Facebook reading challenge – catching up and November’s book

Recent events in my life, which I have posted about here, have played havoc with my reading – if I haven’t been driving up, down and across the country I’ve been dealing with my mother’s funeral and handling all the necessary administration (it has been enormously time-consuming even though my mother had a fairly straightforward situation. It has made me realise I need to get my own affairs well and truly in order!)

I’ve listened to a couple of audiobooks (historical thriller The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as I wanted to refresh my memory before reading her Booker Prize-winning follow-up The Testaments), but sit-down reading has suffered. As some of you will know, I have been running a Facebook Reading Challenge for a couple of years now, choosing a book with a different theme each month. September’s theme was a memoir and I selected Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals inspired by my summer holiday in Jersey and visit to the Durrell Zoo there. October’s theme was a science fiction novel, a genre I have only dabbled in, and I selected Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I have only just finished both books (the Le Guin at 11pm last night!) but enjoyed both. My thoughts on My Family and Other Animals follow and look out for my review of Le Guin soon.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgSo now it is time top get back on track and announce the book for November. Our theme is a children’s book; we are winding down towards the end of the year, but I am not going to make it too easy, because this book is a challenging one – John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped PyjamasI have been meaning to read this ever since it was published to great acclaim in 2006. My elder daughter read it recently and has been nagging me to follow suit. She found it very moving so I am looking forward to it.

Why not join the conversation by hopping over to the Facebook group.

 

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Durrell zoo
The secondhand bookshop at the Durrell Zoo, Jersey

Our visit to the Durrell Conservation Trust (better known as Jersey Zoo) this summer was  wonderful and inspiring. 2019 is also the 60th anniversary of the founding of the zoo so it was a fortuitous time to be there. I have always been ambivalent about zoos (although reading The Life of Pi altered my perspective somewhat) but there aren’t actually that many animals at the Durrell Zoo (considering its size) and mostly the focus there is on protecting vulnerable species, and involvement in breeding programmes, particularly for some lesser-known and perhaps less glamorous creatures, such as the endangered Livingstone’s fruit bat and the Sumatran orangutan. I was fully won-over when I discovered that the Zoo has an on-site secondhand bookshop! All contributions to the Trust.

So, when the memoir theme came up for September in the reading challenge My Family and Other Animals seemed an obvious choice. It is one of those books that I was sure I had read, but once I got into it, I realised I probably hadn’t, but it seemed to be part of my consciousness. I did watch, and enjoy, the television series The Durrells when it came out a couple of years ago. The TV series followed the book very closely – perhaps that is because it is hard to improve on. It’s not particularly challenging and tells the story of how young Gerald and his family (widowed mother, and three older siblings) move from England to Corfu at the behest of Gerald’s eldest brother, by then in his twenties, the writer Lawrence Durrell. This is the first volume of Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy, and tells of how young Gerald’s love of nature was inspired and nurtured on the Greek island. The book is an entertaining mix of family mishaps (the characters are all brilliantly drawn and leap off the page), a child’s-eye observation about life and culture on the island, plus accounts of the friends the family makes, the animals in the menagerie that Gerald creates and the various adventures they all have, which invariably end in slapstick catastrophe.

There were times when I felt the book was of its time and of its ‘class’ and I was uncomfortable with the slightly patronising portrayal of some of the locals, who were overly caricatured for a 21st century taste. But I can excuse the book these minor faults because it was light, it was entertaining and it lifted my slightly gloomy spirits.

So, recommended, especially as we find the nights drawing in and the temperatures dropping.

Would you like to join us this month for the Facebook Reading Challenge?

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Booker shortlist book review – “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” by Elif Shafak

I posted last week about the events of my life over the last couple of months, the dominant event being the death of my mother in mid- September. So much has happened in that time and yet I have felt rather out of the loop, my attention having been on other things. It feels strange to be posting here again, to be writing my first book review in what feels like months – can you believe I have a few butterflies?!

Booker Prize 2019The Booker prize winner(s) were announced last week and for the first time in years, and against the explicit rules of the contest, the judges awarded the prize jointly to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. I have not read either book yet, though I am currently listening to The Testaments on the excellent BBC Sounds and enjoying it enormously, though it is extremely dark. There has been so much publicity around Atwood and The Testaments that I was wondering how on earth the Booker prize judges were going to be able to not award it to her! So, I think the judges probably made the right decision. By now, I would probably have worked my way through at least two thirds of the shortlist (I’ve never managed all six in the period between shortlist and winner), but, for obvious reasons, I have not read that much so far this year.

10 minutes, 38 seconds imgIt is somewhat and sadly ironic that I was reading Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World at the time of my mother’s death, a novel about a woman, Leila, an Istanbul prostitute known as Tequila Leila, who is brutally murdered in a back alley by street thugs. Rather than death being an instant occurrence, however, the author explores the idea of it as a transition from the world of the living to the ‘other’ (with a duration, for Leila, of ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds) during which time her whole life flashes before her. Leila’s life story is told through a series of recollections about her five closest friends, how and when she met them and what impact they have had on her life. We learn that Leila came from a relatively affluent family. Her father was anxious for heirs, but when his wife proved incapable of having any he took a second wife, Binnaz, a much younger woman from a lowly family, who gave birth to Leila. Binnaz was forced to give up the child to the first wife to bring up as if she were her own, whilst Binnaz, who never recovered mentally from the trauma of that event, was thereafter known to Leila as ‘Auntie’.

Leila was sexually abused by her uncle as a child, ran away to Istanbul at the age of sixteen and, somewhat inevitably, was lured into a world of prostitution where she suffered many abuses, including being disfigured by a lunatic client who threw acid at her. She eventually found love in her life, with D’Ali, but he was killed soon after they were married and she found herself back on the streets again, just to survive.

We learn about the five friends in her life, people who crossed her path and whom she helped in different ways, and who became her family after her parents disowned her. Through these stories we learn about Leila’s humanity and warmth, her openness and kindness. After Leila’s death, with no living relatives willing to claim her body, the city consigns her to the ‘Cemetery of the Companionless’. Her friends have no rights to bury her so they set about stealing her body from the graveyard. The second half of the book is an account of how and why they do this and how eventually they give Leila the resting place they feel she deserves.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish national presently exiled from her country where she feels that with her liberal politics and as a free speech and human rights activist she would be in danger from the ultra-conservative government. It is clear, however, that she feels the present ruling party does not reflect the true culture of Turks, and in particular the ancient and multi-cultural city of Istanbul. The book is peppered with political messages and layered with historical references, particularly the Armenian genocide of 1915, a passion of Shafak’s, and the main topic of her novel The Bastard of Istanbul.

I have been an admirer of Elif Shafak since I saw her speak at the Hay Festival last year; she is a woman of huge intellect and achievement, a true polymath. However, I struggled with The Bastard of Istanbul as I have also with this book – I just did not like either of them as much as I wanted to. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds… is a really novel and interesting concept but I just felt like it did not deliver on its promise.

When my mother was admitted to hospital and was clearly close to death, I wondered whether to abandon this book; I thought I might find it too upsetting a read in the circumstances. But I’m afraid the book just did not move me. The second half even felt slightly slapstick.

I will keep admiring Shafak and keep trying with her books. Maybe I’ll find something I love!

What has been your favourite read from this year’s Booker shortlist?

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Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Care to join us for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month?

A few days ago I published a review of Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe, which was the July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The book seemed to go down quite well and I enjoyed it too. The theme for August is ‘a beach read’, reflecting the fact that many people will be going on holiday this month (if, like me, you are confined to school holidays). But even if you are a holiday free agent and choose June or September to go away (I know I would!), August is often languid month when the pace of things tends to slow and you can take the opportunity to rest mind and body. The ‘beach read’ theme reflects this too as I wanted something that will be pure pleasure and not too demanding of our normally over-taxed brains.

The Lido imgI have chosen a book which caught my eye a couple of months ago – The Lido by Libby Page. It concerns a friendship between two women, 86 year-old widow Rosemary and 26 year-old Kate, who strike up a bond when their local outdoor swimming pool in Brixton, south London, is threatened with closure. The two women have different reasons for wanting to campaign to keep the lido open, but they are brought together in a common cause.

The book has received pretty universal praise, so far as I can tell, is a Sunday Times bestseller and looks like being one of the hits of the summer. I’m looking forward to this one as I’ll be doing some family visiting and some holidaying myself over the next few weeks, and after some books which have been either quite tough reads on the reading challenge this one feels like a reward for hard work!

I hope you will join us on the challenge this month. Hop over to the Facebook page if you’d like to join the group.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Does your reading taste change in the summer or at holiday time?

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Book review – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

This book was July’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019, the theme of which last month was contemporary crime fiction. I picked Cath Staincliffe because I have met her and she’s very nice (and very successful!) and I have read a couple of her other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though crime fiction is not usually my thing. Unlike much of her other work (and the last book of hers that I read – The Girl in the Green Dress), this is not strictly crime fiction, although a crime is committed. To that extent it is something of a departure for this author, I think, although the dedication at the front of the book to “my mothers”, Evelyn Cullen and Margaret Staincliffe, both of whom died in 2017, gives a clue as to what might have motivated this book, which was published in 2018.

Fear of Falling imgThe centre of the story is the relationship between two women, Bel and Lydia, who meet at a New Year’s party in 1985, when they are both sixth-formers although at different schools in Yorkshire. They are very different people – Lydia is reserved, generally quite sensible, and from a secure and ordinary family. Bel is wilder, her family rather more bohemian and she has a difficult relationship with her parents. Bel grew up in France and then London and it is her father’s job that has brought them to northern England, where she is something of an outsider. Bel and Lydia are drawn to one another, despite their very different personalities; for Lydia, Bel represents spontenaiety, excitement, danger even. For Bel, Lydia represents security, a steady point in a turning world.

Their lives begin to diverge after university: Lydia works in the scientific field, in a hospital laboratory, enjoys a successful career in which she is respected, and eventually meets the love of her life, Mac, an Irishman who runs a tattoo parlour. Lydia flits from one job to the next, travels the world, and never holds down either a long-term job or a long-term relationship. She seems to flee from commitment. Although she is never as diligent, thoughtful or kind a friend to Bel as Bel is to her, she somehow always seems to return to her.

Some years into their relationship Lydia and Mac decide the time is right to have children, but they find they cannot conceive. After three failed IVF attempts they decide to apply for adoption. In the meantime, Bel, in her usual fashion, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby. Bel gives birth to Freya and the contrast between her indifference to the child, her inability to cope and her post-natal depression, and Lydia’s anguish at her and Mac’s  infertility is starkly portrayed. Lydia and Mac’s journey through the adoption process is equally traumatic, but eventually they are given a little girl to adopt, Chloe. She is about the same age as Freya.

This is where the story really begins: Chloe, it turns out, has had a very difficult start, with parents who neglected her. This absence of attachment in her first two years of life has caused damage which Lydia and Mac, despite their very best efforts, will never be able to repair. Chloe’s life becomes a series of dramas, problems, misdemeanours and eventually crimes. In contrast, Freya, who has a stormy relationship with Bel, becomes a bright, high achieving, outgoing teenager. Like the differences between Bel and Lydia, the contrast between their two daughters is stark.

I don’t want to give away the plot, although it is arguably not difficult to work out what is going to happen, but, as readers, we watch with horror as events unfold. Chloe gets increasingly out of control and Lydia and Mac become ever more desperate as they try and fail to bring their vulnerable daughter back from the precipice, time after time.

I enjoyed the book, I found it very compelling. Staincliffe has a writing style that is deceptively simple, but actually draws you effortlessly into the world of the characters. A lot of the novel is spent on building up the history of the friendship between the two central women, which I must admit, at first made me feel slightly frustrated as I just wanted to get to the main plot. By the end, however, it was clear that this was part of the author’s building of the narrative. The relationship IS the story; the two girls, the adoption story, yes these are also key plot lines, but it is as much about the vulnerability of mothers, about single mothers left alone and especially about couples who adopt (usually post-IVF disappointment) and are unprepared for the challenges, as it is about the plight of ‘looked after’ children.

The author’s afterword, where she writes about her own experience of being adopted as a baby after her young Irish mother became pregnant outside marriage, makes clear what has driven her desire to write this book. Her story had a happy ending, but for too many adopted children today, that is not the case.

It is a heartbreaking novel that will give you an insight into world about which most of us know very little. A difficult read but one that is definitely worth it.

How do you cope when a difficult story doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’?

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#KeepKidsReading week – book recommendations for summer

As is my seasonal habit, I’ve been scouring publishers’ lists, bookshelves and indeed my local library to come up with a few recommendations that your kids might be interested in. Yesterday, I posted about the Summer Reading Challenge launched this week which is an encouragement to mainly primary school age children to read six books over the summer. Much is made of so-called ‘summer learning loss’, when children get so out of the habit of schoolwork that teachers notice a decline in their performance when they return in September. I don’t hold much truck with this myself; true, anything you don’t do for six weeks is going to become rusty, but the benefits of down-time, family time, play and outdoor time outweigh keeping the times tables tip top! If you are worried about it, however, keeping your kids reading (for pure pleasure!) over the long summer holiday can help maintain their literacy standards as well as help them wind down after day-long playing, and help them relax and sleep when it’s light until late and routines go to the wall.

So, here are some great titles I have spotted that I think your kids might like. I’ve broken down into age groups, but these are broad and can be a bit arbitrary, as you know. Much will depend on not just reading aptitude, but also maturity.

7-10 year olds

summer 19 recs 1

 

Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib

A beautifully illustrated book about Lula and Lenka, who are best friends and complete opposites. One day they have a falling out and they seem irreconcilable. The story is about how they come together again through patience, listening and empathy. Perfect!

 

 

Summer 19 recs 2Milton the Mighty by Emma Read

A great story for our time. Milton is a spider who discovers that he has been branded as deadly on social media and is being hunted by pest killers. He and his two best friends, fellow spiders Ralph and Audrey, must fight to restore Milton’s true reputation, but they will need the help of Zoe and her arachnophobic Dad, the humans in whose home they reside.

 

 

Summer 19 recs 3

 

Mr Penguin and the Fortress of Secrets by Alex T Smith

Really fun illustrations in this book. A nice easy adventure, the second in Alex T Smith’s series about Mr Penguin (a third is due in the autumn). Action and adventure with slapstick humour. Shades of Tin Tin, Captain Underpants and Hercules Poirot! A great introduction to mystery series.

 

 

10-13 year olds

summer 19 recs 4The Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford

I have frequently declared my admiration for Ross Welford and this is another cracking title! Welford has an uncanny ability to blend adventure and peril, with wonderful sensitive and empathic characters who defy stereotypes. In this his 2019 novel, eleven year-old Georgie and her dog, Mr Mash, must save all the dogs on earth when they are threatened by a deadly virus.

 

 

summer 19 recs 5

 

Pog by Padraig Kenny

I loved Padraig Kenny’s first novel Tin and his second looks great too. Brother and sister David and Penny move to their mother’s childhood home after she dies. It is situated in the middle of a forest and they soon discover that they are not alone – Pog is a tiny magical creature who protects the boundary between the human and his own world. Tempted by the prospect of seeing his mother on ‘the other side’ David is drawn to a dark place and Pog has to help save him.

summer 19 recs 6

 

The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher

The lady in the bookshop told me this had her in tears! It has been very highly praised since its publication in May. Set in London during World War Two, Pip, a young mouse, finds herself homeless and an orphan when the shop in which she lives is bombed. She must find safety and a new home if she is to survive. Pass the hankies!

 

 

Older teens and young adults

summer 19 recs 7Meat Market by Juno Dawson

A must-read author for this age group, Juno Dawson’s topics are hard-hitting but reflective of the world our young people inhabit today. This book is about the fashion industry and one young woman’s experience of it. Perfect for the #MeToo era.

 

 

 

summer 19 recs 8On The Come Up  by Angie Thomas

I have recently read The Hate U GiveAngie Thomas’s first novel. If this one is half as good it will be well worth a read. The author returns to the neighbourhood of Garden Heights, the volatile setting of her first novel, but her central character this time is a teenage rapper who finds viral success online. It is a story about how getting what you wish for might not necessarily be what you need.

 

 

summer 19 recs 9

Killer T by Robert Muchamore

This looks like a highly ambitious novel, imagining a disturbing future where science has run amok and is being misused. The Killer T of the title is in fact a deadly virus which terrorists are threatening to release onto the world unless they are paid a huge ransom. Harry and Charlie are two teenagers attending a Las Vegas high school who become caught up in the effects of the impending catastrophe. Against a background of potential disaster, supposed technological advance and rapid social change, friendship and love are the forces that truly underpin the human condition.

Now that must have whetted your appetite – I want to go and read all of these right now! I hope you will find something for your kids here. As always, the golden rule with kids reading is support whatever it is they want to read (parental guidance notwithstanding), show an interest and discuss it with them.

Happy summer reading, kids!

Are there any titles for kids that have caught your eye this summer?

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#KeepKidsReading week – the Summer Reading Challenge

I’m bursting with excitement this week – I seem to have got back into a good reading groove at last, and I’ve started another book by children’s author Ross Welford. I try to read at least one YA or children’s book a month and they are always such a treat. Ross Welford is one of my favourite authors; I loved both Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy and I’ve now started on on What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible. I’ll be posting my review of it later in the week.

2019-07-17-09.50.20.jpg

This week also sees the launch of the kids Summer Reading Challenge 2019 by The Reading Agency in association with libraries up and down the country. The theme this year is Space Chase, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Children joining the reading challenge are encouraged to read up to six books. When they join they get a ‘mission folder’ so they can keep a record of their achievements, they get stickers and rewards for each book read, and, on completing the challenge, will receive a certificate. It’s aimed at primary school children and there is also a fantastic website with games, book recommendations, competitions and the chance to write reviews. I got my kids into this every year when they were younger and it also gave me something to do with them – a weekly trip to library certainly helped to fill the long summer holidays. It’s a win-win!

“It’s on in almost every locality, it’s a delight for the children to take part in and…it’s one of the few things where you’re delighted and it does you good! What could be better?”

Michael Rosen, Author and former Children’s Laureate on the Summer Reading Challenge

I’ll be posting tomorrow with some book recommendations for your kids for this summer, so look out for that if you’d like some ideas to get started.

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