7 ways that reading improves your mental health

World-Mental-Health-Day

On World Mental Health Day, I would like to flag up the obvious – reading is good for you. If you need a reason, here are seven:

  1. Reading reduces stress – it can slow your heart rate and help you relax.
  2. It can help you sleep – reading before bed induces sleep much more effectively than any other activity. Switching off your mobile phone and picking up a book will promote good sleep hygiene.
  3. Reading stops you ruminating – many of us build up our anxiety levels by going over and over stressful experiences. Reading a book will take you out of that negative thought cycle.
  4. Books do not mess with your melatonin – unlike a phone. Young people in particular benefit from putting the phone, with its melatonin-suppressing blue light, away and picking up a book.
  5. Reading explands your mind – much more than YouTube or EastEnders ever will.
  6. Reading improves focus and concentration – and that can help you manage the demands of life more effectively, especially if you find it difficult to complete tasks, with all the consequent pressures that brings.
  7. You won’t be comparing yourself with perfection – most characters in good books are flawed…like the rest of us. Normal. You will not meet people living seemingly amazing lives, with perfect bodies and hundreds of friends, who are going to make you feel rubbish. You will meet characters like you. And others not like you. Life’s rich tapestry in fact.

So, celebrate World Mental Health Day by doing something for yourself and sitting down with a book.

Book review: “The Last Runaway” by Tracy Chevalier

This was one of my holidays reads and one of two books my book club chose for our summer break. It’s only my third Tracy Chevalier novel, but each time I read her I just want more! I read Girl with a Pearl Earring years ago when it was first published and then The Lady and the Unicorn a year or so ago, which I thought was wonderful. I have since picked up Virgin Blue from my local secondhand bookshop so that will be next on my list.

The Last Runaway imgOne thing that is so impressive about Chevalier is how beautifully she creates the  historical setting: the two novels I have read so far have been set in 17th century Holland and 15th century Paris and Brussels and I can only begin to imagine the amount of research she has to undertake. The Last Runaway is set in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century when parts of the country were only just being settled. Honor Bright, our main character is a young Quaker woman from Dorset in England. She has led a modest and sheltered life, but her world was turned upside down when her fiancé left her and their close-knit Quaker community for another woman. This was not only a scandal but it left Honor distraught and in a very difficult position. When her sister, Grace, is persuaded by her fiancé that they should move to America, Honor decides she must go with her, not only to support her sister, but to escape the oppression of her situation and have some chance of making a life for herself.

Their journey from Bristol to New York is arduous and Honor suffers with debilitating seasickness. As they travel the long distance from New York to Ohio, Grace contracts Yellow Fever and dies. This places Honor in a further difficult position: not only must she tell Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, that she is dead, but she is also in fear about where that leaves her as he, of course, has no obligation to support her. Honor, however, cannot face going back to England either because of the journey or the shame.

On the final leg of her journey, Honor has a frightening encounter with a local slave-hunter, Donovan. Honor is appalled both by his profession and his dangerous air, and yet also finds herself strangely drawn to him when he seems to flirt with her. This also sends her into a tailspin as it conflicts with her Quaker outlook and moral code.

Honor arrives in the small town of Wellington, close to Faithwell, her intended destination. There, she finds quarters with Belle Mills, the local milliner, who, it transpires, is also the half-sister of the mysterious Donovan. Belle warns Honor about him and it is clear there is a tension between these siblings. During her stay with Belle, Honor adapts her talent for quilting (quilting, its traditions, the patterns and its place in Quaker culture, are a strong and fascinating motif running through the novel) and shows promise as a hat-maker, endearing her to Belle and her many customers. Belle’s designs are often flamboyant, which is an anathema to Honor, who, as a Quaker, must observe plainness and modesty in all forms of dress. The two women develop a firm friendship, however, and Honor begins to feel more confident.

Honor first realises there is something strange going on when she finds a black man under a woodpile in the yard of Belle’s home. Honor is aware of the existence of the slave trade, indeed, the Quakers were an important part of the movement calling for its abolition, but this is the first time she has come so close to an escapee. She is terrified, particularly when Donovan comes searching at his sister’s property, sensing the presence of the runaway. Honor later learns that Belle is part of a network of citizens who provided the means of escape, food and shelter for runaway slaves fleeing the South to states which had already outlawed slavery – the ‘underground railroad’. Belle was what was known as a ‘station-master’.

Honor is collected from Belle’s by Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, and taken back to Faithwell, to live with him and his sister-in-law (also widowed) and to work in their shop. The domestic situation is uncomfortable for Honor, however, and her prospects only  brighten when she is wooed and then married to fellow Quaker Jack Haymaker. At first it seems like a good marriage that will improve Honor’s situation, but her mother-in-law proves to be a formidable presence, who does not conceal her contempt for her daughter-in-law and how little she has to offer when Honor goes to live with them on their isolated farm. At first, Jack is attentive and loving, but quickly becomes complacent and Honor grows increasingly miserable, despite her efforts to feel and appropriate degree of godly gratitude. Tensions deepen when Honor decides she will provide support for runaway slaves passing through their property. This is against the expressed wishes of the Haymakers. A law has been passed which makes it illegal for anyone to help a runaway, and the penalties are severe. Whilst the Quakers are against slavery, they are also against law-breaking and Honor’s actions are seen as a threat to their livelihood. Honor finds herself increasingly in conflict with the family until the point where her position becomes untenable. All the while, Donovan hovers in the background, stalking Honor and sniffing out runaways.

I will say no more as the events of the story then take quite dramatic turns. I loved the unexpected twists of the plot. I also love the way the author wove in details about the slave trade and the underground railroad (which I confess I knew very little about). Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad brought the existence of this movement to the attention of many readers for the first time, I think. I was not aware that Tracy Chevalier had also written this novel about it. I also loved the domesticity of this novel, its femaleness and the feminine craft of homemaking, particularly in relation to the skills required for good quilting. This seems to be a common theme in Chevalier’s work. I loved how strong the women were in this novel; the men do not come out looking so good!

I recommend this book highly. It’s a great story, a fascinating read and will give you an insight into worlds you may not know much about.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your views.

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Summer holidays

We arrived in France yesterday for our family summer holiday. We had a week in Ireland last week visiting family, travelling between Dublin and West Cork. It was wonderfully full-on so there was precious little reading time. However, now that it’s just the five of us I’m looking forward to a slower pace. My children are all well into the teen zone now so my husband and I find ourselves twiddling our thumbs in the mornings, waiting for them to get up. Perfect reading time!

We are staying in Cancale, a smallish coastal town in Northern Brittany, arriving here on the overnight ferry from Cork to Roscoff, which was very pleasant indeed – good, reasonably-priced food, decent cabins and plenty to do.

I’ve been unusually restrained with my holiday library this year, just the three books: Harvesting by Lisa Harding, a harrowing account of child prostitution, child trafficking, abuse and neglect, Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, one of my book club’s summer reading titles.

I’ve almost finished Harvesting in the first couple of days! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is gripping. I’m told it has been thoroughly researched and is not an outlandish account. If this is the case, I have truly led a sheltered life. It’s tough stuff.

If I manage all three books there is always the Kindle back-up! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What are your holiday reading choices?

Kid’s book review: “The Explorer” by Katherine Rundell

I want to tell you about a wonderful book I have just completed which will be perfect summer reading for 9-12 year olds; long enough to last them for a holiday, but with enough pace to sustain their interest and sufficient can’t-put-it-down qualities! Katherine Rundell. This is only her fourth novel, but she has already won two major prizes: the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2014 for Rooftoppers and The Explorer won the Costa Book Award in 2017. Phew!

The Explorer imgThe novel begins with a dramatic event: four children are travelling in a light aircraft across the Amazon jungle, which then crashes. The pilot dies (this is quite gently done, it is not frightening), which means the four children, five year-old Max, his older sister Lila, both Brazilian, and Con and Fred, two Brits, aged about 11-12, find themselves alone. Each of the children has their own back-story and their characters are carefully-drawn: Fred is resourceful, a natural leader who the others look to, but he is also a troubled soul, his mother is dead and he longs for the approval of his remote and uptight father. I should add at this point that the story is set, I would guess, in the 1950s. Con is a feisty and assertive girl, who is also often angry and finding herself in conflict or impatient with the others. She comes across as something of a spoiled brat, but she too is hiding a deeper insecurity. Her secret will be revealed much later. Lila and Max are siblings. Max is very young, vulnerable and afraid. Lila is fiercely protective of him, acts as a mother-figure in the absence of their own family, and has the maturity to bring the group together at times of great stress.

Straight away the children’s survival instinct kicks in and they search for food, are vaguely aware of the dangers of certain plants and creatures, build a shelter and work out how to start a fire. Very soon they find a pouch with a rudimentary map, which they hope will take them back to some sort of civilisation. With nothing to lose they decide to build a raft to take them along the river. They are forced into it in any case when their fire, which they had failed to fully extinguish, catches hold and burns the whole area they were staying in. They have to take to the river to escape.

Once on board their raft they encounter many other hazards, but they are also having the adventure of their lives, far away from the dull and staid lives they normally lead. Even though they know they are facing grave dangers at every turn, they also feel that this experience is life-affirming:

“The next day was a Wednesday. Wednesday at school began with double geography: the most exciting thing that happened on Wednesday was biology with old Mr Martin, who was liable to fart at unexpected intervals.  This Wednesday, Fred woke to a rainforest thunderstorm, and rain dripping through the roof of the den into his ear.”

About halfway through the book the children encounter a man in the rainforest, ‘the explorer’, who lives in a ruined ancient city with his pet vulture. He is initially hostile to them, which comes as a shock to the children as they clearly believe that he, as the adult, will help them in their dire need. He falls woefully short, however, and they find that they must continue their survival efforts. He allows them to stay with him in the ruined city, and, as he gets to know them better, trust develops and he transfers some of his knowledge of the rainforest to help them. Over time, he slowly reveals to them why he has chosen to live alone, rejecting the rest of human society and why it is so important to him that the ruined city remains a secret. He too has a tragic back-story that helps to explain his behaviour.

Spoiler alert: Max becomes very ill and it becomes apparent that without medical help he will die. The explorer reveals to them that he has a small plane, but that Fred will have to learn to fly it to get the children out of the rainforest and to their only chance of safety. They make it to Manaus, landing in a field, and Max gets the treatment he needs in time.

This is a really cracking story with a good balance of peril and positivity. It is both an adventure story and a very touching exploration of humanity. It will appeal to those interested in environmental issues as it is a love story to the rainforest and all that is special about it, as well as an exhortation to tread lightly on the earth. Insensitive human exploration and endeavour has a great deal to answer for and has put places like the Amazon rainforest in jeopardy. The explorer voices a desperate plea on behalf of the planet when he appeals to the children to ‘pay attention’:

“’Do you see all this?’ The explorer held his torch high, casting light on the trees and the sleeping birds. ‘You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer,’ he said. ‘Every human on this earth is an explorer. Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large. Attention. That’s what the world asks of you. If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.’”

Another theme running through Rundell’s work is the resilience and resourcefulness of the young and the error that adults make in trying to ‘protect’ them too closely. Children need to learn to take risks and find their own boundaries and discover meaning in their lives. The four children here learn much more than school will ever teach them as a result of their experience and manage perfectly well without adults.

I loved this book and found myself moved and uplifted by it. Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds. It is augmented with some beautiful illustrations, which younger ones will enjoy.

Have you read any of Katherine Rundell’s books?

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Hot new reads for the Summer

As Britain swelters under a seemingly relentless heatwave, thoughts are turning to holidays, even though perhaps that fortnight in the sun could just as easily be had at home at the moment! So, if you are looking for ideas for your holiday reading list here are some new titles that you might look out for. It’s quite an international list so if you are outside the UK you should be able to find most of these too.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse – I haven’t read any Kate Mosse but having just finished The Birth of Venus I am in the mood for historical fiction! Set in 16th century Carcassonne, France, it concerns an elderly bookseller and his family and the impact of the religious wars on their lives.

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi – already a best-seller in Dubai and the UAE, this novel, set in the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, looks at how the conflict affected the ordinary people of the city of Baghdad. When our television screens are full of images of refugees caught up in war, of bodies and of bombed-out buildings, I hope this novel will give us an insight into the reality of the lives of people just like us.

Lala  by Jacek Dehnel – an elderly woman recounts her extraordinary life to her grandson. Born in Poland in 1875 she lived through two world wars, life under communism and then liberation. This book has already won prizes in the author’s native Poland.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton – set in New York city this novel concerns the increasingly oppressive friendship between two young women, aspiring writer Louise and wealthy social butterfly Lavinia. The two women meet when Louise goes to tutor Lavinia’s younger sister. Their friendship becomes necessary to both of them, but for different reasons, and is characterised by deceit, jealousy and an unhealthy dependency.

The Hour of Separation by Katharine McMahon – McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastapol is one of my all-time favourite books. I haven’t read anything she has written since, but I really like the sound of this novel. Another novel about friendship between two women, Christa and Estelle, this time set in 1939, who have in common Fleur – Fleur was the Belgian Resistance fighter who saved Christa’s father in the Great War. She was also Estelle’s mother. The two women meet just before the outbreak of World War Two.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – I loved Moshfegh’s thriller Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Her new novel, published in the UK this week, promises to be equally dark and thrilling. Set in 2000, around the corner in time from 9/11, our narrator is a wealthy young New Yorker. The deaths of her parents while she was studying at Columbia university, a sense of the pointlessness of her own life, and dysfunctional relationships with her so-called best friend and her Wall Street boyfriend, lead her to take a ‘narcotic hibernation’. It is not without consequence.

The Temptation of Gracie by Santa Montefiore – the cover tells you this is going to be perfect for poolside! Gracie Burton blows all her savings on a week-long cookery course in Tuscany, much to the consternation of her daughter Carina and granddaughter Anastasia. The trip turns out to be about more than just mid-life crisis, however, and aspects of Gracie’s past that her family were not aware of, are revealed. Tantalising!

Some of these books are only just out and so may only be available in Hardback, or e-reader – perfect for holiday packing!

What are your recommendations for the summer?

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Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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