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….

January

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.

February

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.

March

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.

April

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.

May

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.

June

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!

Jane

 

 

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A Quick Pre-Pullman Catch-Up

I got a little bit behind on my reading and blogging recently – I decided to take a couple of weeks out to read the whole of the His Dark Materials before the publication of the new book today – so here’s a quick catch up on some of my recent reading. Not themed because, as you may have noticed, I’ll read just about anything that catches my eye…

Malala’s Magic Pencil – Malala Yousafzai

31932921Malala Yousafzai continues to be an inspirational young lady.  The determination which led to her being targeted by Taliban enforcers has sustained her through writing her life story, continued activism for the education of girls and her own education. I can’t be the only one who felt oddly proud to see that she has just taken her place at Oxford – she has become a sort of symbol for what girls and young women can achieve. Although her autobiography was issued in an edition for younger readers in 2014 she has not previously written directly to the very young. This book changes that – it is, through the simply told story of a girl who decides that, if she had a magic pencil, she would draw a world where life was fairer. Malala’s story is one that children understand – life really should be fair – but the reality of her experiences are the sort of thing that we would hope to shelter primary-aged children from. This book allows her to encourage youngsters towards the sort of activism they can appreciate – kindness and fairness to all and not keeping silent about inequalities. Nobody is too young, or too old, for that.

Everything You Do Is Wrong – Amanda Coe

9780349005058Set in a North Yorkshire coastal town where nothing ever seems to happen this is the story of Melody, a teenage girl who really wishes that something would happen to her. Her mother is absent – sometimes away, sometimes just too ill to get out of her bed – and her step-dad always seems to be working. Home-schooled (or rather mostly left to her own devices) she is working towards her GCSEs and what she really wants to happen is that her maths tutor will fall in love with her before her final exam. We also have Melody’s aunt Mel, trying to be in charge of everyone and everything, who finds a mysterious girl washed up on the local beach in the middle of a storm.

This book looks like it is the story of Storm, the name given to the mystery girl, who doesn’t speak or communicate in any way – she is certainly the focus of most of the town – but really it is about Melody.  She is adrift – her short experience of mainstream schooling mainly involved being bullied – and has very little contact with other young people (apart from her cousins).  Melody lives in a bit of a fantasy world – one where her tutor will fall in love with her and take her away from her boring, yet messy, life – but by the end of the book she is starting to grow a little. The story involving Storm ended a bit disappointingly (just a hint of the Bobby Ewings, if you know what I mean) but, once I reminded myself that, for me, this was just an also-ran of a plot that seemed to matter a lot less.

Pocketful of Crows – Joanne Harris

9781473222182Finally on this round-up is the latest from Yorkshire author, Joanne Harris. (Interestingly, well, to me anyway, she is another in my list of authors who add an initial M to their name to differentiate between the two genres she writes in)  This is one of her many books based on myths and folklore and a perfect short read for the dark nights around Hallowe’en. The main character is one of the ‘travelling folk’ (who we would probably refer to as witches, faeries or the like), a girl who lives wild in the woods. She is nameless and free, experiencing life through the eyes and bodies of various animals, until she steals a love token and then falls for its intended target. This is a book about a rather female folklore – maidens, mothers and crones – and our nameless heroine is bought low by the young man she falls for (especially when he gives her a name – naming confers power over the named). But revenge at hand and the wheels of both the seasons and life turns full circle. This book feels like a new version of every classic folk tale – as old as Old Age but fresh as springtime.

Jane

 

Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.

Jane