Finished at last!

 

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I cannot remember when it last took me so long to read a book. I started reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing in early January and finished it at the end of February. I toyed with giving up on it (as I blogged about here), but instead I took a couple of ‘breaks’ to read other books, which interrupted the flow for me a little, but also helped me to persevere. At over 460 pages it’s of a considerable length, but I’ve taken less time to read longer books. It’s a tremendous achievement, a work of scholarship, but I found it really hard-going. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year; I’ve read the other five and I have to say that although in some ways this is the ‘finest’ book, it was not, for me at least, the best read. It has also been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced today.

I’m also finding it fiendishly difficult to review! It’s a book about China. It covers a period from the mid-1960s, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was instigated, to the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government’s military reaction to which resulted in several hundred deaths. These deaths, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the thousands, possibly millions who were tortured, killed and persecuted in the previous forty years under Communist rule. The great horror the author explores more closely in this book, however, is the obsessive annihilation of all ‘unauthorised’ culture.

The novel begins in Canada where 10-year old Marie lives with her mother. Marie’s father, we learn, committed suicide, leaving many papers and a mystery. Then Ai-Ming comes into their lives, a refugee from China whose links to Marie’s father are not clear initially. She is a troubled young woman, though at this stage we do not know why. Marie becomes close to Ai-Ming and with her she begins to uncover some of the mysteries lying within her father’s remaining effects, but Ai-Ming eventually disappears, leaving many unanswered questions. Marie sets out to uncover the full story of the connections between Ai-Ming’s family and her father and most of the book is a detailed first hand account of these events.

Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, was a gifted composer at the prestigious musical academy in Shanghai. Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, a little younger and a gifted pianist. The third key individual is Zhuli, Sparrow’s young cousin who lives with him and his parents because her own parents have been imprisoned in remote labour camps for crimes against the state. Zhuli is a prodigious violinist. For each of our three main protagonists, music not only dominates their life, but their whole being. The homogenisation of culture under Mao, the proscribing of musical performance and the condemnation of musicians as ‘bourgeois rightists’ has profound effects on their lives. The book is primarily about how each is affected, both the shared horror they feel, and the different paths they must each follow for self-preservation.

It is a profoundly moving book: the horrors of the time are recounted in breathtaking detail and the aims of the book are noble. The author paints a picture of how the Cultural Revolution, by denying the expression of a shared history through art, literature and music, and by prohibiting so much that was beautiful and valuable, was a programme of dehumanisation that exercised control by turning a mass of people into savages. There is no doubt that Madeline Thien is an extremely talented writer. However, I was only able to become really engaged with the book partway through; the first hundred pages or so just failed to move me at all. I found the transitions from 1990 Canada to 1960s China rather clunky; each time we were with Ai-Ming and Marie and just beginning to get to know them, we were suddenly drawn back to China and a set of random characters in whom I struggled to get interested. It was when Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai’s story came to the fore that I began to become more invested. Even then though there would be extremely long sections of the book telling us their story, without even a mention of Ai-Ming and Marie. Yes, the author ties everything up very cleverly at the end, but it rather rendered the Ai-Ming/Marie reflective device a bit redundant. I think it would have been just as good a story without involving these two at all.

So, a powerful and moving book, a necessary one perhaps, demonstrating the dangers of oppression, control and the regulation of art and culture, but a book that is hard-going at times.

Have you read this book? I’d be interested in your views

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I have 14 books on my ‘to read’ pile – oops!

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And that’s just the living room pile! I have a few more beside my bed, and, ahem, a shelf or two full in bookcases here and there. If I sat down and worked out how long it would take me to get through them all I’d probably find I don’t need to buy another book for…some time! It’s a fairly harmless vice, compared to some, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with me – am I an eternal optimist (thinking I CAN read all these books) or do I have my head stuck in the sand (believing I WILL read all these books)? Is it wasteful? Of money and the earth’s resources? Or am I right to reward the many hard-working writers who have put so much time and effort into their books, by purchasing copies, even if I might never read them?

Who knows, but the piles do rather haunt me and get bigger in my mind, in true Dorian Gray fashion.

2017-03-01-13-21-23-hdrSo, the task for March on my 2017 reading challenge is to grip up this issue and tackle one of the books on my ‘to read’ pile that has been sitting there the longest. It’s Just Kids by Patti Smith. I came to Patti relatively late in life; I was a bit young to be into her in the ’70s when she was prominent. I’m not a big music fan and am relatively ignorant but I picked up her career-defining album Horses in one of those ‘2 for a tenner’ type sales in HMV, or somewhere similar, a few years ago, and it quickly became one of the soundtracks of my 30s, and my children loved it too! We all loved ‘Gloria’ particularly and that song would definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs, both because I love the power and energy of the song and because it brings back happy memories of us all singing in the car – “Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!”

2017-03-01-11-40-14Patti Smith is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life. I have been meaning to read this book for years (it was published in 2010), so when I came across it in the Strand Bookshop whilst on my trip to, where else, New York last summer, it had to be bought! (It’s a very New York book.)

I’m looking forward to starting it, especially as I have now at long last finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, with which I rather struggled, as I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago (I’ll post my review of that book soon). Reading Just Kids will I hope transport me back to last summer as I await the proper arrival of spring; I see a few snowdrops sprouting in my garden, but I also saw snow yesterday so we’re not there yet.

So, if you fancy joining me on the challenge this month, and picking a book from your ‘to read’ pile, do let me know what you’ll be tackling and why. (I think I’ll also give up book-buying for Lent!)

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A month of poetry

How often do you read a poem? The answer for me is rarely these days. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to include some poetry in my reading challenge for the year, to make myself sit down and do it. Why February? Well, firstly, it was Valentine’s Day last week, a time when one is more inclined, perhaps, to encounter a verse or two (or maybe even write one!) Secondly, and much more prosaically, it was half term, so I knew I wouldn’t get as much reading done as usual.

Well, I didn’t write my husband any poems (he was away, for goodness’ sake!), but I did read a few. The challenge was to choose a poem for each week and to read it every day for that week. In other words, four poems. The first one I chose was The Wild Swans at Coole by WB Yeats, a favourite of mine, having first got to know his work when studying for my English degree. It’s also a short poem, so an easy way into the challenge. First published a century ago (pure coincidence that I chose it), a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin, which affected Yeats deeply, the First World War was still going strong, and it was the year that he first married (at the age of 51), never having persuaded the real love of his life, Maud Gonne, to accept him.

“Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.”

It is a poem about ageing, about loss and grief and about the passage of time and Yeats’ search for true lasting beauty in a world where all about him was deteriorating and decaying. I had a different response to the poem, reading it now, aged forty-something, than I did in my early twenties, for obvious reasons.

I’ve always wanted to get to know Emily Dickinson (1830-86) better; she is a celebrated American poet, who lived as a virtual recluse in Massachusetts. She remains something of an enigma, not least because of the deep passions expressed in her poetry, so at odds with what is known about her life. A book was published in 2015 by Nuala O’Connor called Miss Emily, written from the point of view of an Irish maid who was taken on by the Dickinson household. I am keen to read this now, having dipped into the poetry.

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I picked up this lovely little volume in my local Oxfam bookshop (what wonderful work this charity does, not only in its programmes abroad, but in providing many towns with such a fantastic literary resource). From it I chose poem no. 249 (Dickinson did not give titles to her poems so they are known by numbers or first lines) “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” Very appropriate for the week in which Valentine’s Day fell and fascinating when you think of the kind of life she led – a middle class spinster living in 19th century rural America.

 

 

“Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!”

For my final two choices I thought I’d better get a bit  more modern, so I chose Jackie Kay from my other Oxfam purchase The Penguin Book of Poetry and Britain and Ireland since 1945. It’s quite an old anthology, published in 1998, so only one of Jackie’s poems is in there Brendon Gallacher. For my brother Maxie, but what a super poem it is. It’s about the narrator’s imaginary friend, a fantasy of a life much more exciting than her own. I had an imaginary friend as a child (Leda), through whom I had access to a much more colourful world, so can idenitfy with the theme! I also love listening to Jackie Kay, and here is a YouTube video of her reading this poem

 

The final poem for my challenge, which I shall continue reading next week, is Warming Her Pearls by the current British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It is written from the point of view of a lady’s maid, one of whose tasks is to wear her mistress’s pearls before she goes out, in order that they are not cold on her skin. It has obvious themes about class but also has a deep erotic resonance – another one for Valentine’s Day perhaps!

I’ve enjoyed this month’s challenge much more than I expected and I have actually read more poems as a result than the four that I set myself. Poetry really is a pleasure and requires a lot less time commitment than a novel. It’s also incredibly relaxing!  I would urge you to give it a try if it’s not your usual thing.

Do you have a favourite poem or poet?

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The Oscars – literary references

You will no doubt have picked up that it’s the Oscars this weekend; they start somewhere in the middle of the night (UK time) on Sunday 26th. I’m not a huge film buff so I’ve never stayed up for them, but I’ve become interested in recent years as an increasing number of the top movies, it seems to me, have been based on works of literature. The ones that spring to mind are Life of Pi (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2014), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Last year was particularly rich in literary reference with The Danish Girl, Carol, The Revenant and Room all big winners based on books. (I was so struck by this that I read three of the books and posted about it not long after I started this blog. You can read my post here)

hidden-figures-imgThis year, literary references are a little thinner on the ground, but I want to tell you about a couple that have caught my eye. My children were on their half term holiday last week and I took my youngest daughter (aged 10) to see Hidden Figures. It is based on a true story, but the film was inspired by a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. You will  no doubt have seen the trailers, but, to summarise, it tells the story of three exceptionally talented mathematical minds whose contribution to the US space programme in the 1960s went largely unacknowledged…because they were African-American women working at a time when racial segregation was still in place. It is a remarkable story, very moving and very well told.

I am proud to say that my young daughter was incredulous at the level of discrimination that prevailed – why didn’t these very clever women get the credit for the work they did? Without them, John Glenn may not have made it into space, let alone come back in one piece! I’d be interested to read the book, if only because the film is at times a little sentimental (though this takes nothing away from the achievement of the central characters) and I’d like to  understand which facts have been sugar-coated for pictorial effect and which are true. And which bits they left out! I would highly recommend the film though, so take your daughters. And your sons!

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The other film I’m desperate to see this year is Lion, which has been nominated for six Oscars, and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. This book is also a true story and is a personal account by the author of how he became separated from his dirt-poor family in India at the age of five. He found himself on the streets in Calcutta and then ended up in Tasmania. At the age of 30 he set out to try and find his family and the book (and the film) is the story of that journey.

 

 

 

I’m starting to build-up a long ‘to watch’ list, alongside my ‘to read’ list, but at least the ‘to watch’ list is merely a page of notes at the back of my diary and doesn’t haunt me every time I walk into a room in my house and am confronted by a very real large pile of books! (Yes, there is one in every room!) Roll on the March reading challenge, which is to tackle a book from the ‘to read’ pile.

Have you seen any films recently that you would recommend?

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What to do when a book feels like a hard slog?

Last Autumn I set myself a challenge to read the full Man Booker Shortlist 2016 (six books). I didn’t manage all of them before the winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was announced. I planned to complete and review the final one on my list (Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien) this week, but I’m afraid I haven’t finished it; it is taking me an inordinate amount of time to get through!

swan-319379_640Now, dear reader, this blog is rather like the proverbial swan – whilst it may look smooth and effortless to you on the surface, the planning (reading, idea generation, social media, writing, etc) that goes on behind the scenes is like a military operation! Well, not exactly, but, you know, I do plan my reading, aim to bring you a book a week and try to blog twice a week. And this book has totally blown my schedule! You know what it’s like when you’ve got a busy day planned either at home or at work…and you hear the words “Mum, I’ve just been sick!” and you know your day is irretrievably banjaxed. Well, that’s how I feel.

2017-02-08-11-48-44Do Not Say We Have Nothing, broadly speaking, is about China after the revolution, what it was like living under the dictatorship of Mao Tse Tung and about the hardships endured by the population, particularly by artists and intellectuals, in an era when culture was heavily proscribed. I have had a lifelong fascination with China, have read very widely about this enormously diverse and culturally rich nation, so I should be loving it. But I’m not! And I’m barely halfway through! I took a break from it this week and read Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (which I’ll be reviewing soon), and that book is at the very opposite end of the literary spectrum – light, fun, quick to read. Many people probably would have given up by now. After all, a book, particularly a long one, is a huge investment is it not? I rarely give up on a book – I gave up on White Teeth by Zadie Smith a few years ago after a couple of false starts, but I have always planned to go back to it. My rationale for continuing with Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as follows:

  1. I’ve already sunk several hours into it
  2. I keep thinking that it’ll get more enjoyable
  3. It seems a worthy book, so I feel I ought to finish it
  4. I set myself the challenge to complete the shortlist and I can’t let one book make me fail.

Reasons 2 and 4 are the most compelling. So, I will carry on to the bitter end and hope that a turn of the plot will make it all worthwhile. I’ll keep you posted!

Do you give up on a book if you’re not enjoying it?

If you’ve already read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think it’ll be worth it in the end. Is it just me?

February’s reading challenge – four poems

The aim of my 2017 reading challenge was not to binge on books or to find quirky ways of seeking out different kinds of books, it was very much about challenging reading habits and embracing reading for the sake of it. Finding more joy in reading, not just lengthening the list of books read. Naturally, I had myself in mind! Books have been at the centre of my life for as long as I can remember, but I am not a big poetry reader. So, February’s challenge (to select four poems and read each one every day for a week) has required a good deal of thought for me. I did a degree in English Literature and so, book hoarder that I am, I have a few poetry anthologies lying around. WB Yeats is my favourite poet, but I am ashamed to say that my poetry knowledge is not that wide.

It requires a different set of reading skills for sure! Firstly, I’m quite a quick reader, and evidence shows that most of us can quite easily comprehend a piece of text without reading every word or even every letter of the words we do read (it’s how proofreaders make a living!). I’m sure you’ve seen or done one of those Facebook tests which tells you you’re super-intelligent if you can understand a quoted piece of jumbled and misspelled text? Secondly, like mindfulness colouring, or yoga, it forces you to slow right down. Poems have special unique rhythms and they can’t be speed read. Well, they can, but it misses the point.

If you know your Beowulf or your Chaucer, even your Shakespeare, you’ll know that prose fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon; poetry was by far the more popular form until around the late 18th/early 19th century. Furthermore, when ‘story-telling’ was a verbal or performance art form, and passed on by the telling, not by print, it was much more poetic in terms of the language used and the sound and rhythm of the sentences. And aren’t many of the first books we read our children, rhyming ones? Poetry undoubtedly taps into something very human and very instinctual. When you think about all of that, it’s extraordinary that most adults rarely indulge in poetry (perhaps pop music has replaced it?) So, for February, poetry it is!

For this first week, I’ve selected a Yeats poem to ease myself back into a poetry reading habit. Something familiar, which will also transport me back to my youth and dusty lecture halls! I’ve chosen a short poem, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ I’m reading this every day for the next week, so I’ll let you know how I get on. Perhaps you’d like to join me?

I’m off to the library tomorrow to do a bit more research and decide on poem number two!

Do you have any poetry recommendations? I’m particularly interested in something contemporary.

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How are you getting on with your reading challenge?

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I know many people are following reading challenges at the moment – it’s becoming very popular. Not to be left out, I set my own at the beginning of the month, which you can find here  if you’d like to join me. I know, however, that many busy book-loving parents don’t get as much time to read as they would like, so my challenge was about reading deeper – enjoying, embracing, rekindling the reading passion – rather than reading more.

January’s challenge was to read a book with a child (or simply to read out loud if you don’t have a child to hand). This month I have been reading two books with my youngest daughter, who is now 10. First of all we read Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, which I reviewed here last week. We have also been reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

My daughter is still young enough that reading together is something we do regularly, although we are not in the habit of doing it as much as we ought to for the purposes of school (oops!). Partly because, well, the usual, life is just full, but also because now that she is in Year 6 and a pretty good reader, we just don’t need to as much, so it’s slipped off our agenda somewhat. It just happens, doesn’t it? One minute you’re reading ‘Spot’ every bedtime, the next you realise your kids have hardly looked at a non-textbook for months.

Doing it regularly this month, however, has been a joy. For both of us. It was so lovely when we were reading a particularly dramatic section in Time Travelling with a Hamster where it was so tense she begged that we keep reading because she didn’t think she’d be able to sleep without knowing what happened next! Needless to say, I gave in, even though we’d gone way beyond official bedtime as I was pretty keen to find out if they escaped too!

Time Travelling with a Hamster, is a brilliant book, so if you haven’t got hold of it for your 9-12 year olds yet, you must. It was the first book in my daughter’s primary school book club, which I run, so I felt I was cheating slightly, putting it down for my January challenge. So, we’ve also been reading Black Beauty. I remember reading this when I was my daughter’s age and it’s been wonderful coming back to it as an adult. It has brought back so many happy memories from my childhood, not just from reading the book, but that wonderful television series. Do you remember the music? If you click here it will take you to a youtube clip of the opening and closing credits – watching it made me cry, it’s such a lovely piece of music, particularly the end theme with the choir. And that beautiful horse! It’s from 1972 so the TV show must have prompted me to read the book, as I would have been only 4 at the time. So, TV can be a good thing sometimes!

I hope you are enjoying reading with your child this month. I’d love to hear about it.

If you haven’t started yet, it’s not too late – maybe choose something together this weekend? You don’t have to finish by the end of January; we’re pretty relaxed about that sort of thing here at myfamilyandotherbooks.com!

 

Are ‘mature’ Mummies allowed to read YA (young adult) fiction?

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Well, this Mummy did and really enjoyed it! It wasn’t, like, really obvs. (sorry, can’t resist a bit of punctuation, which I fear may become extinct in my lifetime) since the book concerned was a) written by someone of my own generation, and b) the cover doesn’t give too much away, so not totes embarrassing to be seen reading in the company of my daughter and her BFFs.

(Enough teen-speak now, I think, especially since I’m rubbish at it.)

I got an advance copy of The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr from Net Galley. This is a website you can subscribe to, free of charge, and it gives you a chance to get electronic copies of books (so you need an e-reader device), usually ahead of publication. In return you are simply asked to leave a review of the book on the website. I guess it gives publishers an idea of how the book might be received, and informs their marketing. The books available are mostly by less well-known writers.

Emily Barr has written a number of novels, mostly in what is often called the “chick-lit” genre, though I think this is her first venture into YA fiction. I first came across her many years ago when she gained a bit of fame for being a very young journalist at The Guardian and for having a relationship with a senior MP. I remember enjoying her columns as she was a very witty and very clever writer. Here are my thoughts on the book, which was published earlier this month and I note is widely available, including in my local supermarket, so being heavily pushed.

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Seventeen year-old Flora Banks is the narrator and central character. At the age of 10, Flora developed anterograde amnesia. This condition means that Flora has no short-term memory; she cannot remember what happened even a few minutes ago. Her parents micro-manage her life and Flora has various techniques and strategies to help her. For example, she writes things on her arms and hands that she needs to remember and keeps detailed notebooks about past events in her life which enable her to contextualise the present.

Flora is at once a reliable and unreliable narrator: the former because she tells things directly as she sees and experiences them, but unreliable because she cannot give us any background to the story, apart from what she recites from her notebooks. For example, it is some time before we learn what caused Flora’s condition and this is an important key to the story because it helps to explain the motivations of other characters in the novel. It is an interesting narration: there is a great deal of repetition as Flora struggles to memorise events, which I found irritating at first, but then it also enables the reader to empathise with Flora and see how life might be from her perspective.

Flora leads a sheltered life in Penzance until two events shake up her mundane existence: first, she attends a going-away party at her best friend Paige’s house. Paige’s boyfriend, Drake, is moving to Norway to study. At the end of the party Flora finds herself on the beach in the company of Drake, who kisses her and expresses feelings for her. This has a profound effect on Flora and becomes the singular event of the book’s title that Flora can permanently remember.

“I kissed Drake on the beach. I am alive in that memory.”

The second event, is that Flora’s parents have to go to Paris to see her brother Jacob who is dangerously ill. They don’t reveal the details of the illness and promise to return home soon. They leave Flora at home, for what they say will be just a few days with all her meals and strict instructions, and arrange for Paige to stay at the house to take care of her. Paige, however, has found out about the kiss with Drake and in a fit of pique decides that she will not Flora-sit. Home alone, Flora’s highly ordered life begins to unravel. Most significantly, Flora fails to take her medication. Now obsessed with Drake and the kiss and the conviction that his love for her will somehow begin a rehabilitation process (because the kiss is such a powerful memory) Flora discovers a resourcefulness she never knew she had, and takes herself off to Arctic Norway to find Drake, all the while convincing her parents that she is still at home with Paige. Flora then has an epic adventure.

Once I got into it, I really enjoyed this book. It is a very cleverly-crafted piece of fiction. Flora is a fantastic creation and I can really see how both she and Paige would be appealing characters to YA readers. Whilst Flora’s problems are very rare and very specific, I think there is a wider theme here about parenting and how, in seeking to protect our teens from the dangers the world presents, we may in fact deny them the very experiences that will enrich their lives. Flora has no capacity to weigh up risk so she is an unusual case (or maybe not!!!???), but the people who aid and abet her (Paige and Jacob) do have that ability, which suggests we have to trust the decisions young people make.

So, a thought-provoking read, which I will be passing on to my youngsters, and recommend to a non-YA audience too, even mature Mummies and Daddies! It’s Zoella next for me – now that WILL be embarrassing! 😉

If you or any young people you know have read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

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Reading hack #2 – audiobooks

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A few years ago, when I had a proper job, I used to commute 100 miles a day, three days a week, by car. Seven and a half hours a week driving alone.  I did this for nearly three years. Seems crazy now, but the two things that kept me sane were Radio 4 and audiobooks. One of the frustrations of car travel for me is the amount of dead time. I enjoy listening to music of course, but audiobooks make me feel that I am doing something for my brain whilst sitting in traffic or on cruise control on the motorway (wasn’t there a report published just this week saying that Britain has the most congested roads in Europe – I can well believe it).

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Most of my journeys now are shorter ones so I’ve fallen out of the audiobook habit. I subscribed to an audiobook provider recently, however, to get a copy of one of my teenage son’s English Literature set texts, and it has renewed my interest. What is more, with a smartphone or tablet I can listen not just in the car, but whilst doing mundane tasks, during exercise, etc. I’m currently listening to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, so I look forward to reviewing it here in due course.

 

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My kids have always enjoyed audiobooks too; for years now, it has been a tradition that whenever we travel to Ireland to see family we have to listen to The Twits read by Simon Callow, possibly the best children’s audiobook ever! That plus Matilda gets us to Holyhead!

 

 

If our family holiday involves a lot of driving, we will pick an audiobook for the journey. Now that the kids are a bit older, the titles are getting more sophisticated. Last year we listened to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which provoked a lot of in-car discussion!

I will always go for unabridged audiobooks as for me a book is about the words and the way an author puts beautiful sentences together, as well as the story. But if you don’t mind edited highlights, there are also radio broadcasts to enjoy: Radio 4’s Book of the Week and Book at Bedtime run for five 15-minute episodes a week so you can get these on the iPlayer or podcast if you want to listen to something shorter and for free.

So, a few options if you find yourself with time to spare on the move.

Happy listening!

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Dipping into science-fiction

I’m not a huge fan of science-fiction, but the friend who recommended this book assured me that I would enjoy the theme of pharmaceutical meltdown and the emergence of a post-apocalyptic society that it examines. This novel was the winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 2015, so it is acclaimed in its field.

station-eleven-imgThe book is set in Canada and the United States just 20 years after a catastrophic virus seemingly wipes out about 99% of humanity in a matter of days. The consequences of this are that, within a short space of time, electricity, running water and all the other basic services we take for granted, cease to exist. Vehicles are abandoned on motorways as their passengers leave their homes, to escape to…where? These people then die. Aircraft no longer fly and people are stranded pretty much wherever they happened to be at the moment the virus struck. And then mostly die. Whilst reading I recalled all those diseases in recent years that seemed to prefigure cataclysmic consequences (AIDS, Swine fever, SARS, Avian ‘flu, Ebola) fights which, for the most part, we eventually won; in this novel it is the disease (Georgian ‘flu) that prevails. And that’s scary.

The central character is Kirsten, who was 8 years old at the time of the disease, and was performing in a production of King Lear. The character of Lear was being played by Arthur Leander, a renowned celebrity actor, who dies on stage (not from the ‘flu). This seems to be a catalyst for chaos as that very evening the ‘flu takes hold and people start dying very quickly and in vast numbers.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

Station Eleven

The plot of the novel is complex. Kirsten survives the pandemic and we follow her in Year 20 as she becomes part of a travelling orchestra/theatre company bringing Shakespeare to remote and unconnected communities in the central states of North America. There is also Arthur Leander’s story – recollections of his childhood on a remote island off British Columbia, his early life as an actor before he became famous, then his acquisition of celebrity status, life in LA and, most significantly, his three marriages and relationship with his son.

There are two further significant characters: Clark, an old friend of Arthur’s, who survives the virus, but finds himself stranded in an airport, which becomes a significant community in the post-apocalyptic scenario. And Miranda, Arthur’s estranged first wife, who, when unable to cope with the trappings of fame and the effect this had on their marriage, sought sanctuary in writing a graphic novel (called Station Eleven) which envisaged a frightening future world controlled by an evil megalomaniac. Her graphic novel, a copy of which Kirsten treasures, provides a motif for the events of the book.

station-eleven-img-2The author has quite a task managing this complexity: each of the four characters’ stories are told separately and in a non-linear way, but they are like pieces of a jigsaw gradually being pieced together until the overall picture becomes clear. The novel jumps back and forth in time and I found this quite difficult to follow. Also, for me, the drawing together of the strands was a little too contrived; it just did not seem entirely plausible that a tiny number of survivors could have such a connected past. I think this has been my problem with science-fiction generally (but perhaps I haven’t read enough); I get that you have to suspend disbelief but it’s too much for me when that means suspending credibility.

Despite my reservations about the plot, I think the themes explored are very interesting: firstly, our vulnerability – technology has brought us so much but without it we are lost. Secondly, how we have so many communication tools at our disposal, but we don’t use them to say the things that really matter. And, thirdly, how society organises itself (or not!) when the usual social structures which keep us under control disappear. What is also interesting is that we take for granted that time equals progress, but in Year 20, so much ‘progress’ has been lost that things like engines and antibiotics seem like science-fiction. People can die of a cut from a rusty blade.

So, I enjoyed this aspect of the book, and it is well-written, but for me the plot did not work particularly well and the time-shifts were a bit frustrating and confusing. One to read if you like being a bit scared!

 

Do you love science fiction? Can you recommend a title for this reluctant sci-fi reader that I might enjoy?

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