What to do when a book feels like a hard slog?

Last Autumn I set myself a challenge to read the full Man Booker Shortlist 2016 (six books). I didn’t manage all of them before the winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was announced. I planned to complete and review the final one on my list (Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien) this week, but I’m afraid I haven’t finished it; it is taking me an inordinate amount of time to get through!

swan-319379_640Now, dear reader, this blog is rather like the proverbial swan – whilst it may look smooth and effortless to you on the surface, the planning (reading, idea generation, social media, writing, etc) that goes on behind the scenes is like a military operation! Well, not exactly, but, you know, I do plan my reading, aim to bring you a book a week and try to blog twice a week. And this book has totally blown my schedule! You know what it’s like when you’ve got a busy day planned either at home or at work…and you hear the words “Mum, I’ve just been sick!” and you know your day is irretrievably banjaxed. Well, that’s how I feel.

2017-02-08-11-48-44Do Not Say We Have Nothing, broadly speaking, is about China after the revolution, what it was like living under the dictatorship of Mao Tse Tung and about the hardships endured by the population, particularly by artists and intellectuals, in an era when culture was heavily proscribed. I have had a lifelong fascination with China, have read very widely about this enormously diverse and culturally rich nation, so I should be loving it. But I’m not! And I’m barely halfway through! I took a break from it this week and read Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (which I’ll be reviewing soon), and that book is at the very opposite end of the literary spectrum – light, fun, quick to read. Many people probably would have given up by now. After all, a book, particularly a long one, is a huge investment is it not? I rarely give up on a book – I gave up on White Teeth by Zadie Smith a few years ago after a couple of false starts, but I have always planned to go back to it. My rationale for continuing with Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as follows:

  1. I’ve already sunk several hours into it
  2. I keep thinking that it’ll get more enjoyable
  3. It seems a worthy book, so I feel I ought to finish it
  4. I set myself the challenge to complete the shortlist and I can’t let one book make me fail.

Reasons 2 and 4 are the most compelling. So, I will carry on to the bitter end and hope that a turn of the plot will make it all worthwhile. I’ll keep you posted!

Do you give up on a book if you’re not enjoying it?

If you’ve already read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think it’ll be worth it in the end. Is it just me?

February’s reading challenge – four poems

The aim of my 2017 reading challenge was not to binge on books or to find quirky ways of seeking out different kinds of books, it was very much about challenging reading habits and embracing reading for the sake of it. Finding more joy in reading, not just lengthening the list of books read. Naturally, I had myself in mind! Books have been at the centre of my life for as long as I can remember, but I am not a big poetry reader. So, February’s challenge (to select four poems and read each one every day for a week) has required a good deal of thought for me. I did a degree in English Literature and so, book hoarder that I am, I have a few poetry anthologies lying around. WB Yeats is my favourite poet, but I am ashamed to say that my poetry knowledge is not that wide.

It requires a different set of reading skills for sure! Firstly, I’m quite a quick reader, and evidence shows that most of us can quite easily comprehend a piece of text without reading every word or even every letter of the words we do read (it’s how proofreaders make a living!). I’m sure you’ve seen or done one of those Facebook tests which tells you you’re super-intelligent if you can understand a quoted piece of jumbled and misspelled text? Secondly, like mindfulness colouring, or yoga, it forces you to slow right down. Poems have special unique rhythms and they can’t be speed read. Well, they can, but it misses the point.

If you know your Beowulf or your Chaucer, even your Shakespeare, you’ll know that prose fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon; poetry was by far the more popular form until around the late 18th/early 19th century. Furthermore, when ‘story-telling’ was a verbal or performance art form, and passed on by the telling, not by print, it was much more poetic in terms of the language used and the sound and rhythm of the sentences. And aren’t many of the first books we read our children, rhyming ones? Poetry undoubtedly taps into something very human and very instinctual. When you think about all of that, it’s extraordinary that most adults rarely indulge in poetry (perhaps pop music has replaced it?) So, for February, poetry it is!

For this first week, I’ve selected a Yeats poem to ease myself back into a poetry reading habit. Something familiar, which will also transport me back to my youth and dusty lecture halls! I’ve chosen a short poem, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ I’m reading this every day for the next week, so I’ll let you know how I get on. Perhaps you’d like to join me?

I’m off to the library tomorrow to do a bit more research and decide on poem number two!

Do you have any poetry recommendations? I’m particularly interested in something contemporary.

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A little non-fiction for a change?

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Literary non-fiction is a genre that most of us rarely, if ever, dip into. There are thousands of non-fiction titles published every year in the UK and the bookshops are full of them, but look at the top-selling list in any given week and you will see that most of the top ten are cookbooks and autobiographies. 2017-02-01-11-42-32I’m not knocking either of these genres, I’m simply saying that literary non-fiction is a very tough genre to sell in. I read recently that the average non-fiction title in the US sells 250 copies a year (one for roughly every million people), or 2,000 copies over its lifetime. It makes you wonder why on earth you would write one! Many seem to be written by academics, journalists or people who have already established themselves in a chosen field and know they are writing for a particular niche. One striking thing about the genre, though, is that authors have a real passion for the topic, and the authenticity of the work is palpable.

 

The Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) is one of the top prizes in the world for non-fiction. I decided to make space in my reading life for more non-fiction this year and selected two from the 2016 shortlist: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson and East West Street by Philippe Sands, who was the winner of the prestigious prize (review to follow soon).

The issue of race, it seems to me, has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly difficult one for the United States, which I find peculiar given the country’s origins and the fact that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was a partly satirical fictional exploration of the issue, envisioning a community where segregation is reintroduced. I reviewed the book on this blog last year (read here) and described it as a complicated book, more extended essay than novel. Negroland is equally complex (as befits the topic perhaps) but is from a largely autobiographical perspective. The author gives an account of growing up in Chicago and then her early adulthood at university and beyond.

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Jefferson was born in 1947 and grew up at a time when segregation was still in place in parts of the United States. In the states where segregation had been abolished, discrimination still existed at every turn. Jefferson had the good fortune to be the daughter of educated parents who were relatively wealthy and enjoyed a reasonable social status; her father was a doctor and her mother a refined ‘society’ wife (insofar as black women could be ‘in’ society). Her parents strived to ensure their two daughters felt they could achieve just as much as any of their white peers and that if they worked hard they were just as entitled to the rewards of that success. They sent them to private schools and taught them about social protocols and manners, to make sure they could fit in.

For the two Jefferson girls, equality existed only at a superficial level, and it is clear that Margo grew up confused and ultimately troubled by the contradiction between the opportunities to which she was told she was entitled and her lived experience. She also explores the contradiction between the treatment and opportunities afforded to certain persons of colour (wealthier, educated types like her parents) and the majority, poorer (blacker?) people who remained at the bottom of the social heap and bore the contempt and the prejudice not only from whites but also, to some degree, higher class persons of colour. Thus, Margo found herself in the place she calls ‘Negroland’, not fully part of either the White or the Black community.

The author interweaves her autobiographical story with an exploration of parts of Black history and her own family history. The result is both a work of scholarship but also a highly personal account of life as a young black girl and woman coming of age in 1960s north-east America.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the personal story, though I found some of the historical material, particularly at the beginning, quite heavy-going. We read it in my book club and others enjoyed it less, wanting more of a narrative and less of the stream-of-consciousness. It’s definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in the topic or, like me, bemused by what is going on in the US on the race issue at this time.

If you have read Negroland: A Memoir I’d love to hear your views? Do you read much in the way of non-fiction?

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How are you getting on with your reading challenge?

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I know many people are following reading challenges at the moment – it’s becoming very popular. Not to be left out, I set my own at the beginning of the month, which you can find here  if you’d like to join me. I know, however, that many busy book-loving parents don’t get as much time to read as they would like, so my challenge was about reading deeper – enjoying, embracing, rekindling the reading passion – rather than reading more.

January’s challenge was to read a book with a child (or simply to read out loud if you don’t have a child to hand). This month I have been reading two books with my youngest daughter, who is now 10. First of all we read Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, which I reviewed here last week. We have also been reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

My daughter is still young enough that reading together is something we do regularly, although we are not in the habit of doing it as much as we ought to for the purposes of school (oops!). Partly because, well, the usual, life is just full, but also because now that she is in Year 6 and a pretty good reader, we just don’t need to as much, so it’s slipped off our agenda somewhat. It just happens, doesn’t it? One minute you’re reading ‘Spot’ every bedtime, the next you realise your kids have hardly looked at a non-textbook for months.

Doing it regularly this month, however, has been a joy. For both of us. It was so lovely when we were reading a particularly dramatic section in Time Travelling with a Hamster where it was so tense she begged that we keep reading because she didn’t think she’d be able to sleep without knowing what happened next! Needless to say, I gave in, even though we’d gone way beyond official bedtime as I was pretty keen to find out if they escaped too!

Time Travelling with a Hamster, is a brilliant book, so if you haven’t got hold of it for your 9-12 year olds yet, you must. It was the first book in my daughter’s primary school book club, which I run, so I felt I was cheating slightly, putting it down for my January challenge. So, we’ve also been reading Black Beauty. I remember reading this when I was my daughter’s age and it’s been wonderful coming back to it as an adult. It has brought back so many happy memories from my childhood, not just from reading the book, but that wonderful television series. Do you remember the music? If you click here it will take you to a youtube clip of the opening and closing credits – watching it made me cry, it’s such a lovely piece of music, particularly the end theme with the choir. And that beautiful horse! It’s from 1972 so the TV show must have prompted me to read the book, as I would have been only 4 at the time. So, TV can be a good thing sometimes!

I hope you are enjoying reading with your child this month. I’d love to hear about it.

If you haven’t started yet, it’s not too late – maybe choose something together this weekend? You don’t have to finish by the end of January; we’re pretty relaxed about that sort of thing here at myfamilyandotherbooks.com!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Heaven for kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for something a little lighter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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