Don’t Be a Dick, Pete – Stuart Heritage

Families are…complicated. The hardest bit seems to be that no sooner have you worked out what all your relationships are with your parents, siblings and other family members as a child when, suddenly, you are an adult yourself. All those relationships change, subtly, as you gradually become older, get responsible jobs, vote, marry, leave home, become parents. You become responsible for others – work colleagues and clients, partners and offspring – and one day you may end up becoming the person who has to look after a parent. Yep, families are complicated and getting older can be scary. But, now I have read Stuart Heritage’s account of his childhood, family and forays into adulthood, I realise they can also be blooming hilarious.

Heritage tells the story of how he moves back to his hometown, Ashford, in Kent when he and his wife have their first child. They consider lots of places (because, let’s face it, almost anywhere is better value for money than living in London…) but finally have to admit that Ashford is their best option. We meet Heritage’s parents (in dramatic circumstances, when their house catches fire), his wife and son and, most importantly, his younger brother – the foul-mouthed, grumpy and almost unhealthily single-minded Pete. Stu is, in his own words, the perfect son: Pete is quite possible the worst son in the history of offspring. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that and, as the book progresses you realise that Pete has a lot of good qualities (although it would take a brave man – or a brother – to go on a stag night with him). By the end you feel that both brothers have moved on and become proper adults. Assuming proper adults love wrestling, competing in Iron Man races and shouting ‘tiddies’ with no warning of course…

This book is utterly hilarious and as full of profanities as a football terrace full of white-van drivers. It turns out that Stu isn’t the perfect son he reckons he is and Pete is a better one than you’d think but they are brothers and, even when they can’t agree on anything, they love each other.

Jane

P.S. In our house we have one rule. DBAD. Or Don’t Be A Dick. This book is so funny that I am going to forgive both brothers for breaking the rule…

 

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Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Sometimes I forget that I’ve tried sweet-talking a publisher into letting me have a book to review until the book turns up. Maybe its my age but I keep running out of space in my head to keep all the things I’m meant to remember – sometimes this is a bad thing (when I get home and realise I didn’t remember to get any milk) but when books I was quite excited to hear about show up unexpectedly then it is definitely a Good Thing…

9780141986005The Good Thing that turned up today was a book which came out of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign – a collection of beautifully illustrated short biographies of inspirational women. It is aimed at young girls, from 5 or 6 upwards, but I could see it being a useful resource for older children looking for information for history projects (I am going to be googling so many  of the women and girls whose stories are outlined here) and it would be good reading for boys too. The women/girls in this book are queens, warriors, scientists, mathematicians, athletes, artists and politicians. I loved the fact that while girls are being encouraged to push into male dominated fields credit is also given to girls in more traditionally ‘girly’ roles – singers, models and ballerinas for example. The message really is that girls can do, and be, whatever they want. There is plenty of diversity too – the girls seem to be from every continent, every ethnicity and there are girls who don’t let disability stand in their way. They have been giving the patriarchy a run for its money for 2,000 years – if our current generation of girls read this book then we should be able to continue to build on their work. Some of the stories told in these pages bought a tear to my eyes but they all made me proud to be female.

Jane

Take Courage:Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

Anyone with siblings will know that each child is often assigned a characteristic within the family (in our family we even had little poems for each of us which I won’t repeat since my sister is not hairy and my brother is by no means bandy – I do, however, have a laugh like a drain). Famous families are no exception – like an episode of Friends we tend to think of the Brontës in terms of the rebellious, passionate one (Emily), the one who spoke out for the underdog (Charlotte), the one with the life tragically cut short (poor old Branwell) and, well, the other one. Anne seems to be the sibling who is relegated to being ‘the pretty one’…Now there’s nothing wrong with being pretty but it seems rather damning with faint praise if you are a Brontë. Seeing Samantha Ellis’s new book about Anne shortly after seeing Sally Wainwright’s thought-provoking To Walk Invisible over the Christmas period I was eager to read about the most invisible of the three sisters.

29779226This book was interesting because it was as much about Samantha Ellis as it is about Anne Brontë in some parts. Ellis, at the start of the book, is a single(ish) fan of Wuthering Heights who thinks Anne is a bit, well, boring. After seeing Anne’s last letter, full of a desire to do more in the future despite her failing health, she realises that maybe the view we have of her (largely from Mrs Gaskell’s rather fawning biography of Charlotte) could be flawed. Each chapter looks at Anne through her relationship with other members of the Brontë household, through her own writing and through Ellis’s growing respect for her as both a writer and a woman. She is shown to be courageous, loyal and a gifted writer – in many ways showing the qualities her sisters are famed for. Agnes Grey showed the reality of the life of a lowly governess before Jane Eyre (although the vagaries of publishing meant that it looked like Charlotte’s novel was written first) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was as groundbreaking as Wuthering Heights in its portrayal of a woman who leaves an abusive husband. And this at a time when women were generally considered the property of man…

As well as being a fascinating insight into the life of an underestimated author this book is also an incitement to reinvestigate Anne’s work. It seems the very least that posterity owes her…

Jane

Animal – Sara Pascoe

Ah celebrities! They’re everywhere. On the tv, all over social media, most pages of almost every magazine and newspaper (probably not The Economist or the Financial Times mind you….) and, in many cases, on the shelves of your local bookshop. Some, to be fair, are probably only weighing down the shelves in charity shops (I’m old enough to remember how crazy the media went when Naomi Campbell ‘wrote’ Swan…) but others are really very good. Hugh Laurie, Jenny Eclair and Steve Martin have written books which, in my opinion, would still be good books even if their authors were not famous for other things too. What I find interesting is that many (although not all) of the best celebrity authors have a comedy background. Meera Syal, Dawn French, the mighty David Walliams, Mark Watson, Michael Palin – bestselling novelists every one. As for Morrissey, well, let’s just sweep that one under the carpet shall we…

Celebrity non-fiction is a much more mixed bag I feel. The autumn publishing schedules are always chock-full of biographies by footballers, actors and famous figures and they are always popular with their fans and, in the case of the best ones, those who just want to know more about the people they see on front pages and screens every day. Some famous people have interests which can result in slightly surprising books on Medieval history  or cookery but, on the whole, they generally boil down to autobiographies or humorous musings.

indexSara Pascoe’s Animal, at first, seems to fit into the musings category but before long I realised that it was more than that. While being a very funny book (pity poor Rob – he gets all the best bits read out loud to him whether he wants them or not) and also largely autobiographical it shows that Pascoe is one of the wave of comedians who want to use laughter to make us think about some very difficult and even controversial subjects. It is a testament to the quality of the book that it made me think about patriarchy, FGM and evolutionary psychology and yet I still balanced every in drawn breath of shock with a giggle. This kind of politicised comedy was something I first became aware of in the 70s and 80s (Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle spring to mind) and we have seen it develop through writers like Michael Moore and Mark Thomas. The feminist flag is waved vigorously (and brilliantly) by Caitlin Moran but she is, for me, a funny writer rather than a comedian who writes. Sara Pascoe is a very funny comedian and, in this book, she has shown herself to be a writer on a par with Moran.*

Humour is often seen as a way to appeal to the younger market – ‘da youf’ as they would probably be described by comedians old enough to know better – and this is a book which (despite a fair amount of sweariness) I would love to press into the hands of every girl and young woman I meet. One of the best bits is that Sara has reminded me that I should also be recommending it to all the young men (and all those who are still making a gender choice) as well. And then I’m going to start on the re-education of the older generation too…

Jane

*Sara Pascoe is now officially joining Moran on my ‘girl crush’ list. Once we all get together the patriarchy doesn’t stand a chance!

A whole parcel of bookish goodness

It’s been a long hard month since I last posted a review on here. An error on the broadband front meant that I have been without the internet at home for four weeks – it was rather like living in 1994 – which meant I had limited access to WordPress (as my smartphone is somewhat smarter than I am……). The downside is that I haven’t been keeping up with my reviews: the upside is I did have plenty of time to catch up on my reading. So, on with the backlog….

Hodder are a venerable publishing house – they’ve been around since the 1840s – and have published titles from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to the Teach Yourself series. They have given us authors like Stephen King, David Niven and Chris Cleave and, I am happy to say, they also seem to be all round good guys. Recently, as part of a regular feature on our intranet at work, they offered reading copies of a number of new books for booksellers to review. I emailed back and, rather cheekily, told them I was having trouble choosing between four titles and asked them to surprise me. They certainly did – they sent all four!

Michael Rosen – Good Ideas

Michael Rosen is a former Children’s Laureate and poet – his best-loved book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. This is a man who clearly understands children (and the adults they become) so this title, which is subtitled How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher, really does make learning fun. In it he explains that adults know a lot of stuff, that children would love to know more about the stuff that adults know but that, unfortunately, adults often end up explaining things in ways which can make even dinosaurs sound dull. I’m not sure how this happens – dinosaurs have to be one of the most interesting things ever – but Rosen has some great ideas about how we can prevent this. It is not full of facts to learn (which could end up making it as boring for the adults as for the kids) but full of suggestions for ways to find answers to children’s questions with them rather than for them. An essential skill for any parent, educator or, indeed, bookseller!

Miranda Hart – The Best of Miranda

Miranda Hart is not everyone’s cup of tea. But she is mine. Sometimes I like sophisticated humour or the surreal wordplay of an Eddie Izzard but, after a long day at work, I am often in the mood for Miranda’s lighter and more slapstick brand of comedy. Hey, it takes all sorts….

This book is a selection of scripts from the three series of ‘Miranda’. I am pleased to say that they feature the relationship between Miranda and Gary quite heavily and include many of my favourite scenes. I’m always ready for the episode where Miranda and her ‘what I call Mother’ spend the whole episode with a therapist….There is plenty of the usual slightly arch asides and general silliness but also quite a lot of insight into the process of creating a sitcom. So it is ‘such fun’ but also a reminder of what a clever and hardworking woman Miranda Hart is.

Randall Munroe – what if?

Randall Munroe may not be a name you are familiar with but you may well have heard of the webcomic he created at xkcd.com. This book has come out of the many odd things his fans have asked him – the questions are amusingly absurd but the answers are proper science. With research and everything. Although he may have had some explaining to do about some of the research…..If you know xkcd you will love this book. If not you may end up being very startled by the sheer oddness of some of the questions asked! From my point of view this is a step up from most humour titles – which are funny but often don’t bear re-reading – and has earned a long-term place on the bookshelf in the bathroom.

Nick Drake Remembered For A While

For me this book was the best of the lot but, in an odd way, the one I was most worried about reading. I have been listening to and loving the music of Nick Drake for the past 25 years and I may, possibly, have an even earlier connection to him. When I was quite young – maybe 9 or 10 – I visited my Dad in London and I think I recall him telling me that a friend of his had a brother who had recently killed himself. In my mind I’m convinced the name Gabrielle was mentioned…..Dad isn’t around to ask anymore but I do like to think that I knew Nick Drake at third hand (even if I can’t quite make it to Kevin Bacon).

This book is described as being ‘not a biography’. Instead it is a collection of recollections of the life and music of Nick Drake, a folk inclined singer/songwriter in the very late 60s/early 70s. Nowadays every pop star worth their salt has at least one (auto)biography out before they are old enough to vote it seems. Drake died at 26 (never one to join in he bowed out before he was eligible for the 27 club) and his first biography was published, in Danish, twelve years later. It seems oddly fitting to me that he was part of a more old-fashioned and polite age.

It certainly seems, from the memories shared here, that he was a product of his age in very many ways. He was a post-war baby, brought up in a nice, middle-class, but fairly bohemian family and music was always a part of his life. He was fairly sporty, clever and popular according to his childhood friends and family – aside from his musical talent he seems to have been a perfectly normal boy. His late teens, however, fell in the late 60s and, as a true product of that era, Drake began using drugs – mainly marijuana and LSD. I don’t believe that drugs killed Nick Drake: but I do think that they were instrumental in leading to his depression, his reticence and his difficulties with live performance.

Despite not being a biography this book did what the best of that genre should do in my opinion. I was reminded of all that I already knew of the subject – his talent, the outline of his life-story, how much he is loved by musicians and fans alike – and I was given new insights which will enhance my continued enjoyment of his work. In fact, I may just pop Five Leaves Left on now – I’m in the mood to listen to a voice like a cello….

 

So, in all, a big thank you to the lovely folk at Hodder. A couple of these books may end up being passed on to family members (one niece is training to be a teacher – her brother and sister are Miranda fans) but at least two are keepers which I will be treasuring for years to come.

Jane

 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal – Jeanette Winterson

Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?When the tv adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was screened in 1990 it was compulsive viewing.  The story of a girl raised by strict Pentecostalists in a Lancashire town who struggles with her adoptive parents reaction to her sexuality had me gripped each week. It was both bleak and beautiful – it seemed, somehow, important.

I’m not sure if I realised at the time that Oranges was semi-autobiographical – I think I was too busy being thrilled by the wonderful Charlotte Coleman – but I know the heroine Jess’s life was vastly different from my own.  Oddly, when I started reading this book, Jeanette Winterson’s first volume of autobiography, one of the first things that struck me was a similarity between us – a love of books and stories. I wasn’t reading as a means of escaping a woman who makes all the wicked step-mothers of fairy tales seem like pussycats – I just liked the freedom of losing myself in a book – but I felt I could understand her joys even if her troubles were totally alien to me.

This book is a brutally honest but almost poetic account of a life. It has all the ingredients of a misery memoir – an overly strict and apparently uncaring mother, isolation from other children and nights spent in the coal bunker* – but they are stirred into a totally different dish. Mrs Winterson is a huge character both literally and figuratively but I think I see in her part of the source of her daughter’s career as a teller of stories. In fact she says ‘My Mother was in charge of language’ and, even if much of her language was from a rather hide-bound view of religion, there is a certain amount of vigour in all her pronouncements. I also finished this book feeling that, at the bottom of it all, Jeanette Winterson and her adopted mother did love each other. I guess the difficult relationship was part of making her the author she became – I wonder if she feels it was worth it in the end?

Jane

 

 

*I did spend some time in the coal bunker as a child – but we considered it a huge treat to be allowed to crawl in and get the coal from the very back when we were low on fuel between deliveries. We loved getting quite that filthy!

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

malala

Malala Yousafzai is the 16-year old Pashtun from the Swat valley of Pakistan, shot through the head by the Taliban in October of 2012, because she spoke out publicly for the right of girls to receive education. Since then, there has been a lot, an awful lot, of sides taken on the story and on Malala herself.

This review is not the place for such discussion – indeed there will be many who hold strong views on her that have never read the book at all. I choose to go directly to her own story and listen to her own words.

This is a well-written and very thought-provoking book. Ostensibly Malala’s autobiography up to this point, it is written with the assistance of journalist Christina Lamb – however, having also read her blog from 2009, and listened to her powerful and confident speech to the UN, I was confident that the tone and voice of the book, and all the opinions expressed, are those of Malala and her father. Only in a few places, where figures and statistics intrude a little too much in to the narrative, can you detect the hand of Christina a little too enthusiastically embellishing Malala’s more straightforward and idealistic prose.

The narrative is roughly chronological, taking you from the start of Malala’s childhood in 1997, and her early experiences of the Swat valley, a land which she loves and has still great affection for. A normal schoolgirl clearly influenced by her father’s own strength of character and opinion, she plays (and fights) with her brothers, has fun (and regularly falls out) with her rivals in class, and develops a love of the Twilight novels and Ugly Betty on DVD.  And, of course, she reads everything she can get hold of.

Matter-of-fact chapters take the reader through the rise of the Taliban influence in the valley, the gradual erosion of freedoms and tolerance, the suppression of music, art and much of the Pashtun’s own culture, and how moderate, traditional Muslim voices such as those of her father and his friends and colleagues were gradually suppressed, first through propaganda, then through fear, violence and death threats. In all of this the emphasis is on the impact on Malala’s own family, her mother, father and brothers, and how their own lives become a mere struggle for existence in the middle of it.

The theme of suppression of the Pashtun culture is important to understand and Malala repeatedly emphasizes it in the book. As the book progresses the reader’s sense of outrage grows steadily with each new example of casual corruption, each new grab of power through violence, each new failing of the Pakistani government, the Army, and yes, also us in ‘the West’, to prevent what was happening to their lives. In the middle of all this, even when her family are displaced by the government from their home and sent over the mountains, she goes to school and continues to speak at gatherings for her right to do so. One of the most striking and incongruous bits of the book is her description of reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time while bombs and bullets fly past outside.

We know how the story ends of course – the shooting is on page 203 – and by this point in the book, if you’re not on her side I cannot help you further. In trying to silence her, the Taliban made her voice stronger than it could ever have been before. In reading this book I learned a lot about Malala and her life, I also learned much about the reality of the last 30 years of Pakistan’s history – a subject I am now determined to read deeper into.

But mostly, I became a convert to her cause of education being a right for all children.

Anybody sneering “What’s so new and clever about calling for education? Anybody can do that!” – and I have read such sneers – does not understand the simple fact that they are not Malala’s target audience. They should instead read her book.

As Malala states in the book, “we Pakistanis like our conspiracies” and in her home country, she is a divisive figure. Even the myriad conspiracy theories are self-contradictory. She’s a Western stooge, who works for the CIA. She deserved to be shot. Her own family faked her shooting to get a Visa. She was shot by the US as a pretext for more drone attacks. She wasn’t shot at all. Without knowing it, in every ignorant Youtube comment, such people reaffirm Malala’s plea for education, for the ability to think freely and critically to become universal, to rise out of dogma to a new rationalism and simultaneously to the older, more tolerant version of her own religion that states that education is not only the right but the duty of all Muslims.

The road ahead is a steep and dark one. The Taliban men who shot her, although their names are known, have never been arrested. Members of the Taliban have vowed that if Malala ever returns to her childhood home, they will kill her.  While Malala addresses the UN, in private girl’s schools throughout Pakistan – those left that have not yet been bombed closed – her words will not be read by children her own age because this book is banned, supposedly because it is insufficiently reverential of Islam. The government of Pakistan once again, in February 2014, are talking compromises with the Taliban.

If there is a factual book you read this year, I’d urge it to be this one, and read it without prejudice, taking her words as they are on the page and decide for yourself. In gaining the education to write them, Malala Yousafzai almost paid the ultimate price.

www.orionbooks.co.uk Hardback 275pp

www.malalafund.org