Book review – “Seven Days in May” by Kim Izzo

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.

Reading Challenge – June’s choice

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.

Happy reading!

Kids book review – “Splinters of Scarlet” by Emily Bain Murphy

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.

Facebook Reading Challenge – April choice

I’m a bit late posting my April choice for the reading challenge this month, which is ironic given that I finished the March book ages ago! I hope your Easter weekend was a good one. Mine was strangely very busy and had been preceded by a very busy, I would even go so far as to say an intense week, so that is my excuse for my tardiness and I am sticking to it.

This month’s theme is a children’s book (always a joy!) and I am delighted to be returning to an author whose first book was the very first January choice for my very first reading challenge in 2018! Emily Bain Murphy’s wonderful debut novel The Disappearances was a resounding success and almost everyone who joined me on the reading challenge that first month loved it. My elder daughter, who is now almost seventeen read it at the time and considers it one of her favourite ever books. She has re-read it at least twice since! Emily Bain Murphy’s new novel is called Splinters of Scarlet and it was published in July of last year by Pushkin children’s books. My daughter devoured it within days of getting it, and it comes highly recommended from her. She says it is a slower burn, not quite as compelling as The Disappearances to begin with, but it gets much better.

Look out for my review of last month’s book in the coming days – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. I did enjoyed this book very much, but, as many others have pointed out, it was a hard read to begin with.

I would love for you to join me on the reading challenge this month or to hear your thoughts if you have already read this book.

Happy reading!

Book review – “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

Last week I posted my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the February book in my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was something that had been adapted for screen and I had been torn between that book and Rebecca. This was famously adapted by Hitchcock, of course, in 1940 (starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine) and now there is a new production on Netflix, starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I watched the film (the 2011 version, not the television series) first. With Rebecca, however, I did it the other way around and I am so glad to have done so. It is such an extraordinary novel and the impact of the plot and the narrative are thrilling – I would have so missed out on so much if I had known the ending.

Rebecca opens with the well-known words “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” A short chapter, where our main female protagonist (whom we only ever know as Mrs De Winter) is recounting a dream she had of her first time visiting her husband’s family estate. She recalls, in particular, the long drive through the park, the plants and trees, which seem hostile, almost monstrous, and the setting of the house itself, in an imposing position high above the rocky Cornwall coast. It is described less in terms of realism and more in terms of how it made her feel. But our protagonist’s dream is very much past tense. We know that she is no longer there.

The second chapter goes back a number of years to the Hotel Cote D’Azur in Monte Carlo where Mrs De Winter (at this point a young spinster, though we never know her name, she is without her own identity) is serving as a ‘ladies companion’ to wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper, a vulgar, bully who shows complete contempt for her young employee.

Mrs Van Hopper hears that English aristocrat Maxim De Winter is in residence and is eager to renew her acquaintance with him. De Winter is recently widowed and Mrs Van Hopper explains that he has never got over his wife’s death. Mrs Van Hopper is suddenly taken ill which means that her companion finds herself with some spare time alone. Mr De Winter notices her one day and invites her to lunch. They embark on a whirlwind affair while Mrs Van Hopper convalesces, which ends with Maxim proposing marriage when it appears that his lover will be whisked off to New York with her employer. They marry, quickly and quietly while Mrs Van Hopper is nothing short of appalled at the match and promises her young friend that she will live to regret the decision.

The new Mrs De Winter returns to Cornwall with her husband, to his ancestral home, Manderley.  She is introduced into a household where the influence, of her predecessor, Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter is everywhere. Her memory is kept alive by the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, a cool and sinister figure, whom we come to learn was devoted to her mistress, having served her since she was a child. The new Mrs De Winter finds Rebecca’s presence everywhere, from her clothing in the boot room, to her notepaper in the morning room, and the expectations of the staff at Manderley who expect the new Mrs De Winter to simply pick up things as they were left, whether that be menus, social events or flowers in the house.

Although it is painful to her, Mrs De Winter becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out more about Rebecca, whilst also loathing how she continues to dominate the domestic sphere, the society, even her marriage. It is as if she is picking at a scab. We learn that Rebecca, an experienced sailor, drowned in her small boat. Mrs De Winter comes upon Rebecca’s small cottage on the beach, still filled with all her things and her discoveries and questions cause tension in her relationship with her husband. She comes to the conclusion that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca, that Mrs Danvers is scheming somehow to get rid of her and that she can never match her predecessor for beauty, accomplishment, charm or status. The myth of Rebecca takes over her completely.

I cannot say any more without giving away too much. Each new revelation and plot twist in the novel is delivered with jaw-dropping skill. This book had me reading far too much, far too late at night because I couldn’t put it down. It is also an emotional roller-coaster as the reader is forced to confront and re-confront assumptions, prejudices, expectations and moral values. It is a book that will leave you questioning what is right and wrong, who you are rooting for and who is the baddie. It’s an extremely complex and challenging novel that is far more than just its story, but what a story! British author Clare Mackintosh is quoted on the book jacket saying “It’s the book every writer wishes they’d written” and I could not agree more.

Highly recommended. And now for the film!

Book review – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John Le Carré

Oh my goodness, Rebecca is taking some very strange and unexpected turns – I wish I could write about them here but that would be unkind to anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film. I’m not sure how I feel about the plot twists, at this point, but I’m like a junkie in my reading of it, just dying to get the next ‘fix’! But back to something much more sober – Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, a book that has been described as Le Carré’s “masterpiece”, and which you will recall was my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for February. A Cold War novel for a cold month!

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the first in Le Carré’s so-called Karla trilogy in which he pits our hero, retired senior Secret Service operator and later chief, George Smiley, against his Russian opposite number and great nemesis, codenamed Karla. The novel opens at a minor public boys school to which former spy Jim Prideaux has been retired following a botched operation in Czechoslovakia where he was shot, captured and tortured by the Soviets.

The head of the Secret Service in London, known as Control, long suspected there was a mole in the outfit and shared some of his suspicions with Prideaux – the fateful mission to Czechoslovakia was partly intended to try and flush out the mole; Control has whittled down the candidates to a handful of the key operators in the Service whom he names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and so on.

Control dies of a heart attack, but more senior officials have learned of his suspicions and call in George Smiley from his rather bleak life of retirement to investigate secretly. Smiley has his own troubles; his wife has left him and it turns out she was having an affair with one of Smiley’s former colleagues (the inference is that she was lively and vivacious while George has become plump, tired and dull). Smiley is given support from an insider, a trusted current employee, Peter Guillam, to help him pursue the investigation that Control was never able to finish and they set up an undercover base operating out of a small hotel.

What ensues is a cat and mouse chase where Smiley gradually explores the motives and capacities of each of the suspects – Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhaze, George Haydon and Roy Bland. The investigation has to be conducted covertly to ensure none of the individuals learns of the suspicion surrounding the work of the Service. For Smiley, the investigation involves not only figuring out methods to get the information he needs and to reach the people who may be able to shed light on the murky inner workings of the organisation, but a sometimes painful reliving of past events which have brought him to his present state of lonely and purposeless existence.

The investigation also, of course, has the potential to breathe new life into Smiley and restore him to a position of status and importance. If he succeeds.

The plot of this novel is sometimes complex and difficult to follow – you really have to pay attention! I found it slow to start with, but then I got very sucked in and found it extremely compelling. The theme of last month’s reading challenge was something that has been adapted for screen and I had watched the film before reading the book. This was the wrong way around! As I was reading, the characters in my mind were the actors from the film and when these actors are Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Burke, to name but a few, it is hard to forget them. The characters in the film did not quite match up with the way they were portrayed in the book, which was frustrating. Also, some elements of the plot were changed for the film (including the ending, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexuality!), presumably to make it a bit easier to squeeze into two hours, so that was confusing for me.

However, all in all, a very good read. In a previous life I worked for the Civil Service in Whitehall (nothing as exciting as diplomacy or intelligence, I’m afraid), and the book caused me to reminisce about those days a little. The atmosphere created in the book was one I recognised even though it was set over twenty years before my time (things don’t change very fast).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first in a trilogy, and there are many other Le Carré novels that feature George Smiley and many more screen adaptations to explore. Having previously not felt too interested in Le Carré I have to say that this book has whetted my appetite!

Recommended.

Facebook reading challenge – March choice

In the last week or so of the month, I usually start to give some thought to the book that I am going to choose next for my Facebook Reading Challenge. I will remind myself of the theme. Sometimes, I already have a title or two in mind. And sometimes I have to do a bit of searching. This invariably throws up two or three choices and I will spend a few days ruminating before making a decision and posting on here.

Last month’s theme was “something that had been adapted for screen” and I had two titles in mind. I chose John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because I had just seen the 2011 Gary Oldman adaptation and had enjoyed it. After a few opening doubts (the plot of the book seemed much more complicated than the film), I really got into the book and loved it. I finished it quite quickly, so I decided to try and read my February reserve choice as well, Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 classic Rebecca. I had seen the trailer for the new film version starring Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Armie Hammer, which looks really good, but I wanted to read the book first. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but, oh my, HOW have I not read this before!? I cannot put it down. Look out for my reviews of both books soon.

This month’s theme is “something for spring” in keeping with the fact that meteorological spring started yesterday on the 1st. In the three years or so that I have been doing this challenge, I have never had more difficulty choosing a book. There are a couple of obvious choices – Ali Smith’s Spring or Karl Ove Knaussgard’s Spring – but they were too obvious for my liking. I brainstormed: growth, renewal, uplifting, Mother’s Day, World Book Day, International Women’s Day, Mars, gardening, baby birds… But, alas, this bore very little fruit. There is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, but, hmm, set in Russia in 1913…this does not feel sufficiently optimistic to me, and I feel we need some positivity at this point.

So, my choice has only a very tenuous link to spring – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. My rationale? Well, it’s World Book Day this Thursday (4th March). Books can be found in libraries. It has been described as ‘uplifting’. Tick. Plus I really like Matt Haig. The central character is Nora, whose life is not going well. On the stroke of midnight of her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library where she is given the opportunity to explore all the alternative lives she might have lived. If nothing else, one good thing that has come out of this pandemic is that many of us have reflected on our lives and thought about what we might want to change. And spring is a great time for change.

So, I think that’s a wrap! Looking forward to this one.

Now, back to Rebecca

Facebook Reading Challenge – February choice

It’s been a busy old start to the month – paid work has kept me Zooming pretty continuously such that sitting in front of the screen has not been top of my list of priorities. I’ve also set myself the goal of finishing the seventh (and, hopefully, final!) draft of the book I have been working for what must be three years now, and that means locking the door of the study for two hours a day and bashing away. Interruptions have abounded, of course, with home-schooling children and a WFH partner sharing my space, but I’m doing okay and feel on course for finishing the revisions by half term at the end of next week. Sometimes you just have to set a goal and go hell for leather for it. I am telling myself I must not let perfection be the enemy of the good and all that, so after this set of revisions, I really am going to draw that line and say enough, and actually do something with it.

So, that is why I am here, a few days later than planned, to my monthly reading challenge post. I LOVED last month’s book, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker – HOW, had I not read this already?!?!? I have not even seen the film – that is definitely going on my lockdown watch-list. Absolutely gripping, did not go at all in the direction I expected, brilliantly conceived and written. Totally un-put-down-able. It’s made me feel that my own creative efforts look a bit rubbish, but hey, you can’t compare apples and tractors – this book did win the Pulitzer prize after all. More on The Color Purple later in the week.

This month’s theme is “Something that was adapted for screen” – The Color Purple could have worked for that too. Last weekend, we watched the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth among others. It was on the BBC iPlayer (only for the rest of this week). I have got quite into spy stories in the last few years – I have now watched all the seasons of The Americans twice over, love them and will probably watch them again, plus we watched the French series Le Bureau de Legendes recently, and I loved that too. John Le Carre died in December last year and I have been intending to read some of his work for a while now, so I thought that would be a good option. I started the book last Sunday, and I’m afraid to say, it’s quite hard work. Maybe the film was just a bit too good? My husband fell asleep during the film, and says the book is better, but I keep falling asleep reading the book, so I’m not sure I agree! The handsome Gary Oldman version of George Smiley from the film, does not concur with the short, plump, tired and ageing Smiley of the book, which jars a bit, and I’m afraid I’d rather be thinking of Gary Oldman! This novel was also adapted for the small screen of course, in 1974, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. It would be good to watch that too.

I will persevere a little longer, but if I don’t get on with it, I may just abandon it and go for my second option, which is Rebecca, the 1938 Gothic classic by Daphne Du Maurier. There is a new film version out, starring Lily James (who seems to be in just about every other thing I watch at the moment), Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne Dowd and Armie Hammer (wow, what a cast!). There is also of course, the famous Hitchcock version, made in 1940, not long after the publication of the book, and reviews I have read suggest that the new film does not better the old one.

So, a choice of two! Two books, four film and television adaptations, a late start and a short month – quite a challenge! Let’s see if I’m up to it.

I’d be delighted if you would join me.

Audiobook review – “Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris

When I posted my new Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week, I completely forgot to mention the final book of my 2020 reading challenge, which was The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. I chose it because I just felt a bit of a laugh was in order at the end of what had been a challenging and intense few months. I decided to go for this one on audiobook because I love Sedaris’s unique style of delivery; he is mostly quite deadpan, but that just gives his occasional bursts of comic energy all the more impact.

The book is a series of sketches loosely based on Christmas themes. The longest of these, and the one which opens the book, is an account of the author’s time working as a Christmas elf at Santaland in Macy’s department store in New York city (the veracity is disputed, but who cares?). I made the mistake of starting to listen to this on one of my morning runs. I have to tell you that I had to stop several times, doubled over with breathless laughter and my chuckles got me some strange glances from passers-by! In the caricatures of ghastly parents, children, his fellow elves and the mostly overly self-important ‘Santas’ we can all recognise tiny little bits of ourselves. These pieces were first aired on various media in the early 1990s, but it is extraordinary how much of it remains punishingly accurate today. In the awful, domineering parents bullying their kids into posing for photos with Santa bearing gleeful smiles (regardless of their true feelings) he foreshadows instagram parenting which values the posting of an experience more highly than the experience itself. You could easily believe that Sedaris had been made completely cynical by his seasonal work experience but he ends the piece with an uplifting account of one of the truly magical Santas who really did enchant the children who came to see him.

The next couple of essays I found more clever than funny- one is a woman reading out her round robin Christmas letter in which she gives an account of her husband’s illegitimate Vietnamese daughter turning up at the family home, and ends very darkly when her own daughter’s baby dies, it turns out, at the hands of the narrator, who has tried to pin the blame for the crime on the Vietnamese ‘interloper’. Macabre humour indeed.

My favourite essay was called ‘6 to 8 Black Men’. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. It sounds very un-PC, but it is actually extremely self-deprecating and pokes fun at north American Christmas customs and the culture more generally (including the systemic racism), as compared to their European counterparts. I have had a couple of repeat listens of this piece and watched it on YouTube and it made me laugh just as much second and third time around. Sedaris’s humour is edgy at times, but I think the best comedy tends to makes you slightly uncomfortable.

This was a wonderful little collection, suitable for any time of year, and a perfect introduction to Sedaris, if you have not come across him before.

Highly recommended.

Happy New Year! (Must be time for a reading challenge?)

Hello, happy new year, happy Epiphany! I am late to the new year party this year. 2020 caused many of us to look at our lives somewhat afresh and ask what on earth we are doing and what is really important. One of the smallish things that I identified was an attachment to making Christmas something a bit more meaningful, in the absence of a religious faith, and I found myself taking an interest in some of the ancient secular traditions of the season. I tried not to do anything that looked too much like work between the winter solstice on the 20th/21st December (I watched the live sunset over Stonehenge broadcast on the English Heritage Facebook page and it was amazing) and twelfth night on 5th January (yes, I know many say it’s the 6th- depends when you start counting).

It was an odd period this time around for so many people. I was lucky; I collected my son from university in mid-December and with my husband and two daughters the five of us hunkered down, watched films, cooked, ate, walked, relaxed and generally had one of the nicest Christmasses ever. I’m not trying to be smug, especially if, denied the company and contact of loved ones, yours was s**t (and I know plenty of people for whom it was), I suppose all I’m saying is that we felt freer than usual of many of the normal Christmas pressures. And it was really very nice.

Our tree will come down today after a sterling four weeks of service. I switched off my Christmas lights for the last time yesterday night and I will miss them. I switched them on every morning when I came down to breakfast, still in the dark, and they were enormously cheering. I’ll need to find an alternative I think until the mornings are light again. I also lit candles in my front window every evening at dusk. That was nice too and I’m going to keep doing that until the evenings get a bit lighter.

So, today it’s back to work. My son scooted back to university at the weekend, relieved I think to have made the break for the border before Lockdown 3.o and the new travel restrictions came into force. My teenage daughters have diligently embraced the opportunities of online home learning – no more battling on public transport every day, no going out in the cold and dark, no school uniform and no classroom distractions from the handful of kids whose learning loss over the past few months has been so grave that they have forgotten how to behave in a classroom or towards their teachers. Sad, distressing and deeply worrying. Teachers, you have my utmost utmost respect for what you have done, achieved and had to put up with in 2020. I am lucky to have motivated children, old enough not to need supervision, able enough not to need much support and a household with enough tech and enough broadband to support a family of four online for most of the day. I am very very aware of my good fortune. It is a scandal that so many do not enjoy the last two things in order to cope with the first three.

I spent a lot of time reading over the Christmas break (goodness is it really four weeks since I last posted?!), but not my usual fare. I read a load of short stories; I bought most of my Christmas gifts in my local bookshops, one of which is a chain with a loyalty scheme. I built up quite a nice bunch of points so on Christmas Eve I treated myself to the following books:

I’ve been working my way through these and it was a joy to dip in and out. More on these soon.

Now it is time to look forward, and 2021 promises much. The vaccine, oh the vaccine. Surely the scientific miracle of our age. Let us hope governments deliver. The inauguration of a new President in the United States, whom we hope will, alongside his stellar Vice-President-elect, lead the world, as only his country can do, in paying long overdue serious attention to climate change, and addressing social injustice in all its forms. Only fourteen more days to go. I think the rest of the world is counting.

Plus of course, there are the dozens of wonderful books we are due, and lots of cultural events coming up. And, on a more parochial note, there is of course my 2021 Facebook Reading Challenge! It’s been tough this time, coming up with themes (I’ve done the genres and I’ve done countries and continents), so I’m just doing a hybrid of previous years and re-using most of the themes in a different order or with a twist! Why not? It has thrown up some really wonderful reading choices that I would not otherwise have made so what is not to like?

My first book of the year, on the theme of an American classic, is a re-read for me, and not too long, since we are already nearly a week into the month – The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I would love for you to join me on my Facebook Reading Challenge this year. You can print out and keep my reading challenge pro forma below (:D) if you’d like to get involved, and join my Facebook group.

Happy reading everyone!