Care to join us for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month?

A few days ago I published a review of Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe, which was the July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The book seemed to go down quite well and I enjoyed it too. The theme for August is ‘a beach read’, reflecting the fact that many people will be going on holiday this month (if, like me, you are confined to school holidays). But even if you are a holiday free agent and choose June or September to go away (I know I would!), August is often languid month when the pace of things tends to slow and you can take the opportunity to rest mind and body. The ‘beach read’ theme reflects this too as I wanted something that will be pure pleasure and not too demanding of our normally over-taxed brains.

The Lido imgI have chosen a book which caught my eye a couple of months ago – The Lido by Libby Page. It concerns a friendship between two women, 86 year-old widow Rosemary and 26 year-old Kate, who strike up a bond when their local outdoor swimming pool in Brixton, south London, is threatened with closure. The two women have different reasons for wanting to campaign to keep the lido open, but they are brought together in a common cause.

The book has received pretty universal praise, so far as I can tell, is a Sunday Times bestseller and looks like being one of the hits of the summer. I’m looking forward to this one as I’ll be doing some family visiting and some holidaying myself over the next few weeks, and after some books which have been either quite tough reads on the reading challenge this one feels like a reward for hard work!

I hope you will join us on the challenge this month. Hop over to the Facebook page if you’d like to join the group.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Does your reading taste change in the summer or at holiday time?

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Book review – “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

2019-06-14 10.49.53This book has been on my to-read list for some time now, ever since it caught my eye over a year ago when it was published. I recommended it as a hot new read for Spring last year, in fact! Following in my footsteps (he must have read my blog post!) Barack Obama recommended it as one of his Summer reads last year and he is quoted on the cover as saying this is “A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Notably, it also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in June.

Let me get my cards on the table straight away – I loved this book, and it completely lived up to the hype it has had. It is such an interesting topic for a novel and yet one in which very little actually ‘happens’. It is a tender account of a relationship and the effect that one single event has upon them. It does not once get sentimental, does not set out actively to campaign about the injustice of the one event, and does not take sides. It just lays everything bare for the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will break your heart and fill you with hope at the same time.

Roy and Celestial are a young African-American couple, living in Atlanta, Georgia and their lives are on the up. They come from rather different backgrounds: Celestial is the daughter of a teacher and an academic, and is hoping to forge a career as an artist. Roy is the only son of Olive and Big Roy (who is not his biological father), decidedly more blue-collar but with strong values, pride, and deep Christian faith. They met through a mutual friend, Andre, who has lived next door to Celestial’s parents since they were children. Roy and Celestial are very much in love, but it is still early days in their marriage and they have their ups and downs.

They visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend and decide to stay in a motel; Olive has a slight suspicion about her daughter-in-law’s commitment to her son and it is more comfortable for both women if the couple do not stay in the family home. Roy and Celestial have an argument and Roy storms out of their motel room. He meets with a white woman whilst fetching ice and the two get talking. He tells her about the argument with his wife. Later that night, the police storm Roy and Celestial’s room whilst they are sleeping and arrest Roy on suspicion of rape of the woman he had chatted with earlier in the evening. At the trial, the woman testifies with certainty against Roy and it is quite apparent that Roy has little chance of escaping a guilty verdict, even though his innocence is clear to all who know him. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The early chapters set the scene, switching between first person accounts by Roy and Celestial of their backgrounds, how they met and their recollections of the fateful night. The following chapters are an exchange of letters between the couple whilst Roy is in jail. Although Celestial visits him every month from Atlanta, the letters are an important way for them to keep their love alive. Just a couple of years into Roy’s sentence, however (and only 80 pages into the book), Celestial tells Roy that she can no longer go on being his wife, that they have spent longer apart than they were together, and that the situation is intolerable for her. We learn that Celestial was pregnant at the time of Roy’s trial but that they decided she should have an abortion as neither wanted their child to grow up with its father in prison. It is a metaphor for the doomed future of their marriage. Their correspondence ceases, and the remaining letters in this section are between Roy and his lawyer, Robert Banks, a family friend of Celestial’s parents, both about Roy’s appeal, which seems futile at this stage, and the status of his marriage.

This might seem the like the end of the thing. What we know about the couple at this stage is that Celestial is a strong-willed, independent woman who knows her own mind, and that Roy is proud, stubborn and conservative. The situation seems hopeless.

Roy spends five years in jail altogether, during which time he learns things about the status of African-Americans in the penal system he had no concept of before. He also, by chance, meets and shares a cell with his biological father, Walter. Also, Roy’s mother, Olive dies of lung cancer, never to see her son walk free. Eventually, Roy’s appeal succeeds and he is released, but he is by now broken, alone, his career in ruins. The remainder of the book is about Roy’s reunion with his old life, his hometown, Big Roy, and most importantly, with Celestial. Can their relationship be salvaged?

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I would just suggest that if you are looking for a romantic ending this book, thankfully, chooses not go (entirely!) down that route. It is a fine and up-close examination of the real human impact of judicial complacency, institutional racism, social prejudice and how some sectors of American society just get fewer life chances. It is also about a clash of values, between the more conservative older generation and the younger, educated, more metropolitan groups who assume there is equality.

This book is fascinating, beautiful, gripping and challenging and I recommend it highly.

If you have already read this book I would love to know your thoughts.

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Facebook Reading Challenge July – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

The start of the month is rolling around with alarming regularity! It does not seem four weeks since I was setting June’s title (Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage”) – which I still haven’t finished by the way. I’ve had a very busy few months and this has seriously curtailed my reading time. I try to read for an hour every day, which means I get through one and a bit books a week, and I find this is by far the best way for me to relax and re-energise. It also gets me out of ‘doing’ mode and into ‘creative thinking’ mode – a must for the writing side of my life. The focus of recent weeks, however, has been very much about ‘doing’ and early summer is usually a time when I know I’m not going to have much writing time. This blog has suffered too….

Fear of Falling imgHowever, the full diary will be emptying out a little as this month progresses, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to restore my daily reading hour. My selection for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month will also help. The theme is contemporary crime fiction and I’ve chosen the latest book by north-west (England) crime writer Cath Staincliffe, Fear of Fallling, which was published last year. I met Cath at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago and she was such a lovely, warm, down to earth person that she really inspired me to think that I too might be able to pursue a writing life. Crime is not usually my genre of choice, but I read a couple of her books, including The Girl in the Green Dress, which I reviewed on this blog, and was gripped. Cath tackles major contemporary issues fearlessly and her writing style draws you subtly into the world she creates.

Fear of Falling is about the friendship between two women Lydia and Bel who have known each other for many years. As mothers, both face challenges – Bel has a difficult relationship with her daughter Freya, while Lydia and her partner adopt after she is unable to conceive. Lydia’s daughter Chloe’s actions as a teenager place immense pressures on the relationship between the two friends.

I’m really looking forward to getting into this; recent titles I have set on the Reading Challenge have been hard-going. I’m not expecting this to be ‘light’ but I’m hoping for a page-turner to get lost in and get me back on my reading track!

 

I would love for you to join us on the reading challenge. The book is available on Kindle if you can’t get hold of a copy.

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Building your children’s library #1 – books for pre-schoolers

 

I have a deep love of children’s books and am passionate about keeping kids reading, as regular readers of this blog will know. I am frequently asked for recommendations for books for children and young people. In truth, there are so many great books for kids out there and I can only read a fraction of what I’d like to, so it’s difficult. Wander into any bookshop or library, however, and you will see before you dozens of wonderful titles. I am a firm believer in allowing kids to choose their own books; that way you build their love of reading from the inside out rather than it being an interest that the parent tries to impose from the outside in. This is particularly important for teenagers who a) are likely to resist all things their parents like and embrace the opposite, and b) are particularly sensitive to being told what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’. My advice would be, don’t worry too much about the ‘quality’ of their reading and take pleasure in the fact that they are reading. Once you engage with them on their terms, they may be more open to suggestions further down the line.

 

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Image by Aline Dassel from Pixabay

I have a deep love of children’s books and am passionate about keeping kids reading, as regular readers of this blog will know. I am frequently asked for recommendations for books for children and young people. In truth, there are so many great books for kids out there and I can only read a fraction of what I’d like to, so it’s difficult. Wander into any bookshop or library, however, and you will see before you dozens of wonderful titles. I am a firm believer in allowing kids to choose their own books; that way you build their love of reading from the inside out rather than it being an interest that the parent tries to impose from the outside in. This is particularly important for teenagers who a) are likely to resist all things their parents like and embrace the opposite, and b) are particularly sensitive to being told what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’. My advice would be, don’t worry too much about the ‘quality’ of their reading and take pleasure in the fact that they are reading. Once you engage with them on their terms, they may be more open to suggestions further down the line.

I know, however, that many parents want to build a decent library of choices for their children, and also, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and godparents also want to know what they should give as gifts. So, I am starting a series of posts on building your children’s library. I will focus mainly on classics as these are books that have stood the test of time. As ever, age boundaries are flexible – a mature 10 year old might enjoy something in 11 -13 range and vice versa. Again, don’t worry; this is not a reflection of their ability, only of their interests. It is counter-productive to push them to read topics they are not ready for.

That probably won’t be a concern for today’s list however, as I’m picking books for pre-schoolers! Having said that, my teens still get great pleasure from having many of these books around (many of our books have gone to charity shops over the years, but some will be treasured forever).

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So, if you have or know young children in 2-5 age group, here are ten of the very best books ever:

  1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  2. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  3. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
  4. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram
  5. Miffy by Dick Bruna
  6. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
  7. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
  8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  9. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  10. Elmer by David McKee

There are probably at least a hundred other books I could have included here, so my next post on this topic might just be an extension list to this one! I’d love to hear your recommendations too. I should add that these are books not only that my children loved but that I also loved reading aloud to them. And THAT has truly been one of the joys of my life.

What are your favourite books for pre-schoolers?

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Book review – “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

When I announced that this book was May’s choice for my Facebook reading challenge (theme, a 20th century classic), there were mixed feelings – it seems a few of our participants had studied it at school for their ‘O’ level English Literature (predecessor to the GCSE for anyone young enough not to know!). Some were delighted…others less so! I did not study this at school, but I read it at University (I did an English degree). My childhood home was not one filled with books, though I spent a great deal of time at my local library, so when I went to University I had a lot of catching up to do on many of the classics. Golding’s book is one of those and is widely considered to be one of the all-time great novels.

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My lovely 1965 edition of Lord of the Flies is older than me and has a cover price of three shillings and sixpence!

Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. I doubt many people could name any of his other works (I couldn’t!), although he won the Booker Prize in 1980 for his novel Rites of Passage, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. He died in 1993 at the age of 81. Lord of the Flies has been adapted three times for the big screen, and several times for stage and radio.

The basic plot is that a group of boys (thought to number about thirty, but it’s not entirely clear) are marooned on a Pacific island following a wartime evacuation attempt that ends in a plane crash. There are no adult survivors and the boys, ranging in age from perhaps nine to thirteen years, must learn quickly to survive. Three main characters emerge: Ralph and Jack are the two alpha-males of the group, but have very different instincts about the priorities, and Piggy, an overweight, severely near-sighted boy, probably of lower class than Ralph and Jack, who proves to be the most thoughtful, sensible and self-aware but who lacks the leadership skills to wield any power.

Initially, the boys attempt to organise, with Ralph at the helm. His primary concern is that they should get rescued and stay alive and safe until then. He meets resistance in the form of Jack, who is less keen on the rules and disciplines that Ralph wants to impose. His priorities are “fun” and hunting animals so that they can eat meat. As the days and weeks pass morale drops, particularly among the younger boys, many of whom are clearly terrified. They fear the darkness and the heavy forest on the island and what may be lurking within it – they imagine a terrible beast. Order begins to break down and powerful instincts surface. There is a terrible power struggle between Jack and Ralph which intensifies as the novel progresses. Factions form around the two leaders and the behaviours become increasingly reckless. Simon, one of the other older boys, and a sensitive soul, is killed in a case of mistaken identity, the now savage and adrenalin-fuelled group around Jack believing in his night-time approach to the camp, that he is in fact the much-feared “beast” they imagine stalks them.

Simon’s death at the hands of those who were once his schoolmates, unleashes further savagery, like the genie is out of the bottle. There is also, however, a kind of denial; it seems only Piggy recognises and is able to articulate the danger they are in – from themselves! It seems inevitable that Piggy should also die, brutally; Roger crashes a boulder onto him during a fight between Ralph and Jack in which Piggy is trying to intervene. Jack’s group would have killed Ralph too had it not been for the timely arrival of a rescue ship.

Although it was written in the early 1950s, this is very much a post-war book for me in which the author is reflecting on the base levels human beings can reach. If you simply scratch the surface of society you will find some instincts most of us would rather not admit to. A modern reading of the novel might also see the hazards of excessive masculinity and how lust for power can easily corrupt. You can also look at how easy it is for followers to forget their own moral codes and normal standards of behaviour when seduced by charismatic or persuasive leadership. The younger boys are unable to face the reality of their situation, stranded on a remote island, with an unknown chance of rescue, and the picture of excitement that Jack offers, playing at hunting, escapism from their problems, leads them to follow him down a dangerous path.

Whilst re-reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the current political turmoil we are in, both in the UK and globally. Some social norms seem to me to be breaking down. And when it came to the Jack/Ralph power struggle the Conservative party leadership contest came to mind! The only thing I couldn’t decide – who in our current crop of politicians is Piggy?!

A must-read for anyone wanting to gain a serious understanding of English literature.

Did you read Lord of the Flies as a teenager – can you remember what you thought of it?

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Postcard from the Hay Festival

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I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Hay Festival again this year, having made my first visit ever in 2018. Last year I went down just for the day, and loved it, so I decided to make a weekend of it this year. It felt busier this time, although perhaps that was just my imagination. Last year, I packed four events into my day and felt like I didn’t have enough time to just wander around soaking up the atmosphere, so this year I booked five events for the two days and built in some time for a stroll into the town. The festival site is about a mile outside of Hay-on-Wye itself, or the ‘town of books’ as it calls itself. It really is a beautiful little place. I must go down sometime, outside of the festival period.

2019-05-25 19.05.44There was a decidedly political, Brexit-y feel to events this year, perhaps that is because of the looming Tory party leadership contest and the European elections last week. Also, there is a sense that the world of arts and culture is beginning to assert its feeling about the Brexit issue more vociferously as the UK’s departure draws nearer. I saw Keir Starmer on Saturday and found him extremely impressive (surely a future leader of the Labour Party?). He was thoughtful and candid, whilst also remaining tactful about current political events. He was gracious about Theresa May and less so about many of her colleagues. He was being interviewed by Philippe Sands, author of East West Street, and it was a treat to see him too.

2019-05-28 15.52.24I also saw Naomi Wolf, a woman whose work I have admired for years. She was talking about her latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love in which she traces the evolution of attitudes to sex, particularly homosexual activity, from the mid-19th century on, through the writings of John Addington Symonds. There has been a lot of controversy in the press about an error in her book (which she has acknowledged and plans to correct in the next edition), which in my view, has been somewhat overblown; I truly doubt whether a male author would have experienced the same opprobrium. Naomi Wolf was warm and articulate, and gracious about the cultural and political turmoil in the UK, reflecting also on similar events in the US too. I was glad to have heard her speak.

2019-05-26 11.34.46On Sunday, I went to a panel discussion led by Ed Vaizey MP, talking about branding with a number of business-people. It was interesting, and Ed Vaizey is very witty, but, to be honest, didn’t feel very “Hay”. I also saw Melvyn Bragg speak about his new novel Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard. I enjoy listening to his BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time and am always impressed by his ability to cut through to the core of so many topics. Can you believe this is his 22nd novel!!! He has also written seventeen non-fiction books. Surely, he is approaching national treasure status!

 

The highlight of the weekend for me, however, was seeing Anna Burns talking with Gaby Wood about her Man Booker prize-winning novel Milkman. Burns was characteristically humble and quirky, utterly authentic and it was joyous hearing her read several passages from the book. She is brilliant. I loved the book and hearing her speak made me want to go and read it all over again!

I struggled to tear myself away from the Festival; I ‘bumped into’ Maxine Peake on Sunday morning (who had performed a reading of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo on the Saturday evening). I had not booked to see her performance as I’ve seen her do it in Manchester, but am a huge fan of hers so felt slightly star struck. I also strolled past BBC journalist Kamal Ahmed, who was talking about his newly-published memoir, Michael Rosen and new poet laureate Simon Armitage. Yes, the Hay Festival is a great place to just hang out!

Have you ever been to the Hay Festival? What are your fondest memories?

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Book review – “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind

This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.

Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.

It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.

Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.

The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.

Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.

Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.

Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?

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