That Was The Year That Was, part 1

It seems to be fairly traditional to use the ending of the year as a time to do a quick round-up of the twelve months gone by.  I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that. Some people can tell you their favourite books of 2017 but I don’t think I can do that either – I just checked on Goodreads and I exceeded by 126 book target by a couple. I read quantity and am possibly not the best judge of quality but, I suppose I can try a bit of a highlights showreel. Month by month, so I don’t get lost….


shtum2017 started with one highlight and one failure. I was very moved by Jem Lester’s Shtum – the story of a father and his severely autistic son – and left slightly cold by Paul Auster’s 4321 (in fact it was one of my rare failures to finish a book). I think I’m old enough now not to worry about finishing a book I’m just not enjoying – and since this was a well-reviewed and Booker shortlisted novel I’m going to assume that was down to me not the book.


9781848126015A short month but a good one for me. It contains my birthday so I usually take a few days off – which is usually why I get more read then than in January.  No real stand-out favourites but I did particularly like Samantha Ellis’ look at Anne Brontë and kept up my quota of unusual fairy tales with Garth Nix’s Frogkisser.  Also, as previously mentioned, I had a birthday so that was a highlight too.


20170302_092657.jpgSpring sprang and I took up running. I even joined my local running club (which, if you’ve seen the size of the hills around here, I thought quite brave…). The nights, however, were still starting a bit early so I had lots of time to read. Oddly two of the books I enjoyed most this month were featured later in the year as their authors appeared at the Bradford Literature Festival. I’d been gripped by Ross Raisin’s earlier book so looked forward to A Natural – this tale looked at a side of football culture which is overlooked: the emotional and physical strains placed on young players, some still young teenagers, especially those struggling with their sexuality. I also enjoyed The Djinn Falls in Love – a collection of short stories about djinns, genies and other supernatural beings. More material for my ongoing interest in folk and fairy stories from various cultures around the world. I also got to wear my best dress for World Book Day and spent a couple of days visiting my Mum.


IMGP0638Another big month. Easter, more running, trips to the Harrogate Flower Show and to see my niece in Nottingham (with a visit to the cat cafe – great fun!) and, very excitingly, the Tour de Yorkshire. This meant lots of cycling related books at work but also a chance to see the race come through the village I live in – so much bunting! In book terms the stand out book for the month was, unusually for me, non-fiction. Dave Goulson’s Bee Quest told me lots I didn’t already know about bees – fascinating and uplifting overall.


spacestarsWe always try to take our holidays fairly early in the year and this year was no different. Towards the end of May we headed off for Denmark and for once I couldn’t think of any books specific to the area I wanted to read (since I was already up on my Hans Christian Andersen). Still, I had plenty to read on the trip and managed to find a couple of contenders for favourite of the year too. Alison Weir is always on my list of must-read authors and her series on the wives of Henry VIII had now got to Anne Boleyn (almost a guaranteed subject for excitement and passion…). It was as good as I’d hoped it would be. Unexpected highlights were one of the new crop of thoughtful sci-fi novels and a Young Adult psychological thriller with heavy Breakfast Club overtones.


plumWe were still on holiday in early June – celebrating our wedding anniversary with Rob’s cousin in Sweden and then moving on for nearly a week in Latvia. I’m just going to say now that if you love cake and open-air bars with live music then go to Riga – you won’t be disappointed. Still lots more time for reading although, looking back, I am surprised to realise my favourite book of the month was one of poetry. I do like the odd poem but rarely take the time to read a book full. The end of the month saw the start of the Bradford Literature Festival – always a fun time but very busy. This year, however, I also got the chance to dress up for the gala dinner. It’s a tough job, bookselling!





Shtum – Jem Lester

In 2016 I seemed to read a lot of books about aging, death and grief. Not by design but these were the books that caught my eye and, to be fair, by the end of the year they seemed fairly appropriate and zeitgeisty. Hopefully this year’s books will be more varied (although I have got Alison Weir’s novel about Anne Boleyn to read and I’m fairly certain that won’t end happily…) – which doesn’t mean I’m only looking for ‘head in the sand’ happy stories. Which is just as well because Shtum, the story of a man trying to find the best life possible for his severely autistic son, is really quite dauntingly realistic.

shtumJonah lives with his parents, Ben and Emma Jewell, in London and goes to a local primary school. Like almost every parent in the country the Jewells are very concerned about which secondary school their son will move to when the time comes: of course, their concern is far more centred on the fact that Jonah is severely autistic, mute and in need of far more help than his exhausted parents can give. Emma, a lawyer, persuades her husband that their appeal to get Jonah into a residential school will be better received if they are separated and so Ben and his son find themselves living with Ben’s elderly father Georg.

This book is quite brutally realistic in its depiction of what life can be like caring for a child with such severe autism. This isn’t anything like Rainman or even the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – there is no special skill, unless you count some very creative ways with, not to put too fine a point on it, poo. Emma is, frankly, at the end of her tether and Ben is a (barely) functioning alcoholic and the local education authority seems far more interested in value for money than in Jonah’s best interests. And yet, somehow, this is a book with an enormous amount of warmth and far more laughs than I expected. Jem Lester writes from deeply personal experience and I think it shows. This is the kind of black humour that probably kept him from collecting his child’s used diapers for a month and then delivering them to the LEA as supporting evidence for his case…Ben can’t communicate in any realistic way but, just sometimes, he is able to show affection and it is these moments which sustain Ben. Because he is forced by his wife to face up to his child’s needs he learns, the hard way, that every child deserves love, security and dignity.

So many books about families and children are written from the point of view of mothers and, sometimes, grandmothers. This one shows the relationships which develop between three generations of males and it is truly moving. I was brought to tears at some points and roaring with laughter at others. And then I was very angry that any parent should have to jump through such hoops just to get their child a decent quality of life…