Children’s Summer Reading Challenge – Animal Agents

Last week I posted here about my July reading challenge, which was to go along to your local library and select a book. I couldn’t resist the appeal of three titles (as usual!) and found myself uncertain about which to tackle first (I decided on Evan Davis’s Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it in the end and I’m loving it!) This month’s challenge is linked with the annual Summer Reading Challenge aimed at  primary-age children, which is launched in libraries this weekend. So, if you have children or grandchildren it’s a cheap, rewarding and wholesome activity you can do with them.

Animal AgentsChildren these days have so many distractions which can take them away from reading; they seem to be so busy with out of school activities, have more homework than ever before and, of course, there are the digital distractions…don’t even get me started. But reading is such an important activity for them:

  • it supports their ability to sustain concentration, which, in a world of instant gratification and over-stimulation, is a crucial skill,
  • it is an aid to relaxation, by providing downtime, taking them away from social pressures,
  • it can help with their imaginative and creative development – good writers are usually good readers, and
  • it helps their literacy skills – time spent reading may be just as if not more valuable then learning about the rules of grammar and sentence structure (IMHO!). And is far more interesting.

Reading takes kids into new worlds, it helps them learn to be alone, another important skill in building their mental health resislience, and it gives them access to experiences that they don’t have in real life. The beauty of the Summer Reading Challenge is that all books count, so if you have a reluctant reader, they can still get rewards for non-fiction, reference books, science books, there is no judgement of their chosen material. This year, there is also an online link where kids can sign up, create a profile, review the books they’ve read, and generally share their thoughts. They can do it all here.

If you are reading this you are probably a keen reader yourself, so I don’t need to tell you about the benefits, of course. The trick is getting the reading habit embedded in our children’s lives from the outset, and that is where the Summer Reading Challenge is so good. This year’s theme is Animal Agents,  a group of crime-busting creatures, beautifully illustrated by Tony Ross (of Little Princess fame). The idea is that for each book children read they get a smelly sticker and a clue that will help them solve a mystery.

So, if you’re kids have or are about to break up for the summer holidays and you’re looking for something to fill in the gaps, get along to the local library and sign up. This is my last year at primary school so I hope my 11 year-old will embrace it, even if it’s just for old time’s sake!

 

How easy do you find it to keep your children reading as they get older?

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Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was everywhere when it first came out last year, surprising since it was written by a little known author and published by a relatively small independent publisher. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and was the Waterstones Book of the Year. I was very keen to read it but it seemed to take a long time to be issued in paperback, so I’ve been hanging on for a while.

The Essex Serpent imgThe book is set mostly in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter in the 1890s and the action takes place over the course of a year. The central dynamic of the plot is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a woman approximately in her late 30s, who at the start of the novel is newly widowed, and William (Will) Ransome, the local minister. Will is happily married to Stella and they have three children, while Cora is happily widowed! It seems hers was a fairly loveless marriage in which she felt constrained and imprisoned and her husband appears to have been somewhat older than her. The lack of intimacy in the marriage is indicated by the fact they had only one child, Francis, and that he is an unusual boy (for Cora “nothing shamed her as much as her son”), who is almost certainly autistic.

Once she becomes widowed, Cora is able to follow her passion for natural science, and she moves out of London to Essex. There she becomes captivated by a local myth, a mysterious serpent that villagers feel is responsible for unnatural happenings, including unexplained deaths, crop failures, madness and distressed livestock. Cora first encounters Will on one of her forest walks, when the two rescue a sheep from a bog. They later meet socially and thereafter strike up an increasingly intimate friendship. The book becomes about the development of their relationship against a backdrop of events connected with the serpent, with the illness of Will’s wife, and Cora’s relationships with other friends, including that of Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is clearly in love with her.

Whilst the book is essentially about relationships and the nature of love (it is explored in many forms) it is also about a clash of worlds. Firstly, the old versus the modern – it is no coincidence the book is set on the eve of the 20th century – and science versus religion, where Cora and Will have some of their most passionate debates. There is also reason versus superstition; the villagers fear the Essex Serpent, whereas Will finds his parishioners’ fears almost pagan in tone, and Cora wants to prove the existence of the serpent, as some sort of lost creature.

Perry also explores the position of women, from Cora, the scientist, for whom marriage had “so degraded her expectations of happiness” and for whom widowhood and thus the single life had “freed her from the obligation to be beautiful”, to Stella the model dutiful Victorian wife and mother, afflicted by a quintessentially 19th century illness. There is also Martha, Cora’s maid (although her exact position in the household slightly defies definition!), also a political activist who utilises the connections she has made through Cora to further her Marxist leanings. In many ways the themes of the novel are very modern indeed – Martha’s campaigning for suitable social housing for the poor of London is resonant of a very 21st century problem. It’s also a very erotic novel, in the Gothic sense, without being explicit; there are many tensions below the surface and some of these do not get fully resolved, which is actually quite true to life when you think about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly. It gripped me to the end. It’s a novel rich in themes, rich in its descriptive power and rich in its evocation of time and place.

If you have read this much talked-about book, I’d love to know what you thought of it.

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July reading challenge – something from the library

You know summer is on its way when the local library announces the annual Summer Reading Challenge! Aimed at children of primary school age in the UK it is a great way of getting kids engaged in books (any books!) and giving them rewards for achieving certain reading goals. I love the way the organisers come up with different themes each year, and interesting activity packs that provide a surprising amount of diversion. This year the theme is Animal Agents and it’s being launched next week, so do look out for it if you have primary age children. I’ll be writing more about it once it’s launched so look out for a future blog on the topic.

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In the meantime, it’s the beginning of the month so it must be time for this month’s reading challenge! With the holiday season upon us, June’s challenge was to read a literary travel book. I chose On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy, and posted my review earlier this week, which you can read here.

This month’s challenge is to go to the local library and pick out a book (the challenge will be to keep it to just one!) and to read it before its due date. I have had a deep passion for libraries since I was a child (I was lucky that my mother took me regularly) and believe firmly that they provide an essential service. I am a compulsive book-buyer, but there is no doubt books can be expensive and what if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like the book? For the old and the young and for those on fixed or low incomes, libraries may be the only viable source of books. Not only that, but libraries provide a host of other services: librarians are information specialists and can help you find things out, they are often at the centre of a community providing reading groups, children’s book clubs, places to sit when it’s cold, places to study where it’s quiet, access to computers (not everyone has one at home) and of course reference books which you may not necessarily want to buy. Need I go on?

You will gain much from a visit to your local library. I came away with a whole bunch of leaflets about things to do over the summer, theatre guides, etc, a couple of guidebooks on Portugal (where I’ll be heading in August) as well as three books:

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013, and caught my eye as I love Indian literature, and having just read about Devla Murphy’s travels in the south of the country, my interest was piqued anew. It’s set in Calcutta in the 1960s and ’70s and is about two brothers, very close as children, whose lives take dramatically different paths as historical events unfold around them. I was also drawn to The Art of Flight by Frederik Sjoberg which I think is a kind of memoir, structured as a number of short essays and prose pieces about the natural world. Sjoberg is a Swedish writer I’ve never heard of, but the book looks interesting. Finally, I had reserved a copy of Evan Davis’s newly-published book Post-truth: why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it, after spotting it in the bookshop recently. Evan Davis has for years been one of my favourite journalists because he is warm, watchable, connects well with the viewer and is fantastically clever. He has an ability to cut to the essence of an issue and frequently outsmarts even the most nimble interviewees, so I’m interested in his take on this cultural shift we seem to be experiencing in politics.

I want to read all of these now, so I’m not sure which I will take on for the July challenge. I’m off on a train journey to London tomorrow, so it might well be the one which weighs least!

Have you picked up anything interesting from the library recently?

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Book review: “On a Shoestring to Coorg” by Dervla Murphy

I selected this book for my June reading challenge. June was a slow month for reading for me – half term, plus running my son to and from school for exams ate into my time. So, it took me a while to get through this book. That said, I think it’s genuinely a slow book to read, rather like the unhurried travelling that takes place within the pages. I was very specific in my challenge for the month, which was to read a literary travel book, not a guidebook. I am somewhat perturbed by the preponderance of ‘pack as much into as little as possible’-type travel guides that I see all over the bookshops: the 48 Hours in… series is popular, but the New York Times now has a range of 36 hours in… various European capitals! I’ve spent longer than that in the railway stations and airports of various European cities on my travels in the past! Art imitates life, it is true, and that is the nature of life these days. I feel sure this will be to our detriment, ultimately, but perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way at some point.

On a Shoestring to Coorg imgIf, like me, you find yourself a little nostalgic for an era when travel meant slowing down, getting to know a place and its people  (rather than just taking a selfie with a local and posting to Instagram), and immersing yourself in the new environment, then Dervla Murphy could be the travel writer for you. In On a Shoestring to Coorg, Murphy travels for the first time with her five-year old daughter, Rachel. They travel scarily light (I would take more stuff on a day out when my kids were younger!) with very little money and are dependent on the kindness and hospitality of people they meet, including a number of British ex-pats, who have made India their home in the post-colonial era.

Murphy confesses at the outset to being not especially enamoured of India generally, and openly expresses what she sees as the hypocrisy implicit in Hinduism and the caste system which she feels keeps so many in poverty and destitution. (You have to remember this was written in 1976). However, she and Rachel fall in love with the tiny region of Coorg (in southern India), with its continued observance of many traditions (which she sees as an indicator of the society’s wellbeing), the warmth of its people and the beauty of the landscape.

“Seldom in the 1970s is folk-dancing performed for fun – not self-consciously, to preserve customs, or cunningly, to please tourists. But my pleasure can never be unalloyed when I chance upon such fragile and doomed links with the past. One knows that before Rachel is grown even Coorg will have opted for that pseudo-culture which ‘kills time’ (grimly significant phrase) but leaves the sprit starving.”

They travel further south to Kerala, which Murphy also loves. As the book progresses you get the sense of Murphy settling into the journey more, as she adapts to travelling with her young companion where, previously, this very unusual and idiosyncratic traveller was accustomed to being alone and not having anyone depend upon her. She writes more and more of the landscape:

“Beyond the palmy islands across the bay the sun was sinking in a red-gold sky and when it had gone – so swiftly – a strange amber sheen lay on the water and I felt very aware of the drama of day and night: something that passes us by in the twilit north.”

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It is a meandering but engaging read, where you very much travel with the author and her daughter and feel the pace of their journey. This is a way of travelling that most of us no longer do. It feels very much like a bygone era and yet is only 40 years ago. The pace of change in all our lives all across the globe has altered so dramatically in that relatively short time. It felt good to slow right down with this book. If you fantasise about long slow travelling (with or without your children) you will find this an interesting read and after reading it you will definitely want to go to Coorg!

Do you have any travel writers to recommend? Are there any young contemporary travel  writers you enjoy who take the ‘slow’ approach?

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New books this summer

Summer is an important time of the year in the publishing calendar; it’s when a lot of us are starting to think about what we might be packing in our suitcases as our thoughts start to turn to holidays. I recognise that this might be a distant dream for those of you with small children as they will need to be constantly watched, managed or entertained. This was certainly the case for me when mine were small, but now that they are older I really savour the selection process – I make a ritual visit to the bookshops (as if I needed an excuse!), peruse the new titles, consider the special offers and try to work out how much each book weighs and how  many I can afford to pack!

So, if you recognise this sort of behaviour, I thought you might like to know what’s new and what’s hot in publishing this season. Arundhati Roy has been given a lot of attention in recent weeks as she publishes what is only her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. (She was speaking here in Manchester last week and I’m so cross because I wasn’t very well and couldn’t go!) Her first novel The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize twenty years ago. Since then, she has been best known for her activism and writings on various causes both domestic and international . So, there is a great deal of excitement about this novel and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Recent terrorist incidents in the UK have made many Brits aware of the need to build the community cohesion, which I think many of us had taken for granted. Last week saw the first year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right extremist. Her husband, the ever-dignified Brendan Cox has published a book Jo Cox: More in Common, the title of which recalls her now famous House of Commons maiden speech where she reminded us that as human beings we have more in common than that which divides us. I expect this to be a very emotional but ultimately uplifting read.

You might not want to take a hardback on holiday, so I’m delighted that The Essex Serpent, the debut novel from Sarah Perry, is now available in paperback. It was first published last year, and has had fantastic reviews. The paperback has been a long time coming, but this is a must-read.

I posted here last week about my ambivalence towards thrillers, but they dominate the bestseller lists week in, week out, so clearly many people love them. One of the most popular of recent years is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (which I’m currently listening to on Audio). Paula has just published her latest book Into the Water which has had some solid reviews and is selling well in mainstream retailers. It strikes me as the obvious beach read!

Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (published in 1999) is one of my favourite books of all time. Her latest novel New Boy is part of an intriguing project whereby a number of authors have retold a Shakespearean story in a contemporary setting. New Boy is about Osei, an 11-year old Ghanaian boy, son of a diplomat posted to Washington DC, and his relationship with a girl in his class, Dee. Osei is the only black child in the school and his friendship with Dee makes another boy, Ian, extremely jealous…

Finally, for now (I’m not sure your TBR piles can take much more!) The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (ed.) caught my eye on a recent trip to London as it had a prominent display in the window of a smart bookshop. It’s a collection of essays exploring the theme of immigration to the UK. The writers are all emerging black, Asian and minority ethnic, looking at why people come to Britain, why they stay and and what life is like for them. It could well be essential reading.

Looking at what I’ve picked out in the above list, it strikes me that there is a bit of a theme there too. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the horrors and tragedies we have been witnessing in the UK in the last few weeks and months. It preys on the minds of many of us, I suspect.

What new publications have caught your eye?

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“Everything Everything” by Nicola Yoon

Everything Everything, first published in 2015 to great acclaim, was reissued in 2017, after the novel was made into a film, and my edition shows a still from the movie with our two main protagonists, Maddy and Olly, gorgeously pictured on the front cover. It’s a YA novel which I selected for my May reading challenge, having bought it for my teenage daughter a few weeks ago (she hasn’t read it yet!), and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, especially when, leafing through, the chapters looked a bit short and I saw that there were several pages with line-drawn illustrations of, for example, diary entries, notes from an exercise book, emails, set out as if they were on a screen, text conversations, etc. Hmm, I thought, all designed to sustain the digital native’s interest! Well, as is so often the case when I stray off my well-beaten literary track, I was truly humbled.

2017-06-21 11.08.32The novel opens with our central character Maddy’s eighteenth birthday. She celebrates this with her mother and her nurse, Carla; Maddy suffers from severe allergies and lives an isolated existence in her hermetically sealed home, which she has not left for many years, so these two women provide the only relationships she really has. Maddy is home schooled, receiving almost all her tuition over Skype from various tutors. Occasionally, they are allowed to tutor her in person, but only after they spend a period of time in a decontamination unit in the house, to ensure Maddy does not come into contact with any pathogens or foreign particles which might harm her. Maddy’s father and older brother were killed in an accident when Maddy was a baby and she and her mother are therefore incredibly close.

Maddy is a voracious reader and in the absence of a lived experience of the world she has framed all her perception of life outside the bubble of her home, and her tiny circle of human contact, from the books she has read. Whilst she is initially reasonably content with her life, accepting its limitations and appreciating the love of her mother and Carla, her love of books is an early hint of her desire to embrace the world. Early on, we learn that she has taught herself not to want things she cannot have:

“Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.”

But then she meets Olly, when he moves into the house next door with his parents and sister, and everything (everything) changes:

“Maddy knows that this pale half-life is not really living.”

Olly has his own troubles: his father is a violent alcoholic who terrorises the rest of the family. Olly and Maddy begin to communicate by text and email, and it is clear that not only are they deeply attracted but that each fulfils an unmet need in the other. A cascade of events follows which will expose the inexorable pull of the world to the young and vulnerable Maddy, and the pointlessness of an anxious parent’s attempts to protect her child from all risk.

It is a coming-of-age novel, in that we see a young woman separating from her mother, but it is also a great novel for a parent coming to terms with the coming of age of their kids! To that extent, it is an instructive read for parties on both sides of the debate: the older generation can see how important it is for our youngsters to live, love and to learn for themselves, but the young can also see the parent’s perspective, Maddy’s mother’s fear of losing something (everything) so precious to her when she has already experienced so much loss in her life (her husband and son).

It’s a cracking story, with some clever plotting, and great themes which are beautifully handled for a younger readership. It’s well-written and well-crafted and the line drawings do add to the experience! There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s very subtly and sensitively done. Recommended for parents and teenagers alike.

If you have read this book or watched the movie, would you recommend it for teenagers? Could boys and girls alike enjoy it?

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June reading challenge – a literary travel book

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We have just booked our family summer holiday and so I’m delighted that June’s reading challenge is to read a travel book, not a guidebook, but a literary travel book. I’m certain there will be plenty of titles to choose from in your local charity bookshop, if you’d care to join me.

2017-06-14-13-19-11.jpgI’ve decided to pick a long-neglected title from my well-populated ‘not yet read’ bookcase – On A Shoestring To Coorg: an experience of Southern India by Dervla Murphy. I bought it as part of a set of three some years ago, and of the trio I only read Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by bicycle. I loved that book: Murphy cycled across Europe to India, through countries like Afghanistan and Iran, before they were devastated by conflict. Sadly, these wonderful and fascinating places will probably not now be visited by travellers for many years so this book provides a vicarious experience that most of us will never be able to have.

Last summer, I watched a wonderful documentary about Murphy on a long-haul flight to New York, where we spent our holiday last year, and I was fascinated once again. Murphy is a complete one-off, somewhat eccentric, perhaps, but undoubtedly fearless and someone who has always pushed the boundaries. She is now 85 and still lives in Co. Waterford in Ireland. On her last trip in 2011 she visited the Gaza Strip.

Murphy has one daughter and On A Shoestring is about a trip she took with her then 5 year-old child. This would no doubt have been been considered a very reckless act in 1973! I wonder if she did it during term-time…?

Everything Everything imgMay’s reading challenge was fairly straightforward, to read a YA novel, and I expected to zip through Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. Alas, half term and ferrying my eldest to and from GCSE exams has rather cut into my reading time this last few weeks, so I was still reading it a few days into June. However, I have now completed it and will post my review here next week. I thorougly enjoyed it and recommend it highly for YAs and OAs (older adults?!) alike. Look out for my review and let me know your thoughts if you or any teenagers you know have read it.

 

 

I would love for you to join me in my reading challenge this month. What literary travel books do you fancy reading?

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