which they have seen so often on the television. I remember going on a tour of the House with my local MP when I was at school, and they had exactly the same reaction I did – how much smaller it is in real life!

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My 12 year-old has also been studying the Suffragettes in school, so it made it very real for her. After our tour of Parliament, we strolled through Victoria Tower Gardens, where there is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. At the foot of the memorial there is currently a photo of Jo Cox MP. Coincidentally, we also stayed at a hotel in Victoria, on Caxton Street; Caxton Hall, just along from our hotel, was strongly associated with the Women’s Suffrage movement in the early 20th century.

2016-07-16 17.52.24-1Emmeline Pankhurst was, of course, born in Manchester, and her family home at 62 Nelson St, Chorlton on Medlock, now houses the Pankhurst Centre, which is open to the public on Thursdays. I plan to take the girls there during the school holidays, while the memories are still fresh. (Another coincidence: Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday was last Friday.)





Yes, I know they are young, and I know many parents want to shield their children from news and politics, for good reasons, which I respect. It has been a bloody week, with the terrible events in Nice on Bastille Day and the coup attempt in Turkey. It is hard to manage our children’s access to this information. Whilst in London, we stumbled across an anti-austerity march in Westminster. This was a visceral demonstration of democracy in action for the girls. Sadly, there are too many countries in the world where such a march would be suppressed, and even more where girls and women do no play an equal part in society. Democracy, freedom and equality cannot be taken for granted so I want my kids to know what it takes to fight for those things.

Summer holiday reading suggestions

I’m often asked by friends for holiday reading suggestions. The general requirements, even from my most literary of acquaintances, seem to be:

  • not too heavy (physically or in terms of content!)
  • not overly challenging (we are on holiday after all!)
  • something they won’t mind leaving behind on a hotel bookshelf

You need a book or two that you can read whilst keeping half an eye on the kids in the water. So, in that spirit, I have a few ideas for you.

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Disclaimer by Renee Knight

I really enjoyed this book, when I wasn’t quite expecting to, and it’s a perfect summer holiday read. When it was presented as the month’s read by my Book Club, I was a little disappointed. I’d loved our previous book and this gaudy, yellow and black cover screamed all the wrong messages at me, tapping into my deep-seated reading prejudices – “Sunday Times bestseller”, apparently, but too railway platform thriller for me, perhaps even a bit YA-looking. The first 100 pages or so irritated me; I could neither relate to nor feel positively about any of the characters and the jumping around in time felt clumsy. Information was drip-fed in what seemed to be quite a random way and I had to keep checking back to see if I had missed something as I found some parts difficult to follow. Then, BANG!, at page 151, a revelation, and it all began to come together, as everything unravelled for the main protagonists.

As I said, popular thrillers are not usually my ‘thing’, but patience was rewarded and I have to agree with the Sunday Times quote on the front cover, it is truly addictive. Railway platform fiction it most definitely is and I can well imagine tucking into this on a long train journey and not coming up for air until Carlisle!

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How to get your kids reading

The Reading Agency launches its annual Summer Reading Challenge for 4-11 year olds this Saturday. It is managed via local libraries and its aim is to encourage children to read six books during the long school holidays. You can take them along to your local library, they collect a poster and borrow a couple of books. Then, each time they complete and return a book, they get a sticker. If they complete the six-book challenge they can get a medal at the end, particularly good for younger children (although ‘totes embarrassing’ for my youngest who is at the upper end of the age range!).

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It’s a fantastic scheme and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I’ve done it for years with my children and, if nothing else, it’s a cheap trip out! It doesn’t have to be a fiction book; it can be non-fiction, a joke book, general knowledge, anything, so even suits those who are less willing readers.

My children are 15, 12 and 10 now, so my days of doing the Summer Reading Challenge, sadly, are numbered. However, I don’t know about you, but I am finding the challenge of getting my older ones to continue reading much more troublesome than when they were little. My teenager, for example, was read to daily practically from birth to double figures. He devoured Harry Potter, which was at its peak of popularity when he was the right age, devouring three of the longer volumes during a fortnight’s holiday one year. We did all the ‘right’ things…but I don’t think he has finished a non-school book this past year. Some of it is a reaction against the demands of school, I suspect, and some of it, possibly, a mini-rebellion against his book-pushing mother (and if that’s as far as his teen rebellion extends, I’ll take that, thanks!). Another factor might be lack of time, or just a preference for other forms of relaxation like TV, sport, computer games and hanging out with pals. I just hope that the groundwork done in the early years pays off in the future.

If you are having difficulty getting your children to read, or just want to support them more, I recommend Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading – perhaps you could make it your own summer reading challenge! I found it in my local library.

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It’s a very useful little read for parents who wish to understand how they can both instil and maintain good reading habits in their children. And it has the advantage of being short and very accessible! The author’s context is the assault on our children’s lives from technology and media, and how they are gradually displacing books in our kids’ bedrooms. She is a believer in books and wants to give us some tools to ensure books keep their place in the digital environment.

Alison is not against technology, in fact she talks about how it can in fact enrich the reading experience for many children, adding opportunities for further online exploration, or providing, for some children, perhaps a more satisfying medium for exploring a book. She recommends boundaries for technology and screen-time, but is non-judgmental, giving advice and tips on how parents can manage digital distractions in their children’s lives.

The book is broken down into chapters by age group, so you can if you want just read the sections appropriate to your children, and she also does not shy away from the gender issue. The author takes this on and encourages parents to think a little more laterally about what is ‘good’ for them to read. I confess that I have before now been rather dismissive of my youngest daughter’s desire to buy a Minecraft handbook in preference to something I might suggest, such as a Michael Morpurgo or, heaven forfend, a classic from my own childhood like ‘Little Women’ or ‘Black Beauty’! Alison says we should embrace and take an interest in what they want to read. At least it gets them reading something, and if we can have a warm engagement with our kids about their reading choices, perhaps they will be open to our suggestions as well.

The teens chapter was particularly interesting. It can be relatively easy with young ones, in my view; they love to be read to at bedtime, you generally choose the books for them, reading is part of their daily life at school, and the choice of picture and early reader books now is quite incredible. I think we are in a golden age of children’s literature. True, there is also some fantastic YA fiction out there too, but I think teens can become a bit more picky about what they read. It is also the age where, as the author says, they can withdraw from their parents both physically and emotionally. They also have a bit more of their own money, usually, with which they are far more likely to buy an itunes card or a pizza than a book!

There are some great ideas in this chapter, such as modelling reading behaviours, being seen to read for pleasure, leaving newspapers and magazines lying around, and crucially, managing their screen-time. In other words, you exercise the influence more indirectly at this time, and you have to be more subtle in your approach. Discuss with them what they are reading, open a dialogue, and avoid coercing them to read (yup, tried bribery too!). What I found reassuring about this chapter is that the author invites parents of teenagers not to panic: “The best situation you can be in is to arrive at these years with the foundations of a good reading habit”; if you did the groundwork when they were little hang on in there, they will probably come back to reading even if they have a rebellious stage.

I would recommend this book to parents if you feel you’d like some advice or support on keeping your kids reading. A very easy read.



A politician’s memoirs

My most recent blogs have been about women, their power, resilience and resourcefulness. This week I want to share with you, my thoughts about a couple of books I read recently which are written by a man, Labour politician Alan Johnson, but which I think, are very much about the women in his life, their power, resilience and resourcefulness. His two volume memoir is very much a tribute to those women – his mother, his sister and his ex-wife.

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I am an admirer of Johnson (for many the best leader the Labour party never had, very pertinent in the present circumstances!) and he was, in my view, one of the few honest, credible voices in the recent EU Referendum campaign. I read This Boy, the first volume of his memoir some time ago, and picked up Please, Mister Postman, the second volume, in my local Oxfam Bookshop earlier this year. This Boy covers Johnson’s childhood, growing up in abject poverty in derelict post-war west London, up to the age of 18, and is fascinating reading. Johnson has a warm conversational style that really draws you in. He paints a vivid picture of the hardships of his childhood and the squalor in which he and his irrepressible sister grew up.

The account is powerful without being emotional. Johnson has no self-pity, but you sense his deep resentment that his mother endured such hardship for so long and died tragically young, without having realised her, let’s be honest, very modest dream of her own front door. Whilst there is little hint here of the embryonic politician – he was more interested in music and football – there is a clear path from the deprived, urban upbringing, with its straitened circumstances and injustices, to the left-leaning politician he would become.

What comes through most strongly in the book is Johnson’s love and respect for the two women who dominated his early life. First, his mother, Lily, a humble woman neglected and then abandoned by her feckless husband (Johnson barely conceals his contempt for the man who was his father) and left to provide for two young children in London, hundreds of miles from her native Liverpool. Like many women of her generation, Lily’s ambitions were modest; simply getting through the daily travails of life took all her energy and willpower. Feminism will have meant very little to her despite the fact that she probably did more to demonstrate the resourcefulness and strength of the female than many of her modern counterparts. Lily’s poor health eventually got the better of her and she died prematurely, leaving her two teenage children tragically early. Second, Johnson’s phenomenally resourceful sister Linda, a tower of moral and emotional strength to the family. Linda is a remarkable presence and Johnson’s love and admiration for her shine through.

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Do you ever give up on a book?

So much to read, so little time! But ever since I was very young, I have found it very difficult to give up on things; once I’ve made a commitment I see it through to the end. I guess this makes me quite a loyal person, but perhaps it has not always in my best interests! I’m the same with books, once I’ve started I tend to keep pushing on, even if I’m not enjoying it much. I’m always hopeful that it will improve, or I try to be positive and look for the value and virtues in a book. I also know how hard it is to write one, so I keep going partly out of respect too.

Do you always keep going with a book you’re not enjoying?

Miss Carter's War imgI had very mixed feelings reading Miss Carter’s War. I love Sheila Hancock: she published this, her first novel, at the age of 81 (which encourages me greatly!) and still has the energy to speak out for what she believes in – many of you will no doubt have seen her speak in the TV debates on the EU Referendum where she gave one of the most eloquent and passionate arguments for Remain that I saw throughout the entire campaign, and was one of the few people I saw truly engaging an audience. At 83 she is magnificent! However,  I’m afraid I was disappointed with the book and had to work hard to keep going with it.

I attended a publicity talk for this book at the 2014 Manchester Literature Festival. Sheila is a very engaging speaker and her interviewer, broadcaster Jenni Murray (whom I also love), expressed great praise for it. I bought it, even though I felt it probably wasn’t my usual thing. This is not necessarily a problem, but when the work is of a lower standard it makes it hard to persevere. Had it not been written by Sheila I doubt it would have been published.

The novel opens with our beautiful and brilliant heroine, Marguerite, graduating from Cambridge, unusual for a woman at that time. She is half French, half English, and has had a mysterious role in the French resistance in the war, working for the British, having been sent here by her underground intellectual parents, whom, we find out, were killed by the Nazis. Brief cryptic descriptions of her wartime activities are dotted throughout the novel for the purpose of illuminating Marguerite’s perspective on contemporary events…I think, although sometimes this is a little clumsy.

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Women and survival

Earlier in the week, I blogged about completing the Race for Life with my two daughters. I’ve been pondering a great deal about women recently and am fascinated that we might soon see a political first in this country – the three largest political parties in the UK all led by women! And perhaps the first female US President later in the year? Tantalising.

Europe has also been at the forefront of my mind, as it has in most of my social circle too. So, with all that in mind, I thought I’d like to tell you about A Woman in Berlin. No, it’s not a biography of Angela Merkel! It is a war diary, written anonymously in the aftermath of the fall of Berlin to Russian forces in 1945.

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My husband suggested I read this book. It was adapted for film in 2008, which we had watched, and he bought the book soon after. The film was powerful, but my husband found the book even more so. It tells the story of how the remaining population of Berlin, left behind after the fall of Hitler, broken, abandoned and disillusioned, goes about the daily challenge of survival amidst the ruins of their once great city.

Part of the survival contract, for the women at least, is meeting the sexual needs of their new Russian masters. At first, we can see how this is psychologically devastating to the women, terrifying to the mothers of teenage daughters and emasculating to the rump indigenous male population. The author writes about the details of violent rapes carried out by Russian soldiers from all ranks. Some of the sexual encounters are frenzied; many of these men have had no contact with women for months, sometimes years. They have been brutalised by war and by the actions they have seen the Nazis take in their own country, are half-starved and exhausted from fighting, and most of the lower-ranking soldiers seem to be peasants, snatched from their simple lives and with no idea how to relate to their middle-class German captives.

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