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?

If you have enjoyed reading this blog post and would like to keep up to date with future posts that I publish, it would be great if you could subscribe, so you can get notifications by email. Please click on the subscribe button to the right or below (depending on the device you are viewing).

 

 

A brilliant but complex novel – an essay passing as fiction?

It’s a week since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and, finally, I have finished it. There at least two other books on the shortlist that I have enjoyed more (I reviewed them here recently, Hot Milk  and Eileen), but by golly this is an extraordinarily clever book! I’m not even sure I’m clever enough to review it! The blurb doesn’t really tell you what it’s about and the arty commentators I heard talking about it on the news when it won the prize, didn’t really say what it was about either (I’ll bet most of them had not even read it!) And I’m not surprised, because it is a really difficult book to describe. But, for what it’s worth, here goes…

the-sellout-imgThis is a novel about race in modern America where the white population seems to feel it has solved the problem of racism. Firstly, it abolished slavery and then set in place several pieces of legislation to reinforce racial equality. Unfortunately, this has not addressed a fundamental problem of disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks (or people of colour more widely), in academic achievement, income, social status, crime, you name it, the statistics paint a troublesome picture. The thesis of the novel is that, whilst white America is slightly uncomfortable with the facts as they stand, they can point to a number of black high achievers (not least the first African-American President) as evidence that they have done all they could. The under-achievement of the rest can be put down to, for example, their own fecklessness or problems of character.

The novel is set in Dickens, California, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that is undesignated as a city and, literally, disappears from maps. Our central character, the eponymous Sellout, but otherwise nameless, known to us only as ‘Me’, seeks to restore its place through some unconventional methods, whilst also seeking to address problems associated with racial inequality. He decides to reintroduce segregation. He also takes a ‘slave’, Hominy an elderly bit-part actor who made a very small name as a black ragamuffin in minor films, made in an era when the black and white minstrels were quaint and funny. ‘Me’ takes his authority to do this from the fact that his father, an intellectual and social scientist, was a local hero of sorts. Known as the ‘nigger-whisperer’ he had a reputation for being able to calm down violent or suicidal black people, using his own brand of counselling and persuasion. He also set up the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which met in the local Dum Dum Donut’s store to engage in great philosophical debates. We learn a great deal about Me’s bizarre upbringing; he had no mother and his father used some unusual techniques, including violence and intimidation, to instil in his son his own theories about the ‘black condition’.

The novel starts with a prologue, where ‘Me’ is being tried in the Supreme Court for slavery. The rest of the novel tells us how a black man could possibly get to this point. The novel has been described as a ‘satire’ (although I’ve heard that the author does not like it described thus) and as darkly comic. Certainly, there are parts which are very funny, in a bleak sort of way, such as the circumstances surrounding the father’s death. I can see it is also satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, it is both poking fun at and calling out the self-interested and those who perpetuate injustice. It is a really tough book to pin down, but there is a moment towards the end where ‘Me’ is describing what he calls “Unmitigated Blackness” as “essays passing for fiction”. For me, that’s exactly what the book is, and it’s the author having the last laugh.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book; I admired it, most certainly. It’s brilliantly written and if you just love seeing how artists can put words together in unique and beautiful ways it is a treasure trove; I spotted a 218-word sentence which was absolutely breathtaking. It has quick wit, brilliantly acute observations of the absurdities of life, and is rich in irony (not normally seen as an American trait). For me, though, it was slightly too much essay and not quite enough story (fiction). Besides the satirical politics of the novel, which are, it has to be said, profound and thought-provoking, there is the story of a nameless black man in a modern-day, still racist world, in the shadow of a domineering father trying to work out his place in the world. This did not come through as much as I would have liked, until the end.

It’s a great read, but a complicated one. You need to be up for the challenge.

Tame your gremlin and banish negative thoughts

lake-1585556_1280Autumn is becoming the new ‘new year’ for many people, lighter, brighter and generally a nicer time of year than January, which I’ve always felt was a really bad time to make resolutions and embark on new activities! On that theme, a lot of people I know are using October to make fresh starts or implement changes. For so many of us, transformation starts on the inside; if we have problems or issues we want to tackle or changes we want to make in our lives, it often means overcoming personal barriers – fears, phobias, addictions and the like – or building confidence in moving forward and realising dreams.

If this resonates with you and you are on your own transformation programme at the moment, I’d like to recommend Rick Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin. 

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Managing negative self-talk

I first came across this book a few years ago when I was doing some personal development training. First published in 1983 it remains in print and is widely considered a self-help classic. Its starting point is simple: that when it comes to getting what we want out of life, we are each our own worst enemy. In other words, there is a voice inside of us (which Carson embodies as a hostile gremlin) which talks us down, which questions our worthiness and which fills us with fear. All of this negative self-talk holds us back and stands in the way of us enjoying the life we have been given.

Your gremlin’s goal “is to squelch the natural, vibrant you within”

 

Carson’s method for dealing with our gremlin is a 3-step process. We begin by “simply noticing” the gremlin. This is linked to the Zen Theory of Change and to what we would now recognise as mindfulness. It’s very much a practical book, so to help you do this there are both physical and written exercises, for example, learning to breathe in a way that keeps you centred.

“I free myself not by trying to be free, but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself in the very moment I am imprisoning myself”

Step 2 invites us “Choose and play with options” or in other words, to observe our habitual behaviour patterns and write our own script, to change the negative thoughts to positive self-talk. The exercises are quite useful in doing this and the little stories (case histories) throughout the book will be familiar to many of us.

“As long as you operate out of habit you will limit your ability to fully experience, appreciate and enjoy your gift of life.”

 The final step is to “Be in process” to remain alert to the threat the gremlin poses. The future is unknown, your destiny is not mapped out by the events of your past and your gremlin cannot determine the path your life will take.

The book is a very easy and enjoyable read and its very practical. There is also a website accompanying the book.

In need of a post-holiday magic wand?

Most children will now be back at school. And most parents will be breathing a bit of a sigh of relief! Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE having mine off, and enjoy being able to step off the term-time treadmill for a few weeks, but I am always glad to get back to the routine. I have one teenager and two precocious pre-teenagers in my household, and whilst I’m no longer in the zone of clearing up their toys every five minutes or spending all day and every day ‘entertaining’ them as I did when they were little (here’s to you if you still are), a low-level chaos still seems to take over the house when they’re off school. They leave ‘stuff’ everywhere, they change clothes multiple times a day, and once the disorder sets in it is so hard to rein it back.

A few months ago, I bought Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, in a flurry of enthusiasm; after having some work done in the house and finding so much irrelevant and pointless stuff lying around as I prepared for the builders, I felt a sudden motivation to “sort things out once and for all”. The family cowered and hoped I’d get over it quite quickly. I made a good start, organising both my own wardrobe and persuading my husband to do his as well. This is Marie’s Step 1. Step 2 is Books, so I’m psyching myself up for that one! Here’s my review of the book.

I’d love to know what you think, or if you have the same feeling of needing to reorganise once the Autumn comes around.

the-life-changing-magic-imgI didn’t think that the words “life-changing” and “tidying” could belong in the same sentence in anyone’s world, let alone adding the word “magic” as well! Don’t get me wrong, like many people, I enjoy the buzz I get from a clean tidy space, it’s the cleaning and tidying bit I don’t like. Marie Kondo is a different kind of animal, but she is highly likeable because she doesn’t try to hide it. She confesses that when she was a child she loved tidying both her own and other people’s things, and devoured women’s magazines with all their cleaning and tidying tips.

I felt vaguely uncomfortable at times with this book; I was worried that it was a bit of a throw-back, like I might turn into my mother whilst reading it! However, (isn’t there always one of those?) it IS actually more than that. Decluttering experts, psychologists and television producers all know that a chaotic domestic environment often says as much about our minds as it does about our lifestyles. It can also affect our minds and our lifestyle more than we realise. And that is where Marie Kondo is coming from, in her quirky, charming and guileless way.

Continue reading “In need of a post-holiday magic wand?”