Audiobook review – “The Bread the Devil Knead” by Lisa Allen-Agostini

The Bread the Devil Knead is Lisa Allen-Agostini’s third novel (she has previously published YA fiction as well as a collection of poetry) and it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022. It is both powerful and a page-turner with a gripping plot as well as an engaging, authentic and complex central character who is also the main narrator.

Alethea Lopez is 40 years old, the manager of a clothing shop in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She is stylish and sexy. Her partner Leo is a musician who was once in a popular band. Alethea is also having an affair with her boss, the owner of the shop. But beneath her confident exterior Alethea conceals some dark secrets. The superficial aura of calm she has created around herself begins to crumble when a woman is gunned down outside the shop by a jealous lover. Alethea is shaken. A curious police officer drives her home and notices the bruises on her face. We learn from the outset that Alethea’s relationship with Leo is an abusive and violent one, perhaps that is why she looks for love with her boss, although that relationship is also abusive in its own way. 

The police officer’s curiosity is dangerous for Alethea; Leo reacts in a way that is designed to ensure that she will always be afraid of the consequences of revealing to anyone what goes on inside their home. And yet Leo has a powerful hold over Alethea that is more than just the constant threat of violence – she seems drawn to him, needs his desire for her, and his love, no matter how twisted and unhealthy it seems to the reader.

Alethea also has a brother, Colin, who is a preacher. They are recently reunited after years apart. Alethea narrates her story but there are also flashbacks to her childhood: she grew up in a single parent family. Her mother (also violently abusive to her) told her that she was the product of a brief affair she had with a Venezuelan, a man it is clear she will never meet. (Alethea has the additional social disadvantage of being lighter-skinned than most and of having a Hispanic surname). Colin joined their family when he was a toddler, having been brought by Alethea’s uncle to be cared for by her mother. Alethea was a few years older than Colin and clearly adored him. He was better treated by her mother than she was, but Alethea was never jealous and merely saw it as part of her role to protect him. 

As the violence in adult Alethea’s life gets worse, alternative pathways for her gradually come into view. A childhood friend who went to live in America returns, having married a rich man, and wants to open a boutique with Alethea. The renewal of her relationship with Colin causes her to examine the events of her childhood anew, especially when she finds that she has inherited property from her maternal grandmother. Gradually, the complex layers of Alethea’s emotional landscape are revealed and the reader begins to understand how she came to be here.

This is a profoundly moving novel; Alethea’s narrative is candid but she never becomes sorry for herself. She is vulnerable and damaged but she also has tremendous strengths and as her self-awareness grows so does her stature. 

Set in Trinidad, the novel is written primarily in the local creole. I listened to the book on audio and although the language was hard for me as an English-speaker to get into initially, my ear gradually became attuned to it and by the end I was so glad I had chosen this format because the musicality of the language added to the experience. It is also the author doing the reading and so she brings to it all her own knowledge of her character and Alethea truly comes to life.

Highly recommended, though readers should be aware that there is a significant amount of violence and the themes of domestic abuse, parental abuse and incest are explored unsparingly.

Audiobook review – “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

I wrote last week about having finished two long books that I have been working through for a while. The first, Booker Prize-winner The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, was hard work and not a hit for me. The second I have been listening to on audio for a few weeks, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. By contrast, this complex and curious novel was one of the best things I have read in a long time. It is a huge book, three volumes totalling around a thousand pages, forty-five hours of listening time, recounting the events of a single year. Despite the huge anticipation of the novel when it was announced, it was not received with universal critical acclaim. Its initial print run, in the original Japanese, was sold out on the first day of release, largely due to advance orders, Murakami having already achieved a high literary profile by that stage. 

SPOILER ALERT!

The novel is essentially a love story, an unlikely one given the journey the two main characters have to take. The book opens with central character Aomame in a taxi on the city expressway. The traffic reaches an unexpected standstill and it appears that Aomame has some important business she is anxious to complete. She persuades the driver to let her leave the car when they reach an emergency exit, despite this being illegal. The driver advises her that there is a subway station below the expressway that she can reach via the emergency metal stairway. Aomame’s ‘business’ is murder. Her task is to kill a man who is a known philanderer and wife-beater and she poses as a hotel employee attending to the air conditioning in his room before killing him swiftly and bloodlessly with a specially crafted metal tool. The event is shocking, but Aomame has already become so likeable to us as the reader because she has so far seemed benign, polite, and charming. 

We later learn that Aomame’s actions are carried out with the assistance of an older woman we know as ‘The Dowager’, a wealthy widow who is a member of the exclusive health club where Aomame is a fitness instructor. It seems that both women have powerful reasons for dispatching of men like Aomame’s victim at the hotel and the combination of the Dowager’s money and Aomame’s skills, plus the support of the Dowager’s loyal bodyguard Tamaru, they conduct a quiet and effective campaign of retribution on violent and cruel men. 

Told in parallel with Aomame’s story is that of Tengo, a maths teacher at a cram school and aspiring writer. He is asked by his friend Komatsu, an editor at a publishing house, to rewrite a novella ‘Air Chrysalis’ by a young female writer, Fuka-Eri. Komatsu feels it has great potential and wishes to enter it for a prestigious debut writer’s prize, but feels it needs work. He arranges for Tengo to meet with the young woman and to rewrite the story at rapid pace. This will obviously be a clandestine exercise as it would be a scandal if it got out. The book does win the prize and is also a great commercial success, but it is then that all the problems start. 

Tengo deepens his relationship with Fuka-Eri and learns of her troubled background, the fact that she was brought up in a commune run by a secretive religious cult called Sakigake, and that after a violent and deadly confrontation with police, Fuka-Eri managed to escape and landed at the doorstep of a Professor Ebisuno, former friend and colleague of her father, and he took her in and became her guardian. She later confides to Tengo that she escaped under the instruction of ‘the little people’, who happen to be the subject of ‘Air Chrysalis’. Tengo finds himself increasingly drawn into the young woman’s strange world and a series of consequential events. 

Meanwhile, in Aomame’s world, strange things are also happening. She has begun to observe that there are two moons in the sky which it seems only she can see; the usual silver one, and a smaller green one. She concludes that she is living in some sort of parallel world, which she names 1Q84, to distinguish it from the actual year 1984. The Dowager runs a hostel for abused women in the grounds of her estate, and after taking in a young girl, rendered mute by the sexual abuse she has experienced, she asks Aomame to carry out one last killing – that of the leader of Sakigake, who she says is responsible for the violence that the young girl has experienced. It will be a very risky, dangerous and complicated task that may not be successful and could lead to Aomame’s death, because Leader is so well-protected. Believing she has nothing to lose, Aomame accepts the challenge.

Aomame’s and Tengo’s stories are told in parallel, yet the links between the strange events in their lives soon become clear. We also learn that Aomame and Tengo knew each other as children. She came from a family of devout Witnesses, setting her apart from the other children at school, and from which she would later escape, while he was the only child of a widowed and distant father who forced him to go to work with him at the weekends, collecting television license fees.The two lonely outsiders formed a bond as 10 year olds, but lost touch. Neither has forgotten the special kindness the other showed them however. 

The plot thickens, events become increasingly unpredictable and dangerous and Tengo and Aomame’s lives are drawing ever closer. Right to the end, I found myself unable to predict how it was going to turn out. I gasped more than once at an unexpected twist. Though the book is long, it draws you into its world skilfully and imperceptibly. Some critics disliked the book and found the writing clunky and cliched. I disagree completely. I found the simplicity and spareness of the language remarkably engaging and powerful. I loved the way the author got into the heads of the characters and into the minutiae of their lives that made you feel you were observing this year in their lives almost in real time. As I said at the beginning, it is essentially a love story, in my opinion. It is a brilliant homage to Orwell’s 1984, focusing not on controlling governments but on the sinister power of cults. I am having great fun thinking about the parallels between the two stories! I also love the questions it leaves unanswered, such as what really happened to Tengo’s ‘older girlfriend’ and what about the little people and Mr Ushikawa? 

Completing this book has truly felt like a milestone in my reading life. I have not come across anything quite like it before and I recommend it highly. It is well worth the investment of time. 

Booker Book Review #6 – “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Shehan Karunatilaka

This week I have at last come to the end of two reading marathons, one has been spectacular, the other has been a slog. Almost two months after the winner of the Booker Prize was announced, I have at last finished the sixth book from the shortlist, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, the book which in fact won. I started this book on 26th September, but found it very difficult to get into, so I switched to one or two others. It was the only book I did not manage to complete in time for the announcement of the winner. I have to say that I am somewhat surprised that it won. But then that is not unusual for the Booker, or any literary prize for that matter. Reading pleasure is such a subjective thing that I am sure there are very few works that are unanimously loved. There are also books that you just ‘know’ are good, but which are not that enjoyable to read. For me, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida perhaps falls into that category. I can appreciate the achievement, but it just wasn’t for me.

The book is set in Sri Lanka (the author’s homeland) at the time of the brutal civil war in that country, which started in 1983 and last more than 25 years. I am ashamed to admit that I knew very little about this piece of history. Some of the information had a familiarity; I was aware for example of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, though I had no idea that the regime was so brutal or repressive. Sri Lanka has also been in the news recently after the terrible economic situation there led to nationwide street protests and the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime. Clearly, it is a country where corrupt members of the ruling classes (many of whom have been related to one another) have at various times pocketed the nation’s wealth for their own enrichment and to the detriment of the wider population. 

Seven Moons has been described by the author as a ghost story and in addition to the history lesson and the expose of the corruption, repression and factionalism which characterised the authorities at that time, it is said to weave in myth and folklore surrounding death and the afterlife in Sri Lanka. It reminded me very much of a previous Booker winner Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which won in 2017. It concerns that period of transition where the spirit is in a kind of limbo between life and death. 

Maali Almeida is the central character and the book opens with him having just died and in the process of entering the afterlife. The ‘seven moons’ relates to the period of time he has left to tie up unfinished business from his life. Maali was a photojournalist and in the course of his work he gathered together photographic evidence of some of the crimes of military leaders against the rebels and against other journalists reporting on the civil war. As such, the book becomes a bit of a murder-mystery as the nature of Maali’s ‘evidence’ becomes clear. Some people had a powerful interest in the material never seeing the light of day. Maali knew this of course and concealed what he had in an elaborate trail involving playing cards and his two best friends: Jaki, with whom he slightly masqueraded as a couple, and DD, the son of a government minister who was his lover. Homosexuality was not accepted in the culture at that time, hence the concealment, but Maali had many lovers and rebelled against the prevailing homophobia and this is another complication which made him a target. 

There is a wide cast of characters in the book (not dissimilar to Lincoln in the Bardo actually), and many of the more colourful or fantastical ones exist in the spirit world. There is a real contrast between the passages which take place in the earthly world and those in the heavenly realm where Maali is floating, plotting, and whispering instructions in the ears of those he has left behind. I found some of these characters difficult to keep track of and those at the centre (Maali, Jaki, DD) I just found hard to warm to.

The novel is quite fast-paced with some strong action sequences, but for me the flitting between the earthly and heavenly realms was just too bitty. I found it hard to keep a grip on what was going on. That can be true of a lot of books that I have loved, but I’m afraid this one just did not sustain my interest. Had I not been the sort of person who has to finish a book I have started (I can count on one hand the number of books I have abandoned) I would probably have given up on this after the first or second moon.

Moons feature heavily in the other marathon book I have just finished – 1Q84. This was quite a different undertaking and my feelings about it could not be more different. I’ll save my review of that for next week!

So, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, well it won the Booker, but…I’m struggling to recommend it, sadly, unless you are a student of Sri Lankan recent history.

Bye bye summer, hello Booker shortlist!

It has been a long, hot and eventful summer, but the year has ticked round, as it inevitably does, and we find ourselves once again at the start of meteorological autumn – my favourite time of the year.

Like many people, we found ourselves travelling more this year than we have done for what has felt like a long time, primarily because we COULD. Two, summers of severe restrictions curtailed lots of people’s plans and it has certainly felt to me as if there was a high degree of pent-up wanderlust. We had a family holiday in France this year, a few days in sweltering Paris, followed by a longer spell in the south-western Gironde area, not far from the location of some of the terrible forest fires to hit parts of continental Europe, although we were lucky not to have been directly affected. It was heaven and I ate far too much patisserie, partly thanks to our holiday home being located next door to what we were told was the best boulangerie in town – it would have been rude not to partake!

We also spent time with family in Ireland, as well as a couple of shorter trips in the UK. Interspersed with that was the stress/excitement of not one but TWO results days. It has been the most difficult year for 16-18 year olds in this country, with the damage done to so many by Covid and online learning, all the talk of bringing down the perceived grade inflation of the last couple of years, fewer university places on offer, not to mention the uncertain economic environment. I am relieved to say that both my daughters did fantastically well, getting results they thoroughly deserved, and I will be despatching my middle child off to university in a few short weeks.

With only my youngest child left at school (and with her going into sixth form that’s only two years left!), September for me now is less about ‘back to school’ – that is a hard habit to break after 16 years! – and more about renewal and re-focus. I have had my break (three weeks without posting a single blog!) and now I am ready to start again.

What does September mean for you?

One event that has been on my radar for some time, but which was somewhat overshadowed this year by the appointment of yet another new Prime Minister in the UK (our fourth in six years!), was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist last night. It went largely unnoticed here because the mainstream media was completely absorbed by the shenanigans in Downing Street. As ever it is an interesting list, and I am familiar with only two of the authors.

As usual, I will be attempting to read my way through the shortlist before the winner is announced on 17th October, a little under six weeks’ time. Last year was the first time I actually managed to get through all six, and I am fairly optimistic of being able to do so again this year as quite a few of them are pretty short! That does not necessarily mean one can speed-read of course as short books are often more intense, I think. A couple of them are very long!

I aim to publish reviews regularly in the coming weeks and to make my prediction on the day itself. I’m very excited! Having only just returned from Dublin I think I will be starting with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a novel set in a small Irish town in the 1980s, a period when society there was dominated by the Church.

I would love to hear what you’ve been up to over the summer and what your plans are for the autumn.

Happy reading!

Book review: “Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov

The last month has flown by. Not only have I not been blogging very much in the last few weeks, but my reading has also been patchy at best. As I mentioned in my last post, I was on a family holiday in France for two weeks. My eighteen year-old daughter, who has turned into a bit of a bookworm in the last couple of years, observed that you always think you are going to read more on holiday than you actually do. I always take at least one book for each week that I am away (and that’s when I am being restrained!), but if my recent performance is anything to go by, I seldom get through even one! I planned to read Margaret Atwood’s very bulky Burning Questions, but it came back with me unread because I had only just started a book called The Behindlings by an author I do not know, Nicola Barker. It’s a bizarre and curiously compelling (also very long) book which I have yet to complete. More about that for a future post.

This week I would like to tell you about another book that took me a very long time to get through, and which I posted about my intention to read many weeks ago – Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. This was first published in Kyiv in 1996. The first edition in English came out in 2001. It has been reissued this year with an updated foreword by the author under the Read for Ukraine initiative in association with Oxfam. For each copy sold, a donation has been given to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.  

Death and the Penguin is considered one of the greats of contemporary Ukrainian literature and Andrey Kurkov is a respected international commentator. He has written over twenty novels as well as books for children and is a documentary maker. Born in St Petersburg, he writes in Russian but in his foreword to this edition he writes of has sadness and dismay at the Russian invasion of his country.

I read this book very slowly, almost in real time with the events of the novel! The central character is Viktor and his pet penguin is Misha, a powerful presence in the book and a motif for Viktor’s state of mind. Viktor is an aspiring writer who is offered a job writing obituaries for a newspaper. It soon becomes apparent that he is writing notices about people not yet dead, and that his subjects are being assassinated mafia-style. Viktor becomes increasingly paranoid and he enters into a series of bizarre relationships. First he is left in charge of a young girl, Sonya, the daughter of the Chief of Police, known as ‘Misha non-penguin’ to distinguish him from his animal namesake, a hilarious touch. Misha non-penguin disappears and Viktor hires Nina, the niece of a militiaman he meets, as a nanny for Sonya, to look after the child while he is working, or hiding form the increasing list of dangerous individuals he believes are in pursuit of him. Viktor starts a relationship with Nina, but it is a strangely cold one and stands in contrast to his relationship with the penguin.

Viktor’s situation starts to look increasingly desperate when he finds that a new person has been hired to write obituaries and that he, Viktor, is to be the subject of one. In the meantime, Misha starts to become sick and Viktor is told that the penguin needs a heart transplant or else he will die. A child’s heart becomes available and the operation is successful, but Viktor decides that he must return Misha to Antarctica. He learns of an expedition that is travelling there and he pays for Misha to go. At the very last minute, however, Viktor opts to save his own life and switches places with the penguin, figuring that the penguin in popular and someone else will take care of him.

This is a surreal and dark book, with moments of black humour. Set in the 1990s in Kyiv and its environs it captures the sense of surveillance, of corruption, of secrecy and scarcity that pervaded the former Soviet republics at the time. It has been described as an existentialist novel, exploring as it does Viktor’s inner turmoil and expressing that through the mood and health of the unspeaking penguin.

It is a work of surreal quality that reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech writer Milan Kundera, set in a similar context and with the same feeling of oppressiveness, as well, of course, as the presence of a pet. There were times when I wondered what on earth the book was about, but I understand it better having reflected on it. Kurkov is definitely an author whose work I would like to explore further.

I would recommend this book to gain an insight into a very different literary tradition, and to trigger a donation to the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. Let’s hope the war is over soon and that justice prevails.

Non-fiction book review: “The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund De Waal

This was my my fourth non-fiction book of the year and, very helpfully, also my book club read for June (now only two behind!). I have to admit I was a little sceptical at first. It was suggested by one of my fellow book club members and I had not heard about it before. I thought it would be just another rich family  memoir, but it seemed to have a bit of history about it, so I was game.

The author is a British ceramicist whose grandmother was part of one of the richest Jewish families in Europe, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, before the Nazis confiscated their property and they were forced to flee their native Vienna in the late 1930s. At the start of his journey the author apparently knew very little of his family history and it is only through the discovery of a collection of ‘netsuke’ tiny Japanese carved figures of people and animals in ivory or wood, that he decides to explore further. The author was on an academic sabbatical in Japan, where his great uncle Iggy (Ignatius) lived when he sees the collection for the first time. He is fascinated by the netsuke and this prompts him to dig deeper into their history and how they came to be in his family.

The book does begin as something of a rich family memoir. Originally from Odessa, the accumulation of wealth through banking enables them to live variously in Paris and Vienna, mixing with the highest-calibre thinkers and artists of the day. It is Charles Ephrussi, an enthusiast for ‘japonisme’, which was popular at the time, who put together the collection of netsuke. Later, they would be considered more like minor trinkets (compared to other parts of the collection), played with by the children of the family, as taste for japonisme waned and the market became saturated with lower quality objects. Because of the family’s wealth and importance, the author has been able to compile a detailed history of the family and imagines the scenes and events at their various homes, the salons they held with the famous people of the day present. It is fascinating but a touch sterile for me.

As the narrative moves into the twentieth century, and the inevitable decline of the dynasty, I felt it became more interesting. The first world war changes everything, of course, for that stratum of society, but the author writes most movingly when describing the decade or so before the outbreak of the second world war, with the gradual demonising of Jews, particularly the wealthy ones. As various members of the family see the writing on the wall and flee the continent, the dynasty begins to break down. The final humiliation comes when the Nazis confiscate their mansion in Vienna and all its contents. The netsuke only survived this process because the family’s long-serving maid, Anna, who was kept on at the house, gradually spirited them away and hid them in her mattress. Later they were smuggled out of the country.

This part of the book is also most moving because it is within the author’s living memory almost, his grandmother having been one of those to flee Vienna, arriving in Kent with next to nothing and having to start her life again. De Waal also becomes increasingly reflective as the history gets closer to the time of the war and to his living family members. It is as if he becomes able to feel their pain. He is also philosophical about how relatively lucky his family were – yes, they lost everything (and they had a lot to lose), but they survived and prospered, unlike many other European Jews. Their wealth meant they were able to leave more easily than most. He is also deeply moved by the loyalty of Anna, the family maid, who risked her own life by trying to save something of the family’s collection, the netsuke.

I listened to this on audio and it was beautifully read by Michael Maloney, but it would have been useful to have the family tree that is in the print edition to refer back to as I did lose track of the members of each generation. The book won the Costa Book Award in the Biography category in 2010. Since its publication, some historians have challenged some of the facts in the book, I gather, for example suggesting the standing of the Ephrussi family has been overstated. I suspect some misrepresentation is inevitable in this kind of book, where the author has fleshed out bare facts with imaginings about day to day life, and this does not detract too much.

It is a fascinating account – recommended.

My next non-fiction read is a book I have had for a while now, Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions – a collection of essays and comment pieces. It is another big book, so I suspect I am not going to be catching up too easily on my non-fiction challenge for the year, but I plan to take it on my summer holidays so we’ll see!

Summer reading book review – “The Break” by Marian Keyes

The second holiday reading recommendation I’d like to share with you is The Break by Marian Keyes. For years I eschewed Marian Keyes (though I always enjoyed hearing her whenever she popped up on the radio) in the mistaken belief that her books were a bit too ‘chick-lit’ for me – I say this completely ironically, since I loathe that term – it’s so pejorative and patronising! I would argue all night that no genre is better or worse than any other, it’s all just about what you enjoy reading. I might just draw the line at ghost-written autobiographies by very young minor celebrities, but that would be a personal line, and I would be happy to be proven wrong. Back to Marian; my book club read Grown Ups a couple of years ago, after which I was completely hooked and vowed that I would work my way through all of her eighteen novels and five non-fiction books – I’ll write that again…EIGHTEEN novels! She has apparently sold more than 35 million books worldwide. She is one popular writer, and deservedly so.

As with Grown Ups I listened to The Break on audio, and I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t Marian herself narrating this time, but Aoife McMahon does an excellent job. The plot is simple but effective. Amy and Hugh are seemingly happily married with three daughters – Niamh is from Amy’s first marriage, Keira is their own and Sophie is her niece, who came to live with them after her own two parents (Amy’s feckless brother and his equally feckless Latvian girlfriend) separated and showed no ability to care for their daughter. Hugh hits a difficult patch after the death of his father and best friend, and announces to Amy that he wants to take a complete six month break. He doesn’t just want a holiday on his own, he wants to spend six months in Asia with a backpack living as if he was single, with all that this entails.

Naturally, this comes as a tremendous shock to Amy. By the time he tells her, Hugh has already made most of his plans and so there is little time for her to influence his decision. He insists that he loves her completely and fully intends to come back and resume their life as it was before, he just needs this ‘time out’. After he leaves, Amy goes through something like a bereavement, trying to come to terms with the practical and emotional implications of his actions. Amy’s family (sprawling, loving and a bit chaotic, typically Irish, you might say, and a common characteristic in Keyes’s work) has challenges of its own – her father has dementia, which puts a strain on the offspring, there are sibling rivalries and each of Amy’s daughters is going through their own turmoil, partly connected and partly unconnected to Hugh’s departure.

Amy has a job as a PR executive, working two days a week in London with her two partners in their small company. Life as a single parent therefore presents her with many practical challenges; even though the girls are old enough to look after themselves on one level, it is clear that they still need a lot of support. Amy’s life is busy and Hugh has left her in the lurch.

Amy’s friends encourage her to embrace her own bit of single life while Hugh is on the other side of the world having his fun. (Amy cannot help stalking his Facebook account and when she sees him with another woman, it is a devastating blow.) Amy’s relationship adventures turn out not to be as easy or exciting as might be expected, and neither do Hugh’s.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but needless to say, the book is not just about what each of them does while they are apart, but also what happens when Hugh returns, how they are changed and what the implications are for the relationship. Keyes keeps you guessing and it does not pan out quite how you expect. Part of this author’s skill, I think, is in taking the everyday mundane aspects of life and making out of them something special. It is so engaging because the characters, and therefore the events that befall them, could easily be us. There is an impressive cast of characters in this novel and yet they are all distinctive, well-drawn and multi-faceted. The narrator of the audiobook does very well also to give a slightly different voice twist to each one.

So, another ‘highly recommended’ for your summer reading!

#KeepKidsReading week

It’s been quite a big week in my household: my middle child reached 18, so that is now two reared successfully to adulthood! My eldest went off on his biggest solo travel trip to date, to the other side of the world. That’s been a challenge for me. When I was his age I had travelled often and for longer (without a mobile phone!) and I am only now appreciating what my poor parents must have gone through! And my youngest has this week started her GCSE exams (A levels start for my newly adult daughter next week). It is particularly stressful this year – in the UK it will be the first formal exams sat by students since 2019, the year before the pandemic. This has put enormous pressure on kids and teachers alike and I feel for all of them. If any of you have young people taking exams this summer, I wish them all the best of luck. And if there are any teachers reading this – THANK YOU, you have done an amazing job.

So blogging has taken something of a back seat for the last week or so. But with so much focus on young people it does feel like a good moment for another #KeepKidsReading week. I’ve read a few fantastic books for younger readers in the last couple of months and would love to share them with you. Throughout this week I’ll be reviewing Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean, Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, and the classic Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. So, do look out for my posts if you’re interested in any of those.

As I look at my daughters preparing to sit their exams, I feel blessed to have such great kids. I also realise how lucky they are to have parents who are reasonably well-read and have the time, resources and inclination to have exposed them to books from a young age. Not all kids are so fortunate.

And I am just a tad proud of myself too, for not giving up in the lean years when it looked like they were turning away from books. It is at this point that many parents just don’t know what to do to maintain their child’s interest in books. Keep the faith, they will come back to it. My 21 year old son, who in his teens once declared to me (to my horror!) that he hated books, now makes recommendations to me! Truly, I’m not being smug at all, just showing that they can come back from the brink with books if you just keep chipping away.

When I read some of my kids’ work, their essays, even revision notes, I feel absolutely convinced that the breadth of their vocabulary, their spelling skills and their ability to express themselves come from their having read widely and consistently throughout their young lives. I also know that for all of them, at this point in their lives, reading is a release from the tyranny of revision, it’s the thing they do to switch their brains off at night and help them get to sleep. It can be such a powerful stress-reliever in a world where they are under an obscene amount of pressure.

So, I hope you will find my reviews this week interesting. If you know a young person, there is no greater gift than the gift of reading so think about a book token for their birthday.

Book review – “Briefly Yours” by Cat English

A few months ago I read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and reviewed it on here. It was part of my 2021 reading challenge and for that month I’d set myself the challenge of reading some classic erotic fiction. The post must have got me noticed in certain quarters because shortly afterwards I was approached to participate in a book review tour. Now, this was my ‘first time’ so I agreed, rather excitedly! I may have been blogging for some time, but clearly there is a whole sector of book bloggers out there that I have never discovered before! They mostly inhabit Instagram and post short punchy reviews with lots of hashtags. (Note to self: must log into Insta again one day.)

Briefly Yours

Briefly Yours by Cat English is a non-fiction erotic memoir. ‘Cat’, her nom-de-plume and working pseudonym, is a call-girl, but she is no ordinary sex worker. It is very much a career choice which she has made in order to help fund her sister’s law degree and to support her passion, which is rescuing feral cats, feeding them, helping them to get well and arranging veterinary treatment, including neutering. Cat has worked in other sectors and in the book she takes time out from the sex work to try her hand at something more conventional, working in a department store. However, the lifestyle of the commuter and the bullying she is subjected to by her supervisor, are not worth the pitiful salary.

Cat’s life story is interwoven into her accounts of work at the parlour and many episodes of encounters with clients. She creates three separate worlds – the parlour, with the other women who work there, the clients and staff, a fun and credible cast of characters; her cat world, with all the feral creatures she names and cares for, with the help of her sister; and her family life, her mum, sister and brothers. She seems close to her family and they are aware of her lifestyle, even though she tries to keep it a secret generally from friends and neighbours. I would have liked to have had a little more sense of her sister’s gratitude – wow, what a sacrifice! Cat grew up on a council estate in the north west, so she is a down to earth girl who comes across as both deeply caring and pretty shrewd.

She deals with the issues around her sex work head-on. She invites the reader to set aside their prior assumptions and asks whether what she is doing is really any more exploitative than working for minimum wage in a dead-end job she hates. Whilst I was deeply uncomfortable with some of the issues she raised, it did open my eyes. It helps that she actually enjoys the work, both the sex and the customer service aspect (she meets people’s needs, and knows that she does it well). Some of the clients are ghastly, some are cruel and borderline violent (the set-up of the parlour brings with it a degree of protection), but Cat certainly feels like she has a degree of control. She has mixed feelings about the clients; some she really likes, others she has no respect for particularly if they have partners and children at home, but insisting their wives don’t understand them. There is a nice camaraderie in the parlour, but this is high-end, and therefore expensive. Even if you can accept prostitution at this level, one does wonder about the women who are doing it for much less, or to support a drug habit, or putting themselves at great risk on the streets. I found that quite difficult to get out of my head.

I suspect I am not the target audience for this book! I have to say though that I did enjoy it. It’s a light fun read. There is a lot of really bad erotic fiction out there, that is written for a certain kind of stimulation. I think this definitely better than most of the ‘written to a formula’ trash in that category. The sex scenes are very graphic (though not much more so than, say Luster or Queenie, even though those books would fall into a more literary category), but mostly they ring true. Cat writes well, actually, and with charm; she captures the array of clients really well and it feels authentic. I suspect she might not find the life of an author quite as lucrative as that of a call-girl, but I wish her well!

I was sent a complimentary advance copy of this book by Literally PR.

Reading challenge book review – “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

An aunt of mine, who moved with her husband to Australia in the 1970s, said that one of the things she missed from home was the British seasons. Australia moved from scorching summer to a milder greyer period between April and August (not very different to the typical British summertime!), seldom very cold or wet. I have always been fascinated by the changes in the light, the temperature, and nature more generally as the year progresses, so I cannot imagine what it must be like when the months pass with so little to distinguish them.

The snow that fell here in the north during the very cold snap at the end of November gave rise to some beautiful scenes with the most incredible light

Like many, I find the winter months challenging – it can be hard to maintain energy levels and motivation, particularly post-Christmas when one is facing into a long stretch of cold, wet and dark. But I appreciate and am grateful for this time of the year, for this marking of time. It is period which provides a uniquely reflective opportunity as our bodies want us to be less active, cultivate rest and, of course, read more! A Christmas Carol, the Dickens novella that I chose for the final month of my 2021 reading challenge, was the perfect book to sink into winter with.

I started it on Boxing Day, after the hurly-burly of Christmas preparation was finally over, after the meal was long-cooked and someone was taking over the reins in the kitchen. As a child, I always found Boxing Day such an anti-climax, of course, but now as a mother, I love it – the chance to put my feet up at last! When I sat down to read the book I felt deeply immersed in the season – the darkness, the warmth and protection of the interior domestic scenes, (the Cratchits and Scrooge’s nephew, that is, not the cold, lonely home of Scrooge). I read in the late afternoons as I sat down with a glass of something, or a hot cup of tea, as the dusk was falling and my neighbours’ lights were coming on, and I felt in the middle of a northern winter! I cannot imagine reading this book at Christmas time in Australia!

The visitations of the spirits of course, turn Scrooge from a miserable, lonely miser to a benevolent embracer of life and all the good things it has to offer. But in reading it for the first time in what must be many years I felt a deep and powerful sense of the importance not so much of the Christian religious themes but of more universal ideas around family, the importance of community, or caring for the less fortunate, and of rituals around food – the scene in the Cratchit’s household, particularly with the Christmas pudding is marvellous! This has a particular resonance for me as each year I gift a few of my neighbours a home-made Christmas pudding, so at the end of November, my kitchen resembles a Turkish bath thanks to all the steaming!

A Christmas Carol is a brilliant book – simple themes conveyed with imagination and economy. Like so many people, December was a very busy month of preparation and my reading suffered. This was the perfect reintroduction and I thoroughly enjoyed opening a Dickens again. It has made me want to go back and re-read all his other novels that I love so much. The size of my TBR pile is so great that that might be too much – next year’s reading challenge perhaps!

What is your ‘go to’ book at Christmas?

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