Are ‘mature’ Mummies allowed to read YA (young adult) fiction?

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Well, this Mummy did and really enjoyed it! It wasn’t, like, really obvs. (sorry, can’t resist a bit of punctuation, which I fear may become extinct in my lifetime) since the book concerned was a) written by someone of my own generation, and b) the cover doesn’t give too much away, so not totes embarrassing to be seen reading in the company of my daughter and her BFFs.

(Enough teen-speak now, I think, especially since I’m rubbish at it.)

I got an advance copy of The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr from Net Galley. This is a website you can subscribe to, free of charge, and it gives you a chance to get electronic copies of books (so you need an e-reader device), usually ahead of publication. In return you are simply asked to leave a review of the book on the website. I guess it gives publishers an idea of how the book might be received, and informs their marketing. The books available are mostly by less well-known writers.

Emily Barr has written a number of novels, mostly in what is often called the “chick-lit” genre, though I think this is her first venture into YA fiction. I first came across her many years ago when she gained a bit of fame for being a very young journalist at The Guardian and for having a relationship with a senior MP. I remember enjoying her columns as she was a very witty and very clever writer. Here are my thoughts on the book, which was published earlier this month and I note is widely available, including in my local supermarket, so being heavily pushed.

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Seventeen year-old Flora Banks is the narrator and central character. At the age of 10, Flora developed anterograde amnesia. This condition means that Flora has no short-term memory; she cannot remember what happened even a few minutes ago. Her parents micro-manage her life and Flora has various techniques and strategies to help her. For example, she writes things on her arms and hands that she needs to remember and keeps detailed notebooks about past events in her life which enable her to contextualise the present.

Flora is at once a reliable and unreliable narrator: the former because she tells things directly as she sees and experiences them, but unreliable because she cannot give us any background to the story, apart from what she recites from her notebooks. For example, it is some time before we learn what caused Flora’s condition and this is an important key to the story because it helps to explain the motivations of other characters in the novel. It is an interesting narration: there is a great deal of repetition as Flora struggles to memorise events, which I found irritating at first, but then it also enables the reader to empathise with Flora and see how life might be from her perspective.

Flora leads a sheltered life in Penzance until two events shake up her mundane existence: first, she attends a going-away party at her best friend Paige’s house. Paige’s boyfriend, Drake, is moving to Norway to study. At the end of the party Flora finds herself on the beach in the company of Drake, who kisses her and expresses feelings for her. This has a profound effect on Flora and becomes the singular event of the book’s title that Flora can permanently remember.

“I kissed Drake on the beach. I am alive in that memory.”

The second event, is that Flora’s parents have to go to Paris to see her brother Jacob who is dangerously ill. They don’t reveal the details of the illness and promise to return home soon. They leave Flora at home, for what they say will be just a few days with all her meals and strict instructions, and arrange for Paige to stay at the house to take care of her. Paige, however, has found out about the kiss with Drake and in a fit of pique decides that she will not Flora-sit. Home alone, Flora’s highly ordered life begins to unravel. Most significantly, Flora fails to take her medication. Now obsessed with Drake and the kiss and the conviction that his love for her will somehow begin a rehabilitation process (because the kiss is such a powerful memory) Flora discovers a resourcefulness she never knew she had, and takes herself off to Arctic Norway to find Drake, all the while convincing her parents that she is still at home with Paige. Flora then has an epic adventure.

Once I got into it, I really enjoyed this book. It is a very cleverly-crafted piece of fiction. Flora is a fantastic creation and I can really see how both she and Paige would be appealing characters to YA readers. Whilst Flora’s problems are very rare and very specific, I think there is a wider theme here about parenting and how, in seeking to protect our teens from the dangers the world presents, we may in fact deny them the very experiences that will enrich their lives. Flora has no capacity to weigh up risk so she is an unusual case (or maybe not!!!???), but the people who aid and abet her (Paige and Jacob) do have that ability, which suggests we have to trust the decisions young people make.

So, a thought-provoking read, which I will be passing on to my youngsters, and recommend to a non-YA audience too, even mature Mummies and Daddies! It’s Zoella next for me – now that WILL be embarrassing! 😉

If you or any young people you know have read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

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Reading Heaven for kids

I’ve recently started running an after-school book club at my youngest daughter’s primary school; I am a passionate advocate of enhancing children’s access to and enjoyment of books, perhaps because reading gave me so much as a child and in a sense has shaped everything I have done in my life. It can bring particular benefits to less well-off, less confident and less academic kids, and children’s authors in recent years have embraced this wholeheartedly. There are some truly fantastic titles out there for children at the moment – I wrote about some of them in a couple of blogs I published before Christmas.

time-travelling-with-a-hamster-imgTime Travelling with a Hamster was the first choice of the book club, and what a joy it is. At the heart of the plot is a tragic event – a boy who loses his father at the age of eight – but the author handles this so deftly, acknowledging the huge emotional impact it will no doubt have had on such a young child, but also deploying humour and intelligence to help child readers deal with such a challenging topic. I think it shows a great respect on the part of the author for the maturity and strength of his young readership.

When we meet him, Al is 12. His mother has remarried and the family now lives with Steve, with whom Al has almost nothing in common, and his teenage daughter Carly, who is openly hostile. The other main character is Grandpa Byron, Al’s grandfather on his father’s side, with whom he has a warm and loving relationship. Grandpa Byron is a wonderful, larger-than-life, eccentric character, a perfect foil to his rather serious and conservative grandson.

For his 12th birthday Al is given a hamster (whom he calls Alan Shearer, to please Steve, who is a football fan and always trying to involve Al in his hobby). He is also given a letter from his father, written before he died. In the letter, Al’s father makes a huge request: he wants him to travel back in time, using a time machine he had invented before he died, to when Al’s father was a boy. Pye (Al’s father) had a go-kart accident, also when he was 12, which left a fragment of metal lodged in his brain. It is this fragment of metal that will later cause a brain haemorrhage that will kill Pye at the age of 40. Therefore, if Al can just prevent the go-kart accident happening, he will effectively be saving his own father’s life. Naturally, it doesn’t quite go to plan, and this is why the hamster is important. I don’t want to tell you anymore because it’s a cracking story that had me on the edge of my seat (and staying up far too late with the light on!).

There are some big themes in here: loss of a parent, step-families, mixed-race families, bullying, social awkwardness, as well as time-travel, of course, and some of the science around it! But the author handles these so skilfully that I don’t think it is too much for slightly older primary school-age children. The kids in my book club are 10 and 11 and are loving it. Although it’s quite a long book, it’s a fairly quick read because the pace is pretty fast. Events spiral very quickly. There are one or two chapters dealing with ‘the sad stuff’, but these are short and well-contained, and the pace of the action means the reader won’t dwell on them too long. Rest assured, the ending is a satisfying one for readers of all ages!

I heartily recommend this book for children 10-13. It’s also a good one for adults if you’re following my 2017 reading challenge! (January’s challenge is to read a book with a child)

And now for something a little lighter?

In my last couple of blogs I’ve reviewed books that have been rather emotionally challenging: H is for Hawk is about grief and the loss of a parent; The Optician of Lampedusa is about a particular tragic event in the ongoing European migration phenomenon. Both books were harrowing in parts, although in different ways.

Today I’m posting about a book by Meera Syal, which, given her background in, and huge talent for, comedy, you might think would be somewhat lighter. Well, it is and it isn’t; there are certainly some quite heavy themes here, but there is also resolution to the issues raised and I certainly did not find the book as harrowing.

So, my review follows. If you have read this or Meera Syal’s other books, I would love to hear what you think.

house-of-hidden-mothers-img This was one of the books I took on holiday last year, but which I didn’t manage to read. I finally got around to it when we read it in our Book Club in December. I’d been really excited about it; I love Meera Syal (Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars at No. 42), she’s such a talent and a fantastic role model. She has written two previous novels, both published in the 1990s, neither of which I have read.

The novel centres on Shyama, who, in her late forties, is desperate to have a baby with her (somewhat younger) partner Toby. Shyama has a teenage daughter, Tara, from a previous (unhappy) marriage and lives close to her Indian parents, Prem and Sita. The action takes place in both London and India.

When all other options for having a child of their own seem closed to them, Toby and Shyama decide to go to a clinic in India where a surrogate will bear a child they can later formally adopt. In their case, it is planned that the child will be created from Toby’s sperm and a donor egg. There are two sub-plots to the novel. Firstly, there are Shyama’s parents; some years previously, they bought a flat in India where their families still live, and where it was intended they would spend part of the year, once they retired and had the opportunity to escape the UK winter climate. Their plans were thwarted, however, when Prem’s nephew illegally occupied the property. The now elderly couple have spent years and a small fortune battling in vain with the chaotic Indian legal system to get him and his family out. The other plotline is that of Shyama’s daughter, Tara, who is unhappy about her mother and Toby’s desire to have a baby. In the course of the novel Tara is sexually assaulted by a university acquaintance.

Continue reading “And now for something a little lighter?”

A tale for our times?

This week I’d like to tell you about a book I read over the Christmas holidays. It was not a cheerful book, but it certainly made me reflect and think, as I am wont to do at that time of the year. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention as it is a beautiful, powerful and challenging exposition of an issue which is rarely out of the headlines: the movement of large numbers of people from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

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Listeners to Radio 4’s PM news programme will be familiar with Emma Jane Kirby and her reporting on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In her dispatches she has returned frequently to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and north Africa (Tunisia and Libya). It has become infamous in recent years as the target destination for North Africans fleeing chaos, poverty, war and social disintegration in their own countries, and looking for a more settled way of life in Europe. Mostly, they flee on vessels that are barely seaworthy and thousands of people have died en route.

The book is written from the point of view of a local optician on the island who became deeply and personally embroiled in the crisis when he, his wife and six of their friends found themselves rescuing dozens of stranded and desperate migrants. They were on a sailing trip and were awoken early one morning by a noise they thought initially was coming from excited gulls. In fact the noises were human screams and cries. A flimsy boat, carrying possibly hundreds of people, was sinking and its occupants were drowning.

The eight friends set about a desperate rescue mission, pulling as many people as they could from the sea, dragging them onto their own small boat, and endangering its stability in the process. They rescued dozens before help finally arrived, in the form of the coastguard, who immediately ordered them to cease their mission, as they were putting their own vessel at risk of sinking, and to return to port. The friends do as they are told, bringing those they have rescued to safety on land. They are haunted, however, by the images of what they have witnessed at sea, the deaths of so many whom they did not, could not have, rescued.

The book is very short but it packs a mighty punch. It tells the human story behind the headlines, and this is what has been so powerful about Emma Jane’s reporting on the issue. Through its intense focus on the thoughts and feelings of one individual who played a direct part in saving the lives of so many, it brings to light, not the social and political challenges of this terrible and desperate phenomenon that is covered so extensively in our news, but the personal human catastrophe for those lost, and their loved ones, and those on the island of Lampedusa for whom the crisis is part of their daily life.

It’s the ordinariness that comes through; the optician lives a modest but happy life in a beautiful part of the world. He is not wealthy but he provides a valuable service to his community and wants for little. Like most of us. His small life is completely upended by the events of that terrible day, which is described in vivid detail. He, his wife and his friends are changed irrevocably by their experience and the latter part of the book is an account of how he is transformed.

It is a powerful piece of writing; with a journalist’s eye the author picks out the details which tell the story – for example, the incongruity of the donated clothing worn by the migrants at the reception centre. They have nothing and depend for everything on what people have given.

This book provides a powerful insight to one of the biggest news stories of our age, where the people involved are often objectified and dehumanised. Should be required reading for politicians.

A book for reading in Winter

2017-01-06-13-49-46Parts of the country have been struck by a severe cold snap this last couple of days; on my walk yesterday I certainly felt the scenery was quite bleak. Yesterday was the end of Advent, twelfth night, and a natural end, for me, of a period of reflection: about the year that has gone and the one that is to come. In June last year I started this blog and I have loved posting every week about my reading and hearing from readers what you have enjoyed. In the past 12 months I have read over 30 books, the bulk of those since starting this blog, and that feels like quite an achievement. I hope to improve on that this year.

My top five favourite reads last year were:

  1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (shortlisted for the Man Booker and many other prizes in 2015)
  2. Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy (shortlisted for the Man Booker last year)
  3. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (published 2014)
  4. The Green Road, by Anne Enright (shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015)
  5. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (published in 2015)

My fifth choice was the book I was reading this time last year, when 2015 became 2016. I wrote a review of it ages ago, but haven’t posted it here yet, mainly, I think, because it just hasn’t felt right. It is a book for midwinter. And that is why I am choosing to tell you about it now.

h-is-for-hawk-imgThis book was a long slow read for me, but in a way that suits the type of book that it is. It is an account of bereavement. In that sense it bears reading over a long period because it covers a period of more than a year following the death of the author’s father.

It’s fascinating because it’s not a traditional account of loss; it’s about how a grieving daughter finds a coping strategy in the acquisition and training of a goshawk. Goshawks are hunting birds, rare in the wild in the UK. They have a long history in the tradition of falconry but, according to the author, are notoriously difficult to train. Helen Macdonald took up falconry in her childhood and this was a hobby she shared with her photographer father, who was, by her account, something of an introvert, a man who enjoyed his own company and loved the outdoors.

The book begins with an account of her father’s passing and its initial impact on the family. The rest of the book is about her journey in coming to terms with her grief. She acquires the goshawk and sets about training it, using as her guide a book published in the 1950s by an underachieving schoolmaster (T H White) who wrote of his own frustrations at trying to tame and train a goshawk; ultimately he failed and his goshawk escaped. Helen Macdonald encounters her own fair share of ups and downs (excuse the pun!) in her attempts to train her goshawk and this is an apt metaphor for her grieving process.

This book is not an easy read, but it’s ultimately a rewarding one. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2014 and the Costa Book Award in the same year and has been highly acclaimed. It is an impressive achievement. Birds are not really my thing but I found it fascinating to learn about this creature. The accounts of the natural environment are stark – mostly nature is conveyed as hostile and barren, rather like the world of grief the author finds herself immersed in, and very like the goshawk, who is not at all a friendly or sympathetic character in this tale.

The emotions in this book are quite raw, so any reader who has experienced a recent loss themselves could either find it very cathartic or very painful. Grief is not objectified, we are there living it with the author.

I’d recommend this book. It’s a good one for long winter nights, but not for the beach.

If you have read H is for Hawk did you find it bleak or uplifting?

What were your top reads of 2016?

Happy New Year!

Apologies, I’m a little late with the new year message, but if like me you have a family you’ll know why! – two weeks of intense Christmas-ness. And with the kids having only just gone back to school, this may well be the first real breath I have taken for about a month! Ah well, I hope you had a good one and here’s to a happy and successful 2017.

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Many of you will have made New Year’s resolutions this week. January doesn’t really work for me as a resolution-making month; I find I have a greater chance of success in September at the start of the new academic year. I also love Autumn more than I do Winter so I have more mental and physical energy. That said, I am looking out of my window at a cold but beautiful sunny day and I am feeling pretty good about life! So, rather than make new resolutions, I am resolving to consolidate and reaffirm my existing ones like making sure I swim at least once a week. I was doing pretty well but then December happened!

2017-01-04-14-16-54We have also completed a rather intense phase of building work in our house so I’m itching to get things back under control domestically. When thinking about this I was reminded of a book I picked up a couple of years ago called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I’ll give you the sub-title which more or less sums up what the book is about:

“Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun”

 

 

Gretchen is a mother of two young girls who lives in New York City. She wrote this book after thinking that perhaps she could squeeze more joy out of life by applying herself to a year-long programme of change. She breaks the areas of her life down into eleven different categories and focuses on a different one each month (December is the month for having everything in place and practicing it all in toto – she calls it “Boot Camp Perfect”). For each category she identifies five or six or so different ‘tasks’ that will help her to meet that month’s goal. So, for example, January’s goal is health-related and is to “Boost Energy”. The tasks are not only related to physical health (go to bed earlier, exercise better) but also to mental health (“toss, restore, organize”), linked to clearing the clutter in her home and unblocking energy.

2017-01-04-13-30-54Other examples: June is a month to “Make Time for Friends” and September to “Pursue a Passion”. Her basic premise is that in order to implement change successfully you have to make things habitual. Once these habits are embedded in your lifestyle they are hard to break – for example, I manage to find 5-10 minutes each day to brush and floss my teeth, but found it really hard to find the same amount of time to drink enough water…until I got into the habit of drinking a glass at 10, 12, 2 and 4 o’clock each day. Sounds banal but it works.

 

 

Gretchen has an approach I can relate to – it’s systematic, involves planning and lists, and takes the pressure off the first week of the new year; I know that if I made a new year’s resolution to eat more healthily from January 1st I’d fail before the week was out as I still have half a Christmas cake and a mountain of fancy chocolate gifts in the house! You get a whole month to implement each new ‘set’ of tasks and a whole year to make the overall transformation. It’s all about changing habits, gradually.

The book is not a self-righteous instruction book, as I find so many titles in the self-help and ‘how-to-change’ genres are, it’s written very much as a diary of Gretchen’s own progress in implementing her programme. I embraced the book enthusiastically after I’d read it and it really did help me to embed some practical changes in my life which I would say have improved my happiness and wellbeing. The author also has a website, which you can access here, on the same theme where she writes regularly about happiness and habits and also about her passion for books (another reason why I like her!).

Since this book was published in 2009, she has also written and published Happier at Home which I picked up last summer while on my holiday in New York but haven’t yet read, and Better than Before. (I’m resolving now to read the former!)

I’d definitely recommend The Happiness Project. It’s for people who are serious about making change in their lives and who could benefit from a framework on how to do it.

What changes have you resolved to make this year?

Are there any books that you have found helpful in making change in your life?

Dipping into science-fiction

I’m not a huge fan of science-fiction, but the friend who recommended this book assured me that I would enjoy the theme of pharmaceutical meltdown and the emergence of a post-apocalyptic society that it examines. This novel was the winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 2015, so it is acclaimed in its field.

station-eleven-imgThe book is set in Canada and the United States just 20 years after a catastrophic virus seemingly wipes out about 99% of humanity in a matter of days. The consequences of this are that, within a short space of time, electricity, running water and all the other basic services we take for granted, cease to exist. Vehicles are abandoned on motorways as their passengers leave their homes, to escape to…where? These people then die. Aircraft no longer fly and people are stranded pretty much wherever they happened to be at the moment the virus struck. And then mostly die. Whilst reading I recalled all those diseases in recent years that seemed to prefigure cataclysmic consequences (AIDS, Swine fever, SARS, Avian ‘flu, Ebola) fights which, for the most part, we eventually won; in this novel it is the disease (Georgian ‘flu) that prevails. And that’s scary.

The central character is Kirsten, who was 8 years old at the time of the disease, and was performing in a production of King Lear. The character of Lear was being played by Arthur Leander, a renowned celebrity actor, who dies on stage (not from the ‘flu). This seems to be a catalyst for chaos as that very evening the ‘flu takes hold and people start dying very quickly and in vast numbers.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

Station Eleven

The plot of the novel is complex. Kirsten survives the pandemic and we follow her in Year 20 as she becomes part of a travelling orchestra/theatre company bringing Shakespeare to remote and unconnected communities in the central states of North America. There is also Arthur Leander’s story – recollections of his childhood on a remote island off British Columbia, his early life as an actor before he became famous, then his acquisition of celebrity status, life in LA and, most significantly, his three marriages and relationship with his son.

There are two further significant characters: Clark, an old friend of Arthur’s, who survives the virus, but finds himself stranded in an airport, which becomes a significant community in the post-apocalyptic scenario. And Miranda, Arthur’s estranged first wife, who, when unable to cope with the trappings of fame and the effect this had on their marriage, sought sanctuary in writing a graphic novel (called Station Eleven) which envisaged a frightening future world controlled by an evil megalomaniac. Her graphic novel, a copy of which Kirsten treasures, provides a motif for the events of the book.

station-eleven-img-2The author has quite a task managing this complexity: each of the four characters’ stories are told separately and in a non-linear way, but they are like pieces of a jigsaw gradually being pieced together until the overall picture becomes clear. The novel jumps back and forth in time and I found this quite difficult to follow. Also, for me, the drawing together of the strands was a little too contrived; it just did not seem entirely plausible that a tiny number of survivors could have such a connected past. I think this has been my problem with science-fiction generally (but perhaps I haven’t read enough); I get that you have to suspend disbelief but it’s too much for me when that means suspending credibility.

Despite my reservations about the plot, I think the themes explored are very interesting: firstly, our vulnerability – technology has brought us so much but without it we are lost. Secondly, how we have so many communication tools at our disposal, but we don’t use them to say the things that really matter. And, thirdly, how society organises itself (or not!) when the usual social structures which keep us under control disappear. What is also interesting is that we take for granted that time equals progress, but in Year 20, so much ‘progress’ has been lost that things like engines and antibiotics seem like science-fiction. People can die of a cut from a rusty blade.

So, I enjoyed this aspect of the book, and it is well-written, but for me the plot did not work particularly well and the time-shifts were a bit frustrating and confusing. One to read if you like being a bit scared!

 

Do you love science fiction? Can you recommend a title for this reluctant sci-fi reader that I might enjoy?

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