New books this summer

Summer is an important time of the year in the publishing calendar; it’s when a lot of us are starting to think about what we might be packing in our suitcases as our thoughts start to turn to holidays. I recognise that this might be a distant dream for those of you with small children as they will need to be constantly watched, managed or entertained. This was certainly the case for me when mine were small, but now that they are older I really savour the selection process – I make a ritual visit to the bookshops (as if I needed an excuse!), peruse the new titles, consider the special offers and try to work out how much each book weighs and how  many I can afford to pack!

So, if you recognise this sort of behaviour, I thought you might like to know what’s new and what’s hot in publishing this season. Arundhati Roy has been given a lot of attention in recent weeks as she publishes what is only her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. (She was speaking here in Manchester last week and I’m so cross because I wasn’t very well and couldn’t go!) Her first novel The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize twenty years ago. Since then, she has been best known for her activism and writings on various causes both domestic and international . So, there is a great deal of excitement about this novel and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Recent terrorist incidents in the UK have made many Brits aware of the need to build the community cohesion, which I think many of us had taken for granted. Last week saw the first year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right extremist. Her husband, the ever-dignified Brendan Cox has published a book Jo Cox: More in Common, the title of which recalls her now famous House of Commons maiden speech where she reminded us that as human beings we have more in common than that which divides us. I expect this to be a very emotional but ultimately uplifting read.

You might not want to take a hardback on holiday, so I’m delighted that The Essex Serpent, the debut novel from Sarah Perry, is now available in paperback. It was first published last year, and has had fantastic reviews. The paperback has been a long time coming, but this is a must-read.

I posted here last week about my ambivalence towards thrillers, but they dominate the bestseller lists week in, week out, so clearly many people love them. One of the most popular of recent years is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (which I’m currently listening to on Audio). Paula has just published her latest book Into the Water which has had some solid reviews and is selling well in mainstream retailers. It strikes me as the obvious beach read!

Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (published in 1999) is one of my favourite books of all time. Her latest novel New Boy is part of an intriguing project whereby a number of authors have retold a Shakespearean story in a contemporary setting. New Boy is about Osei, an 11-year old Ghanaian boy, son of a diplomat posted to Washington DC, and his relationship with a girl in his class, Dee. Osei is the only black child in the school and his friendship with Dee makes another boy, Ian, extremely jealous…

Finally, for now (I’m not sure your TBR piles can take much more!) The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (ed.) caught my eye on a recent trip to London as it had a prominent display in the window of a smart bookshop. It’s a collection of essays exploring the theme of immigration to the UK. The writers are all emerging black, Asian and minority ethnic, looking at why people come to Britain, why they stay and and what life is like for them. It could well be essential reading.

Looking at what I’ve picked out in the above list, it strikes me that there is a bit of a theme there too. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the horrors and tragedies we have been witnessing in the UK in the last few weeks and months. It preys on the minds of many of us, I suspect.

What new publications have caught your eye?

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Happy blogging birthday to me!

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So, one year ago today I published my inaugural blog post. It was both a hello to the world and a review of two books – The Green Road and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It was strangely scary at first, but I very quickly got into the groove and I can say, hand on heart that I love it! It’s also great to have an excuse to spend so much time reading! I’m not as ‘productive’ as many other book review bloggers, but, as regular readers will know, I am a mother of three and the family comes first.

So, as I commence my second year of blogging I wanted to thank everyone who has read, liked or followed my blog. To know that people enjoy what I write is much appreciated.

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I also wanted to share with you a few of the things I have learned over the past year:

  • Consistency is key – as a blogger I know I don’t necessarily have to post frequently, but I need to post regularly. I aim for twice a week, at least one of which is a book review, and most weeks I have achieved this.
  • Keep a reserve stock of blog posts – I try always to be a couple of book reviews ahead, because there are some weeks I just can’t get through a whole book…like now for example! Between half term and ferrying the eldest to and from school for exams, a lot of time has been whipped away from me this last month.
  • Plan and schedule – it’s the only way I can do it. I always have my next couple of months of posts mapped out. I’m also always reviewing the plan as occasionally something happens and I write a spontaneous post. I also schedule posts ahead, which is very useful because using Analytics tools, I can identify when are the best times and days to post.
  • If you build it, they don’t necessarily come – (Bonus point for anyone who knows which film I’m referencing!) It is unfathomable to me now why I havered over starting my blog – it’s not like I was bombarded with thousands of comments and followers when I first posted! You have to work hard to be heard in the blogosphere and it’s something I aim to do better this coming year.
  • Social media is key – each blog post is a tiny piece of driftwood in a vast ocean. You have to set off a few flares to get found. Social media is the only way to do this. Cross-post like crazy and don’t be shy. (Further note to self: do more of this!)
  • Write from the heart – some of my ‘favourite’ posts have not necessarily been my most popular. There are the ones I am proud of, pretty well-written, I thought, and there are those which just burst from my fingertips without too much advance thinking. Guess which ones have generated most comment?
  • There is no formula – there are an infinite number of ways to skin this particular cat. Do what is right for you, use the analytics tools and be willing to adapt.

If you are currently blogging I’d love to know what you think of the above tips, and if you have any of your own to add.

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Manchester

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I won’t be posting a book review this week. I can’t. Not when, in this city I call home, the families of 22 people are grieving. Many of these are parents, whose children are dead. Not when the families of 59 others are at their bedsides, hoping they’ll recover from their injuries, some of which will, no doubt, be ‘life-changing’. Not when hundreds, maybe thousands, of others will be traumatised, emotionally and psychologically scarred. After attending a pop concert.

I am a mother of three. I send two of my children off to school on Manchester’s Metrolink every morning. They go ‘into town’ with their friends. I always expect that they will come home again. My two daughters love pop music.  I’ve been wondering for a while when might be the right time to take them to a concert. It could quite easily have been this one. Had I not balked at the ticket price, had I been willing to scramble for the tickets online. I feel sometimes we are all just a breath away, just a click away, from tragedy.

I have lived in Manchester for five years. I’m a blow-in, from the South, and yet there is nowhere I have felt more at home in my life.  I have this strange sense of being offended that someone could carry out an extremist attack in this magical melting-pot of a city – there are so many accents, so many languages, so many colours and creeds here. All are welcome. How dare they do that here!

This glorious, gutsy city has known hardship and sorrow before. But there is so much love here that the true spirit of Manchester will certainly prevail.

But, for now, all our love is directed towards those among us whose agony I cannot even begin to comprehend.

A reflection on not buying books

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I’ve posted on here before about being a compulsive book-buyer – nothing wrong with that, you might say, there are worse habits! Despite my ‘piles’ giving me cause for consternation from time to time, because it’s another thing to feel guilty about ( I buy more books than I can hope to read, at this point in my life), I have reconciled myself to the condition. Firstly, I am happy to support authors, for the work they have done, even if it takes me a long time to get around to enjoying it. Secondly, I have three children of a certain age and, like most parents I know, am engaged in a constant struggle with small, shiny technological weapons! I consider the books that clutter (embellish?) my home to be my old-fashioned conventional arms, that will still be there when the devices run out of charge or become obsolete. There are sound reasons for having lots of books around.

That said, my March reading challenge was to take a book from my ‘to read’ pile and it made me profoundly aware of how many of my books I have not yet read, and ask myself why I still acquire more. So I decided that I would give up book-buying for Lent. I’m not religious, but I generally try and participate in Lent because I think it’s interesting to test oneself. Last year I tried giving up sugar, with mixed results, but I learnt a great deal, and I won’t be doing that again!

Unlike sugar, book-buying is a healthy thing, but it helped me look more to what I already have, instead of craving more, and within that lies a deeper message. I went into my local bookshop many times during the period of Lent (it also happens to be my coffee shop of choice), and I found it very difficult to resist the special offers, the ‘book of the month’, the attractive lifestyle books, but I did resist, and I am slightly richer for it.

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It meant that I went to my local library for a book I was keen to read (East West Street by Phillippe Sands, winner of this year’s Baillie Gifford non-fiction prize) and had a long overdue browse there. (The Trafford Libraries website is amazing – you can get almost anything!) It also meant that I turned back to my ‘to read’ pile (or the TBR pile, as other book bloggers call it) for more inspiration, which was also a rewarding exercise.

 

I had two semi-lapses: I bought a book as a birthday gift for a friend (We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel, yes, the Gillian Anderson!) which I’m tempted to read before giving it to her belatedly. I think I can allow that one! I also bought Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo; that one is harder to justify but it’s this month’s read for my book club so I didn’t think I could wait until after Lent.

I am now back in full book-buying mode again, and with all the literary prizes coming up in the next few months, there will be no shortage of credit card bashing. Having detoxed for a couple of months, however, I am more than ready for it!

Are you a compulsive book-buyer? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

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Getting your kids reading again

read-729719_1280I posted a video on Facebook Live last week that got a lot of reaction. The subject was how to get your children reading and it really seemed to strike a chord. I relayed the story of my teenage son who announced to me a couple of years ago that he didn’t really like books anymore. I was, and this is not an over-statement, devastated. My son is the eldest of three and I think it is fair to say that he had the best of me! Those of you with children will perhaps empathise with my experience that I found I spent less time reading with my second and third child, simply because I had less time and opportunity to do so. My eldest was read to every day virtually from birth, until at least the age of nine or ten. And I didn’t read to them out of some sense of duty that I ought to be doing it (like taking them swimming which, as a non-swimmer until very recently, I always found stressful), it was the thing I most loved doing. So, where did I go wrong, I asked myself, and what more could I have done?

Well, panic over, of course I didn’t do anything wrong; it was probably my son’s mini-rebellion, and if that’s the worst of it, then we’ll be doing pretty well. It was my teenager defining his own identity and his own interests and preferences. I think it was also a reaction against the academic pressure he perhaps felt under – once he started his GCSE courses, his whole life became about books. Why would he want to read for pleasure? I can identify with that; after I finished my English degree I couldn’t look at a work of fiction for months! There are so many competing demands on our children today, particularly in the teenage years, and multiple distractions, not least socialising, social media, computer games, television, etc. None of these are necessarily bad things, in moderation, but it’s easy to demonise them.

With all the pressure on young people today, I feel reluctant to add another ‘should’ to the pile of things they have to do. But I am also firmly of the view that reading can actually help in coping with the pressure:

  • reading at night can help you sleep, and many of our teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived
  • reading can help you relax
  • reading can create a space for reflection
  • reading can provide a safe, temporary retreat from the demands of everyday life

What’s not to love?

So, if there is a young person in your household who has turned away from reading, here are some tips to get them back into books:

  1. Don’t panic and don’t put pressure on them to read. It may be a ‘phase’.
  2. Don’t let them see you care too much – if it’s a rebellious act this will only reinforce their determination to do the opposite of what you want.
  3. Whatever they read, don’t judge their choices – even magazines and comics will help to get them back into a habit and they are not screens!
  4. Leave reading material lying around, such as newspapers, quality magazines, supplements, even leaflets. You could try leaving them open on pages covering issues that you know they are interested in, such as technology.
  5. Are you planning your Summer holiday? Leave a guide book around.
  6. Engage in conversation about anything they have read. Take an interest, discuss and listen without judgement.
  7. Model desired behaviours. How often do your kids see you reading? Someone wise once said that children listen to almost nothing you say but they watch everything you do.
  8. Be clever – if you are out and about with your kids, choose this time to pop into the bookshop or library to get what you need. Spend a few minutes browsing and observe what they do, which shelves they go to.
  9. Have a ‘screen off time’ in the household, or even a ‘reading’ or ‘quiet time’. It doesn’t have to be very long to begin with, even 10 minutes at the weekend is a start.
  10. Allow reading at the table!

I am happy to say that my son is now gradually getting back into books, thanks in part to being given lots of Amazon vouchers as Christmas and birthday gifts. He quite likes having the opportunity to order his own books, completely bypassing Mum and Dad’s scrutiny (don’t worry, we do look at what he buys!) and without needing to ask us to use our credit cards to order things for him.

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For more tips and ideas you could look at Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Readinga fabulous little book I reviewed here a few months ago. I picked it up in my local library. It is divided up into different age groups, as your strategies may need to vary depending on the age of the child.

 

 

 

 

 

Good luck, and I’d love to hear how you get on, or if you have any other tips and suggestions.

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Finished at last!

 

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I cannot remember when it last took me so long to read a book. I started reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing in early January and finished it at the end of February. I toyed with giving up on it (as I blogged about here), but instead I took a couple of ‘breaks’ to read other books, which interrupted the flow for me a little, but also helped me to persevere. At over 460 pages it’s of a considerable length, but I’ve taken less time to read longer books. It’s a tremendous achievement, a work of scholarship, but I found it really hard-going. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year; I’ve read the other five and I have to say that although in some ways this is the ‘finest’ book, it was not, for me at least, the best read. It has also been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced today.

I’m also finding it fiendishly difficult to review! It’s a book about China. It covers a period from the mid-1960s, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was instigated, to the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government’s military reaction to which resulted in several hundred deaths. These deaths, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the thousands, possibly millions who were tortured, killed and persecuted in the previous forty years under Communist rule. The great horror the author explores more closely in this book, however, is the obsessive annihilation of all ‘unauthorised’ culture.

The novel begins in Canada where 10-year old Marie lives with her mother. Marie’s father, we learn, committed suicide, leaving many papers and a mystery. Then Ai-Ming comes into their lives, a refugee from China whose links to Marie’s father are not clear initially. She is a troubled young woman, though at this stage we do not know why. Marie becomes close to Ai-Ming and with her she begins to uncover some of the mysteries lying within her father’s remaining effects, but Ai-Ming eventually disappears, leaving many unanswered questions. Marie sets out to uncover the full story of the connections between Ai-Ming’s family and her father and most of the book is a detailed first hand account of these events.

Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, was a gifted composer at the prestigious musical academy in Shanghai. Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, a little younger and a gifted pianist. The third key individual is Zhuli, Sparrow’s young cousin who lives with him and his parents because her own parents have been imprisoned in remote labour camps for crimes against the state. Zhuli is a prodigious violinist. For each of our three main protagonists, music not only dominates their life, but their whole being. The homogenisation of culture under Mao, the proscribing of musical performance and the condemnation of musicians as ‘bourgeois rightists’ has profound effects on their lives. The book is primarily about how each is affected, both the shared horror they feel, and the different paths they must each follow for self-preservation.

It is a profoundly moving book: the horrors of the time are recounted in breathtaking detail and the aims of the book are noble. The author paints a picture of how the Cultural Revolution, by denying the expression of a shared history through art, literature and music, and by prohibiting so much that was beautiful and valuable, was a programme of dehumanisation that exercised control by turning a mass of people into savages. There is no doubt that Madeline Thien is an extremely talented writer. However, I was only able to become really engaged with the book partway through; the first hundred pages or so just failed to move me at all. I found the transitions from 1990 Canada to 1960s China rather clunky; each time we were with Ai-Ming and Marie and just beginning to get to know them, we were suddenly drawn back to China and a set of random characters in whom I struggled to get interested. It was when Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai’s story came to the fore that I began to become more invested. Even then though there would be extremely long sections of the book telling us their story, without even a mention of Ai-Ming and Marie. Yes, the author ties everything up very cleverly at the end, but it rather rendered the Ai-Ming/Marie reflective device a bit redundant. I think it would have been just as good a story without involving these two at all.

So, a powerful and moving book, a necessary one perhaps, demonstrating the dangers of oppression, control and the regulation of art and culture, but a book that is hard-going at times.

Have you read this book? I’d be interested in your views

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Thoughts on unhappiness

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My children and I are privileged. On every level. There is no doubt about it. Because we have a roof over our heads that we can afford to pay for, because we know where not just the next meal, but the one after that and the one after that are coming from, and because we can turn the heating up when there’s an unexpected cold snap, we are more privileged than many. And I don’t just mean those children fleeing war or who have lost their families, but many in our country, our city, or our town. And yet. And yet.

I read somewhere once that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child. And just now I have an unhappy child. A child who feels that nothing is going right for them, who feels there is pressure, who struggles sometimes in their social network. A child. One who is too young for this. A child who says that sometimes life is so hard they wish they could just hide away from it all. So no matter how good my life, no matter how well my other children are or are doing, I too am unhappy. I’d go through the pain of childbirth every day to take that pain away.

I was lucky to be a relatively successful child. I sailed through most things. I was disliked by some of the nastier kids in the neighbourhood, but I managed to avoid them, mostly. I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t bullied because I was a prime target for it (nice, timid, studious, spectacle-wearing), but I came through school largely unscathed. It was in young adulthood that the realities of the world hit me. When I realised that, hmm, life was tough. That it wasn’t all going to be plain sailing. That life wasn’t fair. And I was powerless to do anything about much of life’s injustice. It was only later I learned all I could do about it was just to be the best that I could be.

Mental nd emotional wellbeing have been a lifelong challenge for me, as for many people I know (most?). I admire and am fascinated by people who have a natural positive outlook, that sunny disposition, and I wish I knew how to get it. No. I wish I knew how to get it for my child. My question is, is it better for children to learn when they’re young that life is not fair and you just have to make the best of it? Does disappointment and heartache when you’re young help to build resilience when you’re older? I sometimes wonder whether a bit of disappointment, a reality check, when I was a kid, might have helped me cope better with it in adulthood. But maybe not.

More recently, I’ve learned how focusing on gratitude can help to build resilience and a positive mindset, so I practice this every day. And I know I have so much to be grateful for. Just recently I heard a single mother on the radio talking about the pain of having to put her severely disabled 12-year old into care because she could no longer cope. And, again, I thank my lucky stars, my guardian angels, or whatever force in the world is out there looking after me and mine, that I have a healthy, stable family. That said, the least empathic thing you can say to someone who is feeling low is to invite them to think of all the people who are worse off than they are.

I also read somewhere once that you get the children you need; maybe that divine force out there has gifted my children to me because I have within me the love to support and care for them, when unhappiness strikes. But today I feel ill-equipped and today I feel as unhappy as my unhappiest child.

 “Happiness, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour”

As ever, I look to my books for help. The above quote from Walt Whitman is a call to embrace joy in the here and now, and is one of the techniques for being happy listed in a little volume I picked up in a bargain bookshop a while ago. A little book I keep to hand for times like this – How to be Happy by Anna Barnes.

I don’t think Whitman will mean much to my child at this point, but perhaps my job as a parent is to try and pass on some of my own hard-earned resilience to my child, who is still maturing, still growing, still learning.