May round-up

I don’t usually do a monthly round-up. They are popular with book bloggers, as are posts showing planned reading for the month, book hauls etc, but I would prefer to be posting a bit more regularly. I suppose other bloggers also do author interviews, Q&As, blog themes and the like but I enjoy reading and telling you what I’ve read. To quote a famous Russian, ‘simples’… However, sometimes life gets in the way. Over the last month I have had a holiday (which may get mentioned in a bit…), changed my hours at work (dropping my hours – which should mean more blogging time but I have been trying to get back into my running and gardening) and been doing lots of other non-reading stuff. Also I discovered Microsoft Jigsaw. If you want to be productive at all, in any way, don’t even think about Microsoft Jigsaw…Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been reading in May.

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

whistledark.jpgI managed to miss Healey’s first book, Costa-winner Elizabeth is Missing, but I heard such good things about it that I was keen to read this. The story is told by Jen and describes the aftermath of what must be one of any parent’s worst nightmares. Lana, Jen and her husband Hugh’s teenaged daughter, went missing for four days while on a painting holiday in the Peak District. The holiday itself and the four days of parental panic are skimmed over a little: what we are really exploring in this book is the relationship between mother and daughter and Jen’s reactions to both the disappearance and Lana’s refusal (or inability) to say what happened.

It is understandable why Jen is worried – Lana has had episodes of depression in the recent past, culminating in an overdose attempt which led Jen to visits to all local pharmacies with a request not to sell painkillers to her daughter – but it seemed to me that Jen is experiencing mental health issues of her own. She obsesses over what could have happened – fearing all the usual worsts since Lana had befriended a teenaged boy on the holiday and was eventually discovered by a man on an isolated farm – becoming anxious, suspicious and a bit paranoid. The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that the media follows the story closely and that one of the other people on the painting holiday is a slightly strange man whose religious beliefs include the possibility that some children can travel to hell and back. Jen almost stalks her own daughter to try to find answers – listening in on phone calls, searching bedrooms and following her to school – but doesn’t find them until she returns to the Peak.

Not quite a psychological thriller this is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman driven to extremes by the fear of what could have happened to her daughter. The characters are realistically drawn, both Jen and Lana but also Hugh and the older daughter, Meg, and the situation is plausibly dealt with. The final answers (which I won’t give away) are perhaps a little more far-fetched but possible all the same. I’m not a parent but the pain and worry of learning to deal with the fact that a beloved child is both growing apart from you and potentially putting themselves in danger seems very well described.

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

39988957I’m an atheist but I would never deny others the right to follow any religion – although I would really prefer their religion to promote tolerance, peace and fairness. I have friends who are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and, since I live and work in Bradford, many who are Muslim. I am always interested in learning about what other people believe in and also how their faith is reflected in their everyday life so I was keen to read Ed Husain’s House of Islam. I read his earlier book, The Islamist, an account of his youthful brush with the world of more politicised, radical Islam and how he moved away from it: this book promised to be a more rounded and mature look at a major world religion.

Firstly we get a pretty comprehensive history of Islam – its origins, its early schisms and spread around the world. The rise of various sects is covered and some of them are fairly roundly criticised. What is important to Husain – whose particular brand of Islam is based on Sufism, a very spiritual form of the faith – is the essence of the religion, the feelings it should create, rather than strict obedience to man-made laws. As a person who doesn’t follow the directions of any religion this is a good distinction – I like the idea of a world filled with good people rather than Christians/Jews/Muslims/Jedi who follow a set of rules which can cause difficulties, or even suffering, to those who are not following in the same way. Specific areas are considered – sharia law (which almost certainly doesn’t mean what you think it does…), the role of women, education and sex, the relationship between Islam and Judaism and attitudes to death – and some suggestions are made. These mostly seem to be a plea for a greater understanding  of the full range of possibilities for Islam. Although there are many Muslims in the West the view of them held by many non-Muslims is that of one particular aspect of the faith. Often this is that of more extreme versions of what is, at heart, a peaceful faith.

I realise that Husain is giving his opinion here. He doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even for all moderate Muslims. But he does speak very passionately and persuasively about something he seems to believe in wholeheartedly. Solving the problems of extremism (in all religions) can never be easy but a deeper understanding of other faiths would be a good place to start. I feel I have gained some of that understanding by reading this book.

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People – Julia Boyd

34594504Okay. So this doesn’t, on the face of it, sound like fun holiday reading but it was actually fascinating. It looks at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany between the two world wars from the first hand reports of non-Germans visiting or living in the country. The reports – diaries, journalism, letters and memoirs – are from a wide range of people. Diplomats, tourists, socialites, opera-buffs and school children are all represented and British, American and New Zealand voices are heard. Some are serious reports and some are more jokey in tone but, as we are repeatedly reminded, none of these people have the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of the travellers in this book (school-children excepted) are of an age to remember the Great War. This means that many of them are willing to accept many things in order to prevent another conflict. It seems shocking that so many were convinced, even after the persecution of the Jews began, that Hitler was the best hope for peace in Europe but, again, we have history to inform us and they did not. One of the points repeatedly made is that anti-Semitism was widespread and generally accepted in this era (although there is no suggestion that the methods ultimately used by the Nazis to deal with the issue would have been accepted in the same way). These reactions and reasonings are given without criticism – after all, we have no way of knowing what future generations will think of the way we are dealing with the global issues we face today. The main lesson I would like to draw from this gripping book is that we must not fall for smooth-talking political leaders who try to persuade us against our personal morality. Whatever religion (or none) we draw that morality from.

Jane

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The Pursuit of Ordinary – Nigel Jay Cooper

Ordinary. Normal. Are these things insults? Or something to aspire to? When we are young we want to be individuals (although often by joining a tribe of some sort) but at other points in life the idea of fitting in, of not calling attention to ourselves, appeals. But when it comes to our mental health, well, normal is the thing to aspire to: or is it?

36313350Dan’s brain is certainly not what anyone would call normal. He has suffered since childhood and is currently living rough in Brighton, alone apart from the persistent voices in his head. When he witnesses a fatal car accident he realises the voice in his head is that of the victim, Joe, and he (Dan) is inexorably drawn towards Natalie, the widow who he last saw cradling her dying husband. This, given, Dan’s state of mental health is understandable but why does Natalie accept his story? Why does she then let Dan into her home, her life and, eventually, her heart? As we look back into both Dan and Natalie’s lives we learn about their pasts, their relationships and discover that they each have their own issues with their mental health and with the families who have tried, and failed, to make them more ‘normal’.

If this were just an exploration of two characters psyches it would be an interesting but rather ‘worthy’ novel. However, we explore more about Dan and Natalie than their mental health – we explore their relationships with families, friends and strangers and the growing romance between them. Nothing is prettied up either and each character’s internal voice is, by turns, bitter, fearful and self-hating until they are able to realise that while those voices are individual and personal to them they could, with help, move towards one which is far more within a normal range. They both, in the end, aspire to become ordinary, while realising they can still retain much of what makes them both unique and worthy of love.

Jane

 

Turning for Home – Barney Norris

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.

31551199This, 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…

Jane

 

The Crow Garden – Alison Littlewood

I do love a bit of period drama. On tv, or film, I enjoy almost anything with a good costume department (although I do prefer it if they get the costumes mostly right – I don’t know how old I was when I first saw the 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice but I just knew the costumes were far too Victorian for a proper Jane Austen adaptation…) and in book terms I’m happy with fiction set in almost any period ( yes, starting with the ice age novels of Jean Auel and working through most of history since – I’m particularly fond of a Regency romance). Some historical settings work well with particular genres (Regency romance, as I already mentioned, or Medieval murder mystery – they don’t have to be alliterative but that’s all that springs to mind…) but nothing seems to suit stories of spookiness and the macabre like the Victorian era. And nobody seems to do the spooky and macabre like Alison Littlewood…

crow gardenNewly qualified Nathaniel Kerner leaves his widowed mother behind in London to work in windswept Yorkshire. His father’s suicide seems to have made it hard for him to find work but the director of Crakethorne Asylum is willing to take a chance on him. All seems positive until he meets Vita, Mrs Victoria Harleston, a beautiful young woman whose husband wants her cured. Her insanity appears to Kerner to be that she doesn’t wish to perform her ‘wifely duties’ and he plans to cure her with new-fangled talking therapies. Against a backdrop of superstition and dubious mental health care (all, sadly, ones used up until scarily recently…) he falls in love with his patient and, it seems, under her spell. They find themselves back in London, living with Kerner’s mother, and caught up in the world of psychics,  mesmerists and other fraudsters. Or, in the case of Vita Harleston, could these mysterious powers be true?

This is a superbly researched historical novel which brings to life the Victorian era but also a wonderfully creepy tale of the uncanny. A perfect read for Halloween – unless you live on a moor. In Yorkshire. Surrounded by crows…

Jane

 

 

The Break – Marian Keyes

It can be quite easy to be a bit ‘sniffy’ about certain genres of books (or films, foods, music, whatever) and to assume that your chosen favourite is the best. In fact one of my pet peeves is people who, when talking about a film, book or song which is in a genre they don’t enjoy, call that particular film, book or song terrible. Let’s be honest, with very few exceptions, these things are not terrible – they are just not to your taste. Personally, I don’t really enjoy spy thrillers or hard sci-fi space operas but I’m not going to tell you John Le Carré and Alastair Reynolds are awful. And yes, I have been known to correct friends and colleagues if they start to rubbish other people’s choices (especially if they have just made me listen to five Neil Young albums back to back – there’s an artist who is definitely not to my taste…). Annoyingly, the genres most often derided are those favoured by women and young people – I guess it is too easy to deride chick-lit and YA fiction and especially if you don’t actually read any. I’m not saying that all chick-lit and YA is wonderful but some of it is very good (even if you are a man or over 20). Some of the best I have read is by Marian Keyes…

breakThe Break is the story of a big, messy, complicated, Irish family (and yes, I also enjoy Mrs Brown’s Boys – bite me…) and in particular it is the story of Amy.  She is a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, PR professional, friend, and, at the end of the list, a wife. She has to find time to support friends who are newly single (again), to provide emergency care for her father when her Mum needs a rest from dealing with Alzheimer’s, to care for her fragile niece when her brother and his ex-wife seem to be harming rather than helping her and to try not to strangle her annoyingly independent older daughter – so it is no surprise that her relationship with Hugh, her husband, is low down on the list of things she has time for. Hugh, struggling to cope with the death of his father, shocks the whole family by declaring that he is leaving them – not forever, but for six months; not a break-up but a complete break.

Keyes is, as ever, great at telling a warm, funny family story.  Amy and her family are all well-rounded characters, yet all individuals and you become fond of them. I particularly liked the double act of Neeve, Amy’s older daughter from an ill-fated marriage in her youth, and Amy’s mum Lillian who take the beauty vlogging world by storm. She is also, as ever, unafraid to touch on more difficult subjects. Not the fact that Hugh deserts his family (and can’t rule out the fact that, as part of his ‘break’ he may meet and sleep with other women) but the fact that he does so because he is depressed and can’t see any other way to get his life back on track. You want to hate him – to wish all kinds of nasty things to happen to him (and his sexual organs) like Amy’s man-hating friends and sisters – but, in many ways you can’t. We get flashbacks to the earlier years of their relationship and we can see that this is a marriage which is really worth saving, a man who has given his all to his family. We also touch on the sorrows of living with Alzheimer’s, the falling away of friends (when you fail to react to adversity in the way they think you should) and the horrors of reproductive politics in Ireland. But, you know, chick-lit is just froth…

As always a reminder that Marian Keyes writes brilliant novels – full of laughter and tears – which deserve a wider audience. Remember people, good chick-lit is for anyone, not just for giggly girls…

Jane

 

The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

For about five years Rob and I were heavily involved with Friends of the Earth – running our local group, going to conference and doing lots of campaigning. While we are still very well disposed to the planet we found that we had less and less time for active campaigning so now we do our supporting a little more remotely. Many of the campaigns themselves, however, have stuck in my mind and, like many people, the fate of bees has been a constant worry. Because without bees we would have a much more difficult future (and we’d probably have to survive that future without easy access to some of the amazing things which are pollinated by bees – fruits, vegetables, coffee and even *gulp* wine) we owe it to ourselves to consider how our actions, and those of our governments, affect the wider environment. Which means that, as well as apocalypses I am drawn to books which consider ‘green’ issues (and love those which carry both off with style).

beesIn The History of Bees Maja Lunde achieves both of these things. There are three linked stories set in England in 1852, America in 2007 and  China in 2098 – in the first William Savage is a seed merchant and failed academic who is trying to develop an improved bee-hive while struggling with depression; in 2007 we meet George who faces the problems of keeping his hives going in the face of Colony Collapse Disorder and finally, in 2098, Tao is one of thousands of Chinese workers who have to pollinate fruit trees by hand. Because the bees have all died.  This covers the history of hive development, the fight against the inexplicable death of millions of bees in the present day and gives us an in-depth look at a world without the unseen work all those bees do for us. For me the 2098 section is the most interesting because of this – the lack of various food crops is the obvious change but there are other things which were more surprising; cotton fabric, for example… Each portion of the story also has a human angle – specifically one exploring relationships between parents and children. In the 1850s William is investing all his hopes in his son, to the extent of missing how much one of his daughters, in particular, is supporting him: in 2007 George is, again, wanting to mould his son into his own idea of the perfect child (and again struggling with his own mental health) and feeling that he is failing. Tao’s story is the saddest – her son is very young and she loses him. He becomes ill and is whisked away by the state; her mission is, initially, to find hm and then, as she looks deeper, to discover what happened to the bees…

These are fascinating linked stories which explore both our relationship with bees and with our own families. The balance which must be made between individuality and society – the bee and the hive – applies both to insects and to humans.

Jane

 

 

 

After I’ve Gone – Linda Green

I read Linda Green’s previous novel because I knew exactly where it was set. I was completely familiar with the park in which a little girl goes missing. In this book I was on slightly less familiar ground – I know bits of Leeds but have rarely been to Mytholmroyd (although I am always amused by the fact that it rarely got a mention in the National news during the floods of December 2015 – too hard to pronounce when Hebden Bridge is so much easier…). Anyway, it is still good to be reading fiction in really mainstream genres, like psychological thrillers, which are set outside of London (or the USA).

30302155The book on one hand follows the love story of Jess – a feisty, take-no-prisoners, kind of girl in her early 20s – and Lee, a little older, working in PR, sophisticated and relatively well-off. And at first it seems like an amazing, whirlwind romance but suddenly Jess starts to see strange posts on Facebook, dated 18 months in the future, full of outpourings of grief. What shocks her is that her friends and family are grieving for her death. In their posts she can see the remains of her life mapped out before her – marriage, a beautiful baby and then, suddenly, a brutal, and possibly suspicious death. But no-one else can see the posts, she can’t even take a screen shot or photo of them: is she losing her mind? She has a history of mental health problems – having a breakdown after the death of her beloved mother when she was just 15 – but she is sure that this message from the future is real.

This is a pacy and well-plotted novel which touches on issues of parental love, domestic violence, public mourning via social media and mental health. It certainly made me think about whether the course of our lives is fixed. Do we move blindly into our future or can we shape it ourselves? Even as the book drew to its conclusion I couldn’t tell if Jess would succumb to the life that Facebook was showing her or whether she would find the strength to fight for herself and for her beloved baby. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and its imitators then give Linda Green a try. Even if you can’t pronounce Mytholmroyd…

Jane