Book Review: “The Life and Loves of a He-Devil” by Graham Norton

I love my little book club – it’s small and very exclusive and, besides books, we specialise in popcorn, gin and tonic and extra-curricular trips. All in the name of literature, of course!

We have been meeting every month for a couple of years now and have read a wide range of books: fiction, non-fiction, YA, thrillers, classics, to name but a few of our chosen genres. Some books we have loved, some we have loved less. Some generate an enormous amount of discussion, others less.

The Life and Loves of a He Devil imgWe decided for our March meeting we’d read Graham Norton’s 2014 memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil. We wanted to read an autobiography and felt that among the many “celebrity” memoirs out there, Graham’s might have more to offer than most. We all like him as a broadcaster and personality and thought it might be fun. We were not wrong! But when we came to meet and discuss it, we had very little to say. We’d exchanged a number of messages on our WhatsApp group in the preceding weeks, with many laughter emojis, asking each other if we’d come across the dog and condom anecdote yet, or the Dolly Parton story. Some sections of this book, which I read most of whilst on a train journey to London, were laugh-out-loud, or rather “try to suppress a laugh because I’m in public”, moments. It’s a romp and Graham writes the way he speaks, with wit, authenticity and complete honesty. His writing style is similar in his novel Holding, which I reviewed here last year, and really enjoyed. (His second novel, entitled A Keeper, is due out in the Autumn.)

It’s charming and funny, and there is such a lot of name-dropping that it’s a bit of escapism too. Reading it is a reminder of just how successful, Graham is; I lost count of the number of homes he owns and the list of people he calls friends is something to behold. I think it’s because he manages to make you feel that he is a regular guy, just like the rest of us, and just as in awe of all the celebs and their glitter. He also manages to convey a kind of naivety and innocence that make you feel he is very ordinary. He is not of course; he’s supremely talented and clearly unusually astute to have achieved what he has. That does not come from luck alone. Concealing all of that beneath a veneer of self-deprecation is a talent in itself and I admire him enormously.

Back to my book club, we had only one criticism, and that is that the opening chapter (the book is divided into chapters, each of which is about one of his ‘loves’), about the joys of being a dog-owner, was, we felt, by far the funniest, so everything that followed was not inferior exactly, but did not quite meet the same high bar.

Not much to say then, except that it’s hugely funny, and if you like Graham Norton, you’ll love this book!

Have you read this or any of Graham Norton’s other books?

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Waiting for Spring…

…feels a bit like Waiting for Godot this year!

Tomorrow it’s the Vernal Equinox, the mid-point on the calendar between the Winter and Summer Solstices, when the number of hours of day and night are equal. It may be the official start of spring in meteorological terms, but, here in the UK, it still feels very much like winter! The daffodils in my garden are putting a brave face on it, but we have just had a weekend of snow-related disruption in many parts of the country and the strong winds blowing in from the east mean it is freezing out.

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Spring bulbs are flowering in the sunshine, but it’s freezing out!

It is at this time of year that many of us start to get itchy feet, desperate to get outside after the long winter, and yet the weather is making that quite challenging. I’m keen to blow the winter cobwebs away, but not to get blown away! We have been relatively lucky here in Manchester, in the north west of England, with very little snow settling, particularly compared to other parts of the country. Temperatures look set to improve by the middle of the week.

The downsides of this protracted winter are obvious: less fresh air, less getting out and about, less exercise and more hours with the heating on! I’ve written here before about my reluctance to make New Year’s resolutions, but at this time of year, I start to get some energy and motivation back. So I’m trying this year to see more of the positive in events, to default to ‘Yes’ and to see a glass half full. In that spirit, I’m trying to think about the upsides of this unexpected weather and one definite bonus is more time for reading: I can still justify curling up with a blanket and a book when it’s too cold to go out!

I’ve almost finished Madame Bovary, the March title in my 2018 Reading Challenge, and am looking forward to starting our children’s book for April, which I’ll be announcing next week. After blogging here about my difficulties with 4321 last week, I’ve resolved to give it another go and take it on holiday over Easter. I’m also looking forward to reading my next book from the children’s library, Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, a Young Bond adventure set during the Cold War. Very topical!

What are you reading at the moment?

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YA Book Review: “36 Questions that changed my mind about you” by Vicki Grant

This book took me straight back to being a teenager, not so much because I empathised with the central characters, but because reading it felt like a complete guilty pleasure. And I loved it!

36 questions that changed my mind about you imgThe central character, Hildy, is a slightly quirky, slightly awkward 17 year-old. She has two close friends – her best friend is Max, who is gay and fairly camp with it, and her other good friend, Xiu is much more astute, confident and successful in affairs of the heart. She confides in them extensively about her feelings and worries. Hildy has not had a boyfriend for some time and so, out of a degree of desperation signs up for a research programme which is exploring whether it is possible to facilitate a romantic relationship between two people by making them ask and answer a specific set of (36) questions. Hildy’s ‘partner’ in the programme is Paul, who, from the outset, makes it quite clear that he is only in it for the $40 fee and who is a nonchalant and frustrating participant to begin with; where Hildy makes an effort to answer the questions truthfully and fully, Paul is uninterested and uncooperative, and obfuscates throughout. Their first session ends with Hildy throwing a tropical fish at Paul that she had bought for her younger brother on the way to the meeting.

Hildy’s violent reaction to Paul’s behaviour is clearly sobering to him and he contacts her afterwards to apologise. They continue their interaction and to work through the questions via social media messaging and eventually agree to meet. Hildy’s home life is complicated, however; her parents are going through a difficult time in their marriage (she doesn’t realise why at first, although this is revealed towards the end). Her mother is a hospital emergency doctor and her father the Principal of her school. She has an older brother, with whom her relationship is somewhat distant, and a 12 year-old younger brother, towards whom she is very protective, especially as she feels he is suffering most from the troubles at home.

Slight spoiler alert….if you don’t want to know any more about the plot don’t read the next two paragraphs, though I won’t give away the full ending.

Paul also has his fair share of troubles; as their relationship develops, he confides in Hildy that his mother (who was a single parent) died in a car accident when he was young, and that he carries some guilt for this.

A crisis at home means that Hildy fails to make the coffee shop meeting with Paul they had arranged after carefully rebuilding the rapport between them after the fish incident. Since one of Paul’s most hated things is lateness, this causes another major setback. Hildy had no way of contacting Paul because he does not carry a mobile phone. She then has to set about tracking him down, knowing very few actual facts about him.

The usual question of whether the boy gets the girl/girl gets the boy, hangs over the rest of the book right to the final page.

The book has an interesting style, which I think will appeal to the target audience (13-15 year olds), with some chapters written in prose style, while those sections which make up the interactions between Paul and Hildy are written like dialogue in a drama. This writing style variation seems to be quite common now in YA books, I guess because it makes them a bit easier to read for an age group traditionally seen as having more limited attention spans. It does indeed make it an easy quick-fire read.

It is a romance, but it does deal with some of the issues teens face – peer pressure, how to deal with worries at home, social anxiety, awkwardness interacting with others in whom you are romantically interested.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend if your teenager would like something light and unchallenging to read. Will probably appeal more to girls.

How do you feel about your teens reading light romantic novels? Is it okay or do you wish they read weightier material?

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Advice wanted on Paul Auster’s “4321” please!

Around the middle of September, the six-book shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary award in the UK, and one of the top prizes globally, is published. I usually clear the reading decks for the next five or so weeks and set myself the goal of trying to read all of them before the winner is announced in mid-October.

Last year, I did pretty well, managing almost five before making my (incorrect!) prediction. Amongst many book bloggers, and reading groups, things become a bit competitive, and some years the books are long and it can become a real slog. In 2016, I struggled to get through Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I found very sludgy at first, but thoroughly enjoyed by the end. I finally published my review of it this time last year, about six months after the Man Booker shortlist was published.

Alas, I have beaten that particular record… six months on and I have still failed to complete Paul Auster’s 4321. And this is making me a bit gloomy. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, I sort of am, but to say it could do with some robust editing is an understatement. I crawled through the first 200 pages (which, incidentally, in a normal book with a normal typeface and normal line spacing would, I am convinced, be at least 300 pages), but I still have 650 pages to go! And it’s been so long since I read any of it that I’ll probably have to go back and start again.

It’s really heavy to carry around – definitely not one that slips in your handbag – and the audiobook is 37 hours long, which would still take me weeks to get through!

So, what to do? The reviews I have read say it’s great, which makes me want to continue, but it also feels like a huge commitment.

If you have managed to finish this book, do you recommend I continue?

Book reviews: Super-readable YA fiction

It’s easy to get young kids reading – as a parent you do all the right things: show them picture books from birth, read to them (honing your animal impersonations as you go!), read with them as they begin their own journey, take them to libraries and story circles and buy them books. But what happens when they don’t want you reading to them in bed any more? What happens when they are old enough to choose electronic devices over books? What happens when they “have” to read books at school they don’t enjoy? What happens when you’re too busy or too worn down to police the mobile phones, the tablets, the games consoles?

These challenges are particularly acute for parents of teenagers – isn’t it hard enough having teenagers in the house, without bringing in yet another source of conflict or disagreement? If this sounds familiar you might want to look into “super-readable YA” books. These are relatively short YA books, with highly-engaging contemporary themes, easy plots with the most succinct scene-setting, and high action. I read a couple recently which I can recommend. What is more, these two have a specific typeface and are printed on paper with limited ‘ghosting’ (where you can see the text on the reverse of the page through the paper) making them highly suitable for kids with, for example, dyslexia.

Grave Matter by Juno Dawson

Grave Matter imgJuno is a widely-published author, Queen of Teen 2014 and member of the LGBT community. The story begins with a funeral, for Eliza, girlfriend of central character, Samuel. Eliza was killed in a car accident in which Samuel was driving. He is grief-stricken and finds himself in conflict with his family, who do not understand his torment. Samuel seeks out the estranged sister of his vicar father, with whom he cut off contact after she began to dabble in the supernatural. Through his Aunt Marie, Samuel enters a world where he can bring Eliza back to life, but at a deadly price.

This book will appeal to teens who enjoy science fiction and fantasy or have tendencies towards gothic themes. There is some light swearing and some fairly gruesome scenes as well as some challenging themes so I would recommend for 15+. It is ultimately about accepting realities and coping with bereavement.

The Last Days of Archie Maxwell by Annabel Pitcher

Last Days of Archie Maxwell imgI found this grittier and rather more challenging than Grave Matter. It would suit teens who enjoy social realism or who may be coming to terms with difficult family relationships or with issues around sexuality. The book opens with Archie’s parents announcing they are to separate. Archie’s sister suspects it is because their father is gay. This is going on in the background, but Archie also has issues at school. He is part of a gang with some of the cooler kids, but who are actually unpleasant bullies. He befriends one of the more desirable girls at school, Tia, about which he is mercilessly teased by the other lads. Tia’s brother committed suicide on the railway line near Archie’s house, a year earlier, and he finds himself telling her that he saw her brother just before the day he killed himself, because she seems to need this to comfort her in her grief. As a result they become close. Thus, Archie finds himself sucked into lying, whilst his own home life seems to be falling apart.

Archie ultimately contemplates suicide himself and this is where (as a parent of a teenager) I found the book very challenging. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t do it! I guess this will be helpful to teens who may themselves be suffering from depression, as we see the disastrous after-effects of suicide for those left behind (Tia’s brother) and how it ultimately solves nothing. Jared, the openly gay school student in the book is a great role-model, confident, self-assured and who faces down the bullies, who are exposed as gutless and superficial. I enjoyed the book, but it’s quite a tough read. There is a lot of swearing and sexual language and references. On the plus side I liked how it looked at relationships from a boy’s perspective, which is quite unusual.

Both the above are published by Barrington Stoke, so take a look at their website for more suggestions for all age groups.

Can you recommend any easy books to get teens back into reading?

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My top ten literary film adaptations

serving the Oscars is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of the froth and fakeness of it all – the ostentatious outfits, the overly emotional speeches, the elitism, the hangers-on – but there is something about the pictures and the footage which just sucks me in. I’m not a film buff, but I do love a film and am always interested in any with a literary connection. This year’s Oscars were a much-discussed affair; I have only seen one of the big contenders (Phantom Thread), but I feel I know all the others having heard so much about them. Oddly, the winner of the Best Film, The Shape of Water, is the only one that I probably won’t be rushing out to see.

Look in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for literary connections; in 2016 we had The Danish Girl, The Revenant, Room, Brooklyn and Carol among the big winners. That was a high point, as this year none of the big winners had a literary connection. James Ivory (so well-known for A Room With A View, Howard’s End  and The Remains of the Day adaptations) won the Best Adapted Screenplay award for Call Me By Your Name, based on a novel of the same name by Andre Aciman. This year, it felt to me as if the Academy Awards were more about the politics than the art.

So, the Oscars make me hunger for a good film based on a book. Here are my top ten favourites, in no particular order. They are not my favourite books (Ten! I couldn’t possibly choose just ten!) they are film adaptations that have stuck in my mind as most memorable and enjoyable – and no doubt in the days after posting this I’ll think of another half dozen that I should have included!

  1. The Wizard of Oz (1939) – based on a novel by L. Frank Baum.
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – a favourite book and a favourite film, based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Harper Lee. Gregory Peck is just stunning.
  3. Macbeth (2015) – my favourite Shakespeare play, this is a brilliant film that conveys the passion, the grime and the extreme violence in a way that makes the Bard completely relevant to a contemporary audience and very accessible.
  4. Brooklyn (2016) – this was one of the first ‘grown-up’ films I took my two daughters to see (they are now 13 and 11). They have Irish heritage and we visited family in New York City the same year, so it felt highly relevant and they were able to empathise with the story quite deeply. Saoirse Ronan is stunning and it’s just a sheer pleasure to watch.
  5. Great Expectations (1946) – I am a huge Dickens fan and watch most of the film and television adaptations. I usually love them all, but this film is a classic. Directed by David Lean and starring John Mills and Alec Guinness.
  6. Apocalypse Now (1979) – based on the Heart of Darkness, the novel by Joseph Conrad, but relocated to the Vietnam War. The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen. Incredible book, incredible film in its own right. The 1991 documentary about the making of the film is also a must-watch, as it was beset by disasters both natural and man-made.
  7. No Country for Old Men (2007) – based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy this is a brilliant film by the Coen brothers, though parts of it I watched from behind a cushion!
  8. Wuthering Heights (1939) – possibly my favourite book ever (if I had to choose only one) it is hard to leave this wonderful film starring Laurence Olivier off a best anything.
  9. Gone With The Wind (1939) – haven’t read the book, but I love this film.
  10. Sense and Sensibility (1995) – I couldn’t not have a Jane Austen in my list and this is my favourite. It also stars some of my favourite British actors – Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, the late great Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant.

Having re-read this list, I’ve just realised what an incredible year 1939 was – extraordinary when you think of everything else that was going on.


What are your favourite film adaptations of books?

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Kids book review – “Kick” by Mitch Johnson

I read a super little book for children last week – Kick the debut novel from Mitch Johnson. It is set in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the characters are the poor people of that city, and, more specifically, young children who have to work in the sweat shops and on the streets of that city to help their families make ends meet. The theme is an important one and it is a book that will enlighten your child to international issues about which they may know very little, but it is not preachy.

Kick imgThe central character in the story is Budi, a football-mad eleven year-old boy whose hero is an English footballer called Keiran Wakefield, who plays for Real Madrid. Budi and his friends spend all their free time playing football, role-playing their favourite teams and stars. One of Budi’s friends has an old television and they sometimes watch matches together too, late at night Indonesia time. To that extent Budi and his friends are like any other boys their age and your children will be able to identify with their passions and their aspirations. The similarities end, however, when you compare the daily lives of these children with ours in the developed world; Budi and his friends work in factories, mainly sweat shops, where the conditions are poor and where the manager is cruel and exercises discipline through the use of corporal punishment. Budi makes football boots that are shipped off to Europe. They work for a pittance and, despite both Budi and his Dad working, the family still does not have enough income to eat a meal every day. Budi’s best friend is Rochy who lives with his mother and two sisters (his father is dead). Budi tells us that Rochy is the cleverest person he knows but that he had to withdraw from school because he needed to work to support his family. His existence is altogether darker – his mother barely communicates (depression?) and there is the suggestion that the two sisters are involved with the sex industry, although younger readers will not pick this up.

The community is also threatened by corruption; a local gangster, the Dragon, extorts protection money from local businesses and residents with impunity due to his familial links with the head of the police, and is reputed to have murdered his own brother. Unluckily for Budi, he crosses paths with the Dragon one day when he accidentally kicks a ball through the window of the Dragon’s apartment. The Dragon demands that Budi steal a pair of football boots for his nephew from the factory in recompense. He tells Budi that if he fails to deliver, then his family will be evicted and they will have to go and live in the slums.

Budi perceives the task as impossible and is ready to accept his fate, even to die, but then miraculously, the boots get to the Dragon. There is uproar in the factory as the foreman threatens everyone that they will suffer unless and until the thief is identified. A young girl is blamed and brutally ejected from her job. Budi learns only later that it was Rochy who stole the boots and passed them on and that he has effectively saved Budi’s skin.

The first half of the book is good fun: young readers will be able to engage in some gentle comparison of their lives versus Budi’s, the differences in wealth and circumstances as well as the similarities in outlook and dreams. The author subtly juxtaposes the poverty in the factory and in the society more generally with the excesses of the footballing world which the children so admire. Budi and Rochy discuss Western advertisments for cars, which they see whilst watching football matches, and to see the absurdity of them through their eyes is very funny and very enlightening

The second half of the book is darker. Budi’s life becomes even more challenging and some of his innocence is lost as he has to grapple with the realization that his dream of becoming a professional footballer like Keiran Wakefield may never be realized. We learn more about the activities of the Dragon and in particular a plot to traffic people to the West that Budi becomes embroiled in. This strand of the plot involves a dock-side shoot-out. There is also an earthquake in which Budi’s Grandma dies and Rochy’s mother and sisters go missing and are presumed dead.

This is a book which will need to be read with younger readers; parents will need to be on hand to explain and reassure. For readers 12+ the characters and writing style may feel quite immature on one level, but they will better understand some of the themes, which may well complement their secondary school syllabuses in a very accessible form.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book myself and ultimately it is uplifting. Although some of the events are bleak, Budi hangs on to his dreams and hope ultimately triumphs.

“The trouble with being a dreamer is that occasionally you’ll have nightmares – you’ve just got to make sure they don’t ever spook you enough to want to wake up.”

Recommended for 10-13 year olds.

How do you feel about exposing younger readers to difficult issues, such as the human rights abuses that many children in the world endure?

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