Happy blogging birthday to me!

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So, one year ago today I published my inaugural blog post. It was both a hello to the world and a review of two books – The Green Road and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It was strangely scary at first, but I very quickly got into the groove and I can say, hand on heart that I love it! It’s also great to have an excuse to spend so much time reading! I’m not as ‘productive’ as many other book review bloggers, but, as regular readers will know, I am a mother of three and the family comes first.

So, as I commence my second year of blogging I wanted to thank everyone who has read, liked or followed my blog. To know that people enjoy what I write is much appreciated.

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I also wanted to share with you a few of the things I have learned over the past year:

  • Consistency is key – as a blogger I know I don’t necessarily have to post frequently, but I need to post regularly. I aim for twice a week, at least one of which is a book review, and most weeks I have achieved this.
  • Keep a reserve stock of blog posts – I try always to be a couple of book reviews ahead, because there are some weeks I just can’t get through a whole book…like now for example! Between half term and ferrying the eldest to and from school for exams, a lot of time has been whipped away from me this last month.
  • Plan and schedule – it’s the only way I can do it. I always have my next couple of months of posts mapped out. I’m also always reviewing the plan as occasionally something happens and I write a spontaneous post. I also schedule posts ahead, which is very useful because using Analytics tools, I can identify when are the best times and days to post.
  • If you build it, they don’t necessarily come – (Bonus point for anyone who knows which film I’m referencing!) It is unfathomable to me now why I havered over starting my blog – it’s not like I was bombarded with thousands of comments and followers when I first posted! You have to work hard to be heard in the blogosphere and it’s something I aim to do better this coming year.
  • Social media is key – each blog post is a tiny piece of driftwood in a vast ocean. You have to set off a few flares to get found. Social media is the only way to do this. Cross-post like crazy and don’t be shy. (Further note to self: do more of this!)
  • Write from the heart – some of my ‘favourite’ posts have not necessarily been my most popular. There are the ones I am proud of, pretty well-written, I thought, and there are those which just burst from my fingertips without too much advance thinking. Guess which ones have generated most comment?
  • There is no formula – there are an infinite number of ways to skin this particular cat. Do what is right for you, use the analytics tools and be willing to adapt.

If you are currently blogging I’d love to know what you think of the above tips, and if you have any of your own to add.

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Book review: “Days Without End” by Sebastian Barry

I listened to this on Audiobook, which was narrated by the wonderful Aidan Kelly. It’s a brilliant book, with the most sublime use of language, my appreciation of which was enhanced by Kelly’s fabulous reading. I had the same experience with Holding by Graham Norton, but sadly not with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, which I’m listening to at the moment, where I’m finding the narration rather irritating. Aidan Kelly’s reading brings such an authenticity to the listening experience that I actually believed I was listening to Thomas McNulty.

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The book is set in America in the 1850s, where our very young narrator and central character, Thomas McNulty, finds himself after fleeing devastating famine in Sligo, Ireland, and searching for a new life, any life, in the New World. He signs up as a mercenary soldier for the Government infantry in the civil war against the Confederate south. There he meets ‘handsome John Cole’, an American, with whom he develops an intimate relationship. When their time in the infantry ends the two make a living for a while as entertainers where Thomas masquerades as a woman. He finds he is comfortable playing this role with John Cole as his beau, and in the periods when the two live a settled life together, it becomes his costume of choice, as well as providing a convenient disguise in times of trouble.

The accounts of war and violence are graphic and horrific and no detail is spared, which I found difficult to listen to at times, although also strangely compelling. Thomas and John rejoin the army further on in the novel and are involved in head to head battles with native American Indians. These accounts were even more harrowing as the contrast between the two sides is exposed so starkly, the soldiers having far superior firepower. In one of these encounters, Thomas and John rescue a young girl, Winona, whom they practically adopt as their own daughter and determine to look after.

Some of the scenes in the book are brutal and hard to read (or in my case listen to). The injustice of the men’s situation, the terrible conditions in which they have to live, the way that soldiers are treated as cannon fodder and afforded very little respect by their military masters is shocking. They are forced to live a most brutal existence and for many of the men the experience is completely dehumanising. The extreme violence they both administer and experience is like nothing that most of us will ever have come across and the novel is very powerful as a result. And yet, there is also tremendous tenderness: the relationship between Thomas and John Cole is beautifully drawn, though we never hear John’s voice first hand, and never gratuitous, never titillating. Even Thomas’s cross-dressing is handled with a beautiful innocence. The love that is shared between the two young men and Winona is also very powerful; that they are capable of such care of another human being is all the more moving when you consider the extremes of violence, deprivation and injustice in which they have existed.

There is a tale here, though mostly the novel is about a time and place in history and what that was like for the people immersed in it. It is a tale not just of survival but about how people who have nothing, have love and find a way, ultimately, to live peacefully.

This is one of a series of novels about various members of the McNulty family. I haven’t read the others, but I will certainly do so after reading Days Without End. The novel won the Costa Book Award in 2016 and has been widely acclaimed.

I recommend it highly and can particularly recommend the audiobook. That said, the language of the book is so beautiful that I would also love now to go back and read it, to see those words dance on the page.

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

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‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan – children’s fiction for June

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature. I aim to read and review at least one children’s book every month, so here is my offering for May.

The Weight of Water imgThis was the third book I read last term with the children’s book club at my daughter’s primary school. It was something of a risk as it’s not conventional either in its subject matter or its format. But having read Time Travelling with A Hamster with them (which they loved) and The Snow Spider (which many of them were lukewarm about), I felt they were ready for the more complex themes and the quirky format. The kids in my book club are 10-11 and it’s well-known that children tend to like reading about characters who are a couple of years older. The central character in this book, Kasienka, is 13, so that fits, although some of the themes are quite mature. For example, she mentions her periods, puberty more generally and her feelings about a boy at school, which had some of my book club attendees sniggering! That could have been down to the group situation, however, and read alone or with a parent, this might actually be an opportunity to have a proper conversation with a child about such issues.

The book starts with Kasienka and her mother leaving Gdansk, Poland, with just a suitcase each. They are travelling to England to join Kasienka’s father, who left some months earlier. They are heading for Coventry, as they know he is somewhere in that city, but they have not heard from him for some time and have no address for him. There are clearly two things going on here: firstly, there is the immigrant experience, people leaving their home country in search of a better life, but there is the sub-text also of the mystery of the father’s departure and possible marital issues between Kasienka’s parents.

When Kasienka and her mother arrive in England they find themselves in a dingy bedsit, living amongst other immigrants, including Kanoro, a Kenyan doctor working as a hospital porter. Kasienka is placed in a local school, but is put down a year because of what are perceived to be her inferior language skills. She is resentful at this humiliation not only because she finds the schoolwork very easy, but also because she struggles to be accepted amongst the girls of her own age. Parents of teenagers will know there is usually quite a maturity difference between 13 and 11/12 so one can only imagine what it must have been like for Kasienka to be placed in this situation. There is a sense that the authorities at the school do not necessarily have her best interests at heart either, that perhaps they feel the additional demands placed upon them by immigrant pupils are a burden. There is a feeling that Kasienka is being made an example of.

Kasienka finds her relief in swimming, it is where she feels free and where she feels equal, and it is where she is able to prove herself to her enemies from school. It is also where she begins a relationship with a boy from school, William. There is some kissing here, which the kids in the book club found deeply amusing!

The second strand to the book is the search for Kasienka’s father. Her mother sets about the task with great energy, knocking on doors, marking off the streets on the map as they go. Kasienka is doubtful about this work and you sense early on that she realises long before her mother that her father does not want to be found and that they would be better off giving him up. They do eventually find him, with a new (English) partner and a baby. Kasienka then has to cope with her mother’s depression and despair. Things do work out in the end for them but the themes are clearly quite challenging. The book club coped well with it and particularly enjoyed the occasional minor swear word!

A word on the format, which is quite unique. It’s written in verse form, although it flows more like prose and each chapter is very short, with each topic covered as an extended poem. This makes it quite powerful. Here is an example of one of the early chapters, entitled ‘Mistaken’, when Kasienka is beginning to realise the scale of the challenge facing them in their new life:

“When Mama said

‘We’re going to England,’

I didn’t see myself

Alone.

I knew I’d be different,

Foreign.

I knew I wouldn’t understand

Everything.

But I thought, maybe, I’d be exotic,

Like a red squirrel among the grey,

Like an English girl would be in Gdansk.

But I am not an English girl in Gdansk.

I’m a Pole in Coventry.

And that is not the same thing

At all. “

I really enjoyed this book and my 11 year old daughter did too. It’s a good one for this age group so if you have a child transitioning from primary to secondary I’d recommend it for the holidays perhaps, particularly if you’re travelling abroad; it may help them to think about what it feels like to move to a foreign country.

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

This might be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and certainly one of the most unsettling reads in a while. It’s the sort of book where you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat as you observe some very disturbing behaviour.

The Vegetarian imgIt’s basically a book about sickness, and the various forms it takes; the sickness of the troubled central character, Yeong-hye, whose decision to renounce meat from her diet is the catalyst to a catastrophic sequence of events; the sickness of some of her relatives who simply cannot accept Yeong-hye’s decision or who use it to perpetrate their own base acts; and the sickness in the society which degrades and dehumanises Yeong-hye. The insidious and malevolent control meted out to Yeong-hye over a period of many years (a control that was legitimised by social and cultural norms) leads to her attempting to starve herself in a desperate attempt to assert her autonomy, and this has explosive consequences

The novel is written in three parts (originally each was published separately). The first part is narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband. Mr Cheong is a selfish, misogynistic fool who is completely indifferent to his wife. There is no trace of affection in their relationship. Any fondness that may have existed has disappeared and Mr Cheong is now bitter that Yeong-hye makes no effort to be the good wife: she embarrasses him in front of his boss, fails to wear a bra and does not keep the house tidy. Mr Cheong rapes his wife repeatedly and sees nothing wrong in ensuring his physical needs are met in this way. And yet, so desperate is Yeong-hye’s family to save face in what in their eyes is a good marriage, they turn against her when she decides to stop eating meat, seeing it as a kind of protest which must be seen to be crushed. There is a very disturbing family dinner scene.

The second part is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. At first he appears more sensitive than Mr Cheong and shows some kindness towards Yeong-hye, particularly after the events at the family dinner party. He is an artist and claims he has always been fascinated by his sister-in-law’s fragility, both physical and emotional. At first he seems to be helping her, enabling her to express herself in a new way. But, ultimately, he too will exploit and damage her.

The final part concerns the relationship between Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye. She emerges as the strongest character in the book and through her we have a reliable witness to the events of the novel. She reflects on the period since her sister became a vegetarian and how her world, and her family’s world has turned upside down. But rather than see it as her sister’s fault (as her parents do) she understands how Yeong-hye’s mental illness has been brought about by the abuse she has experienced.

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This book won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and has had universal acclaim. It is a very poetic novel, beautifully translated by Deborah Smith; the motif of Yeong-hye’s dream and her desire to transform into a plant provides a powerful element of fantasy, although for me this was not always coherent. However, it is also deeply troubling. Not one for the faint-hearted!

Manchester

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I won’t be posting a book review this week. I can’t. Not when, in this city I call home, the families of 22 people are grieving. Many of these are parents, whose children are dead. Not when the families of 59 others are at their bedsides, hoping they’ll recover from their injuries, some of which will, no doubt, be ‘life-changing’. Not when hundreds, maybe thousands, of others will be traumatised, emotionally and psychologically scarred. After attending a pop concert.

I am a mother of three. I send two of my children off to school on Manchester’s Metrolink every morning. They go ‘into town’ with their friends. I always expect that they will come home again. My two daughters love pop music.  I’ve been wondering for a while when might be the right time to take them to a concert. It could quite easily have been this one. Had I not balked at the ticket price, had I been willing to scramble for the tickets online. I feel sometimes we are all just a breath away, just a click away, from tragedy.

I have lived in Manchester for five years. I’m a blow-in, from the South, and yet there is nowhere I have felt more at home in my life.  I have this strange sense of being offended that someone could carry out an extremist attack in this magical melting-pot of a city – there are so many accents, so many languages, so many colours and creeds here. All are welcome. How dare they do that here!

This glorious, gutsy city has known hardship and sorrow before. But there is so much love here that the true spirit of Manchester will certainly prevail.

But, for now, all our love is directed towards those among us whose agony I cannot even begin to comprehend.

‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

I last read this book when I was doing my English degree at University. At that time, the classics were my ‘thing’, indeed I’d spent my teenage years devouring the classics and, such was my love of them, it’s mostly why I went on to study English. By the time I graduated, I was so full of books that I shunned reading anything for quite a long time. When I got back into the habit, I turned my attention more to contemporary fiction as I realised there was a huge gap in my knowledge. One of the satisfying things about favouring the classics is that they are a largely finite resource; in a few years of effort you could basically read most of them! With contemporary fiction, on the other hand, you never get caught up. So, almost all my reading in recent years has been a desperate endeavour to keep up with all the amazing books published today, and as a result I have not turned back to my beloved classics very much. So, April’s reading challenge was to re-read a classic.

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I’ve been wanting to read this novel again ever since I moved to Manchester 5 years ago and even more so after visiting Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove last year. (If you haven’t been and you’re an admirer of the Victorian novel, you really must pay a visit). I have to confess I was a little intimidated to be picking up the book – my edition is innocuous-looking enough, but, oh my goodness, paper was thinner back then and the type face is miniscule! 530 pages of closely-written text. BUT, what a joy!!!  It took me a few chapters to get back into the style, and the Victorian atmosphere, but once I did, I got totally lost, and, truly, I re-entered the world I first discovered as a young girl. I can’t remember when I last got lost in a long book, became totally absorbed by the sense of place, or was able to step into the shoes of the characters and feel their pain, their happiness, their grief their longings. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which I read last year, has probably been the closest I have come in recent years.

In North and South, our central character, Margaret Hale, finds herself on an emotional and physical journey. When we first meet her she is living with her wealthy aunt and spoiled young cousin Edith in London; she was sent to them as a child to improve her chances in society. Margaret’s parents live humbly in rural Hampshire where her father is a country curate. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who lives as a fugitive abroad; he is wanted in England, accused of leading a mutiny whilst serving in the navy.

When Margaret’s cousin marries, she returns to her parents only to find that her father intends to resign his post due to his religious doubt. He decides to move the family north to the city of Milton in Darkshire (for which read Manchester). There he plans to make a living from tutoring and they will rent a house from an old Oxford acquaintance of Mr Hale’s. The move comes as devastating news to Margaret and her mother, for whom the move is the last straw in her social degradation.

When the family first moves to Milton the contrast between their old and new lives is stark – their physical surroundings are completely different, the people they meet are different, and the activities that absorb their time are different. As the months pass, Margaret accepts her new life and as she is forced to confront her prejudices, so it exposes the vacuous existence she enjoyed in London. Gaskell sets about using her characters, their conversations and their confrontations to reveal certain ‘truths’ and challenge certain preconceptions held by many of the protagonists, whether it is Mrs Hale’s bias towards the south, the gentry and all the things with which she is familiar and about which she is nostalgic, or factory owner Mr Thornton’s intolerance of his workers’ strike. All the characters in this novel are in some way flawed by their prejudice (even the lowly workers at the factory despise the Irish labourers brought in to do their work when they strike). To that extent, the novel still has great relevance today, over 150 years later, as the north-south divide in England continues to have social, political and economic consequences.

Some of the characters in the book are two-dimensional, for example, the lowly Bessy Higgins, with whom Margaret develops a rather implausible friendship. It has to be remembered that these characters are merely devices through which the author is seeking simply to illustrate a point, although Gaskell’s readers at the time probably thought this was actually how poor people lived and talked. Margaret, on the other hand, is, for me, a well-rounded, credible and fully-developed character. She goes through a transformation in this novel which is both sincere and believable.

The ending of the book is entirely predictable, of course, but this is fine because the joy of this book is in the journey. Although some may find the language a barrier, for me it was sublime. Again, it took me a little while to get back into it and it made reading a little slow at first, but it was beautiful and oh so clever!

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading North and South and I would definitely recommend picking up a classic from time to time.

Have you re-read any old favourites recently?

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#Top Ten tips for helping your teen with English Lit

read-515531_640Many households up and down the UK will be like mine this summer – tiptoeing around a teenager revising for their exams. In my household, my eldest is doing his GCSEs so this is our first experience of exams that really matter. It’s so hard for them and as a parent there is not a great deal you can do to help – which makes it hard for us too! At 16 they need to be working out their own best revision and study methods (definitely not the same as mine!) so although my heart is desperate to ‘help’ my head tells me that I need to step back and avoid interfering. Also, many of my son’s chosen subjects are areas I know very little about – Spanish, Russian – or have limited interest in – physics, electronics – or remember very little about – mathematics! So, beyond providing encouragement, food and drink, and making sure they’re getting enough sleep, what more can you do as a parent?

One area I can help with is English literature. It also happens to be the subject in which my son has least confidence (how? why?).  It’s difficult isn’t it – I have a degree of knowledge and expertise and can geneuinely help my child, but at the same time I don’t want to undermine my son’s confidence, or indeed alienate him, by coming across as some sort of expert, or for him to feel self-conscious with me. You know how sensitive teens can be!

So, I have given a great deal of thought in recent weeks as to how I can best help my son with his English Lit revision. Here are my top ten tips:

  1. Get to know their set texts yourself – feel it with them! I have re-read Michael Frayn’s Spies and re-acquainted myself with The Merchant of Venice this year. It has been very pleasurable for me and I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm will rub off.
  2. Get hold of an audio or video version of the books – they need to know the texts well so there is nothing to lose by watching or listening to the texts being performed or read. I got a free audiobook of Spies with an Audible trial and borrowed  a DVD of The Merchant of Venice from the library. They may well have watched DVDs at school but it will do no harm to re-watch.
  3. Discuss the texts with them – have conversations with them about the books and talk enthusiastically. They don’t have to be big set-piece conversations, you could have a 10 minute chat over dinner or in the car, which will be more memorable to your teen than a sit-down ‘session’.
  4. Read through their English notes – identify the key themes their teacher has directed them to learn about and understand these yourselves. You could also buy study notes booklets or there are various websites which give you textual study guides, such as the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize.
  5. Test them on examples from the text – it’s absolutely key that they can provide evidence for points they make – they have to illustrate with examples from the text. So, from Spies, I might ask for three examples of Keith’s controlling and bullying behaviour towards Stephen. It comes back to knowing the text really well, so if they can’t remember, re-read/listen/watch extracts to make sure they can recall the examples.
  6. Make a plan for yourself – I find that my conversations with my son are best done in shortish informal bites rather than scheduled sessions. He is more relaxed and therefore more responsive. It’s all a cunning ruse, however, because I have my own plan about what to discuss with him and when.
  7. Set questions for them – if you’re busy, work and have other children, helping your teen to revise can seem like an additional chore. So, if you find that on some days you simply don’t see them much, or there isn’t time for your revision chat, set them a question to answer. This will also give them practice in writing about their texts.
  8. Teach them how to mindmap – as a grown-up you will know how mind-mapping can be a great tool for committing things to memory or exploring an idea, even for the least visual among us. If they haven’t done mindmapping yet at school, get them a big piece of paper (flipchart or some old wallpaper) and a marker pen and do it with them. It can be done for themes as well as for plot and character (they MUST get the basics right so make sure they know all the key characters and how to spell their names correctly). Stick these on their bedroom wall, be creative, print out pictures or draw the characters, use different coloured pens.
  9. Help them to memorise quotes – it’s always useful to have a few key quotes up your sleeve so help them identify some (eg the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech from Merchant of Venice) and test them.
  10. Finally, praise. Your job now is building confidence.

 

If you have any other tips for helping your teen with English Lit revision I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, best of luck!

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