And there it was…my 400th post!

I got very into my #KeepKidsReading week last week and my 400th post completely passed me by! It has been a busy time, with one thing and another, not least my two daughters starting their GCSE and A level exams, so I put out my posts last week without paying attention to stats or anything like that, not that I do much anyway! It wasn’t until early this week, when I looked back at my list of blogs so I could re-share, that I noticed I had clocked up 402.

So, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.

I have been blogging for almost six years so I’m not exactly prolific (I make that a little under six posts a month), but I’m okay with that. I prefer quality over quantity and I know that if I tried to chuck a blog out every day, I would put less effort into each one. Also, as a bookblogger, each post usually takes a fair bit of research, so the writing part is usually the least time-consuming.

I also don’t have thousands of followers so I don’t have any great insights for any novice bloggers out there. Nor do I monetise my blog in any way – this was always a passion project for me, not a job, and that gives me freedoms.

If I had to summarise what I heave learned from six years and 400 posts-worth of blogging, it would probably be this:

  • Blog because you enjoy it, not because you think you’re going to get anything out of it.
  • Read other people’s blogs – you can’t expect anyone to return the favour otherwise and you never know what you might learn.
  • Communicate with people – the blogging community, particularly fellow bloggers writing about similar things (your ‘tribe’) are amazing. Get to know them.
  • Write from the heart, be your authentic self, not what you think you should be.
  • Keep a meticulous log of your posts – maybe this sounds corny, but I have a huge spreadsheet which enables me to plan ahead, keep track of my reading (without which I would not have a blog) and keep track of events in the book world (prizes, etc).
  • Engage with social media if you want to, but you don’t have to. I used to share a lot on the various platforms, but now I do very little, and I don’t think it has made one iota of difference. Except that I am a lot happier when I’m NOT on social media. It depends on your subject area and target audience of course, but for me, the blogging community is a far more honest and rewarding one.

I’d be interested in your thoughts about blogging, whether you’re a newbie or an old-hand, bookblogger or something else. I’m always open to learning more.

Book progress

A few weeks ago, I posted on here about the terrible flood events of January 1953 that devastated parts of the east coast of England and the Netherlands. In England over 300 people lost their lives in one terrifying night and in the Netherlands the death toll exceeded 1,800. This event is rarely talked about in England and I am not sure why as events which have caused much less loss of life and less destruction and which also took place a generation or more ago, command much greater pubic attention. Perhaps it is the ‘no-fault’ nature of the disaster – it was a natural event, not caused by negligence, corruption or malicious intent, unlike say the bombing of the Pan Am aeroplane over Lockerbie in 1988 (270 deaths) or the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966 (144 deaths). I do not wish to ‘rank’ these events in terms only of death toll – the Aberfan disaster killing as it did mostly schoolchildren is particularly horrific – but I am simply somewhat surprised that it seems to have slipped from memory.

The morning after – Canvey Island after the devastating floods on 31 January 1953

The loss of life associated with the 1953 storms could not be said to be entirely ‘no fault’. Enquiries found a woeful lack of a meaningful communication system, and the fact that the events took place over the weekend (meaning that officials were not working) certainly contributed to the death toll. Perhaps it was the proximity of these events to the second world war that has contributed in part to the amnesia; tens of thousands of civillians died in the war that had ended only eight years earlier. It is also likely that the lack of investment in maintaining civil defences both during and after the weather contributed to the ease with which flood barriers were breached.

So, as you can see, I’ve been doing research! I’ve read pretty much all the main sources on the subject, and watched quite a lot of newsreel footage from the time. I’d like to tell you about one of the books I read, which had a section on the 1953 floods but which was about the tides more generally. Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth, written by Hugh Aldersley-Williams, a scholar of natural sciences, and published in 2017 is a brilliant read. I borrowed it from my local library, intending to read only the section relevant to my research, but I ended up working through the whole book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author is an intelligent and witty writer whose knowledge and authority on his subject is slightly concealed by his humour and deft use of language. It is scholarly work dressed up as an entertaining read, and there aren’t many serious works of non-fiction you can say that about.

The author looks at the link between the sea on earth and our moon, something I had never before understood fully. He also explores the cultural impact of the tides, particularly on nations like the United Kingdom which has such a long coastline relative to its size. Before clocks were invented, “measuring time” was meaningless. People lived their lives by natural phenomena such as the position of the sun, the phase of the moon, the behaviour of wildlife, and the ebb and flow of the tides. Clocks have largely inured us to these movements.

“The coast of the British Isles is one of the most tidally lubricated coasts anywhere in the world.”

Hugh Aldersley-Williams

Hugh Aldersley-Williams writes in detail about historical events that have been influenced by tidal flows, such as the cholera epidemic in London in the 1880s (construction of a sewerage system in the west end of the city meant that the tides of the Thames forced river water into the drinking water in the east of the city). The success of the D-Day landings in northern France in 1944 depended heavily on the accurate prediction of the tides. The author also travelled widely to investigate tidal phenomena all over the world and writes finally (and inevitably) about rising sea levels and the impact of the tides on low-lying coastal communities. Devastating flooding in Europe this last winter has given us a foretaste of this.

This book was an absolutely brilliant read and I recommend it highly.

Another book I read as part of my research and which I did not enjoy was Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke. I read it because it is set in Canvey Island, the location of my own book. However, I found that this book did not keep my interest – the plot was thin and the premise weak. I hope my own book portrays Canvey Island in a more positive light than Vulgar Things. I don’t like criticising books so I won’t say any more.

I recently attended an online writing class with Kate Mosse and Maggie O’Farrell. As writers of historical fiction they said that a book should wear its research thinly. We have all, I am sure, read books where the author is just dying to tell you everything they have found out about their topic! As a novice writer I need to be very careful about this. So, it’s the school Easter holidays and I am using this time to take a break between completing the research phase and beginning the writing phase of my book. Writing starts next week! I have cleared my diary for the next month or two and have high expectations of myself. There is danger to this of course; I could hit creative blocks, or plot problems, and will get myself in a panic about not hitting my daily word count! We will see.

Wish me luck!

#International Women’s Day

9 amazing books for this very special day.

Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie – We Should All Be Feminists

Naomi Alderman – The Power

Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Clarissa Pinkola Estes – Women Who Run with Wolves

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Fiona Mozley – Hot Stew

Michelle Obama – Becoming

Lola Shoneyin – The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Tara Westover – Educated

The East Coast Floods- 1953

This week was the 69th anniversary of the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the 20th century, one of the worst ever in fact. On the night of the 31st of January 1953 a storm that began as a depression in the north Atlantic, moved to the North Sea and rolled down the east coast of Britain. Earlier in the day, the storm had already claimed 135 lives when it caused fatal damage to the MV Princess Victoria, an early roll-on/roll-off style ferry operating between Stranraer and Larne in the Irish Sea. This alone was Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

The MV Princess Victoria sank 69 years ago. The story was covered on the Belfast Live news website earlier this week (Image: Mirrorpix)

Tragically, even though the Princess Victoria sank on the afternoon of 31 January, poor communications meant that news of the storm did not reach communities on the east coast. If you look at a map of Britain and the north west coast of Europe you will notice the dramatic narrowing of the North Sea as it reaches Kent and northern France at the English channel. The bit between East Anglia and the Netherlands is shaped like a funnel. And that is exactly how it behaved on the night of 31 January. By tragic coincidence, the storm occurred on the night of a new moon spring tide, when the waters reach high levels anyway. It was, to use an extremely apt expression, ‘a perfect storm’. A huge surge of water could not escape through the channel fast enough and the funnel overflowed in dramatic fashion. The water had nowhere else to go except on to the low-lying flatlands of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and most devastatingly of all, the Netherlands.

Because it occurred in the middle of the night, many homes flooded while their inhabitants slept. Many of those coastal homes were poorly built, timber framed and single-storey. In all, 326 people died in Britain. A further 230 deaths at sea can be attributed the storm. In the Netherlands, there were 1,863 deaths, much of the land being below sea level. The Netherlands has been no stranger to devastating flooding over the centuries and so it has long taken its sea defences programme very seriously, but even the renowned Dutch ingenuity at dealing with the sea was no match for a surge which saw sea levels on that night rise to 5.6m above the norm.

Exhibit at the Watersnoodsmuseum, Ouwerkerk, Netherlands

I know Zeeland, the southernmost region of the Netherlands and the worst affected by the floods, well; I have been visiting it regularly for twenty years. And I first learned about the 1953 storm surge when I was there in 2003 and there were commemorations to mark the 50th anniversary. There is a museum which tells the story of that night in fascinating and very poignant detail. The last time I was there they had a virtual reality exhibit where you could see what it was like to be surrounded by rising waters inside your own home. It seemed to me extraordinary that I had never heard about the disaster at home, even though I grew up in Essex.

I have been wanting to write about this neglected piece of British history for a very long time and have been ruminating on a novel which I had hoped might be publishable on the 70th anniversary of the disaster (this time next year) – if I’ve any hope of meeting that deadline I’d better get my skates on! In December I made a long-delayed trip to Canvey Island in Essex to undertake some research. Sadly, the Canvey Island Heritage Museum, the only museum I know of in the UK which has information about the floods, has been closed since the start of the pandemic. But just walking around the island (it is tiny) gave me a powerful sense of what it might have been like. Canvey Island lies in the Thames estuary and is separated from its nearest town, Benfleet, by a wide creek. Until the early 1900s, the only means of access was via a causeway at low tide, on foot or by horse and cart. Canvey lies barely above sea level and 58 people on the island lost their lives on the night of 31 January, many of them children. It suffered the greatest loss of any of the towns and villages affected that night.

Canvey Island flooding 1953
Flooding in Cavey Island, 1953 (Image: PA/PA Archive)

The memories of the island’s terrible experience are still palpable today. Along the sea wall, a powerful mural depicts some of the stories of that terrible night. I remember visiting Canvey as a child – it was a sort of seaside place. No-one would disagree that the island has seen better days; people think that the south-east of England is all bright lights, prosperity and high property values, but it isn’t. The sense of community remains powerful, however, and, sitting in the local library poring over their collection of books about the flood I was struck by the sense of separateness felt, as a mark of pride. I hope the pictures below convey a small part of its specialness.

Images from the Sea Wall murals on Canvey Island, an example of the steel gates that now provide protection to the islanders, and houses lying on land that is as low as the level of the sea on the other side of the wall.

The trip gave me a powerful impetus to get the book started – and I have! I am writing this post now, partly to put a marker down that, hey, I’m doing this! Trying to make myself accountable. But also to draw attention to this terrible disaster that seems to have slipped from our national memory.

Reading Challenge – December choice

And so, the final month of the year begins and it’s time for the last book in my 2021 reading challenge. I usually choose a theme for each month, but this year I picked a very specific book for December- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I almost always select something short for December because it is such a busy month, and this novella fits the bill perfectly at less than 100 pages, which should be easily achievable. I have an almost complete collection of vintage Dickens editions, bought in secondhand bookshops in the 1980s, as I did a special study of the author for my English literature degree. Strangely, A Christmas Carol is not in my library so I will have to acquire a copy. I quite fancy one of those lovely clothbound editions, even though they are quite pricey, to match all my other Dickens hardbacks.

We all know the story but how many of us have actually read this 1843 Dickens novella?

I love Dickens and A Christmas Carol might be one of the only books of his that I have not read. Honestly, I cannot remember if I have because of course most of us will know the story and all the main characters – Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim. Published in December 1843 it was an instant best-seller. It has never been out of print and has been adapted for stage and screen many times. It was Dickens’s sixth work to be published; his well-known classics Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop had already been serialised to great acclaim. My own personal Dickens favourite, Barnaby Rudge, came out just before A Christmas Carol.

November was a very busy month for me so after my Booker Prize reading marathon, I have not actually managed to read very much this last month and have only just started my reading challenge choice (Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying). I don’t expect it to take me very long, however; it’s quite a page-turner! My day job has kept me very busy, my kitchen renovation drags on and my youngest child had an operation (a routine procedure) so life has been pretty hectic. I am expecting December to be quieter and I am looking forward to a gentle build-up to Christmas. With the Covid Omicron variant threatening to alter everyone’s plans in the coming weeks, I will most likely be hunkering down at home with the family and not doing too much in the way of partying. My Christmas shopping will be largely local and outdoors, no bad thing, as I await my booster jab.

So, I hope to be able to get back to regular posting in the coming weeks and will be sharing my usual thoughts on bookish Christmas gift ideas, so look out for those.

Happy reading!

Book review – “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

I chose this book for October in my Reading Challenge, the theme for which was a ghost story. There were quite a few that I fancied, including many classics that I have long wanted to get around to, but I liked the sound of this one and Paver is an author I have always wanted to try, having read some great reviews of her work. She mostly writes stories for young people and this novel was one of her early ventures into writing for adults, although I am loathe to make that distinction.

The book has a tantalising opening; it is a letter from one Algernon Carlisle (‘Algie’) in response to an enquiry from a Dr Murchison, who is researching ‘phobic disorders’, applying for information on an Arctic expedition he was part of. Algie’s reply is cool; he seems somewhat affronted by the suggestion that the events of the Arctic expedition were a result of a ‘phobic disorder’ and writes that, since one of his friend’s died and the other was deeply damaged by the experience, he therefore does not wish to be reminded of it.

Set in 1937, the book’s narrator is Jack Miller, an educated but lower class civil servant who is bored with his job and rather bitter about his situation in life. He meets a group of upper class Oxbridge-educated young men who are setting up a year-long expedition to the Arctic and are seeking a wireless operator. After meeting Jack they invite him to join them and it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, as well as taking Jack away from his repetitive and uninteresting existence. He has mixed feelings about the group but he gradually develops a close friendship with one of them, Gus.

When they set off on the trip in midsummer, they are full of enthusiasm, but the first alarm bells ring when the captain of the ship commissioned to take them to the abandoned mining settlement known as Gruhuken in Spitsbergen (which sits between Greenland and Norway in the Arctic Ocean), is anxious about travelling to the place. He is unspecific about his reservations but it is clear that something deeply untoward happened there at the time when the place was populated by miners.

When the three arrive at this strange and desolate place they are initially energetic and keen. They have their team of huskies and even though it is challenging coping with the 24 hour daylight they manage well enough. Jack finds ALgie trivial and annoying but his friendship with Gus deepens. After a few weeks, Gus becomes very ill and appendicitis is suspected. He must be removed to the mainland and it is agreed that Algie will accompany him. Jack will be left alone, although it is hoped for no longer than two to three weeks. It soon becomes clear that this is unrealistic and Jack finds his situation increasingly difficult. This is especially so when the daylight gives way to constant night and the disturbance to his body clock begins to have mental repercussions. He begins to see and hear things. Jack is visited by a trapper who also lives in Spitsbergen, though far too distant to be any sort of regular companion. Jack welcomes the company, but the trapper tells him the story of what happened years previously in Gruhuken, when a man was killed. It is said that his ghost stalks the area. Jack wants not to believe the story and declines the trapper’s invitation to join him at his own settlement. Jack is determined that he will get through this period, and prove his worth to Gus.

The rest of the book is about Jack’s mental decline as he loses all sense of time and the physical isolation leads him to become increasingly fearful and desperate. He becomes close to one of the huskies in particular, but this is also indicative of a kind of decline in his essential human-ness. The weather deteriorates, equipment breaks, the physical environment begins to collapse. The degeneration of the fragile physical set-up is a metaphor for the mental and emotional breakdown.

What is so clever about this book, and with all really good ghost stories is that the author lets the reader decide whether there really is a ghost or whether it is a ‘phobic disorder’. Algie’s view is clear from the opening of the book.

This was a real page-turner and I loved the Arctic setting which is brilliantly evoked. Paver apparently has a deep affection for this part of the world but it is clear from the book that she is also aware of its treachery and its power.

I really enjoyed this book. Recommended.

Booker book review #6 – “A Passage North” by Anuk Arudpragasam and my prediction for the winner

My final review from this year’s Booker shortlist, and just getting in under the wire, since the winner is to be announced at 7.15 this evening in a live broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre. You can listen on Radio 4’s Front Row programme, This is the first time, in the four or five years that I have been setting myself this challenge, that I have managed to read all six books in the six or so weeks between the publication of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. I have really only managed it by being able to listen to some of the books (four of them) on audio while I was out walking or running and, in recent days, while cooking, shopping or drying my hair!

I hope that my appreciation of the last couple of books I read has not been compromised by my having read them quickly. I particularly regret this in relation to this last book that I tackled A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. It is by far the most meandering, langorous and philosophical of the six books and I would rather have read it at just such a pace than at speed. The author is a young Sri Lankan Tamil who recently completed his PhD in philosophy at Columbia University in the US. This is his second novel. His first, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was published in 2016 and widely acclaimed. Both novels draw heavily on Arudpragasam’s background and his home country’s troubles during and after its three decades-long civil war.

Sri Lankan Tamil author Anuk Ardpragasam’s has a philosophy PhD and A Passage North is his second novel

A Passage North takes place some time after the end of the civil war, which concluded in 2009 when government forces finally defeated the insurgents (known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’) who had fought to establish an independent Tamil state in the north of the country. The UN estimated that as many as 100,000 deaths may be attributable to the war, including about 40,000 civilians, and the Sri Lankan Government has often been accused of war crimes. The civil war pervades every aspect of this novel.

The central character of the novel is Krishan, a young man who works for a non-governmental organisation in Colombo, the nation’s capital. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom are widowed. His father was killed in an explosion during the war. The novel opens with the death of Rani, his grandmother Appamma’s private carer. She was engaged by the family when Appamma’s health deteriorated, and Krishan and his mother needed help with caring duties due to their work commitments. It is Rani’s daughter who comes to the house to inform them of Rani’s death; she had been discovered in a well, her neck broken, and it is assumed that a tragic accident has occurred and that she fell in. We soon learn, however, that Rani a refugee from the north, had lost both her sons in the war and suffers from depression and anxiety.

This is a novel about relationships conducted in the context of the aftermath of a civil war. Krishan has known nothing but war in his life and yet, as a resident of Colombo, he has not been as directly affected as others. Life, its meaning, the impact on society and on individual citizens of protracted conflict and wartime atrocities are explored by young Krishan. He is on various journeys in this novel, whether it is an evening walk through the city or a train journey to the north to attend Rani’s cremation and during these travels he contemplates his relationships. All are considered in the context of whether the person is more or less affected by the war. For example, he considers at length, his relationship with his girlfriend Anjum, a young Indian woman who works as a political activist. But her distance from the Sri Lankan civil war makes him feel distant from her. When he considers what Rani has gone through, he seems to feel that he can never fully connect with Anjum because they lack an essential experience in common. There is so much suffering, whether it is Rani’s or his grandmother’s whose health is declining rapidly, that he cannot take seriously what he sees as Anjum’s more trivial preoccupations.

This is a powerful novel that deserves a slower and more considered reading than I have given it. It has been described as ‘Proustian’, with its long meandering passages. It is beautifully written and the audiobook was wonderfully read by Neil Shah.

So, who is going to win the Booker?

Last year, I read four of the six novels on the shortlist before the winner was announced. Of those, the standout book for me was Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, so I was delighted when it won. Having read all six books on the shortlist this year, the one that I have most enjoyed has been Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead and I also think this is the standout work. Its scale, its scope, its concept, characters and the quality of the writing are superb. It simply has everything you want from a book, including a cracking story. This was also the case with Shuggie Bain, which is why I wonder whether the Booker judges will, for the second year running, award the prize to such a novel. A case could be made for all the nominees actually, but I will stick my neck out and say that if it’s not Great Circle I think it will be The Promise. Like A Passage North it explores the impact of national trauma through the lens of individual crises. I loved all the books this year, any one of them would be a worthy winner.

Booker book review #4 – “The Promise”

The fourth of my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist – they are coming thick and fast now! This novel is by South African author Damon Galgut, a writer who I’m ashamed to say I had not heard much about before picking up this book, and certainly someone whose work I will turn to again after reading this. This is his eighth novel and the third to be shortlisted for the Booker (he was shortlisted previously for the The Good Doctor in 2003 and In A Strange Room in 2010). He has also written several plays and a collection of short stories.

South African writer Damon Galgut and his novel The Promise, his third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize

The novel centres on the white South African Swart family and spans the early 1980s to contemporary times. More specifically, it charts the decline of the family and the deaths of most of its members, all of them in difficult, tragic or insalubrious circumstances. Their gradual decline, from affluent landowners with servants and status, through corruption and addiction to decay is a metaphor for the country itself, making a tottering transition from apartheid to immature democracy and majority rule and the many and various challenges that presents.

The novel begins with the death of ‘Ma’, Rachel Swart, and the family gathering at the homestead near Pretoria. Her husband Manie (‘Pa’) is grief-stricken, though it is clear that he was a weak husband and in many important ways he was neglectful of his wife. He finds a new devotion now she is dead, although the primary cause of his grief seems to be that she will be buried in the Jewish cemetery, her family having sought to reclaim her in death, and thus he will be unable to lie with her in eternity. Rachel and Manie had three children, Anton, Astrid and Amor, who is only a teenager at the time of her mother’s death and is recalled from boarding school to attend the funeral. Only Amor seems capable of acknowledging and articulating ‘the promise’, the dying wish of her mother that their lifelong servant, Salome, should be granted ownership of the property that she occupies on the family’s estate with her son Lukas. Amor’s concerns are repeatedly dismissed; the family has more important issues to grapple with they insist, but really they are in denial about the direction of travel for South Africa.

Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

“The Promise” by Damon Galgut

There are deep tensions within the family and in this first part of the novel, the scene is set for conflicts that will re-emerge and intensify. Each part of the novel is centred around a death; the second part is the death of ‘Pa’, and the third and fourth, the deaths of Astrid and Anton, Amor’s two elder siblings. After the trauma of her mother’s death Amor becomes increasingly estranged from the family, disappointed by their continual dismissal of her efforts to ensure her mother’s promise to Salome is fulfilled, and feeling increasingly separate from them and their narrow-minded selfishness and bigotry.

But Anton can see once more inside his sister, cold and clear as the clapper of a bell, that it’s her own death she’s feeling. If it can happen to our father, it can happen to me. This nothing, this state of Not. She mourns herself in terror.

Death and the fear of it pervade this novel, yet death also stalks all of them.

The characters make this novel and the author explores each member of the Swart family deeply. He probes their motivations, their neuroses, their most-private thoughts and fantasies. They are all profoundly flawed and their ends are inevitable. In addition to the main members of the Swart family, there is a strong supporting cast, from Manie’s overbearing sister, Marina and her husband Ockie, always inappropriate, which would be laugh out loud if it were not so tragic, and Alwyn Simmers, the lacklustre, half-blind priest who manages to persuade Manie to build a church on the farm land. Plus of course there is Salome, almost-invisible, always ignored and yet who remains loyal to the family and outlives them all.

I loved this book, with the twists and turns of events that befall the family, the insightful portrayal of character and the parallels drawn between the rotten centre at the heart of the Swart family and the governing authorities of South Africa who continually let the people down.

Sometimes it’s South Africa that disappoints her. Who could have foreseen that her daddy, who everybody used to respect and fear, would have to go in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and admit to doing those horrible and necessary things? The problem with this country in her opinion, is that some people just can’t let go of the past.

The thoughts of Desirée, Anton’s wife, and daughter of an apartheid-era government minister

This book is highly recommended and surely a strong contender to win.

My month in pictures

This is a new monthly post where I aim to do very little writing (!!!) and tap into some visual creativity (which I always feel I don’t really have). So, this was September for me, in a few pictures and very few words.

Sheltering under a tree during a sudden shower, while the sun still shone
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