How reading can keep you going right now

Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

I started the new year with hope and positivity. Yes, further tight restrictions were being imposed, but the vaccine was being rolled out and the Christmas decorations were still up. I even wrote about my feelings of optimism on here!

Since then, my mood has fluctuated wildly. I’ve had some domestic stresses in the form of day-job demands and administrative wheels turning incredibly slowly at the moment which have had some knock-on effects (too boring to talk about here). The Covid death toll is breaking new grim records every day it seems and I truly fear for the mental and physical health of NHS and care home staff at the very sharp end. If you are lucky enough to be untouched by Covid now, we are all going to be impacted by its ramifications somehow in the coming months. The weather is currently awful – torrential rain here in suburban Manchester as I write, making it incredibly dark even in the middle of the day. But despite this terrible backdrop, I don’t think it fully explains my mood. I think everything is just very frightening right now. Inside each of us is a little child who just wants to be told that it will all be okay. At this point, my adult self does not feel quite up to the job of providing the necessary reassurance.

I think there is also something about spiritual resources. Perhaps if you have a faith of some sort, you can get spiritual nourishment through prayer and your god. If you do, I hope sincerely that it is working for you. I don’t have that, so I find myself turning to books. Over the last couple of weeks, for one reason and another, there have been days when I have not had a chance to read, and that has been a mistake. Reading is my escape, my antidote to worldly anxieties, my source of wisdom and my assistant to sleep!

I am frequently asked for reading recommendations. I always give them with the caveat that taste is such an individual thing. Looking back over my reading since I started this blog, I thought it might be useful to post some suggestions here of books that have nourished me, as they might help if you are feeling anything similar to my ups and downs at the moment. The following are not all ‘cheerful’ (I don’t read many cheerful books!), but they should all enable a degree of escape and/or entertainment, which I think might just about be enough for many of us at the moment.

  1. Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig – published just before the pandemic struck, but with plenty of analysis and tips on the challenges of modern life which apply perfectly in 2020/21.
  2. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce – lovely story, perfect ending, good solid rainy day reading stuff.
  3. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – if you have not yet discovered Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, you are missing out. Superb, very Italian.
  4. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant – also Italy, but Renaissance this time. Cracking story and several centuries from here. A reminder that things used to be much worse!
  5. Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor – another brilliant series, also set a long time ago. Edge of the seat reading.
  6. Holding by Graham Norton – brilliantly funny, and a brilliant writer too. Norton evokes rural Ireland with love and with great wit.
  7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – a trip on the Orient Express is on my bucket list, so this one was perfect escapism for me, but Death on the Nile would do just as well.
  8. A Whisper of Horses by Zillah Bethel- brilliant uplifting book written mainly for children which I loved.
  9. The Revenant by Michael Punke – if you think it’s a bit chilly out…. Nothing like someone else’s life-threatening terrors to make you feel gratitude for central heating and supermarkets.
  10. Becoming by Michelle Obama – I write this blog on a historic day, and am gratefully reminded that American presidents can and will be so much better.

And if that isn’t enough to be getting on with may I recommend a book I bought just before Christmas, which I haven’t reviewed on here yet, but which I am thoroughly enjoying dipping into, The Book of Hopes edited by Katherine Rundell.

Oh and just one more! The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy which is a joy from start to finish and is guaranteed to lift your spirits.

What are you reading to keep yourself sane at the moment?

Audiobook review – “The New Wilderness” by Diane Cook

In my final book review of last year I wrote of my delight that Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize. It was one of only two of the shortlisted books I managed to complete before the prize winner was announced (the other one I read, Burnt Sugar, I liked somewhat less and have also reviewed here). I had another of the shortlisted books ‘in progress’ at the time the winner was announced, The New Wilderness by first-time author Diane Cook, which I listened to on audio. It was utterly compelling and was beautifully read by Stacey Glemboski. It reminded me very much of a previously shortlisted book, The Overstory, by Richard Power, which was nominated in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years.

The New Wilderness is set in what seems, frighteningly, a not too distant future in America. Environmental decline has wreaked havoc on ordinary life, such that urban living is barely sustainable, and there are few alternative spaces left for citizens to inhabit. The government has authorised a research project to allow a small group of twenty people to inhabit one of the last remaining wild areas, but there are strict rules that they must observe, including having no contact with the outside world, and leaving no trace of their habitation on the environment, which means not staying in one place too long or building a camp. (The irony is not lost.) The group is closely monitored by Rangers, who enforce the regulations, and the group is required to attend stations every few months to register births, deaths and significant events. The story is told through the eyes of the leading character, Bea, whose partner Glen was one of the academics leading the research. Bea had volunteered for the project in order to remove her daughter Agnes from the city which was killing her slowly. Agnes suffered from a range of unnamed conditions which have been cured by life in the wilderness. Agnes is about ten or eleven when we meet her although no-one has really been keeping track; time is marked by seasonal change not the calendar.

When the book opens the group has already been living in the wilderness for some years. It opens dramatically with the deaths of two members of the group in a hazardous river crossing, in which a valuable rope is also lost. What is immediately striking to the reader is how the loss of the rope is mourned nearly as much as the loss of the companions, indicating how the group has become more focused on survival than finer human emotions. Further death occurs early on when Bea gives birth, alone in the forest, to a dead baby, which she buries quietly and away from the rest of the group. The dead child will be a recurring motif throughout the book; Bea left the city to save her daughter, and lost another because she was in the wilderness.

Life is extremely challenging and there are clearly tensions in the group, which the author takes great care to illustrate in skilful detail, particularly over ‘leadership’ – Glen, as one of the project’s initiators, was once looked to as a kind of informal leader. Glen becomes sick, however, and another of the group members, the strong more dominant alpha male-type, Carl, sees an opportunity to weigh in. Bea has also emerged as a strong leader in the group and Carl, in an attempt to fully oust Glen from his unofficial position, goes about bringing her to his side as well. Here the community is disintegrating; it’s like Lord of the Flies with grown-ups. Further chaos ensues when a small group of newcomers – city refugees who were on a ‘waiting list’ to join the original group in the wilderness – is encountered. To anyone who knows anything about group psychology – forming, storming, norming and all that – this is fascinating. It is also fascinating to see the way the two distinct groups spar with one another, with whom individual members place their loyalties, and how readily the original population integrates with the ‘immigrants’. There are also more young people among the newcomers, teenagers, and Agnes, now a teenager herself, has the opportunity the develop relationships with people her own age for the first time. But the differences between them in terms of their life experiences to date makes it difficult for Agnes to navigate her way among them. With the teenagers a further faction in the group emerges.

Author Diane Cook

What the author creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of our problematic human society, where Utopia cannot exist, where the human condition leads to inevitable decline. The wilderness is not the ideal society that the participants hoped it would be; yes, it is ‘natural’ and (mostly) unpolluted, but it is also brutal, and even the most idealistic among them hanker after a shower, some easy food, a haircut. Most strikingly however, is the failure of the community, socially, although the strict policing of the rules by the overweening and power-drunk Rangers (some more than others) does not help.

I have only scratched the surface of the book in this review – it is a highly complex novel and I fear I have not done it justice. It is a dystopian novel, which predicts a bleak future (do not read this if you want something uplifting!) where the opportunity to influence climate change has passed. It is also a novel about motherhood; Bea left the city to save her daughter’s life. In the middle of the novel she also flees the wilderness for a time (abandoning her daughter) when she learns that her own mother has died. The mother who begged her not to go.

All of the Booker-shortlisted novels I have read so far are about mothers or motherhood. Is that a coincidence?

Highly recommended.

Book review – “The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Daré

I chose this book for my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge in November and totally forgot to post my review! What happened to me just before Christmas, I don’t know! The theme in November was a book from the new decade (we had something from the last decade in January) and I chose this book because it had caught my eye a few times and because it has been an international success for its first-time author. Abi Daré was born in Lagos, but now lives in the UK having studied for her degree here. The book is dedicated to her mother, the first professor of taxation in Nigeria, whom she thanks for the sacrifices she made for her daughter’s education. The importance of education for girls is a theme that dominates the novel. (If you read no further please go to the stats at the end of this post.)

The book is narrated by Adunni, a fourteen year old girl from a small village. She lives with her father and two brothers (one older, one younger), their mother having died from an unnamed illness, but is likely to have been tuberculosis. Adunni still grieves for her beloved mother, who always promised her daughter that she would receive an education. Adunni’s father does not think the same way; the family is poor and, in order to pay their rent, he decides to sell his daughter to an older man in another village, who seems to have a penchant for young wives. Adunni will be his third wife and her job is to produce a son for him as soon as possible. The elder wife bore the first daughter and is wicked and jealous and beats Adunni. The second wife, Khadija, is also very young and has already borne three daughters and is pregnant with her fourth child, whom she hopes will be a boy. Khadija is kind to Adunni and helps her to manage the advances of their lecherous husband.

Tragedy strikes, however, when Khadija dies in premature labour. Adunni, who was the only one with her at the time, fears she will be blamed, so she decides to run away. She tracks down an old friend of her mother’s who introduces her to her son, the mysterious Mr Kola, who the woman says can find her work as a housemaid and that the owner will pay for Adunni to be educated. This is everything that Adunni wants and so she goes with Mr Kola. He takes her to a rich household in a Lagos suburb. Adunni has never been to Lagos before and she is overwhelmed by the size of the city and its chaos.

‘Big Madam’ is a successful entrepreneur, owner of a company selling luxury fabric, and she lives in a gated property with fancy cars, servants and her (also lecherous) husband. Adunni is treated badly – she has effectively been sold into slavery by Mr Kola. She is never paid for her work, is beaten by Big Madam and it looks as though the hoped-for education is never going to happen. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers so will cease my plot description there.

Adunni’s journey and her wide-eyed and innocent commentary on the events that befall her is at once charming and horrific. The courage and ingenuity she shows in the most testing of circumstances are truly heroic, that is the uplifting bit, but the brutality of the treatment she receives, from rape, to physical abuse, to theft and exploitation, are out and out shocking. If it were not for Adunni’s charm the book would be barely readable. Adunni’s ‘louding voice’ refers to her growing courage, her determination to speak up and speak out against her abusers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author has tackled some truly grave themes with creativity and humour. We are reminded throughout that we are talking about present day Nigeria, not something from a bygone era before feminism and human rights; no, this is still happening. References are made to Boko Haram and the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014. This book reveals the reality of life in the 21st century for too many girls and young women in this vast country of over 200 million people.

It is a sobering read, but a good one and I recommend it highly. Please note the statistics below.

“Around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Only 66 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. At the secondary level, the gap widens: 45 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, and 25 per cent in upper secondary education.”

Source: Unicef, https://www.unicef.org/education/girls-education

Audiobook review – “Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris

When I posted my new Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week, I completely forgot to mention the final book of my 2020 reading challenge, which was The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. I chose it because I just felt a bit of a laugh was in order at the end of what had been a challenging and intense few months. I decided to go for this one on audiobook because I love Sedaris’s unique style of delivery; he is mostly quite deadpan, but that just gives his occasional bursts of comic energy all the more impact.

The book is a series of sketches loosely based on Christmas themes. The longest of these, and the one which opens the book, is an account of the author’s time working as a Christmas elf at Santaland in Macy’s department store in New York city (the veracity is disputed, but who cares?). I made the mistake of starting to listen to this on one of my morning runs. I have to tell you that I had to stop several times, doubled over with breathless laughter and my chuckles got me some strange glances from passers-by! In the caricatures of ghastly parents, children, his fellow elves and the mostly overly self-important ‘Santas’ we can all recognise tiny little bits of ourselves. These pieces were first aired on various media in the early 1990s, but it is extraordinary how much of it remains punishingly accurate today. In the awful, domineering parents bullying their kids into posing for photos with Santa bearing gleeful smiles (regardless of their true feelings) he foreshadows instagram parenting which values the posting of an experience more highly than the experience itself. You could easily believe that Sedaris had been made completely cynical by his seasonal work experience but he ends the piece with an uplifting account of one of the truly magical Santas who really did enchant the children who came to see him.

The next couple of essays I found more clever than funny- one is a woman reading out her round robin Christmas letter in which she gives an account of her husband’s illegitimate Vietnamese daughter turning up at the family home, and ends very darkly when her own daughter’s baby dies, it turns out, at the hands of the narrator, who has tried to pin the blame for the crime on the Vietnamese ‘interloper’. Macabre humour indeed.

My favourite essay was called ‘6 to 8 Black Men’. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. It sounds very un-PC, but it is actually extremely self-deprecating and pokes fun at north American Christmas customs and the culture more generally (including the systemic racism), as compared to their European counterparts. I have had a couple of repeat listens of this piece and watched it on YouTube and it made me laugh just as much second and third time around. Sedaris’s humour is edgy at times, but I think the best comedy tends to makes you slightly uncomfortable.

This was a wonderful little collection, suitable for any time of year, and a perfect introduction to Sedaris, if you have not come across him before.

Highly recommended.

Happy New Year! (Must be time for a reading challenge?)

Hello, happy new year, happy Epiphany! I am late to the new year party this year. 2020 caused many of us to look at our lives somewhat afresh and ask what on earth we are doing and what is really important. One of the smallish things that I identified was an attachment to making Christmas something a bit more meaningful, in the absence of a religious faith, and I found myself taking an interest in some of the ancient secular traditions of the season. I tried not to do anything that looked too much like work between the winter solstice on the 20th/21st December (I watched the live sunset over Stonehenge broadcast on the English Heritage Facebook page and it was amazing) and twelfth night on 5th January (yes, I know many say it’s the 6th- depends when you start counting).

It was an odd period this time around for so many people. I was lucky; I collected my son from university in mid-December and with my husband and two daughters the five of us hunkered down, watched films, cooked, ate, walked, relaxed and generally had one of the nicest Christmasses ever. I’m not trying to be smug, especially if, denied the company and contact of loved ones, yours was s**t (and I know plenty of people for whom it was), I suppose all I’m saying is that we felt freer than usual of many of the normal Christmas pressures. And it was really very nice.

Our tree will come down today after a sterling four weeks of service. I switched off my Christmas lights for the last time yesterday night and I will miss them. I switched them on every morning when I came down to breakfast, still in the dark, and they were enormously cheering. I’ll need to find an alternative I think until the mornings are light again. I also lit candles in my front window every evening at dusk. That was nice too and I’m going to keep doing that until the evenings get a bit lighter.

So, today it’s back to work. My son scooted back to university at the weekend, relieved I think to have made the break for the border before Lockdown 3.o and the new travel restrictions came into force. My teenage daughters have diligently embraced the opportunities of online home learning – no more battling on public transport every day, no going out in the cold and dark, no school uniform and no classroom distractions from the handful of kids whose learning loss over the past few months has been so grave that they have forgotten how to behave in a classroom or towards their teachers. Sad, distressing and deeply worrying. Teachers, you have my utmost utmost respect for what you have done, achieved and had to put up with in 2020. I am lucky to have motivated children, old enough not to need supervision, able enough not to need much support and a household with enough tech and enough broadband to support a family of four online for most of the day. I am very very aware of my good fortune. It is a scandal that so many do not enjoy the last two things in order to cope with the first three.

I spent a lot of time reading over the Christmas break (goodness is it really four weeks since I last posted?!), but not my usual fare. I read a load of short stories; I bought most of my Christmas gifts in my local bookshops, one of which is a chain with a loyalty scheme. I built up quite a nice bunch of points so on Christmas Eve I treated myself to the following books:

I’ve been working my way through these and it was a joy to dip in and out. More on these soon.

Now it is time to look forward, and 2021 promises much. The vaccine, oh the vaccine. Surely the scientific miracle of our age. Let us hope governments deliver. The inauguration of a new President in the United States, whom we hope will, alongside his stellar Vice-President-elect, lead the world, as only his country can do, in paying long overdue serious attention to climate change, and addressing social injustice in all its forms. Only fourteen more days to go. I think the rest of the world is counting.

Plus of course, there are the dozens of wonderful books we are due, and lots of cultural events coming up. And, on a more parochial note, there is of course my 2021 Facebook Reading Challenge! It’s been tough this time, coming up with themes (I’ve done the genres and I’ve done countries and continents), so I’m just doing a hybrid of previous years and re-using most of the themes in a different order or with a twist! Why not? It has thrown up some really wonderful reading choices that I would not otherwise have made so what is not to like?

My first book of the year, on the theme of an American classic, is a re-read for me, and not too long, since we are already nearly a week into the month – The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I would love for you to join me on my Facebook Reading Challenge this year. You can print out and keep my reading challenge pro forma below (:D) if you’d like to get involved, and join my Facebook group.

Happy reading everyone!

Book review – “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart *Booker Prize Winner*

I was delighted when it was announced in November that Shuggie Bain had won the Booker Prize. I had only read two of the shortlisted books, and this was one of them, which made me feel very ‘on top of literary events’! I had chosen this one to tackle first from the shortlist purely because it was the longest and I planned to listed on audio so I thought I’d have a good chance of getting through it. I have not done well with previous Booker nominees who have written very long books – it took me weeks to finish The Overstory by Richard Powers (shortlisted in 2018), although I absolutely loved that book and slightly preferred it to the winner (which was Milkman); I never finished Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 from 2017; and I haven’t yet even got around to buying Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, nominated last year. I really want to read it, but I’m not sure I have space in my life for over 1,000 pages of unbroken prose at the moment (45 hours on audio!)!

Anyway, back to Shuggie Bain. It is brilliant. It is conventionally written (which, actually, is quite nice) and it is a cracker of a story with beautifully drawn characters, a wonderful sense of place (the rougher ends of 1980s Glasgow) and the most real, colourful and vivid passages of dialogue I have come across in a long while. The audiobook was read brilliantly by Angus King – the range of voices he conjures is quite exceptional.

Shuggie, short for Hugh, is the third and youngest child of Agnes Bain. She is married to Shug (also Hugh) Bain, a philandering taxi driver, and has two other children, Catherine and Leek, from her earlier marriage to a safe and steady Catholic. Agnes left her first husband because he never excited her enough. Agnes is beautiful and vivacious and her guiding philosophy in life is always to present her best face to the world. This remains true for her even in the darkest of times, of which there are many.

When we first meet the family they are living with Agnes’s parents in a tower block. Shuggie and his mother are extremely close. He adores her. Shuggie himself is something of a misfit in this part of the world. He is delicate, sensitive and effeminate and has inherited his mother’s fastidious attention to outward appearance, her attraction to beautiful things. Agnes loves to dress Shuggie in smart new clothes from the catalogue, which she can ill afford, and, knowing that her boy is ‘different’ to his peers, she encourages him to at all times hold his head high and to rise above the jealousies of others.

It becomes clear from quite an early stage that Shug has become uninterested in a future life with Agnes and the children. He promises to organise a new home for the family, which he does, in a pleasant suburb of the city, which they are all excited about. For Agnes, this will be to live the dream she had always imagined for herself. As they are driving through the streets of the new suburb, however, the car fails to stop at any of the neat little houses with their manicured gardens. Instead, they continue through to a far-off collection of dreary run-down properties around a declining coal pit. The gap between expectation and reality could not be greater and the high-tension scene is brilliantly written. As the family enters their new home, Agnes realises that it does not have enough bedrooms for them all, which is what Shug had promised. Shug also chooses this moment to announce to Agnes that he is leaving her. The realisation that they are on their own, they have been abandoned, dumped in a grimy hell-hole, is shocking.

From here on in we observe Agnes’s ‘drink problem’ develop into full-blown alcoholism. Her ‘man problem’ becomes equally demeaning and self-destructive. Her older children leave her eventually too. Only Shuggie, much younger though he is, stays. Shuggie has his own problems, and we explore this too – in our more diverse and open-minded society (mostly) we forget what it was like for children like Shuggie, children who were a bit different, to be growing up in these brutalised, deprived, closed communities. The violent bullying he endures is shocking, but he somehow learns a kind of resilience to this from his mother. It is the agony of the relationship he has with Agnes that is actually much harder for him to bear.

This novel is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. It is beautifully constructed and written and I cannot think of a better one I have read this year.

Highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – December Choice

I am thoroughly enjoying November’s reading challenge choice – The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. I have not yet completed it (nothing new there then!), but it is reminiscent of our June choice, which was of course The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. That’s not a problem as I loved that one too. The Girl with the Louding Voice is a slower read because it is narrated by Adunni, the fifteen year old central character, and therefore written very much in the natural style of her speech. A non-African reader may find this takes a bit of getting used to, but the richness of the narrative is very rewarding.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wins the Women’s Prize ‘Best of the Best’

Both the above novels are set in Nigeria and it is great to see that country at the head of literary news at the moment, with voters in the Women’s Prize for Fiction awarding the prize of prizes to Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (it got my vote – one of the best novels I’ve ever read). I have a complete girl crush on this woman – she is incredible! For many fiction readers she has put Nigeria on the literary map, but of course that nation has a rich literary history in the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ben Okri. I feel sure that Abi Daré will be adding her name to that list in the near future. But more of that next week when I finish and review the book.

What of this month’s choice? Well, the theme is a book for winter. I wanted to avoid the theme of a book for Christmas. I don’t know about you but by the time we get to the middle of December I am sometimes a little bit ‘over’ Christmas already. Christmas this year, however, has felt somewhat on hold up to now, due to Lockdown 2.0, and definitely lower key. We have had some very serious books recently so I think it’s time for a bit of a Christmas laugh. I’ve chosen a humorous seasonal book by North American comedian David Sedaris. You may have heard him on his occasional Radio 4 show. He is extremely funny.

I’ve chosen Santaland Diaries (some editions called Holidays on Ice), which is a slimmish volume of six essays about his experiences as ‘Santa’ working in Macy’s. I think I’m going to go for this one on audio – I could do with a chuckle as I head out on my morning runs this month! I love Sedaris’s deadpan delivery and it will take my mind of the cold and wet!

I hope you will join me on the challenge this month. I think it will be a fun one.

Happy reading!

Book review – “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

I could not have been more delighted at the announcement last week that Shuggie Bain, the debut novel by Douglas Stuart (a Scottish fashion designer who now lives in New York city), had won the Booker Prize. I posted last week about how I had enjoyed the book. I did not exactly predict the winner; I’d only read two of the books on the shortlist and the other one I didn’t really like! I felt more a part of the ceremony this year than ever before. It was incorporated into the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, whereas usually there is a fancy-pants dinner, and Will Gompertz, in his black tie, appears at the end of News at Ten, to tell us, briefly, who has won. The rest of us, the actual real-life readers and book-buyers, are left out of the glittery literati event. Not this time though; sitting at home, like all the nominated authors, I was on tenterhooks too.

It was the same with the Women’s Prize, back in the summer. It was such a treat to attend all the virtual pre-prize interviews, hosted by author Kate Mosse, with the worldwide audience posting their questions and comments on the Zoom rolling chat. We would never have been able to do that before, when such things would all have taken place in London. I hope that is one aspect of life that we keep, going forward. The winner of the Women’s Prize this year was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I had not read at the time it was awarded the prize, but it was on my TBR list. I have subsequently read it and, if you haven’t already heard, it was a joy to read. It is one of the most profoundly moving books I have read in a very long time; Maggie O’Farrell is an author at the top of her game and she is still only 48.

Hamnet is the story of a marriage and a child. The marriage is that between William Shakespeare (though he is never actually named in the novel) and his wife Agnes (we know her better as Anne Hathaway of course, but her birth name was actually Agnes). The novel does not pursue a linear narrative; it begins with the eleven year old boy Hamnet searching frantically for his twin sister Judith, who is dangerously sick with fever. The house belongs to his grandparents, his father’s parents. His father is away working in London and the family has lived with them since his parents married. The grandfather is a glove-maker and both produces and sells his gloves from the home, where there is a window that faces out on to the Stratford street. The grandfather is a violent bully who believes his playwright son is a hapless good-for-nothing.

Hamnet’s mother is older than his father by some seven or eight years, and they married after a brief and passionate courtship which led to Agnes falling pregnant. This was partly the intention; Agnes, whose mother had died when she was a child, is a wildish creature whom her vulgar stepmother treats with suspicion and contempt. For Agnes, the pregnancy is a wish-fulfilment, and the hasty marriage a way out of her father’s home, which is now dominated by his second wife and a new set of offspring.

Agnes gives birth, as she expects, to a girl, Susannah. Agnes has a deep knowledge of plants and herbs and people come to her for healing. She is also said to have powers of premonition. These qualities are said to be inherited from her mother. When she falls pregnant for a second time Agnes is puzzled and distressed as she feels instinctively that something is wrong or that some ill fate awaits the child, but she cannot pinpoint what it is. Her confusion over whether the baby is a boy or girl troubles her. In the end she gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy, and her husband laughs off her confusion.

While the children are growing, the playwright pursues his career and, encouraged, by Agnes, goes to London, ostensibly to sell his father’s gloves, but actually to explore what opportunities there might be for him there. Dazzled by the theatre and by the thespians he meets, he decides that he should stay in order to make enough money to support his family. He does this with his wife’s blessing although she does not realise, at this stage, how far apart the separation will drive them.

SPOILER ALERT…ish (you have probably already have heard what happens):

Back in Stratford, Judith contracts the plague and becomes dangerously ill. Agnes believes her child will die. There is a shocking turn of events, however, when Judith suddenly recovers, but, exhausted by the sleepless worry and the caring for her daughter, Agnes fails to notice the rapid deterioration in her son Hamnet, who suddenly contracts the disease. It is a brilliant and devastating few pages as we regain Judith and lose Hamnet. O’Farrell has said that she could not write this scene until her own son had passed the age of eleven. It seems it was as profound an experience writing it as it is to read.

Hamnet’s father does not make it back in time for his son’s last breath and this sets the tone of the remainder of the book. Hamnet’s death occurs about halfway through and the rest of the novel explores the grief experienced by husband and wife. Each feels their loss in a different way and their inability to find comfort in each other in such a terrible moment almost breaks them, both as a couple and as separate individuals.

The ending of the book is interesting, I won’t explain how it pans out, except to say that the playwright writes a play called Hamlet in which a young man dies, but, for me, the emotional peak is much earlier on with Hamnet’s death. The rest is a fascinating study of grief but not as intense.

A wonderful book, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed. A worthy winner, despite being up against the very brilliant The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I think it’s more accessible and a little more human than Mantel’s book, which I also loved, by the way.

Very highly recommended.

Booker Prize 2020 – winner announced tonight!

In previous years I have set myself the task of trying to read the Booker Prize shortlist between the time that it is released, usually mid-September, and the announcement of the winner. This is usually a month or so later in mid-October, so it is a tall order – six books in a little over four weeks. I have never succeeded in this endeavour – I’m usually still working my way through the list at Christmas. How do the judges get through so many books in the time that they do? I doubt they are even paid much to do it!

Last year, the Booker Prize was far from the forefront of my mind as my mother died in mid-September and her funeral coincided with the week of the announcement of the winner. I did subsequently read both of the books that won the prize jointly (remember that extremely unusual outcome?) – Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – as well as Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. I still have Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport on my TBR list.

This year the announcement of the winning book is a month later than usual. I assume this is all down to ‘the pandemic’ though I’ve heard of no official reason being given. Perhaps the committee has decided to be a bit kinder to the judges this year. Once again, I decided against trying to get through the shortlist, but have in fact read two of the books, one of which I loved and one of which has left me wondering if I missed something!

The book I loved was Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a superb debut novel. Set in early 1980s Glasgow it is a visceral account of a young boy growing up in an atmosphere of poverty and his beloved mother’s alcoholism. The working-class community in which he lives is being ground down by the searing devastation of the Thatcherite era. Shuggie is ‘unusual’ – he is effeminate and naive, but his relationship with his mother is an portrait of love stretched to its very limits by the strain of addiction. I plan to write a longer review of this book so I will say no more at this stage. Let’s see if it wins!

The other book I read, and which I’m afraid I didn’t love, was Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. It is the story of a strained mother-daughter relationship. The mother, Tara, has dementia and her daughter, Antara, is finds she is forced increasingly to care for the woman who failed to care for her properly as a child. Tara left her husband with her daugher to join an ashram when the child was still very young. Their ‘bohemian’ lifestyle included some time spent begging, and also living with an artist who it is clear did not really care for either Tara or her young child. Antara experienced a degree of neglect as a child, for example receiving very little formal early education, and her mother’s attitude to her has been one largely of indifference.

As a mature woman, Antara struggles with the demands placed upon her by her mother. Tara can be cruel – is that the disease or is that how she has always behaved towards her daughter? She is engaged to be married to Dilip, an Indian-American, who cannot fully empathise with Antara’s dilemma. This book reminded me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which has a similar storyline and which I also struggled to enjoy (though I think it was a better book). Everything Under was shortlisted for the Booker in 2018. Burnt Sugar has also been compared to Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk – I cannot concur . I loved that book. I’m afraid that, for me, what Burnt Sugar lacks is a story. Even after reading it, I’m afraid I’m not sure what it is really about, or what it is trying to say, apart from dementia is a horrible disease that throws family relationships into turmoil. Even the ending leaves you hanging. There is no narrative question that is resolved, which, for me, is one of the fundamentals of fiction.

I don’t like giving negative reviews and I have seen so many positive statements about this book; am I missing something? This one just did not do it for me. And my fellow book club members seem to agree – a pretty resounding thumbs-down! Perhaps it is just that Shuggie Bain is such a fabulous story, that this book felt wanting.

I am about to start another book on the shortlist – The New Wilderness by American author Diane Cook, another novel about motherhood, but this time in the shadow of climate change.

We will see what happens at the announcement tonight. One thing is for sure, it will not be the usual black-tie dinner!

#KeepKidsReading…and how this can be a joy for you too

To conclude this series of posts on my #KeepKidsReading theme I would like to tell you about two moments of joy I had last week, one of the head and one of the heart. Last weekend, I sat and read a little book that has been on my TBR shelf for a few months, Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise by “children’s” author Katherine Rundell. This is a little number that was sitting on the counter when I was in my local bookshop a while back – the literary equivalent of chocolate bars at the checkout! Given my interest in children’s literature I was bound to pick it up, plus I had not long read Katherine Rundell’s wonderful book The Explorer about a group of children stranded in the rainforest when the light plane they are travelling in crashes.

Rundell makes the grown-up case for reading children’s literature not just as a child (or perhaps because of a child) but for its own sake. I have to say that reading it in the middle of the current pandemic and after, frankly, the drama and protracted uncertainty of the US Presidential election, children’s books offer us not so much escapism, as a way of dealing with challenges. Good children’s characters discover a resourcefulness they usually didn’t know they had and develop a resilience which can give all of us an idea of how to ‘be’ in the world. It may not offer us the perfect happy ending but it can show us how to come to terms with reality; in the book review I posted earlier this week of Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom, yes it has a happy ending, but let’s not forget there was carnage along the way – a war, child abuse, a dead mother and baby, a friend killed, and a lost wife and child. But somehow, William, and indeed Tom, learn how to accept and grow from their experiences. Tragedy and loss will, at some point, befall all of us and somehow we need to learn how to cope with it. The best of children’s literature can show us some ways.

So, now for the heart moment. A few months ago I bought a copy of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, which was heavily promoted in bookshops after it was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2019. I bought a copy because I’d heard such good things about it and liked the illustration style and the quotes I’d read. Somehow, though, I never got around to reading it, which is a terrible shame because it is magical and wondrous. It’s a gentle and moving tribute to the values of kindness and compassion, and an exhortation to embrace the differences between us. At its heart lies a belief in the magical power of love to lift us out of any darkness. And I can’t think of a sentiment more appropriate to our times than that. It has the power to induce a kind of inner silence, you will smile, and your heart rate will drop. It is also very beautiful to look at and to touch.

If you haven’t already got a copy, please get one and read this extraordinary book. It will take no more than half an hour of your time, although you may find, like me, that it keeps drawing you back. Please give copies of it as gifts this Christmas. We associate this time of year with peace and joy, and this book embodies it.

I can think of no finer book than The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse to endorse Katherine Rundell’s thesis. We should all be reading more children’s books.