A little non-fiction for a change?

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Literary non-fiction is a genre that most of us rarely, if ever, dip into. There are thousands of non-fiction titles published every year in the UK and the bookshops are full of them, but look at the top-selling list in any given week and you will see that most of the top ten are cookbooks and autobiographies. 2017-02-01-11-42-32I’m not knocking either of these genres, I’m simply saying that literary non-fiction is a very tough genre to sell in. I read recently that the average non-fiction title in the US sells 250 copies a year (one for roughly every million people), or 2,000 copies over its lifetime. It makes you wonder why on earth you would write one! Many seem to be written by academics, journalists or people who have already established themselves in a chosen field and know they are writing for a particular niche. One striking thing about the genre, though, is that authors have a real passion for the topic, and the authenticity of the work is palpable.

 

The Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) is one of the top prizes in the world for non-fiction. I decided to make space in my reading life for more non-fiction this year and selected two from the 2016 shortlist: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson and East West Street by Philippe Sands, who was the winner of the prestigious prize (review to follow soon).

The issue of race, it seems to me, has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly difficult one for the United States, which I find peculiar given the country’s origins and the fact that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was a partly satirical fictional exploration of the issue, envisioning a community where segregation is reintroduced. I reviewed the book on this blog last year (read here) and described it as a complicated book, more extended essay than novel. Negroland is equally complex (as befits the topic perhaps) but is from a largely autobiographical perspective. The author gives an account of growing up in Chicago and then her early adulthood at university and beyond.

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Jefferson was born in 1947 and grew up at a time when segregation was still in place in parts of the United States. In the states where segregation had been abolished, discrimination still existed at every turn. Jefferson had the good fortune to be the daughter of educated parents who were relatively wealthy and enjoyed a reasonable social status; her father was a doctor and her mother a refined ‘society’ wife (insofar as black women could be ‘in’ society). Her parents strived to ensure their two daughters felt they could achieve just as much as any of their white peers and that if they worked hard they were just as entitled to the rewards of that success. They sent them to private schools and taught them about social protocols and manners, to make sure they could fit in.

For the two Jefferson girls, equality existed only at a superficial level, and it is clear that Margo grew up confused and ultimately troubled by the contradiction between the opportunities to which she was told she was entitled and her lived experience. She also explores the contradiction between the treatment and opportunities afforded to certain persons of colour (wealthier, educated types like her parents) and the majority, poorer (blacker?) people who remained at the bottom of the social heap and bore the contempt and the prejudice not only from whites but also, to some degree, higher class persons of colour. Thus, Margo found herself in the place she calls ‘Negroland’, not fully part of either the White or the Black community.

The author interweaves her autobiographical story with an exploration of parts of Black history and her own family history. The result is both a work of scholarship but also a highly personal account of life as a young black girl and woman coming of age in 1960s north-east America.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the personal story, though I found some of the historical material, particularly at the beginning, quite heavy-going. We read it in my book club and others enjoyed it less, wanting more of a narrative and less of the stream-of-consciousness. It’s definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in the topic or, like me, bemused by what is going on in the US on the race issue at this time.

If you have read Negroland: A Memoir I’d love to hear your views? Do you read much in the way of non-fiction?

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How are you getting on with your reading challenge?

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I know many people are following reading challenges at the moment – it’s becoming very popular. Not to be left out, I set my own at the beginning of the month, which you can find here  if you’d like to join me. I know, however, that many busy book-loving parents don’t get as much time to read as they would like, so my challenge was about reading deeper – enjoying, embracing, rekindling the reading passion – rather than reading more.

January’s challenge was to read a book with a child (or simply to read out loud if you don’t have a child to hand). This month I have been reading two books with my youngest daughter, who is now 10. First of all we read Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, which I reviewed here last week. We have also been reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

My daughter is still young enough that reading together is something we do regularly, although we are not in the habit of doing it as much as we ought to for the purposes of school (oops!). Partly because, well, the usual, life is just full, but also because now that she is in Year 6 and a pretty good reader, we just don’t need to as much, so it’s slipped off our agenda somewhat. It just happens, doesn’t it? One minute you’re reading ‘Spot’ every bedtime, the next you realise your kids have hardly looked at a non-textbook for months.

Doing it regularly this month, however, has been a joy. For both of us. It was so lovely when we were reading a particularly dramatic section in Time Travelling with a Hamster where it was so tense she begged that we keep reading because she didn’t think she’d be able to sleep without knowing what happened next! Needless to say, I gave in, even though we’d gone way beyond official bedtime as I was pretty keen to find out if they escaped too!

Time Travelling with a Hamster, is a brilliant book, so if you haven’t got hold of it for your 9-12 year olds yet, you must. It was the first book in my daughter’s primary school book club, which I run, so I felt I was cheating slightly, putting it down for my January challenge. So, we’ve also been reading Black Beauty. I remember reading this when I was my daughter’s age and it’s been wonderful coming back to it as an adult. It has brought back so many happy memories from my childhood, not just from reading the book, but that wonderful television series. Do you remember the music? If you click here it will take you to a youtube clip of the opening and closing credits – watching it made me cry, it’s such a lovely piece of music, particularly the end theme with the choir. And that beautiful horse! It’s from 1972 so the TV show must have prompted me to read the book, as I would have been only 4 at the time. So, TV can be a good thing sometimes!

I hope you are enjoying reading with your child this month. I’d love to hear about it.

If you haven’t started yet, it’s not too late – maybe choose something together this weekend? You don’t have to finish by the end of January; we’re pretty relaxed about that sort of thing here at myfamilyandotherbooks.com!

 

Are ‘mature’ Mummies allowed to read YA (young adult) fiction?

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Well, this Mummy did and really enjoyed it! It wasn’t, like, really obvs. (sorry, can’t resist a bit of punctuation, which I fear may become extinct in my lifetime) since the book concerned was a) written by someone of my own generation, and b) the cover doesn’t give too much away, so not totes embarrassing to be seen reading in the company of my daughter and her BFFs.

(Enough teen-speak now, I think, especially since I’m rubbish at it.)

I got an advance copy of The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr from Net Galley. This is a website you can subscribe to, free of charge, and it gives you a chance to get electronic copies of books (so you need an e-reader device), usually ahead of publication. In return you are simply asked to leave a review of the book on the website. I guess it gives publishers an idea of how the book might be received, and informs their marketing. The books available are mostly by less well-known writers.

Emily Barr has written a number of novels, mostly in what is often called the “chick-lit” genre, though I think this is her first venture into YA fiction. I first came across her many years ago when she gained a bit of fame for being a very young journalist at The Guardian and for having a relationship with a senior MP. I remember enjoying her columns as she was a very witty and very clever writer. Here are my thoughts on the book, which was published earlier this month and I note is widely available, including in my local supermarket, so being heavily pushed.

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Seventeen year-old Flora Banks is the narrator and central character. At the age of 10, Flora developed anterograde amnesia. This condition means that Flora has no short-term memory; she cannot remember what happened even a few minutes ago. Her parents micro-manage her life and Flora has various techniques and strategies to help her. For example, she writes things on her arms and hands that she needs to remember and keeps detailed notebooks about past events in her life which enable her to contextualise the present.

Flora is at once a reliable and unreliable narrator: the former because she tells things directly as she sees and experiences them, but unreliable because she cannot give us any background to the story, apart from what she recites from her notebooks. For example, it is some time before we learn what caused Flora’s condition and this is an important key to the story because it helps to explain the motivations of other characters in the novel. It is an interesting narration: there is a great deal of repetition as Flora struggles to memorise events, which I found irritating at first, but then it also enables the reader to empathise with Flora and see how life might be from her perspective.

Flora leads a sheltered life in Penzance until two events shake up her mundane existence: first, she attends a going-away party at her best friend Paige’s house. Paige’s boyfriend, Drake, is moving to Norway to study. At the end of the party Flora finds herself on the beach in the company of Drake, who kisses her and expresses feelings for her. This has a profound effect on Flora and becomes the singular event of the book’s title that Flora can permanently remember.

“I kissed Drake on the beach. I am alive in that memory.”

The second event, is that Flora’s parents have to go to Paris to see her brother Jacob who is dangerously ill. They don’t reveal the details of the illness and promise to return home soon. They leave Flora at home, for what they say will be just a few days with all her meals and strict instructions, and arrange for Paige to stay at the house to take care of her. Paige, however, has found out about the kiss with Drake and in a fit of pique decides that she will not Flora-sit. Home alone, Flora’s highly ordered life begins to unravel. Most significantly, Flora fails to take her medication. Now obsessed with Drake and the kiss and the conviction that his love for her will somehow begin a rehabilitation process (because the kiss is such a powerful memory) Flora discovers a resourcefulness she never knew she had, and takes herself off to Arctic Norway to find Drake, all the while convincing her parents that she is still at home with Paige. Flora then has an epic adventure.

Once I got into it, I really enjoyed this book. It is a very cleverly-crafted piece of fiction. Flora is a fantastic creation and I can really see how both she and Paige would be appealing characters to YA readers. Whilst Flora’s problems are very rare and very specific, I think there is a wider theme here about parenting and how, in seeking to protect our teens from the dangers the world presents, we may in fact deny them the very experiences that will enrich their lives. Flora has no capacity to weigh up risk so she is an unusual case (or maybe not!!!???), but the people who aid and abet her (Paige and Jacob) do have that ability, which suggests we have to trust the decisions young people make.

So, a thought-provoking read, which I will be passing on to my youngsters, and recommend to a non-YA audience too, even mature Mummies and Daddies! It’s Zoella next for me – now that WILL be embarrassing! 😉

If you or any young people you know have read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

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A tale for our times?

This week I’d like to tell you about a book I read over the Christmas holidays. It was not a cheerful book, but it certainly made me reflect and think, as I am wont to do at that time of the year. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention as it is a beautiful, powerful and challenging exposition of an issue which is rarely out of the headlines: the movement of large numbers of people from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

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Listeners to Radio 4’s PM news programme will be familiar with Emma Jane Kirby and her reporting on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In her dispatches she has returned frequently to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and north Africa (Tunisia and Libya). It has become infamous in recent years as the target destination for North Africans fleeing chaos, poverty, war and social disintegration in their own countries, and looking for a more settled way of life in Europe. Mostly, they flee on vessels that are barely seaworthy and thousands of people have died en route.

The book is written from the point of view of a local optician on the island who became deeply and personally embroiled in the crisis when he, his wife and six of their friends found themselves rescuing dozens of stranded and desperate migrants. They were on a sailing trip and were awoken early one morning by a noise they thought initially was coming from excited gulls. In fact the noises were human screams and cries. A flimsy boat, carrying possibly hundreds of people, was sinking and its occupants were drowning.

The eight friends set about a desperate rescue mission, pulling as many people as they could from the sea, dragging them onto their own small boat, and endangering its stability in the process. They rescued dozens before help finally arrived, in the form of the coastguard, who immediately ordered them to cease their mission, as they were putting their own vessel at risk of sinking, and to return to port. The friends do as they are told, bringing those they have rescued to safety on land. They are haunted, however, by the images of what they have witnessed at sea, the deaths of so many whom they did not, could not have, rescued.

The book is very short but it packs a mighty punch. It tells the human story behind the headlines, and this is what has been so powerful about Emma Jane’s reporting on the issue. Through its intense focus on the thoughts and feelings of one individual who played a direct part in saving the lives of so many, it brings to light, not the social and political challenges of this terrible and desperate phenomenon that is covered so extensively in our news, but the personal human catastrophe for those lost, and their loved ones, and those on the island of Lampedusa for whom the crisis is part of their daily life.

It’s the ordinariness that comes through; the optician lives a modest but happy life in a beautiful part of the world. He is not wealthy but he provides a valuable service to his community and wants for little. Like most of us. His small life is completely upended by the events of that terrible day, which is described in vivid detail. He, his wife and his friends are changed irrevocably by their experience and the latter part of the book is an account of how he is transformed.

It is a powerful piece of writing; with a journalist’s eye the author picks out the details which tell the story – for example, the incongruity of the donated clothing worn by the migrants at the reception centre. They have nothing and depend for everything on what people have given.

This book provides a powerful insight to one of the biggest news stories of our age, where the people involved are often objectified and dehumanised. Should be required reading for politicians.

A book for reading in Winter

2017-01-06-13-49-46Parts of the country have been struck by a severe cold snap this last couple of days; on my walk yesterday I certainly felt the scenery was quite bleak. Yesterday was the end of Advent, twelfth night, and a natural end, for me, of a period of reflection: about the year that has gone and the one that is to come. In June last year I started this blog and I have loved posting every week about my reading and hearing from readers what you have enjoyed. In the past 12 months I have read over 30 books, the bulk of those since starting this blog, and that feels like quite an achievement. I hope to improve on that this year.

My top five favourite reads last year were:

  1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (shortlisted for the Man Booker and many other prizes in 2015)
  2. Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy (shortlisted for the Man Booker last year)
  3. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (published 2014)
  4. The Green Road, by Anne Enright (shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015)
  5. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (published in 2015)

My fifth choice was the book I was reading this time last year, when 2015 became 2016. I wrote a review of it ages ago, but haven’t posted it here yet, mainly, I think, because it just hasn’t felt right. It is a book for midwinter. And that is why I am choosing to tell you about it now.

h-is-for-hawk-imgThis book was a long slow read for me, but in a way that suits the type of book that it is. It is an account of bereavement. In that sense it bears reading over a long period because it covers a period of more than a year following the death of the author’s father.

It’s fascinating because it’s not a traditional account of loss; it’s about how a grieving daughter finds a coping strategy in the acquisition and training of a goshawk. Goshawks are hunting birds, rare in the wild in the UK. They have a long history in the tradition of falconry but, according to the author, are notoriously difficult to train. Helen Macdonald took up falconry in her childhood and this was a hobby she shared with her photographer father, who was, by her account, something of an introvert, a man who enjoyed his own company and loved the outdoors.

The book begins with an account of her father’s passing and its initial impact on the family. The rest of the book is about her journey in coming to terms with her grief. She acquires the goshawk and sets about training it, using as her guide a book published in the 1950s by an underachieving schoolmaster (T H White) who wrote of his own frustrations at trying to tame and train a goshawk; ultimately he failed and his goshawk escaped. Helen Macdonald encounters her own fair share of ups and downs (excuse the pun!) in her attempts to train her goshawk and this is an apt metaphor for her grieving process.

This book is not an easy read, but it’s ultimately a rewarding one. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2014 and the Costa Book Award in the same year and has been highly acclaimed. It is an impressive achievement. Birds are not really my thing but I found it fascinating to learn about this creature. The accounts of the natural environment are stark – mostly nature is conveyed as hostile and barren, rather like the world of grief the author finds herself immersed in, and very like the goshawk, who is not at all a friendly or sympathetic character in this tale.

The emotions in this book are quite raw, so any reader who has experienced a recent loss themselves could either find it very cathartic or very painful. Grief is not objectified, we are there living it with the author.

I’d recommend this book. It’s a good one for long winter nights, but not for the beach.

If you have read H is for Hawk did you find it bleak or uplifting?

What were your top reads of 2016?

Christmas gift ideas – children’s fiction

christmas-1869902_1280My children’s Christmas stockings would be incomplete without at least one book – whether they want one or not! – and they can be sure that this family tradition will continue even when they are older. Call it my personal crusade. I am also the book-giver for all the little people in my family; with all their senses under assault at this time of the year, I love the idea of giving something that can provide a little space and calm, and a retreat into their own imaginations.

If that’s you too, or if you would like to consider giving a book or two this Christmas, I’ve pulled together a few ideas for you. I’ve tried to cover a wide-ish age range, but by and large I have not distinguished between genders.

But first, a book for Christmas Eve…The Night Before Christmas

2016-12-08-16-00-112016-12-08-16-01-23This poem was first published in 1823, and is written by Clement C Moore. Despite its age, it is very accessible and is an absolute joy. We have been reading this to our kids on Christmas Eve since they were toddlers and they still look forward to it even though they are 10, 12 and 15! There are many versions available – ours is a rather quirky one (designed by William Wegman), where the models in the pictures are dogs dressed up! The pictures are key to the children’s enjoyment of it, so choose a version that is beautiful to look at and will become a family heirloom.

“‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

 

 

Pre-schoolers/Infant School

Little kids are just so wonderful to buy books for, because they are open to everything! Here are some titles that have caught my eye.

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Zog and the Flying Doctors by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, is the latest publication from this literary super-duo. Marvellous illustrations which are instantly recognisable and a fantastic rhyming story. I recommend starting a child’s Donaldson/Scheffler collection early.

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith caused a sensation when it was published last year, and rightly so. A beautiful story with the most amazing illustrations it deserves a place in every home, children or not! The hardback is a thing of beauty, but there is also now a paperback version which is a little cheaper.

Finally, two books from one of my personal favourite children’s author/illustrators, Oliver Jeffers (of How to Catch a Star fame). First, A Child of Books is a collaboration with Sam Winston, published this year. Is a reminder that CHILDREN LOVE BOOKS despite the seemingly relentless onslaught of electronics. They can both lose and find themselves in books in the most joyous way. It’s short but beautiful. And The Day the Crayons Came Home, collaboration with Drew Daywalt, is the second Crayons book revealing that forgotten, broken and lost crayons have lives too, in case you didn’t know. It’s hilarious, so adults will appreciate reading it to kids too. The book is a series of postcards to Duncan from his variously scattered crayons, reminding him they still exist and have needs. Genius!

 

Primary school age

There are some cracking books around at the moment. I will be buying Time Travelling with My Hamster by Ross Welford for someone, because I really want to read it myself! Recommended for 9+ it is about a 12 year old boy who travels back in time in an attempt to save his late father’s life. A bit Back to the Future-ish, maybe, with some tricky themes, but from what I have seen, all handled sensitively and with some humour. It has been shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award.

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The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo, was also a prize winner when it was first published 30 years ago, and a new edition has been released this year. Recommended for 9-12 years it combines myth and magic and ancient folklore, slightly gentler fantasy fiction for the post-Harry Potter generation, perhaps.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. Tan is a brilliant illustrator and writer and this book may especially suit the more reluctant reader. It has lots of pictures, a bit of a graphic novel for younger kids, and some of the pages have only one paragraph, all beautifully laid out so it’s not daunting. A wonderful book about what really goes on behind closed doors.

 

Secondary school age

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The Girl of Ink and Stars by Karin Millwood Hargrave is recommended for ages 11-13 and concerns a girl, Isabella, who lives on a remote island whose inhabitants are forbidden to leave, until one of Isabella’s friends vanishes and she decides to go in search of her. There is myth and magic here, but interwoven with themes of family, friendship and liberty, more suited to the slightly older age group.

Girl Online: Going Solo by Zoe Sugg, on my pre-teen daughter’s must-have list! You’ve got to love Zoella, an icon for the generation which gets so much of its entertainment from YouTube. My girls seem obsessed! I was reading Jane Austen at their age, and whilst this may not be my first choice of reading for them, I also know it’s unwise to be judgemental about their preferences; I have blogged here before about how to keep kids reading and teens present a particular challenge, so whatever works, I say! Take a deep breath and stuff it in their stocking!

I’ll be Home for Christmas by various authors. Many teens will be developing their political and moral values as they become more aware of the world around them. It’s well known that having a sense of gratitude for the things we have can help with emotional well-being and with our teens under so much pressure from social media and advertising, this book may be a useful antidote. It’s a collection of short stories and poems (perfect for the more limited attention span!) on the theme of ‘Home’ and for every book sold one pound goes to the homelessness charity Crisis. Contributors include poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and YA authors Cat Clarke and Holly Bourne.

So, that’s the fiction sorted. Later in the week, I’ll have some non-fiction suggestions for you, and next week I’ll give you some ideas for books for grown-ups. 

What books will you be giving this Christmas?

 

Reading hack #1 – book reviews save you time

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I’ve blogged here before about how time vanishes and that if you’re a reader it can be so frustrating when it takes ages to read a book. Well, I would like to demonstrate that reading book reviews, rather than eating into more of your precious time, can actually save you time. Bear with me!

First, time is precious, so you don’t want to waste valuable reading time on something you’re not going to enjoy, right? And, if you’re like me, you don’t like giving up on books. I have to really dislike a book before I’ll give up on it. If it’s just that I’m not getting into it then I only allow myself to give up by promising that I’ll come back to it later; I felt able to re-shelve Zadie Smith’s White Teeth a few years ago after making this bargain! So, following a book reviewer you trust or who is on the same wavelength as you can help you choose more wisely.

Second, book reviews can help you engage with the conversation about a book even if you haven’t read it. Do you remember those How to bluff your way in… books? Great for appearing informed at dinner parties/interviews/meetings! Seriously, though, they can help you put things in context. You can watch those bookish Sky Arts TV programmes or listen to the high-brow radio shows and still feel part of it because you know something about the books being discussed.

Third, it can give you background and context about a book so you already have a bit of knowledge about it before you start. A book review can set a scene or give you some of the themes to look out for, thereby enhancing your appreciation of a book. Perhaps even give you some good angles for your book group!

books-1655783_1280There are so many books published that you may find people in your usual circle haven’t read the same things as you. But you will always find book review websites (whose authors would love you to post comments or engage in conversation, hint, hint!), or online reading communities, who have read your favourite most recent read. Sometimes, if I read a book I love (or loathe, though these are very few) I’m just bursting to talk about it with someone. I can always do that online.

Do you enjoy reading book reviews? If so, why? Or if not, why not?

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