It’s that time of the year again!

cinnamon-stars-2991174_1920As I have been told many times by some of the people in my household, today is the official start of Christmas as it is the first Sunday of Advent (sounds like a bit of an excuse to me since we are not a religious family). Not quite feeling it myself yet, but then I tend to prefer to hold off for another week or two so as not to feel too exhausted by it all when the big day finally arrives. There is no doubt though, when you have children, or just a larger extended family with some children in it, you kind of have to get a little organised otherwise things can get a bit stressful.

So, as days 1 and 2 on the Advent calendars lie open, your thoughts might be turning to what gifts to give your loved ones this Christmas. Like an increasing number of people, I do worry about excess consumerism, about ‘stuff’, and about the environmental impact of both. Many people I know are trying hard to reduce the amount of single-use plastic and non-recyclable materials they consume. Books, of course, are mostly recyclable, certainly re-giftable, have little and usually no non-recyclable components, no batteries and use very little gift wrap. They make the perfect gift and are an antidote to the pace the season often takes on as well as the blue-screen glare!

I’ve been doing plenty of research these last few weeks, building up a list of recommendations for books you might like to give, and I’ll be sharing it all with you next week. So look out for blogs on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, starting with children’s non-fiction.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of this first weekend of Advent. I will be watching my daughter perform in a Christmas musical concert later today and will no doubt have a mince pie, so perhaps the festive spirit might grip me later on!

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YA book review – “The Hurting” by Lucy van Smit

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of literature for children and young people and that I review such books on here from time to time, not just because I think it’s good for ‘grown-ups’ to delve into these genres (you’re missing out if you don’t), but also because I know many of you often want recommendations for the youngsters you live with.

I picked up The Hurting from my local library recently (most now have online catalogues with a ‘What’s New’ section so you can browse new titles) and libraries are great for young readers because, unlike me, they often make a quick decision about whether they like something or not and if a book is worth their time, so it can be frustrating when they toss something aside after half an hour that you’ve paid £6 plus for!

Lucy van Smit is a first-time author and the publisher, Chicken House Books, has a good reputation for quality fiction for young people. It’s a YA book, for 15+ I’d say, as there are sexual references, some swearing, quite a bit of peril, and some challenging themes – cancer, alcoholism, death of a parent – all high-grade emotional stuff that teens seem to love! For me, it’s not the best YA book I’ve read this year, but then I’m judging it against The Disappearances, which I think is a phenomenal book, and Just Fly Away, which had a more concise and coherent plot and was for me more enjoyable. There is a lot going on in this book, perhaps too much.

The Hurting imgNell is in her late teens and lives with her father, a very religious alcoholic, and her sister, Harper, who has cancer. They are from Manchester but moved to Norway, ostensibly for Harper’s medical treatment. The girls’ mother, we learn, left when they were young and they have had no contact since. Nell is a confused young woman; she is the primary carer for her sister, their father either working or incapable most of the time, and she wants to be a singer-songwriter back in Britain, but finds herself cut off from any possibility of making a career in that field. She attends a local school where she experiences bullying and isolation. She decides to go back to the UK, without her family’s knowledge, for an audition, but gets into a spot of bother en route and meets Lukas, a handsome but mysterious boy. At first it appears he rescues her but we learn later that he in fact engineered the whole episode in order to entrap her.

There is an instant attraction between Nell and Lukas and Nell quickly falls in love with him. Lukas pursues Nell (and yes, that is the right word), and she is drawn into what can only be described as an edgy relationship with him. It turns out that Lukas is the son of the late Harry Svad, a Norwegian minerals entrepreneur (and Nell’s father’s employer who, mysteriously, her Dad seems to hate). Svad, along with his wife Rosa, has recently been killed in a helicopter crash. Lukas was not his biological son, however; he was discovered as a very young child living in a wolf pack in an area of forest Svad wanted to mine. Svad ‘rescued’ and adopted him, but Lukas cannot forgive him for killing the wolves he loved, and says he was also treated cruelly. This draws Nell further into a web of sympathy. Lukas has a baby brother, Pup, who, now an orphan, is in the care of social services. Lukas wants to adopt him when he turns 18 (very soon) but feels he needs to get Pup back now before events spiral out of control, and he says that by the time they catch up with him, he’ll be 18 so he’ll be able to adopt without a problem. By this stage he is well able to coerce Nell into kidnapping Pup from the foster carer.

Still with me? Yes, I struggled to suspend my disbelief too, but I suspect some young people would not! Nell goes along with Lukas’s plan, they kidnap the baby and then run away, back to the grand, extraordinary but isolated Svad home, via stolen car and light aircraft. They are pursued of course, though Lukas is careful to shield Nell from too much contact with the outside world where CCTV images of her are being splashed across news screens.

Spoiler alert: once at the Svad home, Nell begins to realise that Lukas has tricked her, that he actually wants to kill Pup, and frame her, and yet she cannot reconcile these facts with her intense passion for Lukas, the only person who appears to have shown her any love. His behaviour frightens her sufficiently, however, that she decides to escape with Pup (who it turns out is her half-brother, his dead mother, Rosa Svad, having also been Nell’s estranged Mum) but this involves a perilous trek through dangerous wolf-inhabited forest. With a baby.

Yes, there is a lot going on here; rather too many events, strands and themes for my liking, and I felt a bit overwhelmed. It rather lost me in the last third of the book, I’m afraid. However, for teens who need a lot of stimulation to keep their interest, this may suit. As I said, I found it hard to believe in the events, but, again, teens who like a touch of fantasy may be able to lose themselves in it and be more forgiving about the lapses in credibility. There were, in my view, some editorial oversights which annoyed me (including a frustrating number of typographical errors, grrr!), but most teens will overlook these. I loved the evocation of place – Norway provides a great setting for the book – and the author does well to convey the sense of threat as well as beauty in the natural world. Nell is a great character and her vulnerability and confusion, her difficult life, and her thwarted dreams may have a resonance for young people. Also, her journey, her survival against the odds and her ability ultimately to overcome her fears, some seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the effects of her first-love blindness, make her a positive role-model.

Recommended for the young people in your life, even if it wasn’t quite for me.

Have you read any good YA titles recently?

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Listening versus reading

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I loved listening to Matt Haig read his wonderful book Notes on a Nervous Planet. I downloaded the audiobook in the Summer and blogged about it here in October. I decided that it was definitely a book I wanted to have on my bookshelves, to dip into occasionally, to read certain chapters at specific times, and to be able to jot notes down. I also decided that it would make a great gift for a few people I know.

I set it as the November book for my Facebook Reading Challenge and so far the feedback seems to be positive. Apart from a handful of my very favourite books (eg Wuthering Heights) I seldom re-read books. I always feel I should; my husband is a great re-reader and says he gets different things out of a book each time he returns to it, and he is right of course. For me, though, there seem to be just too many books to read first time around!

Notes on a Nervous Planet imgI have made an exception and decided to read Notes on a Nervous Planet again. I’m surprised at how different the reading experience is versus listening. Firstly, the author has a wonderful reading voice and I suppose because it is non-fiction and is very much about his experiences of anxiety and depression, you can sense that it comes straight from the heart. I really think that the narrator of an audiobook plays such an important role in the experience. For example, I loved Hilary Huber’s narration of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but I struggled with the reading of 1984 by Andrew Wincott…who is Adam in The Archers. I just couldn’t get Adam out of my head!

The second interesting difference is the speed. I read quite fast, and I am aware that this means I don’t always take in every detail. With listening, however, I listen at the natural pace (I dislike the 1.25 and 1.5 speeds). It does mean that you absorb a lot more of the text. I was surprised reading Notes on a Nervous Planet how many passages I remembered virtually word for word.

The third difference for me may be a very subjective one, but it’s about the way the content of the book organises itself in my head. Here, my preference is for the tangible book. Listening to this book I found it more of a continuous narrative, but reading it is more useful to me in terms of taking forward some of the ‘recommended’ actions – I use the term loosely as it’s not a smug, instructional just do as I say and your life will be perfect, sort of book! For others who are more aurally oriented the experience may be different.

Audiobooks are great, especially for long car journeys (if you have the appropriate technology), or, my particular preference, walks into town. I have found with this book, though, that reading again has brought me some extra insight, and that can’t be bad.

Are you a fan of audiobooks? Have you ever both read and listened to a particular title?

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Book Review – “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

I posted on here last week about my brain needing to have a little break from the Man Booker shortlist (especially as I have not found all the books particularly engaging so far). It is a rather bleak shortlist. I have also been unwell for a couple of weeks with sinus problems, and none of these books are exactly a ‘pick me up’! So, on a day when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself I lay down on the sofa with The Music Shop, my book club’s reading choice for November, and read the whole thing in one sitting. I loved it!

This book caught my eye last year, so it has been on my mental TBR list for some time. In September I attended a one-day conference run by the group that publishes the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook on how to get your book published (almost finished my novel), at which Rachel Joyce was a speaker. Rachel came to novel-writing relatively late in life, coming to prominence only in her late 40s (encouraging!) when her first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) was widely acclaimed, and in fact found its way onto the Man Booker Longlist. Rachel came across as a lovely, down to earth human being, but with her own fascinating story to tell, and a warm and inspiring approach to all the novice writers in the room. I bought The Music Shop at that event.

The Music Shop imgThe books open in 1988 when the central character Frank opens a music shop in a rundown area (Unity Street) of an unnamed city. Frank is passionate about music, something that was instilled in him by his late mother, the eccentric Peg. It is probably the only the good thing that Frank got from her, and as the book goes on, we learn much about the lack of love and security in his childhood. This is important as it helps us to understand Frank’s actions later on. The other thing that Frank is passionate about is vinyl; he refuses to sell either cassette tapes or the new-fangled CDs in his shop, much to the chagrin of the salesmen who tell him he is a dinosaur and will have to change with the times. They gradually abandon him.

Unity Street is run-down and regularly vandalised. There are only a handful of businesses, all of them marginal and barely surviving, such as the small shop selling religious souvenirs, run by a former priest, the tattoo parlour run by the indomitable punky Maud, and the two brothers running the funeral parlour. It is a street of misfits and Frank, with his assistant Kit – clumsy, loveable, naïve – slots right in. It is the ‘80s, however, and Britain is changing. Property developers are anxious to get into Unity Street, for the residents in their run-down houses and the shop-owners barely making ends meet to leave and to bulldoze the whole area to make way for shiny new apartments.

One day, Frank meets Ilse Brauchmann. First, she faints outside his shop. The traders all rally round to help her. Frank is immediately attracted to her, which throws him into a tailspin as this is something he has never felt before. Frank has no self-esteem and does not believe she could possibly feel the same way about him. Ilse, however, leaves her handbag behind in the shop. Kit and the others make great efforts to track Ilse down, fascinated by her mysterious presence, though Frank is nonchalant. They find Ilse and draw her into their community.

Eventually, after some false starts, Ilse, on hearing how Frank has changed the lives of so many of his customers by bringing music to them, asks him to teach her about music. They begin to meet weekly in a café where Frank’s confidence gradually builds as he talks about the one subject he knows, that he feels confident about and which enables him to be his true self.

Their burgeoning relationship is destined to fail, however, as they stumble from one misunderstanding to another, because of Frank’s fear, but also because there seems to be something about Ilse that she is not revealing.

This book is a love story, but it is a roller-coaster of one, that will take you on twists and turns you cannot anticipate. It kept me absolutely gripped – I was at times so frustrated with both of them, but also deeply moved by their respective stories and the things I as the reader knew were getting in the way. The ending is not what I was expecting at all.

It is also a story about something softer and gentler which we lost when certain powerful commercial forces came and took over our towns. To that extent this book is much more than a love story, it succeeds on so many other levels too. The Unity Street traders are all lonely people who have had their troubles in life. They are all ‘the left-behind’ but they have each other and they are rich, nuanced, powerful characters in their own right and mostly have the last laugh.

I recommend this book highly. A great story which is truly uplifting. It will make you laugh at times and it may also make you cry.

Have you read The Music Shop? If so, what did you think?

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Man Booker shortlist review #5 – “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

I have finally finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, my penultimate read on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. I blogged last week that had been finding it quite hard-going. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘difficult’ book, like Everything Under, where it helps to be aware of the Oedipus myth in order to be able to enjoy it. No, I just found the pace of the book very slow and, I’m afraid, uneventful.

The Mars Room imgThe story concerns Romy Hall, a young woman whom we first meet in a prison van en route to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. Romy was convicted of a brutal murder and has been given two life sentences plus six years. Romy worked as a lap dancer at The Mars Room nightclub in San Francisco and it was a former customer at the nightclub that she killed. Romy is at once similar but different to her fellow convicts. For one thing she has a seven year old child, Jackson, whose welfare she becomes increasingly concerned about during her incarceration, and she also completed high school, so she is considerably more educated than many of those around her.

 

Romy quickly finds her way in the prison and most of the book is about prison life, the community, the social norms and the formal and informal rules that dictate life inside. There is also the cast of characters, the gender non-binary, the ambiguous sexualities, the weak and the strong, the hierarchy. The women appear to have two things in common, one implicit, they are mostly racial minorities, the other explicit, they are nearly all poor and of low educational attainment.

To that extent the book is, in my view, largely a political one. The author has insisted this is not the case, preferring to think of it as showing the humanity, the variety of life and the personalities in prisons in America, where society is normally inclined to dehumanise and to view homogeneously, the prison population. However, I think the political message is inescapable – that prison is a dumping ground for the poor and under-educated that society does not know what to do with. Kushner is also exposing the twisted logic of differing sentences for similar crimes. I found the comparison of the crimes committed by Stanville’s residents to the killings of civilians by the American state in Iraq, and the notion of double standards, a little clumsy, but she has a point.

The book is not just about Romy and prison life, there are the back stories too: the unsavoury characters both Romy and some of the other women knew before they ended up in prison, many of them no better than the convicted women, and the events and circumstances of their lives, which most of us will never experience. This is the world of an American underclass. An underclass which usually ends up in the corrupt and failing (in Kushner’s view) penal system. There is also the character of Hauser, the prison teacher who Romy hopes might help her find out what has happened to Jackson. It is strictly against the rules for Hauser to do this, but there is something about Romy which appeals to him, and he breaks with procedure when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. (Spoiler alert: I was hoping this storyline might go further but it doesn’t). Hauser represents grey, upstanding, dutiful middle America which wants to do the right thing, recognising that some of those in jail have some good qualities, but which is clueless and naïve, and which cannot deal with the brutal realities of prisoners and prison life.

This is an exposing book and Kushner spent a lot of time inside jails in America, talking to women prisoners, trying to understand their lives and their perspectives, and for that she is to be commended. Whilst I appreciated what the author is trying to do here, and certainly it was an eye opener, for me the book didn’t go anywhere. Some have described the ending, where Romy is driven to extreme action on account of her son, as intense and thrilling. For me it wasn’t. I found it anti-climactic.

The book reminded me of those Louis Theroux documentaries, where he went into American jails, and talked to prisoners. The people he met were a complex mix of terrifying, troubled, under-educated and deeply in need. And mostly black and Hispanic. The book is a bit like that, but, for me, with not quite enough of a story going on.

Recommended if you like Louis Theroux documentaries about American jails.

Have you read The Mars Room or any other of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

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Time for a little light reading

Regular followers of this blog will know that I have recently been reviewing each of the Man Booker shortlisted books. It’s a month since the winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, was announced, and I still haven’t finished all six books – I don’t know how on earth I thought I’d get them all read before the gala dinner! I’ve found them all pretty heavy going, to be honest, which is perhaps why it has taken me so long. And, I have to say, it’s been a bit bleak too!

The Mars Room imgSo much so that I had to have a break from all the heaviness to read something a little more uplifting and which didn’t tax my brain quite so much. I wasn’t very well last week and simply couldn’t face into The Mars Room (next on my Man Booker list) – if you have heard it is bleak, well it is! So far (not quite finished it yet). So, with my blanket, hot water bottle and cups of tea to hand I settled onto the sofa and read Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop cover to cover in one day. I simply could not put it down.

 

 

The Music Shop imgThis book came to my attention last year. I really liked the sound of it and recommended it in one of my ‘what to look our for this season’ blogs, so it was on my TBR list. Then I saw Rachel speak at a Writers & Artists Conference I was at in September. She was such a wonderful speaker, really warm, authentic and engaging, that I had to get a copy of this book and have been eager to start it. It was a joy and just what I needed, when I was feeling unwell and when my brain was starting to hurt from the Man Booker. Look out for my review of The Music Shop next week.

 

The Mars Room is quite good, but, for me, just unremittingly bleak. Yes, good fiction should challenge us, but sometimes you just need something that makes you feel up rather than down. I’ve found it quite a dark shortlist this year and I haven’t even started The Overstory yet which, since it is meant to be about climate change, I am fully expecting to be a sobering if not depressing read. Maybe that reflects the times we find ourselves in. It’s not just the subject matter though; some of the books, though I have admired them, have, at times, felt like wading through treacle. I felt like that about Everything Under, and I’m rather getting that feeling about The Mars Room. It is only the colourful prose style, with its American prison vernacular, that is keeping my attention at the moment, because it has little story to speak of, it seems to me.

The Music Shop on the other hand, was all story, all character, all cliffhanger, all page-turner. This high-brow literature, which, don’t get me wrong, I dearly love and support, is all very well, but sometimes you just need a jolly good read. Especially when your sinuses are blocked and your head hurts!

So it’s more Rachel Joyce on the TBR list for me, and a second wind to finish The Mars Room and complete that shortlist.

Happy reading everyone!

Are you drawn to literature that is dark or do you feel reading should always be about pleasure?

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Man Booker Review #4 – “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

This was my fourth read from this year’s Man Booker shortlist and the most conventional I have read so far. The novel begins in Barbados in 1832 on a plantation owned by Erasmus Wilde, an Englishman who inherited the estate from an uncle on his mother’s side. He has been forced to manage the business as his father, a famous explorer who has spent most of his life away from home and family, shows no interest. As you might expect, Erasmus runs the plantation with cruelty and treats the slaves he has inherited (and now owns) as inhuman; they represent nothing more to him than units of work who must be managed and mistreated in order to keep them functioning. George Washington Black (‘Wash’) is a young boy at this time who has known nothing in his life apart from slavery. He lives on the plantation mainly in the care of Big Kit, a fellow slave who protects but also, at times, treats him cruelly, for what she sees as his own good, to harden him up for the life he will lead.

Washington Black imgWashington Black’s life is turned around, however, when Erasmus’s younger brother, Christopher, or ‘Titch’, arrives at the plantation. He is an inventor, a man of science like his father, who does not share his brother’s views on slavery. Titch has come to Barbados in order to work on a flying machine he has designed and asks his brother for a helper. Erasmus loans him Washington Black and the boy goes to live in Titch’s quarters, helping him with drawings and experiments as well as practical household tasks. Titch discovers that Washington has considerable artistic talent as well as abilities which will be useful in his science projects and he teaches him to read. This change in Wash’s circumstances means he can probably never go back to being with the other slaves and the question is posed whether Titch has served his protégé well.

A cousin of the Wilde brothers, Philip, arrives at Faith plantation to convey the news that the men’s father is missing presumed dead. Titch is devastated, but for Erasmus this represents yet more administrative burden as it means he must now run all the family’s business. Philip remains at Faith plantation for many weeks, staying in Titch’s quarters, so Wash gets to know him well. He is a malign presence; on one occasion, while out with Titch observing the preparations for the flying machine he shouts an instruction to Wash that causes him to stand too close to a device that explodes. Wash suffers disfiguring facial burns and it is as if Philip knew it would happen.

One day, Philip takes Wash, to help him on a shooting trip, during which the troubled Philip turns the gun on himself and commits suicide. It is immediately clear to 12 year old Wash that, as the only witness, he will be blamed and most likely executed. Wash returns to Faith to tell Titch, who is also quick to realise the implications. Titch decides they must leave immediately and he decides to launch the flying machine he has been working on. The night is a stormy one, however, and not ideal conditions for the launch of the ‘Cloud-cutter’, a bizarre contraption that seems to be a cross between a hot-air balloon and a rowing boat. Though it travels for a short distance, they have to finally crash land it on a boat in the ocean. Fortunately, the ship’s captain is sympathetic and allows the pair to sail with them to America.

Wash is now an escaped slave, and one instantly recognisable by his scarred face. Titch takes Wash with him on a search for his missing father (he does not believe that he died), but it becomes apparent that he wishes to separate from him. The two eventually find Titch’s father in the frozen north of Canada, and it is clear that the relationship between the two men is a difficult one that leaves Titch troubled. During a blizzard, Titch leaves their camp, and Wash finds himself alone and having to fend for himself, even more so when the old man eventually does die.

The rest of the novel is about how Wash makes his way in the world, evades capture by a slave-hunter and eventually finds himself in England, pursuing his passion for biology. Always, however, he is preoccupied by Titch’s abandonment of him and by the mystery of his own early life when he was transported from Africa. He finds some success and a settled life, but he becomes frustrated with the fact that his achievements will never be fully recognised, even in abolitionist England, because he is a black former slave.

This is an interesting and fascinating novel and I found the story deeply engaging. The characters are well-drawn and authentic and the issue of black slavery, the horrors of it and how it dehumanised all its victims, is vividly explored. The novel is broad in scope and beautifully written and I enjoyed it very much. Like most of the books I have read so far from the shortlist (The Long Take excepted) there is a drop in pace about half to two thirds of the way through, and I do think this is an editing issue. There are parts that could have been slimmed down in my view.

That issue aside, it remains a great story, and I recommend it.

How did you rate this Man Booker shortlisted book?

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