Life’s big milestones

It is a little over a month since I lasted posted on here. On the day of my post, I was called by my brother to say that my mother had been admitted to hospital. She had been unwell and largely housebound for some time. When I went to visit her (her home is in Norfolk, 250 miles away), she was clearly gravely ill. I stayed for a couple of days, but when she seemed to rally a little I returned home as my eldest child needed delivering to university, his first term – a huge moment for all of us and one which my mother would not have wanted me to miss.

I promised Mum that I would return the following week and I kissed her goodbye, not knowing if I would see her again. That possibility hung thick in the air between us, though neither of us could bring ourselves to articulate it. It was the last time I would see my Mum alive again as she died the day before I planned to return.

So, the last month of my life has been a pretty momentous one.

It’s a weird time. First, there is the hectic bit – my father died 10 years ago and as the executor of my mother’s will that now means I get to do all the admin. It’s quite a thing. Repeating the words “I’m ringing to let you know that my mother died…yes, the account number is… yes thirteen, zero four, forty-three…nineteen, zero nine, nineteen” over and over has a kind of numbing effect. I felt like an automaton and then, at totally unexpected moments, the shock would hit all over again – my mother just died! I no longer have parents.

Second, there is the tailspin of intense self-cross-examination that it throws you into – Did I do enough? Could I have been there at the end? Why didn’t I spot how bad things were? Why didn’t I tell her I loved her? Why didn’t she tell me she loved me? All a completely pointless exercise of course.

Finally, grief seems to lead you to question life more generally – why is that? Just when you are vulnerable, you start posing big questions to yourself – what am I doing with my life? – at a time when you are spectacularly ill-equipped to answer sensibly. Plus, with my son no longer permanently at home, my own little nest is emptying slightly and that has left its mark too.

Mum’s funeral took place last week and most of the immediate admin has been done. So, there is a small element of closure. The end of the beginning part of the grieving process. In the coming weeks and months I will no doubt be seeking answers to some of those bigger questions. I hope to get back into my blogging habit soon as it is something I enjoy enormously. With all the ‘organising’ that has been necessary I have not had the usual time to use my writing as an outlet for my feelings, which is so important.

So, readers, I hope you will bear with me on this journey. Thanks for reading.

Reading challenge April – travel writing

It’s the end of March and time to be thinking about the reading challenge for April. The theme this month is travel writing and I’ve picked Colin Thubron, who is said to be one of the finest living travel authors. It’s not a genre I am very familiar with, although I love and have read quite a few of Dervla Murphy’s books (her book On a Shoestring to Coorg featured on my reading challenge two years ago). So, I thought it would be good to aim high and go for one of the best!

To A Mountian in Tibet imgThe title I have chosen is To A Mountain in Tibet, partly, I’m afraid, because it is one of the slimmer volumes; I’m struggling to keep up with all my planned reading at the moment…where did March go? Ah yes, I know, I spent a lot of time with my mouth open glued to the news and political analysis programmes (the less said about that the better!). Reading the blurb and the reviews of this book, I also feel it encapsulates what I am looking for in a travel book, which is not only the author on a physical journey, but also on some kind of process of learning. In To A Mountain in Tibet Thubron is undertaking a pilgrimage well known to Hindus and Buddhists, but is also a story of him coming to terms with loss and bereavement.

 

It seems appropriate to be reading this book in April, when Easter falls, and when many people will be undertaking journeys of their own. I will be on a family holiday later in the month and this book will be in my suitcase.

I will be posting my review of the March reading challenge book next week, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, so look out for that. This was a re-read for me; I last read it nearly thirty years ago and it has been one of my all-time favourites – find out if I loved it as much second time around!

I would love for you to join the Facebook reading challenge. Do drop by the group’s page if you’d like to.

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Book review – “The Storm Keeper’s Island” by Catherine Doyle

Regular followers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and that I frequently post reviews of great kids’ books I have read. I have decided to make this a more regular feature and will devote one week a month to reviewing children’s books and discussing issues about kids reading habits, an issue which I know is of concern to many of you, parents or otherwise. After all, most keen adult readers would, I think, say that their love of reading was fostered in childhood. Just the other day, I recommended Lucy Mangan’s new book Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, one of the books on my TBR list this spring which I feel sure will take me back to my own childhood and the many nights I spent reading under the covers, not with a torch, worse, by the light from the landing. It’s a wonder my eyesight wasn’t ruined!

The Storm Keeper's Island imgThis month, I would like to recommend Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island, published last year by Bloomsbury, as a fantastic choice for any young people you know who like modern adventure stories where the good guy wins. Catherine Doyle is a young writer (just 29 years old) and has published several YA novels already; The Storm Keeper’s Island is her first novel for what is called the “middle grade”, ie about 9-12 years, and it was a barn-storming debut, winning several prizes and accolades from established authors in this genre. A second novel, following the further adventures of the main character Fionn Boyle, is planned for this summer and I would expect it to feature heavily in recommended holiday reading lists in advance of the Summer Reading Challenge.

Fionn Boyle and his twin sister Tara are to spend the summer with their grandfather, Malachy Boyle, on the real-life island of Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal in north-west Ireland. It is a sparsely-populated island where most of the inhabitants are native Irish speakers, but many tourists visit. It is an island the author knows well, her own grandparents having lived there, and her love of the place comes across strongly. The two children don’t seem to know their grandfather well; he is their paternal grandfather, and their own father died at sea before they were born. The children have been sent to their grandfather because their mother has had some sort of mental breakdown. We learn that she has never really recovered from her husband’s death.

Malachy Boyle soon proves to be a quirky character, about whom there is an air of mystery. His cottage is full of home-made candles with mysterious names, like “The Whispering Tree”, “Low Tide” and “Unexpected Tornado”. Malachy Boyle is in fact Arranmore’s ‘Storm Keeper’, a chosen one whose role is to preserve the memories and legends of the island and protect it from its ancient mythical enemy, Morrigan, and her foe, the good spirit, Dagda. Inevitably, Fionn, gets drawn into an adventure involving these mythical spirits; Tara’s island boyfriend (whom she met on a previous visit), the ghastly Bartley Beasley, a vain, self-centred, full-of-himself bully, is the grandson of Elizabeth Beasley, who wants her family to be the next in line for the storm-keeper role and hopes Bartley will be anointed when it becomes time for Malachy to pass the baton. The undercurrent of conflict between the Boyles and the Beasleys is a metaphor for the Morrigan/Dagda feud.

Led by Bartley, the children (ie him, Tara, and Bartley’s sister Shelby, but excluding Fionn) plan to search out the long-lost and mysterious Sea Cave, where it is said a wish can be made. Obviously, Bartley wants to use the wish to make himself the storm-keeper. They are warned away from it as it is said to be highly dangerous. Fionn wants to find it first, to prevent Bartley having his wish, but he is afraid. As time passes, his grandfather passes on to him the knowledge of the candles and how lighting one enables a kind of time travel, where those present can see, even be a part of, events of the past that have been captured in the candle. Using the candles, Fionn will eventually triumph and (spoiler alert!) become the new storm-keeper.

I am not normally a lover of fantasy fiction, and I fear the above makes it sound as if there is a lot of myth and legend here. There is, but there are also actually a lot of real-life issues, modern concerns that children will identify with – loneliness, bullying, sibling rivalry, grief and loss, emotional vulnerability, what is meant by fear and courage, and perseverance. Ultimately, the good triumphs over the bad, the bullies don’t win and they are be exposed and punished. All the kinds of messages we want kids to get from their reading. The island legends do underpin the novel but it is by no means the heart of the novel. Most of all the child characters are credible and human, and many kids will be able to identify with them.

There is excitement, adventure and mild peril here, but also a kind of escapism – the children are on their summer holidays in a remote island community, with freedom to roam and where candles are more useful than mobile phones. The book would suit a variety of young readers in the 9-12 year-old age group. Recommended.

What recently-published books would you recommend for the 9-12 age group?

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Kids book review: “The 1,000 Year Old Boy” by Ross Welford

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post about kids’ books I have read. I would encourage all adult readers to dip into children’s literature from time to time. For many of us the love of reading was fostered in childhood, and it can be a lovely experience to rediscover that innocent joy. For some, that might mean going back to old favourites (for me it was Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll and Puffin Books, and it was wonderful to re-read these with my children when they were younger) but I would also urge you to explore current authors and titles. If you have school-age children or grandchildren it can be a great way of understanding what their priorities are, their hopes and fears, and the challenges they face, which may be rather different to our own.

As you may know, I set up a Facebook Reading Challenge at the start of the year, with a different theme for each month. September was a children’s book and I chose Ross Welford’s The 1,000 Year Old Boy. This was Welford’s third book, published earlier this year. I loved his first novel Time Travelling with a Hamster which I read with a book group I used to run at my youngest daughter’s primary school. The children all loved it too.

The 1000 year old boy imgThis book, like Welford’s others, is set in North Tyneside (where I used to live, so it resonates with me for that reason too), on the coast east of Newcastle. Alfie Monk is over 1,000 years old, having been born at the time of the Danish invasions of Britain. When he was young, his father was custodian of some ‘life pearls’ within which were stored an elixir of eternal life. To access the elixir the life pearls had to be smashed and the liquid consumed. Alfie’s father was involved in a fight with someone who tried to steal the life pearls, and he was killed. Alfie (unfortunately?) smashed two of them accidentally; he and his mother (and their cat!) drank the liquid, meaning they will never age and therefore never die of natural causes. The curse can only be lifted by drinking another dose of liquid, but there is only one life pearl left. This is hidden on a remote island off the Northumberland coast.

Alfie and his mother live a quiet and discreet life in a secluded cottage in the woods. By moving around every few years they have managed to avoid discovery and the authorities. Alfie’s existence is awkward though; if he makes a friend they soon become suspicious of the fact that he does not grow up like them, and it is the betrayal of one former friend in particular which leads to a fire at the cottage which destroys Alfie’s home and kills his mother. Alfie finds himself in the care of the local authority and is unable to reveal anything about himself, fearing the consequences. Fortunately, Alfie makes two good friends, Aiden and Roxy, both of whom live on the estate close to Alfie’s cottage. He reveals his secret to them and they set out to help him.

Roxy is a feisty young girl, and a wonderful character. Shrewd, able, quick-witted and intelligent, she has a resourcefulness which no doubt comes from her being the sole carer for her disabled mother. Aiden is less sure of himself and is a thoughtful young boy, whose family moved onto the estate after running into financial difficulties. His parents argue a lot and his friendship with Roxy and Alfie helps him get away from his problems at home. All three main child characters are strongly developed, well-rounded and believable. The narration switches between Aiden and Alfie and I loved the way the author uses their different speaking styles to convey character.

I love the way Welford writes; he has a real ear for the language that young people use and there are great comic touches in this book which will appeal to kids’ sense of humour. There are some challenging themes here – I read Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time earlier this year, where the main protagonist has a condition which means he ages extremely slowly. Rather than being some miracle to be aspired to, Tom Hazard, like Alfie Monk in Welford’s book, finds it lonely and isolating because it prohibits normal human relationships. Alfie says throughout that he just wants to be a normal boy, to go to school. At one point he talks heartbreakingly about the “Prison of my deathless life.

This novel has everything you want from a children’s book – pace, plot, great characters who grow and learn from their experiences, and suspense. It has a happy ending. Although I believe that children should not be completely shielded from some of the tragic realities of life (Alfie’s mother is killed and for a time he believes his cat was also), I also think it’s important for the 9-12 age group that there is positive resolution and that good things can come out of bad. That way, I believe, we can help build children’s resilience, a role that books have always had in my life for sure.

Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds.

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

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Book review: “Sight” by Jessie Greengrass

Sight is the debut novel from British author Jessie Greengrass and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was won recently by Kamila Shamsie. This was the first novel I have read from this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist, and the one which appealed most strongly to my fellow book club members and I. We love the Women’s Prize and always try to get through a couple on the shortlist. We are all mothers, spend way too much time talking about our kids and so the blurb, about one woman’s journey to parenthood, spoke directly to us.

It is a very curious book. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s a novel as we become so deeply embedded in the internal world of the unnamed first person narrator that it feels as if it is an autobiography.

Sight img
Strange book, stranger cover!

We know very little of the narrator, except that she is a young woman of indeterminate age, though probably in her early thirties. Her partner is Johannes, whom she meets shortly after the death of her mother. The book begins with her account of her mother’s decline and death and the time she spent caring for her. It is clearly a traumatic time for her and she struggles with all the challenges it represents – emotional, physical and administrative. It is an account of what it is like to be a daughter and an only child and to lose your only parent, your only link with your birth, with your early life and with that part of your life of which you have no memory.

 

She seems to drift into the relationship with Johannes at a time when she is emotionally vulnerable. He seems to offer her stability and comfort. The issue of having a child is clearly something that looms large in their relationship and eventually she agrees, but she remains unsure about the wisdom of this step.

This is not a story. It is an internal monologue, an account of one woman’s ambivalence about having a child. In fact she seems very ambivalent about all her close relationships – with her mother, with Johannes and with the only other significant character in the book, her late grandmother, a psychotherapist who lived alone and practised in a large house in Hampstead, and with whom she spent a few weeks each summer as a child. I suppose this ambivalence is present because we are getting the narrator’s unfettered, unmediated thoughts, but I found it confusing to marry this with any notion of love. For me, love was missing from the book. I understand well that for many women, it is not easy to bond with the foetus they carry, even the baby they give birth to. I can also accept relationships with a parent can be fraught and complex, even where there is familial love on both sides. Our narrator is deeply moved by the suffering of her mother in the final stages of her life; the actions she takes, the things she tells us about, sleeping beside her in the hospice, reading to her, suggest deep love, but she does not seem to me to express it. And when she writes about her grief and her loss, it is more a loss of a role, or a relation, rather than a person. There is something very cold about her feelings, which are captured in the following quote:

“Then I was faced with the problem of what to do with all my mother’s things. I felt that I was expected, somehow, to keep them, to make myself curator, but the thought of storing this detritus of an ended lifetime, of dragging it behind me like a deadened limb, turning myself into little more than a conduit for memory, was horrifying; and so in the end I gave away what I could to anyone who wanted it and hired a skip for the weekend to deal with the rest.”

What I found most difficult was that there seemed to be little real love in her relationship with Johannes. This was the man she chose to be the father of her child and although she finds great comfort in their easy companionship, their shared interests and the great care he shows for her, there is also at times a kind of contempt.

Perhaps my reading of it is too simplistic or too literal – perhaps if my internal thoughts were this closely mapped they would also reveal ambivalences in my feelings for the people I love most in the world. Our thoughts are closed to everyone but ourselves, and even to ourselves sometimes.

This is not a linear narrative – it jumps back and forth from her childhood, to the present, the antenatal appointments, to her mother’s death. In that sense it bears similarities to a ‘stream of consciousness’ style. Woven through it are accounts of three scientific figures – Rontgen and his discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic relationship with his daughter Anna, and John Hunter and the development of early surgery in the 18th century.

What I liked about this book was the remarkable writing, the intensity of the observation, particularly of her relationship with her own young daughter:

“When my daughter throws her arms with thoughtless grace around my neck, I respond with an agonising gratitude that I must hide from her in case, feeling the heft of it, she might become encumbered and not do that she was born for, which is to go away from me.”

There is profound insight in this book, not necessarily to the human condition – there was much here that I could not empathise with – but I mean in terms of the self-awareness. The deep introspection has given her a powerful knowledge of her own nature, of the events that have shaped her existence and of the impact of her relationships upon her.

This is a long review for a book in which very little happens! It was not an easy read and it sometimes frustrated me. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a first novel and offers a fresh approach to much-explored themes, even if at times it feels rather dislocated.

Recommended if you prefer psychology to plot.

If you have read Sight, what did you make of it, and how does it compare to the other novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist?

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Book reviews: Super-readable YA fiction

It’s easy to get young kids reading – as a parent you do all the right things: show them picture books from birth, read to them (honing your animal impersonations as you go!), read with them as they begin their own journey, take them to libraries and story circles and buy them books. But what happens when they don’t want you reading to them in bed any more? What happens when they are old enough to choose electronic devices over books? What happens when they “have” to read books at school they don’t enjoy? What happens when you’re too busy or too worn down to police the mobile phones, the tablets, the games consoles?

These challenges are particularly acute for parents of teenagers – isn’t it hard enough having teenagers in the house, without bringing in yet another source of conflict or disagreement? If this sounds familiar you might want to look into “super-readable YA” books. These are relatively short YA books, with highly-engaging contemporary themes, easy plots with the most succinct scene-setting, and high action. I read a couple recently which I can recommend. What is more, these two have a specific typeface and are printed on paper with limited ‘ghosting’ (where you can see the text on the reverse of the page through the paper) making them highly suitable for kids with, for example, dyslexia.

Grave Matter by Juno Dawson

Grave Matter imgJuno is a widely-published author, Queen of Teen 2014 and member of the LGBT community. The story begins with a funeral, for Eliza, girlfriend of central character, Samuel. Eliza was killed in a car accident in which Samuel was driving. He is grief-stricken and finds himself in conflict with his family, who do not understand his torment. Samuel seeks out the estranged sister of his vicar father, with whom he cut off contact after she began to dabble in the supernatural. Through his Aunt Marie, Samuel enters a world where he can bring Eliza back to life, but at a deadly price.

This book will appeal to teens who enjoy science fiction and fantasy or have tendencies towards gothic themes. There is some light swearing and some fairly gruesome scenes as well as some challenging themes so I would recommend for 15+. It is ultimately about accepting realities and coping with bereavement.

The Last Days of Archie Maxwell by Annabel Pitcher

Last Days of Archie Maxwell imgI found this grittier and rather more challenging than Grave Matter. It would suit teens who enjoy social realism or who may be coming to terms with difficult family relationships or with issues around sexuality. The book opens with Archie’s parents announcing they are to separate. Archie’s sister suspects it is because their father is gay. This is going on in the background, but Archie also has issues at school. He is part of a gang with some of the cooler kids, but who are actually unpleasant bullies. He befriends one of the more desirable girls at school, Tia, about which he is mercilessly teased by the other lads. Tia’s brother committed suicide on the railway line near Archie’s house, a year earlier, and he finds himself telling her that he saw her brother just before the day he killed himself, because she seems to need this to comfort her in her grief. As a result they become close. Thus, Archie finds himself sucked into lying, whilst his own home life seems to be falling apart.

Archie ultimately contemplates suicide himself and this is where (as a parent of a teenager) I found the book very challenging. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t do it! I guess this will be helpful to teens who may themselves be suffering from depression, as we see the disastrous after-effects of suicide for those left behind (Tia’s brother) and how it ultimately solves nothing. Jared, the openly gay school student in the book is a great role-model, confident, self-assured and who faces down the bullies, who are exposed as gutless and superficial. I enjoyed the book, but it’s quite a tough read. There is a lot of swearing and sexual language and references. On the plus side I liked how it looked at relationships from a boy’s perspective, which is quite unusual.

Both the above are published by Barrington Stoke, so take a look at their website for more suggestions for all age groups.

Can you recommend any easy books to get teens back into reading?

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Who knew about ‘The Secret Life of Bees’?

2017-03-08 12.29.54

When I put it out on social media a couple of weeks ago that I was about to start reading this book, I had a number of comments back from people telling me how much they had enjoyed it, so I started with high expectations. I was not disappointed. I was only puzzled at how I’d missed it first time around, but then it was published in 2001, the year my first child was born, which explains a lot! I was totally absorbed by this book, as were my fellow book club members – I read it very quickly because it was so hard to put down. It is a very female book in the sense that it is full of strong women, so perfect to be reading around the time of International Women’s Day.

The central character is fourteen year-old Lily. When we first meet her she is living a lonely, loveless existence on her father’s peach farm; we learn that her mother died when she was four years old in a mysterious accident with a gun which seems to have involved Lily pulling the trigger. Lily lives with her father, whom she calls T. Ray, an indication of the distance and lack of filial affection in their relationship. It’s worse than that though; T.Ray’s treatment of his daughter is borderline abusive. He is emotionally and physically cruel, administering harsh physical treatment for what he perceives to be her misdemeanours, and exploiting her labour. Lily’s only friend is the black maid Rosaleen.

Lily longs for her dead mother and craves the affection she feels sure her mother would have given her. She spends time imagining what her mother was like and cherishes the small trinkets which serve as her only memories. One of these trinkets is a picture of a black Madonna with the words ‘Tiburon S.C.’ written on the back. It transpires that Tiburon is another town in South Carolina, some distance from Sylvan where Lily lives.

The novel is set in the Summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act had just been made law, giving people of colour the right to vote throughout the United States. Whilst racial equality had been affirmed in law, it was not yet fully accepted in the wider society. Rosaleen walks into town to register to vote and is involved in an incident with some local thugs. She is beaten up by these men, but finds herself arrested and put in jail. Her injuries are so severe that she is sent to hospital. For Lily this is the final straw and she sees this as an opportunity for them both to escape their repressed life. She gets Rosaleen out of the hospital from under the nose of the guard who is meant to be watching her, and the two women make their way to Tiburon by hitchhiking and walking.

Lily has no plan beyond getting to Tiburon and does not even know what she intends to do or what she expects to find when she gets there, but there is no doubt she feels drawn there and, in reality has no other option. Through a series of chance encounters, Lily and Rosaleen find themselves at ‘the pink house’, the home of the calendar sisters, August, June and May, three black women who run a cottage industry from their home, producing honey. The label on their jars has a picture of the same black Madonna that Lily has among her mother’s possessions. It turns out that the sisters also belong to a group called The Daughters of Mary, a small religious coterie which worships Mary, mother of Jesus (manifested in the black Madonna, of whom they also have a statue in their home), as the source of divine love and power.

The sisters take in Lily and Rosaleen and they spend the summer with them, working for their board and lodging. Over the weeks and months, Lily begins to uncover some truths about her mother and her own story, which are not easy for her to bear. Lily also learns what it is to be loved as her relationship with one of the sisters, August, develops, and she is accepted by the other sisters and their companions.

This is a wonderfully written book with a powerful sense of time and place. The setting, hot, sultry South Carolina is beautifully conveyed. It is not a light book; there are some dark and sinister undertones here with the racial violence, child cruelty and social injustice, but it is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book. Through Lily, Rosaleen and the sisters, truth and goodness ultimately prevail.

I loved this and would recommend it highly. Great bedtime reading, great holiday reading, great anytime reading, this is storytelling at its best.