Au revoir Brittany! Back to blogging!

Although it’s been a wonderful summer, it feels, as always, good to get back to my desk, to my computer and to my blog. I’ve had nearly 3 weeks ‘off’ – I use that term more because it is a general expression, not because I see it as any kind of chore. In truth, I have missed my blog! The reason I have posted so rarely is because I was a) doing so much reading, b) got totally sidetracked by a nearly impossible jigsaw puzzle at our holiday home (!), and c) was just having a great time with the family. When I wasn’t reading we were cooking, eating, talking, staring at the stars, a sight we are not so used to in our light-polluted Greater Manchester suburb, getting out and about, all the things you do on holiday, really. It’s been a fantastic break for all of us and we have all come back newly energised to face into the new academic year (it’s another big one for our family), ready to meet new challenges and set new goals.

974db1fd-e67b-4366-9e06-9cac492fef1b-1125-00000161832e76ce_fileI managed to read all three of the books I took on holiday with me, and enjoyed all of them immensely. They were Harvesting by Lisa Harding, Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. I’ll be posting reviews of them over the next few weeks.

So before I launch into the ‘new year’ (I’ve posted here before that I find September a more effective time to start things than January), I would like to close off the summer with some pictures of beautiful Brittany. We stayed in Cancale, well-known for its oysters, something I eat maybe once every couple of years – twice in a fortnight is enough!

I loved Mont-St Michel, over the border in Normandy. It was absolutely thronged, but we arrived early afternoon and by 5pm the crowds had thinned significantly.

We visited beautiful Dinan, ‘town of history and art’, a couple of times and I loved it. One tip if you go there – don’t expect to be able to get lunch after 2pm!

Another favourite was Ile-de-Brehat, a wonderful island, just off the coast near Paimpoul. It’s tiny, rugged, and there are no cars. You can hike from one end to the other, or as we chose to do, cycle all the way round.

Finally, from my holiday photo album, recognise this?

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I was delighted to be able to visit St Malo, setting of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel All the Light You Cannot Seea truly beautiful town.

Have you ever visited Brittany or been to any of these wonderful places?

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Summer holidays

We arrived in France yesterday for our family summer holiday. We had a week in Ireland last week visiting family, travelling between Dublin and West Cork. It was wonderfully full-on so there was precious little reading time. However, now that it’s just the five of us I’m looking forward to a slower pace. My children are all well into the teen zone now so my husband and I find ourselves twiddling our thumbs in the mornings, waiting for them to get up. Perfect reading time!

We are staying in Cancale, a smallish coastal town in Northern Brittany, arriving here on the overnight ferry from Cork to Roscoff, which was very pleasant indeed – good, reasonably-priced food, decent cabins and plenty to do.

I’ve been unusually restrained with my holiday library this year, just the three books: Harvesting by Lisa Harding, a harrowing account of child prostitution, child trafficking, abuse and neglect, Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, one of my book club’s summer reading titles.

I’ve almost finished Harvesting in the first couple of days! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is gripping. I’m told it has been thoroughly researched and is not an outlandish account. If this is the case, I have truly led a sheltered life. It’s tough stuff.

If I manage all three books there is always the Kindle back-up! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What are your holiday reading choices?

The Hay Festival 2018

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Before the crowds and the sun arrived. Hours later children were climbing all over the famous letters.

This weekend I fulfilled a long-held ambition and visited the Hay Festival. First established in 1988, this foremost of literary events is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has spawned a number of copycat events worldwide – including in Mexico, Spain, Denmark and India. Bill Clinton famously referred to Hay as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’. I’ve been meaning to go for years, but it never seems to have been the right time. This year, circumstances were in my favour and I realised, only last week, that I could actually go! Hay-on-Wye, is in Powys mid-Wales, and although it was a long trip I decided to drive there and back in a day (mainly on country roads through beautiful Welsh and English villages incidentally). It was the most amazing and stimulating day and I’m already blocking out my diary for next year – I’m staying in one of those yurts!

Ruta

My day started with a talk from the wonderful American-Lithuanian YA author Ruta Sepetys, who was discussing her latest book Salt to the Sea. It’s a book about the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, by a Soviet torpedo, with the loss of 9,000 lives, mostly Lithuanian refugees, who were trying to escape the advancing Red Army. I can’t wait to read it, so look out for my review.

2018-05-27-13-53-56.jpgI then saw Rupert Everett (with whom I fell in love years ago after his appearances in films Another Country and Dance with a Stranger in the mid-1980s) in conversation with Alan Yentob. Everett has just completed his film about Oscar Wilde, a passion project which it has taken over ten years to bring to fruition. There was a BBC4 Imagine documentary about it a couple of weeks ago.

 

In the afternoon, I watched Cambridge academic Terri Apter give a talk about her new book Passing Judgement: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life which made me reflect on how I interact with my children, my partner and others around me, and how my responses to praise/blame may have been shaped by my early life experience. Fascinating stuff.

ElifShafakFinally, my last event of the day was hearing Turkish author Elif Shafak speaking about her new book The Forty Rules of Love. I reviewed her novel The Bastard of Istanbul on this blog a few months ago. I wasn’t made about it, but hearing her speak, I must say, was inspiring. She is a remarkable woman of deep learning, great sensitivity, multilingual and came across as a very nice person to boot. Stunning talk.

I lingered for some time, even when I knew I ought to be heading home to make sure my teenager had got out of bed. Though there was heavy rain and thunderstorms in the morning, the sun blazed all afternoon. It is a magnificent setting, the town, which I did not get to explore, is delightful, and there are so many events to choose from, many of them free. The Haydays festival within a festival, aimed at children and young people, offers a packed schedule for the little ones. There is a marvellous on-site bookshop, Oxfam bookshop, food outlets and a few retail stalls. But this is primarily a festival to make you think, not make you spend, and I heartily recommend it.

Next year’s festival takes place 23 May – 2 June. You can also subscribe to the Hay Player for £10 which enables you to watch or listen to the archive of thousands of events from Hay over the years.

Have you been to the Hay Festival? What were your impressions?

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Half-term literary activities for kids

As another half-term holiday approaches, parents up and down the land will be seeking-out activities to do with their children. Hopefully, the weather will be good, which, when mine were younger, meant picnics in the park, walks in woodlands or county cycle rides. As they get a bit older, these are not always as exciting as they once were and it is often the case that parents have to provide at least one ‘centrepiece’ activity, something that is a bit more special. You could do worse than provide a literary slant to such an outing, so here are a few suggestions:

Hill Top, Cumbria

hill TopFormer home of Beatrix Potter, now in the care of the National Trust. A must for lovers of Peter Rabbit, which may now have added resonance after the release of the film earlier this year.

Haydays Festival, Hay-on-Wye

The annual Herefordshire literary festival runs from 24 May to 3 June and there is as always a packed programme for children and adults alike, with forest schools and crafts, as well as the to-be-expected author talks. Tickets can be booked here.

Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

At the other end of the UK, there will be lots of fun and performance in Edinburgh between 26 May-3 June. See the full programme here.

Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle upon Tyne

seven-storiesI was living in Newcastle when this place opened and I’m thrilled to see its thriving. They have a fantastic programme of events. Take a look here.

 

 

 

roald-dahl-museum

 

Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden, Bucks.

I haven’t met a child who doesn’t love Roald Dahl and so a visit here would be a huge treat. It’s the former home of the author, where he lived for 36 years and they have a running programme of events. Full details here.

 

Harry Potter experience, Warner Bros Studios, near Watford

At the pricier end of the spectrum and tickets need to be booked in advance, so it’s likely to be busy at half term, but a treat for die-hard fans of the young wizard. Details here.

Alternatively, you could visit Alnwick Castle, where much of the action was filmed, or Kings Cross station, and stand at platform nine and three quarters!

 

shakespeare's birthplaceStratford upon Avon

For year 9s and upwards, attention will be turning to GCSEs. A Shakespeare text is compulsory on the English literature syllabus, so a visit to Stratford, the Bard’s birthplace and home, will give some context. You could even take in a play. Details of all the relevant places are here.

I hope that whets your appetites.

I would love to hear your suggestions, particularly any events that may be a bit cheaper!

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How to get their noses in a book this half term

When my children were young, I found it relatively easy to entertain them during school holidays; they still liked going to parks (sighs wistfully!), did not roll their eyes when I suggested a museum or gallery (usually running a school holiday activity), even a bus or train ride was a novelty! And if I needed to work or just needed a break, there were always organised activities, sports clubs, etc. Now, two of my children are teenagers, and the third is there in spirit if not in chronological years. They can entertain themselves, often making their own arrangements with friends, requiring only transport assistance from me, and this is great; they are independent and there is a lower impact on my writing life.

girl-672267_1920However, with autonomy comes power – if they are having an ‘at home’ day they can simply slip under the radar and spend a great deal of quality time with their phones and tablets (oh for the days when I only worried about how much Balamory they watched!) They can secrete themselves in their bedrooms while I lose myself in all my usual activity. At their age, sure I watched a lot of telly while my parents were out at work in the school holidays, but I also spent plenty of time with my nose in a book. Digital distractions were fewer and less powerful.

I’m not looking back with rose-tinted specs thinking ‘if only their lives could be like mine…’ no way; I know I would have loved the internet! However, now I’m a 21st century parent I can see how easily it is for the reading, no, the whole cultural habit to slip away and get lost in the mire of competing forms of entertainment. So, what can be done? Well, if the scenario outlined above sounds familiar and, like me, you would like your young people to engage more with paper and page-turning rather than screens and swiping, here are some thoughts for you:

  1. Don’t panic and don’t give up – even the most avid readers have dry periods and the teenage years are unique and short-lived. They have many things to contend with and reading may not be top of their list. Hang on in there and see below.
  2. Let them see you reading – I work mostly from home and my kids are fascinated by what I do all day! When they are off school I make sure they see me switching off the phone and the computer and reading; don’t save your reading until bedtime. Ten minutes reading in front of your kids is far more powerful than all your verbal exhortations to read – they listen to nothing you say but they watch everything you do. Model the desired behaviours.
  3. Bring books into their life – yesterday I went out with one of mine and treated them to a hot chocolate…in the bookshop cafe! And afterwards we had a browse. Later in the week I may find I need to call into the library while we are out.
  4. Seek out literary-themed days out – you may have at least one planned day out while your kids are off. Did a favourite author live nearby, whose home you could visit? Is there some literary link to a local beauty spot? I live in Manchester in north-west England and we are very fortunate to have a rich local literary heritage – Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, four fascinating libraries (Central library, John Ryland’s, Chetham’s and the Portico), and the Lake District is nearby (Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome).
  5. In fact, any culture will do – museums, galleries? Many are still free so there is no pressure to spend all day there, just hang out for an hour or so. Engagement with any kind of cultural activity will demonstrate to your teens that life exists beyond the screen and even if they start bored, they will probably have to read something, even if its only the descriptions of the exhibits.
  6. Watch a movie adaptation together – the key word here is ‘together’. If it’s their choice, maybe an adaptation of a YA novel, so much the better. If they like the film, but haven’t read the book, suggest getting it for them.
  7. Revisit a once-loved childhood classic together – were there books they loved reading as children? Perhaps dig out an old favourite, they’ll enjoy the nostalgia. My eldest still goes back to Harry Potter from time to time.
  8. Buy newspapers and magazines – all reading is good.
  9. Finally, leave all kinds of reading material lying around, in every room, even the kitchen and bathroom. When they’re off school and they’ve more time on their hands they may be inclined to linger.

The key thing is to show an interest and not to judge. I consider myself an avid reader these days and I did read a lot of classics when I was young, but I read some ‘trash’ too, and I loved comics and teen magazines. Value their choices, even if you secretly wish they’d read something different, and talk to them about what they’re reading.

What do you do to try and get your kids reading, particularly the older ones? 

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Happy Christmas!

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Thank you to everyone who has followed, liked and commented on my blog this last year. It’s been a fantastic year of reading and I’ve loved posting every week about my literary adventures. I’m signing off for a week or so to spend time with the husband and children, and then off to Ireland to visit family for New Year.

2017-12-18 11.06.58I plan to spend the time eating, sleeping, walking, watching movies, playing games and, of course, reading. I’m planning to tackle the enormous 4321, the Man Booker nominated tome by Paul Auster, and the only one on the shortlist I have not yet managed to read.

And if by some miracle I get through this, then there are a few other books I have on the TBR pile, three titles I picked up from the library (easier reads than 4321, I suspect!), plus a book I have been wanting to read for a while Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I treated myself to it after I filled up my loyalty card from a well-known bookshop chain!

 

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So, I would like to wish everyone who is reading this, a very happy and restful Christmas. See you in the New Year!

 

Give a book a home this Christmas!

xmas-2928142_1280I love Christmas, especially since having children, but now my kids are a little older (11, 13, 16) I find that I enjoy it more and more as we tend to ‘hunker down’ as a family. We do visits to and from our extended families before and after the 25th of December, but Christmas itself is spent rather quietly together, just the five of us. We have a great time hanging out together (the kids all make a real effort to get along!), watching films, playing games (poker was our favourite last year!), cooking and eating. As the children have got older, the gift-giving (or more accurately, the gift-receiving!) has become less important.

The build-up to Christmas is fun too; I love the mince-pies, the lights, Christmas carols, school performances, and drinks with friends. What I don’t love is the commercialism. I know it’s ‘the golden quarter’ for retail and it’s particularly important for small businesses, but as I’m watching with awe the footage on the BBC’s Blue Planet II and hearing stories in the news about plastics and microfibres being discovered in underwater species, it pains me that Christmas is an orgy of plastic, unrecyclable packaging and ‘novelty’ (useless) gifts. There are some corkers out there! How many of those so-called ‘stocking fillers’ should we more accurately call ‘land-fillers’?

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Am I sounding like Ebeneezer Scrooge? Sorry! I’m not here to preach to anyone, I have been and will no doubt continue to be an offender as I get into the last-minute buying panic, but I just want to tell you about my own personal mission this year, which is to give books as much as I possibly can. Now, I am no paragon of virtue – I would be persona non grata if Santa delivered a sackful of books to my kids! – but I’m going to book-give to everyone else on my list (sorry for any spoilers, friends of mine). Books give long-lasting pleasure, they are reusable, re-giftable, and mostly recyclable. What’s not to love? I will also try not to buy from one large online retailer of books – yes, there is usually a discount and it’s an expensive time of year, but bookshops often have lots of offers this time of year too. Independent bookshops need our business; use ’em or lose ’em, our town centres and communities will be much poorer without them. There are two brilliant ones in my locale – the Chorlton Bookshop and the Urmston Bookshop. And if your funds are limited, secondhand books are very acceptable gifts, especially when you chuck in a bar of Fairtrade chocolate! (Oh and books are really easy to wrap.)

So, I’d just like to leave you with this thought – BUY BOOKS THIS CHRISTMAS! It’s also UK Small Business Saturday on 2 December, so you can add to that KEEP IT LOCAL.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be letting you know how I’ve got on and posting my suggestions for books to look out for which will make great gifts.

GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR CHRISTMAS SHOPPING!

What do you think about giving books for Christmas?

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