And now for something a little lighter?

In my last couple of blogs I’ve reviewed books that have been rather emotionally challenging: H is for Hawk is about grief and the loss of a parent; The Optician of Lampedusa is about a particular tragic event in the ongoing European migration phenomenon. Both books were harrowing in parts, although in different ways.

Today I’m posting about a book by Meera Syal, which, given her background in, and huge talent for, comedy, you might think would be somewhat lighter. Well, it is and it isn’t; there are certainly some quite heavy themes here, but there is also resolution to the issues raised and I certainly did not find the book as harrowing.

So, my review follows. If you have read this or Meera Syal’s other books, I would love to hear what you think.

house-of-hidden-mothers-img This was one of the books I took on holiday last year, but which I didn’t manage to read. I finally got around to it when we read it in our Book Club in December. I’d been really excited about it; I love Meera Syal (Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars at No. 42), she’s such a talent and a fantastic role model. She has written two previous novels, both published in the 1990s, neither of which I have read.

The novel centres on Shyama, who, in her late forties, is desperate to have a baby with her (somewhat younger) partner Toby. Shyama has a teenage daughter, Tara, from a previous (unhappy) marriage and lives close to her Indian parents, Prem and Sita. The action takes place in both London and India.

When all other options for having a child of their own seem closed to them, Toby and Shyama decide to go to a clinic in India where a surrogate will bear a child they can later formally adopt. In their case, it is planned that the child will be created from Toby’s sperm and a donor egg. There are two sub-plots to the novel. Firstly, there are Shyama’s parents; some years previously, they bought a flat in India where their families still live, and where it was intended they would spend part of the year, once they retired and had the opportunity to escape the UK winter climate. Their plans were thwarted, however, when Prem’s nephew illegally occupied the property. The now elderly couple have spent years and a small fortune battling in vain with the chaotic Indian legal system to get him and his family out. The other plotline is that of Shyama’s daughter, Tara, who is unhappy about her mother and Toby’s desire to have a baby. In the course of the novel Tara is sexually assaulted by a university acquaintance.

Continue reading “And now for something a little lighter?”

A tale for our times?

This week I’d like to tell you about a book I read over the Christmas holidays. It was not a cheerful book, but it certainly made me reflect and think, as I am wont to do at that time of the year. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention as it is a beautiful, powerful and challenging exposition of an issue which is rarely out of the headlines: the movement of large numbers of people from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

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Listeners to Radio 4’s PM news programme will be familiar with Emma Jane Kirby and her reporting on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In her dispatches she has returned frequently to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and north Africa (Tunisia and Libya). It has become infamous in recent years as the target destination for North Africans fleeing chaos, poverty, war and social disintegration in their own countries, and looking for a more settled way of life in Europe. Mostly, they flee on vessels that are barely seaworthy and thousands of people have died en route.

The book is written from the point of view of a local optician on the island who became deeply and personally embroiled in the crisis when he, his wife and six of their friends found themselves rescuing dozens of stranded and desperate migrants. They were on a sailing trip and were awoken early one morning by a noise they thought initially was coming from excited gulls. In fact the noises were human screams and cries. A flimsy boat, carrying possibly hundreds of people, was sinking and its occupants were drowning.

The eight friends set about a desperate rescue mission, pulling as many people as they could from the sea, dragging them onto their own small boat, and endangering its stability in the process. They rescued dozens before help finally arrived, in the form of the coastguard, who immediately ordered them to cease their mission, as they were putting their own vessel at risk of sinking, and to return to port. The friends do as they are told, bringing those they have rescued to safety on land. They are haunted, however, by the images of what they have witnessed at sea, the deaths of so many whom they did not, could not have, rescued.

The book is very short but it packs a mighty punch. It tells the human story behind the headlines, and this is what has been so powerful about Emma Jane’s reporting on the issue. Through its intense focus on the thoughts and feelings of one individual who played a direct part in saving the lives of so many, it brings to light, not the social and political challenges of this terrible and desperate phenomenon that is covered so extensively in our news, but the personal human catastrophe for those lost, and their loved ones, and those on the island of Lampedusa for whom the crisis is part of their daily life.

It’s the ordinariness that comes through; the optician lives a modest but happy life in a beautiful part of the world. He is not wealthy but he provides a valuable service to his community and wants for little. Like most of us. His small life is completely upended by the events of that terrible day, which is described in vivid detail. He, his wife and his friends are changed irrevocably by their experience and the latter part of the book is an account of how he is transformed.

It is a powerful piece of writing; with a journalist’s eye the author picks out the details which tell the story – for example, the incongruity of the donated clothing worn by the migrants at the reception centre. They have nothing and depend for everything on what people have given.

This book provides a powerful insight to one of the biggest news stories of our age, where the people involved are often objectified and dehumanised. Should be required reading for politicians.

Reading challenges

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Reading challenges have become popular in recent years: you know, where someone gives you a guide or a format for reading a number of different types of books with a view to expanding your reading horizons. They can be useful for people who feel they are stuck in a bit of a literary rut or good for those who are motivated by a deadline. Those sorts of things usually work for me – I am usually the one in my book club who is up late the night before we meet, racing through the final chapters of that month’s book! I think it’s a personality thing.

What I hear from from people more often though is that they would just like to read more. That they are haunted by their ‘to read’ pile (but, book fiends that we are, we still can’t resist acquiring more). And they would just love to carve out a bit of time in their week to read. When I started this blog, I knew that I would have to make time to read if I was serious about it. And I have. I read for about an hour a day – an hour a day I didn’t have before I started blogging! Which just goes to show that if you want something enough you’ll find a way of doing it. And I believe I am a happier calmer person as a result.

So, if that’s you, and if you don’t necessarily need to widen your reading, but would rather just deepen your reading habit, I would like to share my personal reading challenge with you. I think of it as a yogic or mindful rather than a HIT reading challenge!  Join me if you like, it’s about quality rather than quantity.

You can download the challenge here.

Are you doing a reading challenge of your own that you can recommend?

If you enjoy reading my blog you can subscribe by clicking on the button to the right or below (depending on your device), and receive email notifications each time I post.

Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

A book for reading in Winter

2017-01-06-13-49-46Parts of the country have been struck by a severe cold snap this last couple of days; on my walk yesterday I certainly felt the scenery was quite bleak. Yesterday was the end of Advent, twelfth night, and a natural end, for me, of a period of reflection: about the year that has gone and the one that is to come. In June last year I started this blog and I have loved posting every week about my reading and hearing from readers what you have enjoyed. In the past 12 months I have read over 30 books, the bulk of those since starting this blog, and that feels like quite an achievement. I hope to improve on that this year.

My top five favourite reads last year were:

  1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (shortlisted for the Man Booker and many other prizes in 2015)
  2. Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy (shortlisted for the Man Booker last year)
  3. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (published 2014)
  4. The Green Road, by Anne Enright (shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015)
  5. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (published in 2015)

My fifth choice was the book I was reading this time last year, when 2015 became 2016. I wrote a review of it ages ago, but haven’t posted it here yet, mainly, I think, because it just hasn’t felt right. It is a book for midwinter. And that is why I am choosing to tell you about it now.

h-is-for-hawk-imgThis book was a long slow read for me, but in a way that suits the type of book that it is. It is an account of bereavement. In that sense it bears reading over a long period because it covers a period of more than a year following the death of the author’s father.

It’s fascinating because it’s not a traditional account of loss; it’s about how a grieving daughter finds a coping strategy in the acquisition and training of a goshawk. Goshawks are hunting birds, rare in the wild in the UK. They have a long history in the tradition of falconry but, according to the author, are notoriously difficult to train. Helen Macdonald took up falconry in her childhood and this was a hobby she shared with her photographer father, who was, by her account, something of an introvert, a man who enjoyed his own company and loved the outdoors.

The book begins with an account of her father’s passing and its initial impact on the family. The rest of the book is about her journey in coming to terms with her grief. She acquires the goshawk and sets about training it, using as her guide a book published in the 1950s by an underachieving schoolmaster (T H White) who wrote of his own frustrations at trying to tame and train a goshawk; ultimately he failed and his goshawk escaped. Helen Macdonald encounters her own fair share of ups and downs (excuse the pun!) in her attempts to train her goshawk and this is an apt metaphor for her grieving process.

This book is not an easy read, but it’s ultimately a rewarding one. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2014 and the Costa Book Award in the same year and has been highly acclaimed. It is an impressive achievement. Birds are not really my thing but I found it fascinating to learn about this creature. The accounts of the natural environment are stark – mostly nature is conveyed as hostile and barren, rather like the world of grief the author finds herself immersed in, and very like the goshawk, who is not at all a friendly or sympathetic character in this tale.

The emotions in this book are quite raw, so any reader who has experienced a recent loss themselves could either find it very cathartic or very painful. Grief is not objectified, we are there living it with the author.

I’d recommend this book. It’s a good one for long winter nights, but not for the beach.

If you have read H is for Hawk did you find it bleak or uplifting?

What were your top reads of 2016?

Happy New Year!

Apologies, I’m a little late with the new year message, but if like me you have a family you’ll know why! – two weeks of intense Christmas-ness. And with the kids having only just gone back to school, this may well be the first real breath I have taken for about a month! Ah well, I hope you had a good one and here’s to a happy and successful 2017.

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Many of you will have made New Year’s resolutions this week. January doesn’t really work for me as a resolution-making month; I find I have a greater chance of success in September at the start of the new academic year. I also love Autumn more than I do Winter so I have more mental and physical energy. That said, I am looking out of my window at a cold but beautiful sunny day and I am feeling pretty good about life! So, rather than make new resolutions, I am resolving to consolidate and reaffirm my existing ones like making sure I swim at least once a week. I was doing pretty well but then December happened!

2017-01-04-14-16-54We have also completed a rather intense phase of building work in our house so I’m itching to get things back under control domestically. When thinking about this I was reminded of a book I picked up a couple of years ago called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I’ll give you the sub-title which more or less sums up what the book is about:

“Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun”

 

 

Gretchen is a mother of two young girls who lives in New York City. She wrote this book after thinking that perhaps she could squeeze more joy out of life by applying herself to a year-long programme of change. She breaks the areas of her life down into eleven different categories and focuses on a different one each month (December is the month for having everything in place and practicing it all in toto – she calls it “Boot Camp Perfect”). For each category she identifies five or six or so different ‘tasks’ that will help her to meet that month’s goal. So, for example, January’s goal is health-related and is to “Boost Energy”. The tasks are not only related to physical health (go to bed earlier, exercise better) but also to mental health (“toss, restore, organize”), linked to clearing the clutter in her home and unblocking energy.

2017-01-04-13-30-54Other examples: June is a month to “Make Time for Friends” and September to “Pursue a Passion”. Her basic premise is that in order to implement change successfully you have to make things habitual. Once these habits are embedded in your lifestyle they are hard to break – for example, I manage to find 5-10 minutes each day to brush and floss my teeth, but found it really hard to find the same amount of time to drink enough water…until I got into the habit of drinking a glass at 10, 12, 2 and 4 o’clock each day. Sounds banal but it works.

 

 

Gretchen has an approach I can relate to – it’s systematic, involves planning and lists, and takes the pressure off the first week of the new year; I know that if I made a new year’s resolution to eat more healthily from January 1st I’d fail before the week was out as I still have half a Christmas cake and a mountain of fancy chocolate gifts in the house! You get a whole month to implement each new ‘set’ of tasks and a whole year to make the overall transformation. It’s all about changing habits, gradually.

The book is not a self-righteous instruction book, as I find so many titles in the self-help and ‘how-to-change’ genres are, it’s written very much as a diary of Gretchen’s own progress in implementing her programme. I embraced the book enthusiastically after I’d read it and it really did help me to embed some practical changes in my life which I would say have improved my happiness and wellbeing. The author also has a website, which you can access here, on the same theme where she writes regularly about happiness and habits and also about her passion for books (another reason why I like her!).

Since this book was published in 2009, she has also written and published Happier at Home which I picked up last summer while on my holiday in New York but haven’t yet read, and Better than Before. (I’m resolving now to read the former!)

I’d definitely recommend The Happiness Project. It’s for people who are serious about making change in their lives and who could benefit from a framework on how to do it.

What changes have you resolved to make this year?

Are there any books that you have found helpful in making change in your life?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…!

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I know a lot of people find it quite difficult to get into the swing of Christmas until quite late on. I find myself running around trying to get the kids sorted before the end of term (Friday, hurrah!), which, these days, is simply a case of shopping to order! Now that’s done, I can turn my mind to gifts for the grown-ups, which often require a bit more thought. So, if that’s you, or perhaps you have a Secret Santa at work, read on. Books are perfect presents because, rather like slow-release carbohydrates, the benefit lasts a bit longer. It may be a few weeks, even months, before your gift recipient picks up their book, but when they do, they will remember it came from you and it can often then spark a conversation that you may not otherwise have had.

So, if you’re looking for some ideas, here are a few titles that have caught my eye, both fiction and non-fiction.

xmas-3-1The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry has been on my must-read list since I heard the author talking about it on BBC Woman’s Hour. (As an expatriated Essex girl, I’m also attracted to the fact that it is set in the county of my birth.) It is a historical novel set at the end of the nineteenth century and centres on the relationship between newly-widowed naturalist Cora Seaborne and local vicar William Ransome. The pair are in search of the truth about the eponymous serpent which local people believe exists and is a threat to their lives and their livelihoods. It looks like a fascinating tale and I can’t wait to read it. And the cover is gorgeous too!

 

 

 

xmas-3-2The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Listeners to Radio 4’s PM programme will be familiar with this journalist and her reports from southern Italy on the human tragedy behind the migrant crisis. She reported extensively on the story and did a number of interviews with a local optician on the island who was deeply affected by what he witnessed. The story is told through his eyes. It’s a very affecting as well as a humbling book that will make anyone look at their children and loved ones and thank the Lord they are warm and safe.

 

 

 

xmas-3-9Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups by Ben Holden is a wonderful anthology of classic and modern short stories, just long enough to get you off to sleep, but not so long that you have to remember what has gone before. It taps into a wonderful childhood ritual and may encourage the more reluctant adult reader who fears committing to a whole novel! It’s probably not the sort of book that most people would buy for themselves so will make a great gift.

 

 

 

 

Biographies and Autobiographies are always a good option and there are usually plenty published at this time of year for you to choose from. Here are three that I’m quite excited about:

Johnny Marr’s autobiography Set The Boy Free will be in the stocking of someone I know – interesting for those of us who adored The Smiths. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser had great reviews and won awards when it was published in 2012, and has been relaunched in the light of the boxer’s death earlier this year. He was such an icon that it will be a fascinating read, even if you’re not a sports fan. Finally, another icon Get a Life: the diaries of Vivienne Westwood, an incredible woman with some incredible stories to tell. This is the published version of her online diary and has some amazing photos. It will remind anyone to live a little more!

A couple of books for geeks and clever clogs, that will also provide a bit of round the table discussion: Information is Beautiful by David McCandless, one for the coffee table and to dip into for fascinating facts, presented in the most interesting and engaging images and graphics. A great book for anyone fascinated by the information age. The GCHQ Puzzle Book, perfect for working through after Christmas dinner? Maybe not, but this will provide hours of entertainment for anyone who thinks they coulda been a spook!

xmas-3-8Finally, one of my most popular recent blogs was about cookery books – it seems many of you agree with me that it is an important genre. There are gazillions to choose from at Christmas, many of which, I fear, will be quite mediocre. This one caught my eye, however, East London Foodthe people, the places, the recipes will be great for anyone who wants to be entertaining on trend in 2017. Independently published by Hoxton Mini Press it’s also available in three different colours to suit your gift recipient’s decor!

 

I hope that gives you a few ideas. If there are any other titles you’ve spotted that you think will make great gifts, I’d love to hear about them.

Happy Christmas shopping!

Christmas gift ideas – children’s non-fiction

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A couple of days ago I blogged with some ideas about some fantastic children’s books around at the moment. They were all fiction, and I promised another blog on non-fiction alternatives.

Non-fiction books make great gifts for kids:

  • Buying fiction for anyone, but particularly a child, can be risky if you don’t know them well or are unsure of their reading preferences. Non-fiction is safer.
  • It’s more of a treat – non-fiction books are often a bit more expensive so perhaps less likely to be bought by their parents the rest of the year.
  • They can be a great option for more reluctant readers who may feel daunted by lots of pages of plain text or the idea of sitting for long periods of time. Non-fiction can usually be dipped into for shorter periods and uses more pictures.
  • Fiction is often a bit more disposable, perhaps discarded as a child matures onto a different reading level, but non-fiction is often seen as something more significant, to be kept.

There are some truly awesome non-fiction titles available to children. Here are a few that I would buy (am buying!)

Pre-school/Infants

Lift-the-Flap General Knowledge by Usborne. I love Usborne books – they are bright and colourful, with robust pages that can take a real hammering from little hands, and they have found a magic formula which appeals to children. Anything by Usborne is special and a good investment, and I love how you can buy an encyclopedia for every age group now. This one is designed to appeal to the youngest of readers (and their parents!).

What’s below by Clive Gifford and Kate McLelland is a gorgeous book examining what’s happening in the world beneath our feet. Pop-up books have come a long way – it’s now known as paper engineering! This book is a brilliant concept and will help young children to understand that there is activity and wonder beyond what is perceived by the senses.

Gallop! A Scanimation Picture Book by Rufus Seder. This has been around for a few years, but it’s such a wonderful book for very young children. The clever designs mean that the animals appear to move as you open each page. It will fascinate little ones.

 

Junior School age

xmas-2-3Nadiya’s Bake Me A Story: Fifteen stories and recipes for children by Nadiya Hussein. My kids love baking and adore the Bake-Off and Nadiya’s victory in the competition last year was inspirational to many. Nadiya is a judge on the children’s Bake-Off on CBBC so kids will still be very familiar with her. This is a lovely book, and Nadiya is a lovely person who has qualities that naturally appeal to children. I love the idea that recipes here are combined with a quirky take on some classic fairy tales.

 

Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielenski. I have bought this a couple of times for birthday gifts. It is large format and visually stunning, a book that will be treasured. Facts about the world are built into the gorgeous illustrations, so it’s educational in a very clever way!

xmas-2-5The Usborne Creative Writing Book. Children are programmed to be creative, but modern life does not always allow them to exercise that muscle. Consequently, a blank page can be daunting for some children and they may need a little nudge or guidance to express their inner writer/artist/designer. There are a wide range of creative journals around just now; I bought this one because writing is the particular interest of the child I have in mind, but others are more gender-based or tailored towards different interests. They provide a great little tool for when kids say they are bored; boredom is good!

 

Secondary school age

xmas-2-6Guinness World Records 2017: Gamer’s Edition. The Guinness World Record Book has been a staple for my son’s stocking since he was young, but at 15 he is no longer as interested as he once was. The Gamer’s Edition is a compromise, acknowledging his passion for computer gaming, whilst fulfilling his mother’s passion for the very un-tech world of books – sneaky!

 

 

 

xmas-2-7The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. Building on the success of his similarly titled books for adults, Covey has written a book for teenagers which encourages goal-setting, helps to build resilience and gives advice on managing relationships with family, friends, peers and authority figures. It is non-patronising and is written very much in the context of the digital age. Just don’t let them see you reading it!

 

 

 

xmas-2-10Fun Science: A guide to life, the universe and why science is so awesome by Charlie McDonnell. Charlie is a highly successful YouTuber who vlogs about science, in the linguafranca of the young people. He has over 2 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and clearly has a great passion for his subject, which is always to be admired. The look and feel of the book is a world away from a textbook, so I doubt it’s going to help much with GCSE revision, but the enthusiasm is quite infectious, which is half the battle. I could see this appealing to 11-13 year olds.

 

 

 

I’d love to hear your ideas too – what books will you be buying for the children in your life this Christmas?