A regular monthly post recalling the month past more in pictures than in words.
My reading in December
A trip to Southend and an exhibition at the Beecroft Gallery of the work of the East London Group of painters
Canvey Island, Essex. Research.
A regular monthly post recalling the month past more in pictures than in words.
My reading in December
A trip to Southend and an exhibition at the Beecroft Gallery of the work of the East London Group of painters
Canvey Island, Essex. Research.
Happy new year fellow bloggers and readers! Let us all hope that 2022 sees the world turning the corner on the pandemic although even as I write numbers of infections in the UK, and particularly here in northwest England where I live, are frighteningly high so it is an anxious time for the clinically vulnerable once again, and for parents hoping that children can remain at school for a whole term and for anyone waiting for hospital treatment.
My Christmas was quiet – no visiting relatives for us this year. I was lucky enough to have my three children at home, though, my son returning from university, so we simply hunkered down and spent some wonderful family time together. University and school have now returned, twelfth night has passed, the decorations have been packed away for another year and it is time to get back to some semblance of normal life.
I haven’t posted on here for a few weeks. I took some time out from all my various activities over the holiday period to give myself some time to think about how I wanted to take things forward over the coming year. The autumn was quite a stressful period with one thing and another (some planned, some not) and I am hoping that the next few months will be somewhat quieter, though both my daughters are facing into big exams this year, so there is a persistent background worry about whether or not they will go ahead, about fairness and equity and about staying healthy in the run-up to them.
I have decided that this must be the year that I take my writing to the next level, so I am going to try and do a bit less of my day job to give myself the space to do that. I had a good momentum up until the start of the pandemic and then, as so many people have found, my writing routines, my motivation, my capacity all seemed to vanish and I have found myself in a rut with it ever since.
Blogging is an integral part of my writing. At the very least it exercises all the right muscles, and reading, the main focus of this blog, is the very thing that inspires me to write, so no issues there then. I would like to tell you a bit more about my writing in the coming months, if only as a way of keeping myself accountable and on track. I am going to continue to set myself an annual reading challenge. This year, I have decided that I want to focus on non-fiction. I did not read as much non-fiction last year as I have done in previous years, so I am planning to pick a different theme each month. I haven’t yet decided what January’s theme will be, so look out for that in the next week or so.
I am a ‘completer-finisher’ so I need to tell you about the November AND December books for my 2021 reading challenge; November’s theme was erotic fiction and I chose Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and December’s challenge was to read A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens classic. I’ll be posting about those in the coming days too.
Another important goal for me this year is to pay attention. In this last year or two I have spent more time walking around my local area than ever before, noticing things that I hadn’t previously. It has been a joy and has taught me that sometimes the biggest learnings and the most important discoveries can be pretty close to home. This is a lesson I hope to take into 2022 as well.
What are your hopes and ambitions for the year ahead?
Whatever they are, I would like to wish you every success in realising them.
The beginning of each new month seems to come around ever more quickly, and I can’t believe that I’m on the second last book of this year’s reading challenge. I’ve been reading my way through the Booker Prize shortlist these last few weeks so I am still not quite finished with October’s book, Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. It’s a quick read so I am looking forward to its conclusion in the coming days. Look out for my review next week.
This month’s theme is going to be interesting – classic erotic fiction! There are some great titles to choose from, much of it a century or two old, surprisingly enough. There are some French options, of course, but the book I have chosen is Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Its central character and narrator is poet Isadora Wing who accompanies her academic husband on a trip to Europe where she decides to act out her sexual fantasies in encounters with other men.
Published in 1973, the novel was highly controversial and caused a storm. It is also credited with setting off the second wave of feminism. The book has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and I believe we have a copy in the house on a shelf somewhere. I did not buy it so I think it must have been my husband’s – that should provide for some interesting conversations!
At the time I wrote Fear of Flying there was not a book that said women are romantic, women are sexual, women are intellectual and that brought all those parts together.Erica Jong, 2011
So, I am hoping this one will be a page-turner after all the highbrow Booker shortlist reading. I’ll let you know in about four weeks time!
It’s that time of the month again (where exactly did September go?) when I choose a new book for my reading challenge. Last month the theme was a YA novel and the title I selected was a challenge in itself just to say! Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz has become an international best-seller and won multiple awards since its publication in 2013. A follow-up – Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World – is due for publication later this month. Look out for my review next week.
For this month, the theme is a ghost story. This is a genre I have eschewed over the years, although two such novels I have loved have included The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and Beloved by Toni Morrison. There are many, what you might call, psychological ghost stories I could have chosen, such as The Shining by Stephen King, which I was tempted by since I have never got around to reading anything by this author. It would also give me a reason to watch the film again which I saw many years ago when I first met my husband as it’s one of his favourites. I was also tempted by Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black a classic English ghost story if ever there was one, and its adaptation for stage is the second-longest running (non-musical) theatre show in London’s West End (after The Mousetrap). Incredibly, it has been in production since 1989.
In the end, however, I have gone for Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver, an author I know almost nothing about, but whose name seems to keep cropping up in my world. It must be a sign! This novel was published in 2010 and its setting is an Arctic expedition.
Autumn seems like a good month to curl up with this particular type of book as the nights begin noticeably to draw in and there are mists in the mornings. October is also the month of All Hallows Eve, of course, which in many cultures is a time for remembering the dead. I always disliked this particular festival when my children were young because of the preponderance of things I hated – plastic, synthetics and sweets! – which inevitably are designed to attract children. The supermarkets are beginning to fill with garish costumes and even more garish food products, but perhaps reading this book will give me a different appreciation of this ancient festival.
I would love for you to join me in the reading challenge this month.
A couple of weeks ago I posted about a work trip to London. I’d bought a copy of the very newly minted Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You which had been published earlier that week amid great excitement (there were queues and bookshops were opened at midnight to enable the keenest readers to get their hands on a copy). Whilst in London I also happened to stumble on a ‘pop-up’ in Shoreditch selling not only the novel, but other books to which there are references in the novel, and some merchandise echoing the design of the book’s cover. This book has surely been the most anticipated of the year, and who can blame the publishers, but it has definitely become a ‘product’. As has the author I suspect. I hope she is okay.
I sort of hoped I might devour the novel on the return train trip to London, but I didn’t and in fact it took me a further week or so to finish it. Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, was a sensation, not least because of the success of the television series, one suspects, which was brilliantly put together with brilliant performances from the two wonderful new young Irish actors playing the lead parts. It was all a moment of pure serendipity and it was a joy that something so good got the attention it deserved.
Rooney’s follow-up novel therefore was always going to be a challenge and I admire her for just getting the thing out under what must have been intense pressure. It is unmistakeably Rooney – the beautiful prose, the masterful dialogue, the introspective characters, Dublin, the palpable tensions between the characters and the things unsaid. There are four characters: Alice, a successful, famous and thus fairly wealthy author (hmm) who has recently had a nervous breakdown and whom we meet when she is renting a seaside house in the country. Felix, her lover, whom she meets on Tinder, a warehouse worker and cash-strapped under-achiever. Eileen, who lives in Dublin and is Alice’s best friend from childhood. Eileen works for a publishing company in a junior role which pays poorly. She is intellectually and emotionally unfulfilled, and bitter at the hand life has dealt her. Simon is Alice and Eileen’s friend, also from their youth, but a little older, a political researcher he lives in Dublin too. He is single, but seems to have a series of much younger girlfriends, handsome, gentle and compassionate, with a strong Catholic faith.
Much of the novel is an exchange of long and detailed communications between Alice and Eileen. They are more like letters, the kind that middle class people of previous centuries might have exchanged, full of lengthy discourse on the meaning of life, love, sex, career, fame and mental health, cleverly punctuated with much more prosaic gossipy tidbits on their love lives. These of course are emails, though, not letters. In between the letters chapters we follow the various events of the characters’ lives, primarily Eileen’s gradual descent into personal crisis and her relationship with Simon, and Alice’s recovery and unlikely relationship with Felix.
It is some way into the book before the characters collide, when Simon travels with Eileen to visit Alice at her rural retreat. The weekend is a kind of catharsis for them all. Everything must break before it can be reassembled in a meaningful way.
If you are expecting a re-run of Normal People you will get some of the same things – a good deal of sex, middle-class angst and working-class insecurity, and a grown-up exploration of Irish identity in the 21st century. But it is a very different book. There are surely some autobiographical elements. It has a lot less pace and it seems a long time before anything significant happens. This novel is a much slower burn. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I did not care as much about any of the characters as I did about Marianne and Connell. I think it is the book Sally Rooney needed to write though, good enough to follow Normal People but perhaps not quite as good, so that, one hopes, some of the hype around her dissipates and she can get on with being a brilliant author and not have to worry about being a celebrity.
I think it will always be worth reading what Sally Rooney writes, so I have no hesitation in recommending this book.
When I began my Facebook reading challenge at the start of 2018, the monthly themes were fairly easy – a YA novel, a work of feminist fiction, crime fiction, etc. Over the last three years I’ve read some cracking books that I would probably not have picked up otherwise. Memorable titles have included The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin, Please Look After Mother by Kyook-Su Shin and The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. As time has gone on, I’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel for themes and they have become a little more random, to say the least! Bereft of ideas, for May I decided it would be “a book with May in the title”. I don’t know what I was thinking – perhaps a touch too much sherry over Christmas when I was putting the list together, or months of lockdown making me go a bit loopy! Well, finding a title was challenge enough, but I did – Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo. This novel was first published in Canada in 2017. I never like to criticise a book, but I think it was not one of those which I would include on my most memorable list.
I love historical fiction and this book ticks that box since it is based on the true story of the sinking of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania in May 1915. Most people will have heard of the Lusitania, but I wonder how many know the background to the story. The luxury cruise liner’s maiden voyage was in 1906 and she travelled the north Atlantic route between Liverpool and New York. At the time, she was one of the fastest vessels of her kind. It was almost at the end of her 202nd voyage on 7 May 1915, that she was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk a few miles off the southern coast of Ireland, near Kinsale. The wreck still lies there. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew perished, and 761 survived. One of the survivors was the author’s great-grandfather. The story of the Lusitania is important, historically, because it was instrumental in drawing the Americans into the first world war. Many conspiracies about the ship abound, including that Churchill (who was First Sea Lord at the time), placed the Lusitania directly in harm’s way, by failing to adequately warn or protect her; it has been said he calculated that the loss of American citizens would trigger the US to declare war on Germany. Kim Izzo explores some of these conspiracies in the novel, hinting strongly at Churchill’s negligence.
There is more story than history in this novel, however, and the main plot of the novel concerns the relationship between wealthy American socialites, sisters Brooke and Sydney Sinclair, and English aristocrat Edward Thorp-Tracey. The elder Sinclair sister, Brooke, is engaged to be married to Edward. The match is a fond but loveless one, a marriage of mutual convenience; Brooke’s wealth will preserve the Thorp-Tracey seat, Rathfon Hall in Somerset, while Edward’s title will add status to the Sinclair name. When Edward finally meets Brooke’s younger sister Sydney, at the engagement party in New York, just before they set off for England for the wedding, he finds he is instantly attracted to her. Sydney is headstrong, passionate in her political beliefs and more down to earth than her sister. Brooke and Sydney have a falling out just ahead of the voyage which leads to Sydney refusing to share the suite her sister has booked for them, and instead booking a cabin in third class. Over the course of the voyage, Edward and Sydney find themselves falling in love with one another and Sydney’s separate and distant quarters make their clandestine meetings possible.
A parallel story is taking place in London. Isabel Nelson, also, it turns out, a passionate, headstrong and determined young woman, finds herself working in ‘Room 40’ at The Admiralty. She worked in service in Oxford, but after an affair with her employer, who, amongst other things, had arranged for her to obtain some clerical qualifications, was banished to London after his wife had found out about his infidelity from another servant. This turns out rather well for Isabel since she finds she likes the work. Room 40 was a real code-breaking unit, a prototype of Bletchley Park, so important to the Allied victory in the second world war. Isabel’s job is to type up and distribute the coded messages translated by the (all-male) code-breaking team. Isabel follows the movements of the German submarine captain who is said to have fired the torpedo which downed the Lusitania and a number of other vessels at the time. She becomes increasingly concerned about the passenger ship and fears it is a target and that not enough is being done to protect it.
There is a personal dimension to the Isabel story too when her former fellow servant, the ghastly Mildred, turns up at the Admiralty, also having got a job there, and threatens to undermine Isabel’s position, by spreading gossip about her past.
The book was not unenjoyable; it had some interesting historical detail. But I found the plot a little thin for my taste. I did not really warm to any of the characters, and found myself a little agitated by the cliched portrayal of the different classes of person, from the passengers aboard the ship to the civil servants in London. Kim Izzo is a bestselling author and her most successful book is The Jane Austen Marriage Manual.
Recommended if you want a little bit of uncomplicated escapism with some history thrown in.
It’s the beginning of the month (I count the whole of the first week as ‘beginning’!) so that must mean it’s time for another book in the reading challenge. True to form, I have not yet finished last month’s book, Seven Days in May, by Kim Izzo, but it’s a fairly easy read, so should be able to finish in time to post a review next week.
This month’s theme is ‘a book for midsummer’. What I had in mind here is something I can read in the sunshine, in the garden, perhaps imagining I’m on holiday somewhere, that is not going to be too taxing. Is that what ‘midsummer’ conjures up for you too? We have had precious little summer these last few weeks; in the northwest of England May was a complete wash-out. And cold – as I look out of my window now at the glorious sunshine, it is hard to believe that a little over a week ago we still had the heating on!
The planting work in the garden is now done, so I am hoping to sit back on a lounger and enjoy watching the fruits of my labours flourish, between chapters. I think I have found the perfect reading companion for this activity – Murder in Midsummer – Classic mysteries for the holidays. It is a collection of short stories by renowned crime writers, including the likes of Dorothy L Sayers and Ellis Peters. The collection has been put together by Cecily Gayford and edited by none other than Ruth Rendell, giving it some heavyweight literary merit. Every time I have read a short story recently (most notably over last Christmas) I have promised myself I will read more of this form. And every time I have read a crime novel, a genre I have not explored very much, I have thoroughly enjoyed it, so I have high hopes for this one.
The stories in the collection, as suggested by the title and sub-title, are also set in holiday spots, another good reason to choose it. Since our ability to travel at the moment remains so limited, it will be lovely to enjoy a bit of armchair travel. And if reading isn’t escapism then I don’t know what is.
I hope that, wherever you are, you are keeping safe and well as this terrible pandemic rumbles on, and that you are enjoying whatever joys early summer brings for you.
I chose this novel for my Facebook Reading Challenge in April, the theme of which was a children’s book. I was delighted to have this as a theme; regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post reviews of books for young readers. It has unfortunately been some time since I read a children’s book, however, so I was keen to get started on this one. Splinters of Scarlet is Emily Bain Murphy’s second novel. Her first, The Disappearances, was a huge success, both critically and commercially, and so her follow-up was hugely anticipated. I read The Disappearances as part of this very reading challenge in January 2018 and absolutely loved it. My elder daughter who I insisted read the book, rates it as one of her favourite novels of all time and has re-read it several times. Every music fan will be familiar with the concept of the ‘difficult second album’, and the same may be said of books, except that books are produced and marketed somewhat differently, and first-time authors rarely achieve huge first-time success in the same way that certain pop performers do. I fear, however, that Emily Bain Murphy has not quite pulled off the ‘difficult second novel’. Don’t get me wrong, it is good, but my expectations were perhaps a bit too high.
The novel is set in Copenhagen in 1866-67, initially in an orphanage and then in the home of a wealthy mining widow Helene Verstergaard. The central character is Marit Olsen, an orphan seamstress. Her closest friend is Eve, a younger fellow orphan with a precocious talent for ballet, who is about to be adopted by the famed former ballerina Mrs Vertergaard. Marit adores Eve, loves her friend like a sister, even as a mother might, and has mixed feelings about the likely adoption. She is happy that her friend is happy, but it will be a poignant outcome for her since her father was killed in a Vestergaard mine and she remains bitter at the callous way she and her sister were treated; Helene Vestergaard’s late husband was the owner of the family mining dynasty and Marit blames him for her father’s death. When her father died, Marit’s older sister suddenly became responsible for the two of them, and Marit believes this burden, in turn, killed her.
What we also learn in the opening chapters is that certain people in the country have magical powers. Marit does for example and uses these in her job as a seamstress, and especially in the costumes she makes for Eve. Marit’s sister did too and ‘over-used’ her magic in trying to provide for the family. The over-use of magic is dangerous for its owner as it can lead to that person’s death if they are overtaken by ‘the firn’.
Eve is adopted and Helene Vestergaard decides that in addition to a daughter she would like a talented seamstress and so decides to take Marit from the orphanage too. Despite her mixed feelings Marit agrees so that she can be with Eve. Her lifestyle will be very different to her friend’s, however, for she will be a servant and live among the staff.
Marit becomes close to a number of the servants, most of whom it seems possess magical powers – Marit realises this is no accident; Helene has chosen her household carefully. A foreboding presence in the Vestergaard household is Helene’s brother-in-law Philip. Marit quickly begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the Vestergaard mines and that Philip is linked to it. She also begins to suspect a link with her father’s death and her quest for the truth drives risk-taking investigations.
Marit shares her suspicions with the servants she has become close to and they agree to help her. Thus they set about various surveillance operations to try and find out what is going on in the mines and what exactly Philip Vestergaard has to do with it. The remainder of the book concerns Marit’s activities, for which she uses her magical powers extensively, as well as her increasing concerns about ‘the firn’ and whether she will fall victim to it. Philip Vestergaard senses Marit’s interest and begins to see that she and some of the others are a threat. He sets about silencing them, even killing one of the servants. The scene is set for the denouement – a showdown between the two opposing forces in the novel – truth and lies.
This novel has quite a complex plot and wide cast of characters, some of whom I found it hard to distinguish. The Disappearances also has a complex plot and a wide cast of characters and yet the author, in my view, handles it more deftly in that book and with greater imagination and coherence. For me, this novel is sometimes confused, and there are some non-credible twists which seem to be made to serve the plot. It is perhaps unfair to compare this novel to the earlier book, which was so good. If Splinters of Scarlet had been the first novel I would possibly be looking upon it more favourably. As it is, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much. I suspect this book would suit a younger reader, perhaps 11-13 year olds, whereas The Disappearances is more suitable for 12-14 year olds. However, I think it is less good than other books in this age group.
Competent and her fans will love it, but for me it was not as engaging or brilliant as this author’s first novel.
The twists and turns of life are unexpected and as I sit down to write this blog, having not opened WordPress for about two weeks, I was presented with my last post and the photo of our lovely cat who, I’m afraid, has not returned. Seeing him there set me off again. We have no idea what has happened to him and, since it is now almost three weeks since he went missing, we are pretty resigned to his disappearance. The worst thing is the not knowing.
Alas, it happens and we must move on. It is already May 5th and not only have I still not completed last month’s book (Emily Bain Murphy’s Splinters of Scarlet), which is fairly par for the course, I haven’t even posted May’s choice! Just as well it’s a thirty-one day month. I must admit that Splinters of Scarlet is not grabbing me as much as I’d hoped. I’m only about halfway through and my daughter assures me it gets better, so I will post a review next week, by when, I hope, I will have finished it. I need to because I’ve got so many books to read at the moment – I need to get my book club book finished and read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun by the 17th – I bought a ticket to the online talk between him and Jackie Kay, which was part of the virtual Manchester Literature Festival. I was unable to watch it on the night it took place, but I can still access the recording, but only for another twelve days! I prefer to read a book before attending a talk about it, don’t you?
Anyway, back to my Facebook Reading Challenge – what was I thinking when I chose May’s theme?! ‘Something with ‘may’ in the title?!’ I thought there would be loads of books to choose from, but, guess what, there aren’t! There are a few though and there is one I have stumbled across which could actually be really fascinating. So, I have chosen Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo, and I’m pretty sure this would not have crossed my radar had it not been for my rather randomly selected theme, but isn’t that what reading challenges are all about?
Seven Days in May is a fictionalised re-telling of the story of the luxury cruise ship the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, just a few miles short of her destination following a transatlantic crossing from America. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew were killed. I have of course heard of the Lusitania, but I could not have told you anything about it, so I have learned a lot just by reading the blurb. This is author Kim Izzo’s third book, and her first (The Jane Austen Marriage Manual) was a bestseller.
So, having initially despaired that I would find anything decent to fit my theme, I now feel quite excited and I would love for you to join me.
PS There is another book of the same name, a political thriller written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II in 1962, which was made into a film.
This was the March choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. Some members of the Facebook group had already read it and it’s fair to say that there were some mixed feelings. It was described as “triggering” since it concerns a woman suffering from severe depression, some loved it, while another found it predictable. The central character is Nora Seed, a thirty-five year old woman from Bedford whose life seems to be in a deep rut. The book opens with a neighbour delivering her dead cat, Volts, who he has found in the road. Nora assumes the cat has been hit by a car. This would be upsetting enough on its own, but there follows a cascade of bad news: she loses her job at a music shop, she learns that her brother, from whom she is estranged, came into the shop on her day off (to avoid her she assumes), she loses her only private piano pupil, she has an argument in a shop with an old friend, with whom she was in a band with her brother. To make matters worse, everyone else’s life seems to have moved on to bigger and better things – all her social media contacts seem to be leading great lives and her best friend Izzy is in Australia. When her elderly neighbour, Mr Bannerjee, whose medication she collects regularly, tells her that he no longer needs her to do this for him because the pharmacy will deliver, it is the final straw. Nora feels her life is pointless and she decides that she will end it.
This is the triggering part, the first twenty or so pages. But if you can get beyond this section, the book changes quite dramatically. On the stroke of midnight, Nora finds herself transported to ‘the midnight library’ where the librarian is a person from her past, the school librarian Mrs Elms, who had had a strong an influence on her. When she was younger, Nora had had a lot of potential; she was bright, something that Mrs Elms had recognised and encouraged, and went on to do a philosophy degree. She was also a gifted swimmer, encouraged by her father, and had she not quit, might have had significant sporting success. Nora also had musical talent, both as a performer and songwriter, and had been in a band, The Labyrinths, with her brother Joe and another friend, Ravi (with whom she has the confrontation in the shop). All of this potential came to nought, however. Her mother’s early death affected her badly, she quit swimming, disappointing her father, she quit the band (too anxious), leading to the falling-out with her brother and her partner left her two days before their wedding.
Nora is full of regrets. Her life seems to be one long series of ‘might have beens’. When she reaches the midnight library she is given the chance to experience what might have happened in some of these lives, had she pursued them. She meets herself as an Olympic swimmer giving a speech at a conference, as an international pop superstar, living in Australia with Izzy (another chance she turned down) and married to Dan her former lover. Of course, Nora learns, that life is always complex and nothing is ever completely good or completely bad, that even in these other lives, about which she fantasises, there are downs as well as ups.
The book is an interesting one, a really original idea. I like Matt Haig’s work, both his fiction and non-fiction. I found this an enjoyable read, but I don’t think it is his most creative or interesting book – I prefer How To Stop Time. I did find it a bit predictable and after the third of fourth ‘life’ which Nora gets to try out, you work out where it is all going. It is quite simplistic in some ways, but it also lays out some simple truths very powerfully, and that is its main strength. Matt Haig is regularly scathing about the effects of social media and he has plenty of digs in this book too about its damaging effect on the mental health of so many people:
“Nora went through her social media. No messages, no comments, no new followers, no friend requests. She was antimatter, with added self-pity. She went on Instagram and saw everyone had worked out how to live, except her.”
Nora has been sucked into the fallacy that life is only real if it is lived on social media. If it’s not on Facebook it didn’t really happen. There is a lesson in here for all of us, regardless of our mental health status.
I would recommend this book, although some people might find the beginning quite challenging.