I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for nearly 17 years – I’ve lived in the North for most of my life even though I’ve never quite picked up the accent – and I have, on Yorkshire Day, taken the declaration of integrity. Yorkshire is now home and, by declaration, I am a Yorkshirewoman (even if trips down to Essex to see my Mum are referred to as ‘going home’ – home is also where your Mum is…). I am fascinated by the history, geography and people of my adopted home so was very keen to read Morris’ book – I do also love the idea of history being ‘lyrical’!
Years ago I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel which explained, among other things, how geography guided the way that civilizations, represented by guns and steel, spread around the world. Reading this book reminded me of this – the part that Yorkshire’s geography, the rivers, hills, valleys and coasts, played in history. In where settlements were built, where roads led and where industry developed: which, in turn, led to art, poetry and literature, and, maybe more importantly, to the Yorkshire character. It is not a linear history – we move back and forth through time to a certain extent – and it isn’t just about places. People feature strongly some, like J.B. Priestley or Winifred Holtby, well-known and others either known locally (like Richard Oastler in Bradford) or just to their families. Some should be better known, in my opinion, and, like so many good history books, this one has suggested lots of subjects I need to find out about. If you don’t know much about Yorkshire then read this book: you’ll learn a lot. And if you think you do know a lot about Yorkshire (am I looking at Rob here? possibly…) then still read this book: there’s so much more to know than you think.
I think I’ve written before about my little problem with some psychological thrillers – namely that the ‘unreliable narrator’ is so often female, giving the impression possibly that women are less reliable than male characters. It is interesting that men, in these books, are often the victims it doesn’t sit well with me sometimes. Women as either victims or evil villains? It would be nice to see them as just, well, people… It is gratifying then to pick up a book featuring a couple which is largely focussed on the husband. In fact, the whole premise of Kurbjuweit’s novel is an exploration of how far a man will go to protect his family.
Randolph Tiefenthaler, his wife Rebecca and their children seem to have a wonderful life. He is a successful architect and they have recently moved to a lovely Berlin flat. The marriage isn’t perfect, which seems more realistic than if it were, but Randolph’s main response is to sneak off alone to eat in a variety of high-class restaurants. This is a life which could plod along but which is turned upside down by the actions of their downstairs neighbour. Dieter Tiberius is an unemployed loner who become obsessed with Rebecca, sending her love letters and poems. When these overtures are ignored he becomes more dangerous – not with physical threats but with accusations of child abuse against both parents. This story is interspersed with that of Randolph’s early life – a childhood in Cold-War Germany with a father whose only interest seemed to be in protecting his family. By collecting guns.
We tend to associate this kind of gun-centred psychology with America but the Cold War background makes it totally believable – East Germany and the rest of the Communist Bloc is, after all, on their doorstep – but it still made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Randolph feels pretty much the same way – hating the time spent with his father at the shooting range, fearing that one day his father could turn one of his many weapons on his family – but, when Dieter Tiberius threatens his family, he begins to understand his own father’s fears. This book is an interesting twist on psychological thrillers – a little bit more literary, perhaps, and which made me think about issues of class and gun-ownership. The author has had a number of novels published in Germany but this is the first to be translated and released here – I shall watch with interest for any others which may follow.
Lidia Yuknavitch is not an author I’ve come across before. Considering she writes feminist speculative fiction with a strongly literary feel this should probably come as no surprise – there are many excellent writers in genre fiction but most of the ones that make the shelves are male and not looking to write ‘literature’ just a good story. They probably form part of a trilogy at the very least – and a series that gets into double figures is not unusual – but I don’t think many of them pack quite so much into less than 300 pages.
The basic premise of the book is that the human race is pretty much doomed. Earth is a blasted wasteland after an environmental catastrophe ends a long and bitter global war. The rich and powerful now live in a space facility known as CIEL and fritter away their time inscribing their own bodies with something like a cross between tattoos and self-harm. The survivors of humanity have become, somehow, pale, hairless and without any sexual characteristics – sexual acts themselves have become punishable offences but the body adornments they favour are usually erotic tales. The most powerful figure on CIEL is Jean de Men – who seems to be leading a bloodthirsty cult – and his nemesis is Joan, a young girl, originally from France when such a place existed, who seems to hear voices and has strange powers over the Earth itself. Much is made of the parallels with the historical figure of Joan of Arc and her fate seems to be much the same as this Joan is burnt to death. Or possibly not, according to her faithful followers both on Earth and CIEL.
This wasn’t an easy read. It is very literary in tone, with very strong language used throughout, and is definitely speculative rather than sci-fi. The reasons for mankind’s transformation isn’t explained, nor are Joan’s powers, but the story and language are gripping. Worth persisting with.
Our book group met earlier this week and we spent most of our meeting checking our privilege. We’d been reading Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult and, despite being a group of women, including one lawyer and at least three with connections to nursing and midwifery, we quickly realised that we do really need to spend more time considering how many advantages we have in life simply because we are white and western. I’d like to say that this is something I try to do, consciously, every day but I think I’d be telling an untruth – like most people I think mostly about being me, not about how others live their lives. So, I do what I usually do when I need to learn about something – I read…
In Love, Hate & Other Filters I was learning about the experiences of a young Muslim girl, seventeen year-old Maya Aziz. She is planning for her future, for college, for potential romance, for life. But her parents are also planning and their ideas are subtly different: a nice Indian boy, a safe career choice and staying close to home and family. They will certainly need some persuading to accept Maya’s dream to study film in New York. And when there is a bombing which seems to have involved a young man with the same surname as Maya’s family her parents are even more keen to keep her close at hand.
This was an interesting story, which helped to explain the issues faced by young Muslim women wanting to fit in with the Western way of life without sacrificing their religious principles (or those of their families). Although, to be fair, Maya doesn’t really mention religion other than to be shocked when her potential love-interest Kaleem drinks wine. Any girl feeling a bit over-protected could sympathise with Maya’s position but it is also vital to understand how everyday events can affect various groups. I appreciated the fact that this was a family with no connections to extremism but who were targeted simply for sharing a surname with a suspected terrorist. My only issues really are that this book was more about her families Indian culture than their Muslim faith – and, of course, that it is USA based. I’m still waiting for the YA novels about young people with a Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage set in the UK (and preferably Yorkshire) – these are the girls I meet every day and whose stories I’d like to hear.
A number of my Facebook friends (some writers, some academics, some teachers) have recently been reacting to a Guardian article about modern literary fiction and how it has, in many cases, sacrificed good storytelling on the altar of beautiful writing. This, to be honest, is one of the reasons why I rarely read or review books from the more literary end of the spectrum. I’ve said it before: I can recognise wonderful use of language when I see it but I prefer to read a gripping story so long as it doesn’t mangle english so much that my brain hurts. Whisper it but, most of the time, I’ll even turn a blind eye to poor spelling, rogue apostrophes or random punctuation so long as I can make out the intended meaning easily enough. Since a large part of what I read is advance reading copies (which have often not yet been proof-read) this is just as well. I did, though, do a degree in English Literature – more years ago than I care to mention – so when language, story and plot do combine I like to think that I can appreciate it. Barney Norris seems to be an author capable of this feat in my eyes.
This, Norris’s second novel, is centred around a party being held by Robert Shawcross a retired senior government official who used to work in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The party is a big annual family gathering but Robert isn’t looking forward to it – his beloved wife has recently died and he realises that the party was more about family than himself, despite it being held to celebrate his birthday. His granddaughter, Kate, is staying with him but she seems to have her own problems – this is her first attendance at a party for three years and she is dreading seeing her mother. This domestic scene is set against the Boston Tapes – which really did get made in the early years of the 2000s, a series of recorded interviews with both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. The participants were assured of anonymity so they confessed to more than just the motivations the interviewers were expecting – murders and other atrocities – and so, inevitably, the British government is very keen to get hold of the tapes. A figure from Robert’s past, Frank Dunn, arrives at the party to reprise their roles from the 80s – liaisons with the British government and IRA respectively.
All the action in the book takes place over one day – the day of the party – but there are plenty of flashbacks: to the aftermath of Enniskillen, to the early days of Robert’s relationship with his wife, and, in the case Kate, to her difficult relationship with her mother, the love of her young life and the accident and illness which changed her world. This doesn’t sound like a lot of plot or story but there is enough there to keep you thinking about your own life and family. And the way it is written, the actual words on the page, is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Proper literature…
I first made the acquaintance of Hendrik Groen back in August 2016, when he was 83 and I was, well, younger. Hendrik is now, in this second book, a couple of years older (which I guess I am too…) but, I’m happy to say, he hasn’t decided to reform and become a model for demure old age. With his fellow Old-But-Not-Dead club members he is still a thorn in the side of the authorities running the old people’s home.
The group is now short of two of its original members – Eefje, with whom our hero fell in love, has, sadly, died and Gretje is now living on the floor of the home used for those with dementia – but they find some excellent replacements. Geert, who continues to encourage Hendrik to explore on his mobility scooter, and Leonie, a big woman, full of laughter and inappropriate jokes, join the group as they continue their monthly outings and begin a series of culinary adventures as they explore Amsterdam’s restaurants. A reminder, once again, that older people are not fossilised – it’s just easier for us if we assume that they all want to live back in the days of their youth and eat soft food. They also take on the management by reviving the Resident’s Committee and discover that the home itself may be at risk as the government pursues a policy of helping older people to be cared for in their own homes (even if that is not the best for them…). They also have to deal, once again, with loss as a one of their number falls seriously ill.
This is book is about the lives of a group of people in their 70s and 80s so it is a bit light on sexual shenanigans, car chases and explosions. Fair enough – there are enough of those around in other books, films and tv shows. What is does show is realistic people – with all their ordinary faults, idiosyncracies and digestive issues (let’s be honest, when was the last time you read a book not aimed at children that mentioned when people farted?) – living lives which could, one day, be ours. We will, hopefully, become old people ourselves one day – when we do I hope we are like Hendrik: accepting that we may need to give ourselves a bit more time to do things but never closing ourselves off to new experiences. It would be easy to see a book about older people being old, and living in a care home, as depressing. But if you think that you’ve never come across old people as vibrant and, well, full of life as this lot.
After a brief pause (for an evening of wine, cheese and Deathly Hallows part 2…) here’s the rest of my highlights of 2017.
Lots of excitement in Bradford during July as the Literature Festival takes over most of the city’s major venues. I always love working at this festival – the talks cover themes from feminism to cricket and Jane Austen to the Partition of India. There were so many interesting events and books that I’m still playing catch-up – I still have to read Adelle Stripe’s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile – and, because I’m working on bookstalls I hardly get to see any of the talks. I did find time, however, to read a few books during the month including one which definitely makes my top 5 for the year. I began the month with a new Matt Haig (always a joy) and then a new Rachel Joyce. Given the fact that my new favourite place in Halifax is a record shop it should come as no surprise to find that The Music Shop was a 2017 favourite.
Another bit of holiday time for me – a regular trip to a folk festival means plenty of time to spend sat in a field with friends, a glass of wine, a good book and great music as a backdrop. I enjoyed some Irish romance, a new twist on psychological thrillers and some good old-fashioned historical fiction but I think my top read for the month was a post-apocalypse narrated in part by a foul-mouthed dog.
September means lots of ‘back to school’ books in the shop and the start of all the big books coming out in time for Christmas. I took the chance to read John O’Farrell’s follow-up to Things Can Only Get Better (after deciding the only way I could react to the politics of 2017 is to laugh at it) and a new history of medieval queens by Alison Weir. Highlight of the month’s reading for me, however, was a warts and all look at the world of secondhand bookselling. I’m not sure if anyone who has never worked in retail would laugh quite so hard at Shaun Bythell’s adventures but I loved it. Personal highlight of the month though was a visit from my Mum – always a joy!
I read a couple more really enjoyable potential Christmas bestsellers in October. I’m a big fan of Sarah Millican as a comedian – I’m even more of a fan now after reading her warm and humane (but slightly filthy) biography/self-help title. During a period when so many famous figures turned out to have feet of clay (that reached their necks in some cases) it was also heartening to hear that Tom Hanks is as nice a guy as he seems – his book of short stories showed that he is also intelligent, thoughtful and a pretty good writer. My favourite book for October, however, was a Japanese novel about a man trying to rehome a cat. It doesn’t sounds much when I describe it like that but it was a beautiful book – another top 5 contender.
Christmas is starting to loom. Yes, we put the decorations up and get the cards and gift-wrap out early – but by the end of the month it is all about selling lots of lovely books so we take our chances when we can. There is still time to read a bit too – my highlights for this month were a densely plotted (and occasionally mind-boggling) novel from Nick Harkaway featuring high-finance, sharks and alchemy and an eagerly awaited new book from Andy Weir. For sheer readability and fun though it is Weir’s Moon-based crime caper which makes it onto my 2017 top 5.
Not a big month for new books – more a culmination of the previous eleven really. There are some fun humour titles but not much else. So I have spent much of the last four and a half weeks getting ahead on the new titles coming out in early 2018. Lots of reviews to come there – watch this space I guess. Like many others, however, I would describe my personal December highlights as time spent with my family and friends (with some running achievements – like my 100th parkrun – and an awful lot of chocolate to take into account too.
Here’s hoping you enjoyed some of the books I have reviewed in 2017. I look forward to carrying on in 2018 (but I may try to keep better track of my favourites….)