Book review – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark

150120Last week I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge and promised I would post this week, my thoughts on the final book of 2019 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The theme for December was a novella – I wanted something short as I know it is a busy time of year and I never get as much reading done as I think I’m going to! In some ways, though, this does not do full justice to what is a highly complex, multi-layered and thematically dense piece of work. You simply have to read every word on its 127 pages and read them at the measured pace of how you imagine Miss Brodie might speak.

Dame Muriel Spark is considered one of the finest writers in English and one of Scotland’s finest writers. She won many glittering international literary awards in her life, and was made a Dame in 1993. She was married briefly, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time she gave birth to a son, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. In the 1960s she lived in New York and in Rome, where she met her long-term female partner. The couple settled in Italy, where Dame Muriel died in 2006 at the age of 88. Quite a life!

Muriel Spark
Dame Muriel Spark

I think the author’s background makes this novella all the more interesting because it is such an ‘Edinburgh’ book – I say this as a non-Scot, so please forgive me if you disagree! – or at least, an Edinburgh of a certain time (pre-war). Spark left Scotland quite early in her adult life and her father was a Lithuanian Jew. Perhaps this makes her acute observation of Miss Brodie and her other characters even more profound.

 

You will probably know the basic plot of the book; the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith is widely considered a classic. There was also a television series made in the late ‘70s starring Geraldine McEwan, which I vaguely recall having seen, though I was very young at the time – I definitely would not have ‘got’ it; although the book is set in a girls’ school, Malory Towers it most definitely is not! Miss Brodie initially cuts a dominant and impressive figure – determined to influence a selected group of pre-pubescent girls about the broader aspects of life which she feels the school curriculum neglects, such as genuine appreciation of art, social and cultural awareness and matters of the heart (or, more accurately, matters of sex). The strictures of the girls’ school, with its emphasis on knowledge, facts required to pass the exam for the secondary level, and the protestant ethos are seen by Miss Brodie (so she tells us) as narrow and not a true preparation for life. She tells the girls:

“I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.”

maggie smith
Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film

At first, we may see these girls as lucky to have such a dynamic, interesting and strong female personality in their young lives who, for example, is prepared to take them to the theatre off her own bat. What we gradually learn, however, is that the girls are merely Miss Brodie’s ‘project’, that it is not altruism and genuine care that drive her, rather it is her ego. She manipulates the girls, in some cases to their tragic detriment, and they become a vicarious extension of her own ambitions and disappointments, particularly in the matter of sex. Here, she acts as little more than a ‘pimp’, though I am aware this may be a 21st century reading of what may have been regarded at the time as less shocking (a sexual relationship between one of the girls and the married one-armed art master with whom Miss Brodie is herself in love).

In the end we can only see Miss Brodie as disappointed, disappointing, manipulative and manipulated, a deceiver and ultimately deluded. She becomes increasingly troublesome morally, as she expresses her admiration for Mussolini and fascism, and the various fates of the girls she once sought to educate are laid out before us.

This is such a clever book which I would encourage anyone to read. And read again once you’ve got to the ending!

Recommended.

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Books for kids this Christmas

It’s the second week of December so it must be time for some suggestions for books to buy for the children in your life. I’m almost there with my Christmas shopping, so I’m now on the look-out for the stocking fillers. Books are great for this. My kids are all teenagers so their main gift requests these days are either small or folding (!) so a few books can help to make things look a bit bulkier.

Books for 5-10 year olds

Xmas 19 kids 1The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy £16.99

The much deserved Waterstones’ book of the year and surely the most beautiful book you will come across this Christmas. A wonderful read to enjoy with children of any age. Stunning illustrations. Just gorgeous.

 

 

 

xmas 19 kids 2Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Illustrated edition) by JK Rowling and Jim Kay £32.00

For kids who want to be part of the HP phenomenon, but for whom the books may be a little daunting in their length. This is the fourth book in the series to be illustrated.

 

 

Usborne Politics for Beginners and Usborne Money for Beginners £9.99

If your household is anything like mine, there will have been a lot of focus on politics in the last few years. This can be worrying for younger children when they don’t fully understand what’s going on but pick up on parents’ concerns. This Usborne Politics book will help to demystify some of the issues and the jargon. The sister volume on Money and the financial world introduces foundation concepts which will be important to all children as they grow up. Not for everyone, but there is no doubt these are important topics and some would argue that the earlier we can get kids thinking about them in an unemotional way, the better it is for them long term.

 

Books for 9-13 year olds

xmas 19 kids 5Diary of a Dyslexic School Kid by Alais Winton and Zac Millard £9.99

At last dyslexia is being taken more seriously and I think this is a great book for kids just about to or just starting secondary school. Not just for kids with dyslexia, perhaps your child has a friend with the condition and wants to know what life is like for them. Accessible and fun.

 

Little Leaders: Exceptional Men in Black History & Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison £7.99

Two marvellous books which I hope will redress the balance in some of the coverage of important people in our culture and history and give children of all races some fantastic role models.

The Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford, The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle, both £6.99

Two wonderful works of fiction here. Ross Welford is a favourite of mine and always delivers a cracking good story – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy are two favourite children’s books of mine. I loved Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island and this is the second novel in the series.

 

Books for 12+ years

xmas 19 kids 10The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pulman £20.00

Needs absolutely no introduction. The stunning BBC television adaptation of the His Dark Materials trilogy will help to ensure this book is the best-seller it deserves to be. This hardback edition would make a wonderful gift. I would love to curl up with this at Christmas!

 

xmas 19 kids 11No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton £6.99

An important story about the reality of life for child refugees who want the same things as children in any other part of the world. A book with a wonderful story that needs to be told and which will help foster understanding about other people’s lives.

 

xmas 19 kids 12My Hidden Chimp by Steve Peters £12.99

The author of the bestselling The Chimp Paradox, a guide to managing your mind, has written a version for young people. The aim is to help children and teenagers develop good mental health habits, deal with people to get the best win-win outcomes and help them manage both their emotions and their behaviour. Worth a try!

 

xmas 19 kids 13Earth Heroes: Twenty Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World by Lily Dyu £9.99

Climate change is the number one issue at the top of young people’s agendas today so this book will speak to this age group and provide stories about the role models who engage them, such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, as well as some of the less famous figures, such as inventors in developing countries changing the lives of people in their communities.

 

I hope my suggestions inspire you. I would love to hear about your great finds too. 

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Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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Booker shortlist book review #2 – “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo

This year’s joint winner of the Booker Prize has won almost universal praise by readers and critics alike. In addition to winning the Booker it was named by the Washington Post as one of the top ten books of this year and British-Nigerian writer Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writing in the New Statesman, described it as capturing modern-day Britain.

Girl Woman Other imgWhat I liked about it, however, was less this grander aspect, but rather the quality of its story-telling. I must admit that 50 or so pages in, I was not overwhelmed! There are twelve characters in the book, all women bar one (who is trans), all black or mixed race. They are broken down into four groups of three, and each threesome is strongly connected in some way (eg mother/daughter). Each group is also connected with the others, even if only in a tenuous way (eg teacher and former pupil) and almost all are in some way connected to Amma, the first character we meet. Amma has written a play which is having its debut performance at the National and this provides the framework of the novel. Many of the characters are present at the penultimate chapter of the book, the after-party, where the differences between them and their lives are laid bare. This is interesting because the author is not only trying to draw out the similarities between the characters and their life experiences, suggested by their common characteristic of being mixed race and female, but she is also, I think, railing against the notion of such women/people being homogeneous; they are all far more than just their race or gender.

The first chapter is about Amma, her daughter Yazz , and her friend Dominique. Amma and Dominique were radical feminists in their youth and started the Bush Women Theatre Company, to give voice to black and Asian women, particularly those with (then) non-mainstream sexualities. Amma’s daughter Yazz is the product of an “arrangement” between Amma and her friend Roland, a gay writer and academic. In chapter two we learn about her life, now at university (seems as if it’s Cambridge), her issues with her parents, her diverse group of friends – all bright, high achieving young women.

I did not warm to Amma and Yazz – they felt far too ‘urban elite’ when I thought I was supposed to be getting the whole of ‘modern day Britain’, plus I did not think Amma was particularly likeable and Yazz was quite obnoxious! It started to get much more interesting with Dominique, in whom we meet a character with far more depth and vulnerability, whose story seemed to have more texture.

In chapter two, we meet Carole, a woman from a poor inner-city background whose life appeared to be heading in one bleak direction until she was taken under the wing of a teacher who saw something special in her. Carole is now a high-flying banker. The other characters in this chapter are Carole’s mother Bummi, a traditional Nigerian woman who has brought Carole up alone, and LaTisha, Carole’s school friend whose life followed a more socially predictable path, but who, in her thirties and with three children, determines she will turn things around in her retail career where she excels.

There are two more chapters each with its own group of three women and the stories get ever more diverse and interesting. These women who come later are more ‘ordinary’ than the slightly smug Amma, Yazz and Carole, but for me their stories were the more interesting ones. Some are elderly women and we go back many years to learn about their past lives.

There were times when I would have liked a bit of a ‘family tree’ or a map to show all the connections, as it can get a little confusing with so many characters, but overall it is an artfully constructed book. This book is very much a mirror, multiple stories rather than one, but still the author manages to build a plot around the performance of Amma’s play and the after-party. There is also a brilliant plot twist at the end that I did not see coming at all, and really makes you reflect on all your assumptions about race, class and identity.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, my second from the Booker shortlist, and a worthy winner. I would like to read it again to see if, second time around, knowing what I do, I feel differently about the characters and their stories.

Highly recommended.

Did you agree with the judges that this book should have been joint winner?

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#KeepKidsReading week – Building your children’s library #2

It was back in the summer that I published my first post in what was intended as an occasional series on building a library of books for your children. Last time I focussed on the 2-5 age group, mainly picture books and mainly classics. This time I am moving on a little to the 4-7 age group, ie Key Stage 1. This is the age when children are just learning to read, but they still value and need to be read to – the phonics and early reading books are much better than they used to be (I loved reading the Oxford Reading Tree Biff, Chip and Kipper books that my kids brought home from school), but they are designed to expose your children to vocabulary, word order and sentence construction – they are tools designed specifically to aid learning; good children’s literature, on the other hand, fosters joy, builds a bond between child and reader and should inspire.

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Image by saralcassidy from Pixabay

There are some good chapter books now for six and seven year olds: precocious readers who benefit from the challenge of something more complex, but still need age-appropriate themes and subject-matter. I would argue, however, that at this age pictures are still vitally important. Pictures help to build vocabulary organically, they give the child something to look at and focus on whilst listening, as they may not be able to read all of the words themselves, and they help the child develop their imaginative skills as they look at the visions created for them by authors and illustrators. For this age group, the quality of the illustration is just as important as the text; can you imagine AA without EH, or Julia without Axel?

So, for those of you looking to build a library for the child or children in your lives, here are my top ten suggestions. The list is (absolutely!) not exhaustive of course, but these ten will provide the foundation for something wonderful. Nearly all of the books below are just one in a series or the same authors have written similar titles that you can add to the collection.

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  1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (plus the other 22 books in her classic collection!)
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne
  4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  5. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  6. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  7. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  8. Look Inside – Things That Go by Rob Lloyd Jones and Stefano Tognetti
  9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  10. The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I would love to hear your suggestions of books for this age group, particularly any that you have enjoyed sharing with the little people in your life.

I would love to hear your suggestions of indispensable titles for 4-7 year olds.

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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Book review: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K Le Guin

Science fiction has never really been my thing but, ever keen to push my reading boundaries, I included it as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge in October. It’s a genre I know little about, so picking an author or title might have been tricky, but I had in fact known for some time who I would select, having become aware of Le Guin after she died in January last year at the age of 88. The obituaries talked about how she had for years been under-rated, the inference being that as a woman she was overlooked in this male-dominated genre, but that she had a devoted critical following and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks.

She was prolific, producing nineteen novels, as well as short story collections, poetry and non-fiction during a writing career that spanned six decades. (I note that her first full-length novel was published when she was 37, which gives me some hope!) Many of her novels form part of her Earthsea series, so I chose The Lathe of Heaven as it is a stand-alone novel.

the lathe of heaven imgThe Lathe of Heaven was written in 1971, but was set in ‘the future’ – Portland Oregon in 2002. This future world is one in which the global population is out of control, climate change has wrought irreparable damage and war in the Middle East threatens geopolitical stability. The most alarming (and engaging) thing about the book, for me, was how prophetic it was; in 1971 did readers think this was some dystopian world? Worryingly, many of the problems envisaged by Le Guin are recognisable features of our environment in 2019.

The main character is George Orr who has an unusual affliction – he is able to change reality through his dreams. It is a difficult concept to get hold of, but when he dreams a new situation, all history is also altered to facilitate the revised present and no-one but he is able to recall how it was before. For example, in 1998, a nuclear war virtually destroyed life on earth, but George ‘dreamed it back’ and in the new iteration the nuclear war never happened.

George is disturbed by these dreams and turns to prescription drug abuse to stop himself from entering deep sleep when these ‘effective dreams’ happen. He has to break the law to get sufficient supplies, however, and when he is caught he is forced to see a psychiatrist, Dr William Haber, to help him wean off the drugs. When George explains his problems to Haber, the ambitious but under-achieving doctor quickly sees the potential for using hypnosis to ‘suggest’ dreams to George which will organise the world the way Haber wants it. Haber’s intentions are not entirely malign; he wants world peace and widespread good health, for example, though he is careful also to ensure he benefits financially and in terms of academic status as a side-consequence. The problem is, Haber’s suggestions are not always interpreted by George’s brain in the way Haber intended. So, when Haber suggests a dream for the elimination of racism, the result is not, as Haber thought, that people become universally open-minded and accepting, rather everyone’s skin colour changes to grey, ie there is no longer any visible indicator of race.

Events become ever more bizarre and George, desperate and realising that Haber is using him for his own ends, which George is worried will have devastating consequences, ultimately, turns to a lawyer to try and get out of the therapy and stop Haber. The lawyer, Heather, becomes George’s ally and partner and he ultimately falls in love with her. But as realities keep changing, she is at times, farther and farther away from him.

It is a fascinating story and I enjoyed the philosophical journey, the question of the extent to which we are in control of our destiny, as well as the very relevant themes of global warming and the locus of power in society. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the ending lost me a little – at that point it felt more ‘of its time’, though I can also see where Le Guin was coming from. Don’t forget this was published not long after the moon landing so the concept of outer space, whether there was anyone else out there, were, I imagine seen somewhat differently than they are today.

Recommended, if you’d like to try something a little different.

If you are a fan of science fiction, what other authors would you recommend?

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