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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Book review: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges are not the only fruitThis was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.

Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.

I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.

I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.

“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”

It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.

There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:

‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’

There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.

The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.

Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.

This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.

Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.

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Hot new books for Spring

At last, January is out of the way! The mornings are getting lighter, the sun is shining as I write this and things are starting to sprout in the garden; there are definite signs of Spring. Christmas is huge for the publishing world, for obvious reasons, so the new year can seem very quiet – no-one is spending any money, and we are all curled up on the sofa watching the telly! (I’ve been working my way through all the seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men forever and I made some pretty good progress last month!)

By February, publishers are getting itchy, however, and it seems to me there is a rush of great books coming out this month and in the next few weeks, all aimed at grabbing our attention for Spring reading. Perhaps you are going away for February half term or will be looking forward to some days off at Easter and relaxing with a book?

Here are some of the titles that have caught my eye that I think you might enjoy.

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The Immortalists  by Chloe Benjamin

This American author’s first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams was a prize-winner so the follow-up is much-anticipated. The Immortalists follows the lives of four siblings who visit a psychic, who forecasts the exact dates of each of their deaths. The novel explores some very topical themes including what part so-called ‘fate’ and choice play in our lives. Interesting given the promise, surely, in the next few years that gene-mapping will be able to determine what diseases individuals might be at risk of getting in their old age. Great cover too!

 

Feel Free by Zadie Smith9781594206252

Personally, I’ve struggled with Zadie Smith’s work over the years and have never yet managed to finish one of her novels, but I am determined to persevere at some point as she is so widely-acclaimed. This might do the trick as it’s something a little different from her, a collection of essays, some of which have been published before on other fora. The questions posed by the essays are characteristically provocative and diverse, such as asking whether it is right that we have let Facebook and wider social media penetrate our lives so profoundly, and how we will justify to our grandchildren our failure to tackle climate change. With titles as intriguing as Joy and Find Your Beach this might just be the book that finally does it for me and Zadie!

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Described as a ‘novel of the new South’ this is a novel in a new genre that is attempting to recalibrate our assumptions about the modern American south. Set in Georgia, Celestial and Roy are newlyweds whose lives seem to be on the up, when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to twelve years in jail. The novel explores the impact on their still young relationship of such a devastating event. Roy is finally released after five years but it is not clear they will ever be able to go back to what they were. Looks like a fascinating read.

 

9780525520221_custom-1b66fc1d3f41e6340606905dfa87fccab46e79f7-s300-c85I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir this time from a great British novelist, written as a tribute to her young daughter who suffers from eczema so severe that it impacts on every aspect of her daily life and her safety. This book is an account of a number of incidents the author has experienced in her life where she has come close to death, such as a life-threatening childhood illness and an encounter with a stranger in a remote location. She reflects on how we are never more alive than when we come close to death and so the book is ultimately life-affirming.

 

35411685How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s 2015 non-fiction publication Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensation in the way it tackled the author’s experience of living with depression. How to Stop Time is Haig’s latest novel, first published last year, but now being reissued, is a science fiction love story.  Tom Hazard, an apparently normal 41 year-old, is part of a small but exclusive group of unusual people who have been alive for centuries. They are protected by the Albatross Society on one strict condition: they must never fall in love. Tom lives in London as a high school history teacher, but then a romantic relationship with a colleague means he must choose between the past and the future, or, quite literally, between eternal life and death.

 

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton34374628

And finally, a bit of historical fiction. I love a good historical novel set somewhere exotic; I find it compensates for the limited amount of travel I can do at this stage in my life! Miami-based writer Marisol Ferrera visits Cuba to fulfil the final wishes of her late grandmother Elisa, who wanted her ashes scattered in the place of her birth. Elisa escaped Cuba at the time of the revolution. Marisol returns to the land of her roots, tracing the history of her grandmother’s youth and uncovering long-hidden family secrets. I think this might be the one to read on a long journey! Tantalising.

 

What are you planning to read this Spring? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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Julia’s 2018 Reading Challenge

2018-02-01-10-47-18.jpgAt the beginning of January I set up a Facebook group for a reading challenge. I was motivated to do this after I set myself the task last year of stepping outside my usual genres and reading choices. I enjoyed it so much and posted all my book reviews on this blog. Some friends and contacts suggested there might be some interest in sharing this more widely. I set a theme/genre for each month with a view to selecting a title at the start of the month. In January we read The Disappearances  by Emily Bain Murphy, the theme being a YA novel.

Not surprisingly there was a mixed response; some absolutely loved it, others found the pace a bit slow or the fantasy element a little hard to buy into. But what I loved was the discussion it provoked. It was so nice to have a literary conversation!

Oranges are not the only fruitIf you’re interested in taking part in this Reading Challenge you can join the group here or else just read the titles selected. I’ll be posting all about them on the blog. Our theme for February is a title by a feminist writer, celebrating the centenary of the extension of voting rights to women over 30 this week. The title we are reading is Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

 

 

 

It would be great to get as many people as possible involved in the Facebook group so hop on over and take a look.

 

Happy New Year!

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After a two-week break from blogging, writing, and working generally, I’m returning to my desk today refreshed and with a renewed sense of vigour. I had a proper rest over Christmas, mostly spending time with friends and family. The build-up to Christmas is always a crazily busy time, I never seem to get to the end of the to-do list, and the things that normally sustain me – nutritious food, quality sleep, exercise, and reading, of course – are all compromised as there is always another event to attend, party to host, gift to purchase. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the excitement, the sparkle, the dressing-up and going out, the shopping, etc, but I can only keep it up for so long. For me, this Christmas, all of that stopped at the Winter Solstice on the 22nd, fittingly perhaps. At that point, school ended, and time spent with those closest to me began. It would also have been my late father’s 74th birthday so is always a time when I pause to reflect. Two weeks of rest ensued and I now feel ready to face all the challenges that 2018 will no doubt bring.

My biggest goal this year will be to complete the first full draft of my book. I’ve been working pretty hard on it over the last three or four months and I’m hoping to finish it by the Spring. I’ve also been giving a great deal of thought to this blog and have decided that my passion really lies with children’s literacy, so I will be doing a lot more this year focussing on books for kids. After the posts I put out before Christmas with literary gift ideas for children, I had so many conversations with other parents desperate to support their children’s literacy, and looking for ideas on how to motivate a good reading habit, that I feel there is a real hunger out there for more on this topic.

January is a tough month in my view, long, cold (in northern England), damp and dark, so I’m always wary of making too many ‘resolutions’ (I find Autumn a much more fruitful time for me). It is also the month of my birthday and this year I am having one with a zero so that will be challenge enough! At our family New Year’s Eve celebration we were each asked what we would be letting go of, what we would be bringing more of into our lives. I will be trying to let go of ‘busy-ness’ – it doesn’t suit me, I lose my sense of myself and I get irritated with those around me. Yes, we are all busy at least some of the time, but I will try instead to focus on priorities and to let go of what I don’t need to do. I will try to bring more music into my life, listening, playing, singing and dancing. It is a primal human expression of our self and our creativity and allows us to connect with others on a deeper level. I also have a very narrow range of music I listen to (mostly Radiohead!) so I’ll be attempting to broaden my scope.

I will also, of course, try hard to maintain my reading habit. I had a great year of reading in 2017, thanks to this blog, my book club and to the Reading Challenge I set myself at the start of the year. I’ll be posting later in the week with another Reading Challenge for 2018, so look out for that if you’d like to join me.

Whatever your goals and aspirations for 2018 I wish you well in them. The sun is shining as I write this and life feels good!

What are your reading goals for 2018?

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Books to give at Christmas

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A book is a great gift to give at Christmas – long-lasting, can be personalised, relatively inexpensive, easy to wrap, and wil always look as if you’ve thought hard about it, even when you haven’t! And if the worst comes to the worst it’s recyclable and re-giftable! I’ve posted recently about books for children, both fiction and non-fiction, but what about the grown-ups? Below, I’ve listed my stand-out reads of the year, any one of which would make a fantastic gift. Click on the title of each book to see my longer reviews.

Days Without End img Days Without End by Sebastian Barry 

Would suit men or women of any age who just love a great story, brilliantly told. It’s about two young men, mercenaries in the American Civil War, one of whom is an Irish immigrant, who find love amidst the horror, carnage, poverty and degradation. It’s graphic and hard-hitting but also tender and moving. Shouldda won the Man Booker IMHO.

 

 

 

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36Elmet by Fiona Mozley

For lovers of Yorkshire who like their fiction a bit dark. Shortlisted for the Man Booker but sadly did not win. Daniel lives with his father, a bare-knuckle fighter, and his sister Cathy in an isolated rural home they built themselves, life takes a very dramatic turn when they are threatened by the local landowner who bears a grudge against the family.

 

 

Eleanor Oliphant  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

For anyone interested in mental health issues. A fine first novel, which has rightly won many plaudits. Eleanor is our narrator, an unusual and vulnerable young woman who struggles to find her place in the world and conform to social norms. At times funny, at others heart-breaking, it’s a cracking read.

 

 

The Power img2The Power by Naomi Alderman

A great book for strong women who would like to turn the gender tables! Winner of this years Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it’s a brilliant satire on what it might be like if women ran the world. In this powerful commentary on gender politics, the world’s women find they have a physical ability to injure, kill and therefore control men with an electrical charge. Imaginative and original.

 

 

More in Common img Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox

For campaigners and humanitarians. Written by the widower of the late Jo Cox MP, brutally murdered in her Yorkshire constituency by a Far Right Extremist, this account of the woman and her values, not only gives an insight into the life of this extraordinary politician, but is also a reminder of what it is to be human.

 

 

 

Stay-with-Me img Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

For anyone fascinated by the tussle between modernity and tradition or for lovers of Africa. Set in Nigeria in the 1980s, this novel is a story about Yejide and Akin, an infertile couple and the pressures that places on their relationship. Moving and brilliantly plotted.

 

 

 

 

The Essex Serpent img The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

For natives of Essex or London or those who like a grown-up mystery story. Newly-widowed Cora Seaborne moves to a small Essex village with her autistic son, and strikes up a deep friendship with the local vicar, Will Ransome, over a mutual fascination with archaeology and in particular a local legend about a serpent who blights the lives of the inhabitants. It explores the conflict between science and religion, reason and superstition at the end of the 19th century, and the nature of love in all its forms.

 

I’ve just realised that all of these books explore the many types of love. Perfect for this season!

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Book reviews: ‘Dear Ijeawele’ and ‘We should all be feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I posted on here recently that the reading I seemed to have planned over the summer had a definite feminist theme to it. This was largely accidental although it could be something to do with having read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere recently, and thinking about the subconscious messages that women and girls inherit. Top of my list we’re these two slim volumes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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I was given We should all be feminists by a friend for my birthday last January and have been mulling over its content ever since. It is the modified text of a TEDx talk that the author gave in 2012 and was published in book form a couple of years later. Adichie grew up in Nigeria and now divides her time between there and the USA. It would be true to say that the book is written with an African context, that she has in mind many of the social and cultural norms that women in some African societies experience. It would also be narrow-minded and complacent, however, to dismiss the points she makes as not being relevant elsewhere. Adichie writes that in some parts of society ‘feminism’ is a term of abuse or is used as an insult; it is used to describe women who have not been successful in finding a husband! I have heard the term ‘feminist’ used in derision in the U.K. too and we are sometimes inclined to think that it is no longer necessary; equality has been achieved they say, it’s merely spiteful to keep banging on about it! (Then you see the online vitriol that JK Rowling, and many others, have to put up with on social media and it’s very clear that battle is nowhere near won.)

Adichie writes of the problems of ‘normalising’ discrimination when we allow casual differences in the way we treat boys and girls to go unchallenged. Having different standards and expectations is part of the problem, as is gender-specificity in things like toys, behavioural norms and the interests which are promoted to different groups.

Adichie writes that these attitudes can be problematic for boys too; they can create expectations which may lead to poor self-esteem for many young men (if they are not able to be physically strongest or not inclined towards rough and tumble).  Adichie wants us to raise both sexes with equality in mind.

Dear Ijeawele takes this theme a step further. Published earlier this year it is written in the form of an extended letter to a new mother. Some years previously, a friend of the author wrote to her after she had just given birth to a baby girl, asking for advice on how she might raise her daughter as s feminist. The author explores more deeply the ideas that she first expressed in We should all be feminists and has come up with a list of fifteen suggestions for her friend. There is much here to digest. She encourages her friend to ensure the task of raising their daughter is shared and that gender roles must be eschewed not only in the endeavour itself but also in the language they use and the expectations they express to their daughter.

The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina.

Daughters should never be called “princess” (passive, linked to prettiness and dependency) nor taught to value marriage as an achievement. A girl does not need to be likeable but merely to be her full self.

Instead of teaching her to be likeable, teach her to be honest. And kind. And brave.

This is a powerful little book that I can imagine giving as a gift to a new mother or to a friend who might be experiencing dilemmas about how to handle certain parenting problems. As a mother of two daughters (and one teenage son) it has given me much food for thought.

Reading these books made me reflect deeply on how I raise my girls. Thanks for the comments on the post I published last week about that. 

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