Autumn equinox 2018

Yesterday marked the 2018 Autumn equinox. This is the time of the year, exactly halfway between the summer and winter solstices, when there are an equal amount of hours of dark and light in the day. It is a time of year I find particularly energising.

road-1072823_1920I am fortunate to live in an area where we have more than our fair share of trees, of woodland and common land where I can walk, enjoy the fresh air and observe the changing of the seasons, truly one of the nicest things about living in northern Europe. The leaves seem to have been falling around me for some time, but I think the extremely dry weather over the summer caused this. Now, the leaves are visibly beginning to turn from green to various shades of red, yellow and brown and the scenery around me is taking on new vivid hues. In a couple of weeks it will be stunning.

As I write this, it is unbelievably warm outside, but it’s a different kind of warmth from summer. In the summer, when it was 18 degrees, I might be wearing a summer dress and I’d have to put on a cardigan. Today, I’m wearing my jeans and a long-sleeved top and it feels like a treat to be able to go out without a jacket – it’s all about context and expectation!

At this point in the year I feel motivated and eager. I am really focused on finishing the second draft of my book by half term at the end of October, I have some exciting new plans for a new website on children’s books, I’m fitter than I’ve been for years and after nearly three years of domestic disruption, we are on the final stage of our house renovation. There is lots of stuff happening that is good.

So, make the most of these mild days and longer evenings. Enjoy the movements of our wonderful earth and embrace the seasons!

Do you find there are times of the year when you feel more positive and energised than others? If so, what do you do to tap into that? 

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Book Review: “Harvesting” by Lisa Harding

This book was given to me by a family member as a Secret Santa gift last year. I have been dying to read it for ages but it seemed to keeping slipping down the TBR list (does that happen to you too?) I determined to read it on my summer holiday, although in many ways it was rather a strange choice; not your traditional beach read! The subject matter is child sex trafficking and the author, a well-known actor in Ireland, came up with the idea after she became involved with a campaign to raise awareness of the issue in 2012.

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The book tells the parallel stories of two young girls, Nico and Sammy. Nico is from Moldova. She lives in a deprived rural setting, her family is poor and her father and two of her brothers are cruel and misogynistic. They have become brutalised by their poverty and by the systemic corruption and organised crime in their society. Nico’s mother is oppressed and powerless to stop the terrible fate that awaits her daughter. Nico has another brother, Luca, who disagrees with the family’s plans for her and wants to protect her, but he also cannot stand in their way. Lacking money for even a basic standard of living, Nico’s father sells his daughter for marriage to an older man, as soon as she starts her periods (so she is around 13). As far as the prevailing culture is concerned, she is a woman now and the family see no reason why they should continue to support her, so they seek to profit from her. Nico’s father believes that Petre, Nico’s future ‘husband’, will give Nico a good life in London and buy her all the things her family have been unable to give her. The two men are colluding in a mutual self-deception, one assumes because this is the only way that Nico’s father can justify selling his child in this way.

Nico is effectively kidnapped and it becomes very quickly apparent that she along with a number of other girls, is to be prepared for life as a prostitute. Nico is particularly valuable because she is so young and a virgin. The girls are drugged, abused, beaten and then trafficked across European borders until eventually they reach Ireland. Petre’s girlfriend Magda is the only person able to protect Nico even a little from the worst excesses of the gangsters and she is only able to do so on the basis that Nico is worth more if they treat her less cruelly than if she becomes ill through mistreatment. It is the only fragment of protection that Nico has.

The other main protagonist in the book is Sammy, a young Irish girl, of around 16, who represents a different side of sex slavery. She falls into a life of prostitution almost by accident. Problems at home (her mother is an alcoholic and her father can only cope by separating himself) and at school lead to her leaving home and falling into the hands of adults who exploit and abuse her. Sammy presents a more challenging character, firstly because, at a superficial level, her problems seem to be of her own making; she is rebellious, uncooperative and undisciplined. She puts herself in dangerous situations which have been interpreted as attention-seeking acts. She is a child out of control and has sacrificed the sympathy of those who might (should!) help her, such as the school authorities. What Harding does skilfully, though, is show us that, despite the fact that she is sassy and street-wise, Sammy is a child and no less deserving of protection than the more ‘innocent’ Nico.

What is also particularly chilling about Sammy’s story is that in a modern democratic western society, with liberal traditions, social services and proper policies and procedures in place to protect young people, even a young girl from a middle-class background can fall through the cracks and, worse, some of those who should be protecting her, are part of the problem.

The two girls eventually meet when they find themselves in the same suburban brothel and their fates become intertwined. This is not a book for the faint-hearted and some readers may find they are unable to bear the sex scenes. It is hard-hitting. Some aspects of it are almost unbelievable; as a frequent visitor to Ireland for many years now I find it difficult to accept that there is a huge underground network providing children for an illicit sex trade in a city I know and love. But the author has clearly researched the story extensively, and fact-checked with people who work and campaign in this field. This lends the book a shocking credibility. And we know from child sexual abuse cases of recent years that the worst perpetrators are often hiding in plain sight, and that the collective disbelief that people could act in such ways can blind us to the realities. This book will definitely shake you out of any complacency.

I recommend this book – it is hard to say it’s enjoyable, more that it is an important book, that is compelling, thought-provoking and necessarily shocking. It is well-written with strong characters.

Can you recommend any similarly hard-hitting but important books?

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Man Booker Prize 2018 – shortlist announced next week

Next Thursday (20 September) sees the announcement of the shortlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary prize in the UK and one of the most important on the international calendar too. The longlist was announced back in July and I have to confess that I was not familiar with any of the novels listed. The shortlist comprises the six best novels, as agreed by the judging panel from their longlist of thirteen books.

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The Man Booker 2018 judging panel (L-R) – Val McDermid, Leanne Shapton, Kwame Anthony Appiah (Chair), Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose

This is an important year for the Booker as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. There was a special award made earlier this year for the Golden Man Booker, the best work of fiction from all the winners. The judging panel was a stellar cast and each chose their favourite work, as follows:

Robert McCrum – In a Free State (1971) by VS Naipaul

Lemn Sissay – Moon Tiger (1987) by Penelope Lively

Kamila Shamsie – The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

Simon Mayo – Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel

Holly McNish – Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders

The English patientThis shortlist was announced in May and the list was then put up for a public vote. My personal favourite of these was Wolf Hall. In 1983, the celebrate the 25th anniversary of the prize a “Booker of Bookers” contest was set up and three judges chose Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I probably agree with. It was good to see the vote open to the public this time rather than a small group of the literati, and the winner was The English Patient. I still remember reading that book for the first time the year it came out and then the wonderful movie with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, which itself went on to win several Oscars including Best Picture.

The panel of judges this year includes Val McDermid, so you can be sure that one of their criteria will be whether or not it’s a great story, something, I think it’s fair to say, literary fiction does not always consider of the highest importance. That was my feeling about last year’s winner, sadly.

For the last couple of years I have set myself the task of reading the shortlist before the winner is announced in October. Last year I managed five out of the six, and I STILL have not completed Paul Auster’s 4321 – I want to, honestly, but it’s SO LONG! I will do the same again this year, although I note that we seem to have one less week than usual between the shortlist and the announcement of the winner on 16 October – yikes, less than four weeks! Let’s hope there are no more monster tomes!

So look out for the shortlist announcement this Thursday; it will probably make many of the news bulletins.

Do you plan to read the Man Booker shortlist?

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Book review: “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie

This is my second Agatha Christie this year. Having never in the past felt a particular desire to read her work, I have to say that I am completely won over! I chose this book for August in my Facebook reading challenge, which happened also to coincide with my summer holiday. When I stop and think, there is something a little odd about choosing books about death and misery for the kind of escapist material I usually seek for holiday reading, but there is a kind of unreality about the two books I have read, a kind of nostalgia for a bygone era. I do also love the sense of place that Christie evokes; I found this to be true also of Murder on the Orient Express, which I read in January, although in this novel, there are some anachronistic references to the Egyptians which make a modern reader wince slightly.

Death on the Nile imgIn some ways, there is not a great deal to say about Death on the Nile that you couldn’t say about any other Christie novel, I suspect: there is a situation, in this case, a Nile cruise, being undertaken by 10-15 characters, all for different reasons. Conflicts and tensions are set up amongst the different characters, mysterious aspects of their personality or behaviour are noted, one of their number dies and then there is a process of detection to work out whodunnit. I did largely guess the correct outcome in the case of this novel, although I didn’t with Orient Express.

Both the Christie novels I have read are Poirot novels (these make up a third of Christie’s impressive oeuvre) and he is, of course, a marvellous central character – quirky, consistent, charming, and with a brilliant mind. David Suchet played Poirot to great acclaim in the wonderful UK television series, and although I am familiar with them I have to confess I never actually watched them! Suchet was in my mind, however, as I was reading the book.

I found the book unputdownable. I was eager for each new chapter, each new revelation; you can argue until the cows come home about whether this is “great literature” or something more “popular” but you can’t ask for much more than that, in my view. Wonderful characterisation, brilliant plotting, vivid imagination and storytelling that keeps you gripped to the end.

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Quite a back catalogue!

Reading these two books this year has definitely made me want to read more Christie. I find the novels quite quick reads, just as well since there are nearly 70 of them! I feel the need now to start with the first Poirot novels, to see how his character begins and how the author develops it over time. I also fancy like to binge-watching all those Poirot television dramas – there must be a channel somewhere showing them! A project for when the nights start drawing in, perhaps.

 

 

 

Christie is such a clever writer and one who clearly understood her readership and gave them what they wanted. Yes, I suppose they are rather formulaic, but when the world feels rather unpredictable there is no harm in getting what you expect from a book!

Recommended.

What appeals to you about Agatha Christie?

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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?

Book review: “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth

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The theme for July in my Facebook Reading Challenge was an American novel. It was a tough choice as I wanted to select something that captured the American ‘story’. I at first thought about The Color Purple, which had been on my shortlist for February (a work by a feminist writer) but I felt it was too similar to June’s choice of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I also thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities, but decided it was a bit long and my fellow readers on the Challenge would not thank me! So, I finally alighted on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which seemed appropriate in terms of both subject matter and timing, since Roth died just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how other readers on the challenge got on, but I’m afraid I failed to complete it within the month – it’s not overly long at 423 pages, but the writing is so rich that it was almost impossible to read at any pace. I had to (and wanted to!) savour every word. That gives you an idea of my overall feeling about the book – it is tremendous, epic, glorious and tragic. If you want to understand anything about the American experience, especially the immigrant experience over the last hundred years or so and the effect that has had on the mindset of American-born second and third generation immigrants, it is essential reading.

2018-07-23 16.19.23The plot is not complicated: ‘Swede’ Levov is a third generation Jewish immigrant whose grandfather came to America from Europe. He was a glovemaker and set up a business in Newark, New Jersey which became highly successful. Swede’s father continued the business, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s when glove-wearing for respectable women was the norm and most would have several pairs. (There is more information on gloves in this book than you will ever need to know, but it’s fascinating!) Swede inherited the business from his father, while his more wayward brother became a cardiac surgeon.

Swede Levov pursued the quintessential ‘American dream’ – he excelled in sports at school, served in the military, followed his father into the business, and learned the glove trade, married an Irish-American Catholic former beauty queen, with whom he had a daughter, Merry. From the outside everything seems perfect except for one small flaw – Merry has a stammer, which no amount of expensive medical or therapeutic treatment seems to be able to fix. This is the first indication that Merry perhaps represents some flaw which will undermine the Levovs and all that they represent.

Slight spoiler alert (though not really because you learn of the event quite early in the book): as a teenager Merry becomes obsessed with opposition to the Vietnam war. She becomes increasingly frustrated and rebellious. Her parents lose control and it culminates in her planting a bomb in the general store of Old Rimrock, the solid New Jersey semi-rural idyll in which the family has settled. The bomb kills the local doctor.

Swede’s world begins to fall apart; he cannot accept that his daughter has committed this crime, believing that she must have been put up to it by others, or indeed that others did it and are allowing her to take the blame. For a number of years Swede lives in the hope that he will be able to find his daughter, that the truth will come out and that she will be exonerated, and that their life will return to ‘normal’. For a time, it appears that he might find be able to find Merry, when a woman known as Rita Cohen contacts him saying she knows Merry’s whereabouts. Swede becomes convinced that she is in fact the real bomber because she is cruel and threatening and extorts money from him.

The Rita Cohen thread is all part of Swede’s self-deception, however, and this is the central theme of the book – Swede, his wife and his family, represent the ‘American dream’, which is in fact, just that, a fantasy, a mirage. Merry’s actions put Swede on a path where everything he held dear, which he believed to be real, unravels and is exposed as a sham.

As I have already said, the plot is not complex because it is not a novel so much about events as it is a deep exploration of the American psyche. The structure of the book is quite complex, however, but so brilliantly done that it is not hard to follow. It flits effortlessly between different stages, between different characters and their individual stories and the handling can only be described as masterful. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize (1998)! It explores notions of religion in America, particularly the Jewish experience as told through the Levov family, and through the eyes of our first narrator, former schoolmate of Swede’s and now author Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, the Catholic experience (through Dawn Levov) and the American Protestant experience through the residents of Old Rimrock. The decline of the glove industry and its craft, and also the city of Newark where the Levov family business was based, is a metaphor for the gradual collapse of the concept of the American dream which now seems to lie degraded and in ruins. A further metaphor is the Garden of Eden story, itself Old Testament fiction. The book is written in three parts (Paradise Remembered, The Fall and Paradise Lost) echoing Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, because for Swede Levov the experience is truly a destruction of all that he once understood to be real and to be good.

Philip roth
In American Pastoral Roth explodes the idea of the ‘American dream’.

This is the longest review I’ve written in a while and yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in telling you about this book. I have only just completed it so I may write more in a few weeks once it has had a chance to sit with me! Truly, as I savoured the last few pages I was open-mouthed at the unravelling. It is truly an American tragedy (the title is a kind of oxymoron), and it reminded me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf similar examples of the collapse of an American dream happening in slow motion before our very eyes. The final dinner party scene is quite spectacular.

Needless to say I recommend this book highly. It’s not an easy read but it rewards in spades.

If you have read this book I would love to hear your thoughts.