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 – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

This book was July’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019, the theme of which last month was contemporary crime fiction. I picked Cath Staincliffe because I have met her and she’s very nice (and very successful!) and I have read a couple of her other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though crime fiction is not usually my thing. Unlike much of her other work (and the last book of hers that I read – The Girl in the Green Dress), this is not strictly crime fiction, although a crime is committed. To that extent it is something of a departure for this author, I think, although the dedication at the front of the book to “my mothers”, Evelyn Cullen and Margaret Staincliffe, both of whom died in 2017, gives a clue as to what might have motivated this book, which was published in 2018.

Fear of Falling imgThe centre of the story is the relationship between two women, Bel and Lydia, who meet at a New Year’s party in 1985, when they are both sixth-formers although at different schools in Yorkshire. They are very different people – Lydia is reserved, generally quite sensible, and from a secure and ordinary family. Bel is wilder, her family rather more bohemian and she has a difficult relationship with her parents. Bel grew up in France and then London and it is her father’s job that has brought them to northern England, where she is something of an outsider. Bel and Lydia are drawn to one another, despite their very different personalities; for Lydia, Bel represents spontenaiety, excitement, danger even. For Bel, Lydia represents security, a steady point in a turning world.

Their lives begin to diverge after university: Lydia works in the scientific field, in a hospital laboratory, enjoys a successful career in which she is respected, and eventually meets the love of her life, Mac, an Irishman who runs a tattoo parlour. Lydia flits from one job to the next, travels the world, and never holds down either a long-term job or a long-term relationship. She seems to flee from commitment. Although she is never as diligent, thoughtful or kind a friend to Bel as Bel is to her, she somehow always seems to return to her.

Some years into their relationship Lydia and Mac decide the time is right to have children, but they find they cannot conceive. After three failed IVF attempts they decide to apply for adoption. In the meantime, Bel, in her usual fashion, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby. Bel gives birth to Freya and the contrast between her indifference to the child, her inability to cope and her post-natal depression, and Lydia’s anguish at her and Mac’s  infertility is starkly portrayed. Lydia and Mac’s journey through the adoption process is equally traumatic, but eventually they are given a little girl to adopt, Chloe. She is about the same age as Freya.

This is where the story really begins: Chloe, it turns out, has had a very difficult start, with parents who neglected her. This absence of attachment in her first two years of life has caused damage which Lydia and Mac, despite their very best efforts, will never be able to repair. Chloe’s life becomes a series of dramas, problems, misdemeanours and eventually crimes. In contrast, Freya, who has a stormy relationship with Bel, becomes a bright, high achieving, outgoing teenager. Like the differences between Bel and Lydia, the contrast between their two daughters is stark.

I don’t want to give away the plot, although it is arguably not difficult to work out what is going to happen, but, as readers, we watch with horror as events unfold. Chloe gets increasingly out of control and Lydia and Mac become ever more desperate as they try and fail to bring their vulnerable daughter back from the precipice, time after time.

I enjoyed the book, I found it very compelling. Staincliffe has a writing style that is deceptively simple, but actually draws you effortlessly into the world of the characters. A lot of the novel is spent on building up the history of the friendship between the two central women, which I must admit, at first made me feel slightly frustrated as I just wanted to get to the main plot. By the end, however, it was clear that this was part of the author’s building of the narrative. The relationship IS the story; the two girls, the adoption story, yes these are also key plot lines, but it is as much about the vulnerability of mothers, about single mothers left alone and especially about couples who adopt (usually post-IVF disappointment) and are unprepared for the challenges, as it is about the plight of ‘looked after’ children.

The author’s afterword, where she writes about her own experience of being adopted as a baby after her young Irish mother became pregnant outside marriage, makes clear what has driven her desire to write this book. Her story had a happy ending, but for too many adopted children today, that is not the case.

It is a heartbreaking novel that will give you an insight into world about which most of us know very little. A difficult read but one that is definitely worth it.

How do you cope when a difficult story doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’?

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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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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Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

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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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