Book Review: “Portrait in Sepia” by Isabel Allende

 

 

2017-12-13 13.57.52

My Reading Challenge for November, was to read a book by a writer from the southern hemisphere. The reason for this was to try to distract me from any midwinter misery! As I write this, the light dusting of snow which made everything look so pretty these last few days, has given way to a persistent rain and I feel plunged into dark greyness once again. I swear it stayed night until about 11am today! Less than two weeks to the Winter solstice and we can start to look forward to longer days again.

2017-11-14 16.26.50
Stunning front cover

Chilean author Isabel Allende has to be one of the finest writers alive today. As in most of her books, the central characters are strong females. This novel tells the story of Aurora del Valle, who was born in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1880. Her mother was a spectacularly beautiful but fatally naïve young woman, Lynn Sommers, who was duped into sleeping with the wealthy and wayward Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. Lynn is the daughter of Eliza Sommers, and Matias the son of Paulina del Valle. Both these women were central characters in the forerunner to this book, Daughter of Fortune. Severo del Valle, Matias’s cousin, marries Lynn to spare her honour (though the marriage is never consummated) and becomes Aurora’s legal guardian. Lynn dies from a haemorrhage just after her daughter is born so when Severo returns to Chile to fight in the war he leaves the child in the care of her maternal grandparents, Eliza and her husband Tao Chi’en. Aurora spends her first five years with them, happy and much-loved. When Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza fulfils a promise to return her husband’s body to his native China and leaves the child with her paternal grandmother, the indomitable Paulina del Valle. Paulina agrees to this on the basis that Eliza sever all ties with the child.

Thus, Aurora grows up with Paulina and the rest of the story follows her life, from her early years growing up amidst the pomp and wealth of her voracious grandmother’s vast household, such a contrast from the modest life she led in Chinatown, through to her early adulthood as the family moves to Chile. Allende gives a stunning account of the Chilean civil war, and the effect this had on the family, particularly Severo del Valle, who has now married his cousin Nivea, and with whom he goes on to have fifteen children. Nivea is another strong woman in the book, an idealist with fierce views on women’s rights, who does not let childbirth get in the way of her campaigning. She is devoted to Severo and their marriage provides a powerful model of spousal partnership for Aurora. Her grandmother Paulina is also a strong role model, teaching her about business and about feminine power.

In the latter part of the book, the adult Aurora becomes a photographer and enters into a disastrous marriage with Diego Dominguez. Lacking the wilfulness of Paulina and the inner confidence of Eliza, Aurora’s life is miserable, stuck on a farm in a rural part of Chile with a husband who does not love her. She feels as if her fate is not in her own hands.

The novel is classic Allende, an epic saga, covering the period 1862 (before Aurora’s birth) to 1910 with a beautifully drawn cast of characters. Yet despite its scale, the novel digs deep into the human condition – what it is to love and be loved, romantic love, marriage, the love between child, parent and grandparent, blood ties, and the pain and the pleasure that family can bring. The meaning of the title is cryptic, but it is revealed beautifully by the author at the end, in such a way that made me want to go straight back and read it all again! It’s a novel to get lost in, and Allende has this immense talent for drawing the reader in to the extraordinary world she creates.

A flawless book, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How does it compare with Allende’s other works?

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, and connect with me on social media.

Books to give at Christmas

gifts-2998593_1920

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!

If you have enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button and follow me on social media.

 

Kids’s books for Christmas – fiction

I posted last week with some suggestions for non-fiction books for children for Christmas. Today, I’ve got some fiction ideas for you. Here is my round-up of some of the best books around at the moment, which I recommend for children. I’ve given you an idea of the age range too. As a rule of thumb, the central character in a book is generally a year or two older than the age of the children the book is aimed at. Kids like reading about people who are slightly older than them.

Pax img

Pax by Sara Pennypacker – suitable for 10-11 year olds

I reviewed this book here a few weeks ago. I loved it. Set in America, it concerns 12 year old Peter and a ‘pet’ fox he has raised from a cub. Peter is forced to release Pax into the wild when his father is called up to serve in the army. Peter’s mother is dead and he is sent to live with his grandfather. He runs away to search for Pax after realising what a terrible mistake he has made, and meets Vola, who lives on an isolated farm. Vola nurses Peter after he breaks his ankle and the two form an unlikely friendship which sets them both on a journey of self-discovery. Some challenging themes, but ultimately a heart-warming tale, with some lovely illustrations.

33126922

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada – suitable for 11-13 year olds

Perfect for pre-teens whose reading tastes and skills are maturing but who still love their animals. Narrated in three parts by three generations of a polar bear family who find themselves in different parts of the world: beginning with the matriarch in the Soviet Union, her daughter Tosca in East Germany, and her grandson, Knut, raised in Leipzig zoo. Very quirky and gently political. It is translated from the original Japanese so will also give children a taste of a quite different style of writing.

 

 

9781406371680

Lucky Button by Michael Morpurgo – suitable for 9-12 year olds

I love a book with illustrations and I love Michael Morpurgo. This entry-level Morpurgo is a perfect Christmas offering. It concerns Jonah Trelawney who is the victim of school bullies and a carer for his mother. an accidental encounter gives him a life-changing insight to life in a Foundling Hospital in the 18th century (the original Foundling Museum was the inspiration for the story). Lovers of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather will enjoy this.

 

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman – suitable for 10-13 year olds

Pullman’s The Book of Dust, part of the Lyra trilogy, is possibly the biggest children’s literature event of the year. Fans will already have bought it, so I’m not going to mention it here. Instead, I draw your attention to this graphic novel by the same author, which may encourage more reluctant readers, particularly boys. Just because it has pictures, does not mean it is for younger ones, who may find the storyline complex and the themes quite dark. John Blake is a seafaring time traveller. He rescues a young girl from a shipwreck, but his efforts to return her to her own time place them both in grave danger.

 

35529075The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy – suitable for 12-14 year olds

This debut has been very well-reviewed. It concerns Aila and her younger brother Miles who are sent to live in the rural town of Sterling, after their enigmatic mother, Juliet dies. The town carries a mysterious affliction: every seven years certain memories, experiences that people share in common, vanish. The locals believe that Aila’s dead mother, is somehow responsible and Aila must bear the brunt of their prejudice and hostility. A long book with some challenging themes which will suit keen readers who like a bit of depth.

 

2017-12-11 12.05.07Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester – suitable for 10-12 year olds

Friendship between girls is explored in this novel, which has been compared to Jacqueline Wilson. It is also a story about how friendship can transcend the bounds of language. Nadima is a new girl at school, recently arrived from Syria, and speaks no English. Jaz is a strong personality, and becomes friends with Nadima after the two share some confectionery. Their relationship does not always go smoothly and this book explores the ups and downs via themes of integration, community, and the things that bring us together.

 

Do you have any recommendations for children’s fiction this Christmas? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog and for us to connect on social media. You can do this by clicking on the various buttons on this page.

Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

I posted a blog last week encouraging you all to give a book a home this Christmas. A well-chosen book is NEVER a bad gift idea. Even if the gift receiver does not in the end like the book they will appreciate you buying it for them, especially if you write something inside about why you chose it. It will also give the two of you something to talk about. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Kids can be more tricky, as we know! Unless you know what authors they like, or what sort of reading material they are into, it can be a risk. And for a reluctant reader, receipt of a book may come as a disappointment. When it comes to encouraging children to read, my advice is always to let them choose, but that can be difficult at Christmas, if you are buying for nieces and nephews, for example. Non-fiction is always a good choice in this scenario as you will be able to find a book on almost any subject, targeted at the age range you are looking for. I’ve done a bit of research for you and here are some that have caught my eye.

For younger ones:

2017-12-01 12.49.11

Paper Monsters by Oscar Sabini (£14.95). This is a gorgeous gift book. The idea is the child makes a collage on a blank sheet and then uses the monster templates to cut round. There is a similar book Paper Zoo which is just animals.

71FNtt45dULBarefoot Books World Atlas by Nick Crane & David Dean (£9.99). I love the values and ethos behind Barefoot Books. Multi-cultural and humanitarian themes are present in everything they publish and their books can be valuable tools in combatting exclusion in our world and teaching children about kindness. This world atlas focuses on the interaction between environment and the communities and cultures of the world.

For 10-13 year olds:

2017-12-04 13.20.00Illumanatomy  by Kate Davies and Carnovsky (£15.00). A superb large format book about the human body that goes into real detail. The illustrations are outstanding; when viewed with the special lenses provided you can see different parts of the body (skeleton, muscles, organs) and how they interact. Perfect for budding biologists!

2017-12-01 12.59.15EtchArt: Hidden Forest by AJ Wood, Mike Jolley & Dinara Mirtalipova (£9.99). This is rather like those books in the colouring trend except the images you create are shiny and sparkly. The child uses the etching tool provided to produce glorious forest-themed pictures (there is also a sea-themed one available). Lovely, and nice and solid.

Older teens:

2017-12-04 13.13.52

Notes from the Upside Down: Inside the World of Stranger Things by Guy Adams (£12.99). My teenagers love this show and Season 2 has been hotly awaited in our household! Yes, I know it’s a companion to a TV series, but it’s potentially entry-level Stephen King, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

2017-12-04 13.17.39 Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith (£12.99). Yes, I know it’s not exactly a reading book (though there are plenty of words) there are writing and drawing opportunities. I actually love this series as I think they tap into teenagers’ anarchic tendencies, whilst also encouraging a degree of creativity. Here’s the 2017 offering and the cover is much nicer than previous editions. Good fun.

If you have any non-fiction suggestions I’d love to hear them.

If you have enjoyed this post , then do follow my blog for more bookish thoughts.

Book review: “The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Shafak

As I write this, it is being announced on the radio news that Ratko Mladic has been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, for his orchestration of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where as many as 8,000 Bosnian muslims were killed. It is ironic then that my book review this week concerns a novel, at the heart of which lies the Armenian genocide of 1915. It is believed that up to 1.2 million ethnic Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16. A few thousand managed to escape, mostly to America. This atrocity is considered to be the first genocide of the twentieth century and led ultimately to the establishment of the concept of ‘genocide’ in international law after World War II, which was considered at length by Philippe Sands in his book East West Street, which I reviewed here last year after it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.

2017-11-14 14.33.12The Bastard of Istanbul is a curious book, which my fellow book club members found disappointing. At the heart of the novel is the Kazanci family, living in Istanbul. The household is exclusively female and comprises Asya, (the eponymous ‘Bastard’) her three aunts and her mother (whom she also calls ‘Auntie’), her grandmother and ‘Petite-Ma’ who I think is her great-grandmother (more of that later, it’s part of the problem with the book). There is an uncle, who moved to America as a young man and has never returned. All the men in the family are afflicted by early death. Mustafa, the prodigal son, is in his 30s.

 

There is a second family to get to grips with, living in Arizona. Teenager Armanoush is the product of Rose (a southern gal) and Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, the son of an Armenian family, part of the Armenian diaspora. Rose and Barsam separated when Armanoush (also called ‘Amy’) was a toddler, and Rose then bumped into and married Mustafa (the prodigal Kazanci son). Still with me? Armanoush, curious to learn about her Armenian forebears’ early life in Istanbul, contrives to travel to the city and stay with her stepfather Mustafa’s family (the Kazanci women) without her parents knowing (they would not have approved.)

The novel opens with a bang – Zeliha, the most flamboyant and wayward of the quirky Kazanci sisters, arrives at a clinic demanding an abortion. At the very last minute, however, she does not go through with it. Enter Asya. The first half of the book is setting the scene of both Asya’s life (she is now a slightly surly teenager) and the Kazanci household as well as Armanoush’s life in the US. The second half is mainly concerned with the two young women and their developing relationship in Istanbul, and gradually the connection between them unfolds. Throughout the novel, the history of the Armenian genocide is woven in, particularly as it relates to the Turkish Kazancis and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchians.

Let me tell you what’s good about this book: I loved the sense of place – I have never been to Istanbul but am fascinated by it and by this part of the world generally and it’s on my bucket-list. I loved the characters: they are interesting and credible and the way the author builds our impression of them is beautifully done. Elif Shafak can write, and she can write with humour; there are some laugh-out loud moments, although knowing what I now do about the Armenian genocide, I’m wondering if it was fitting.

However, there are also some problems with the book, mainly it is over-written. For me, it needed some skilful editing. There is a large cast-list here and I’m afraid I rather lost track of some of the peripheral characters (Petite-Ma, for example), who are actually rather important to the story because you need to understand the ancestor relationships in order to fully appreciate the plot. There are some superfluous chunks that could easily have been stripped out and this would have given the plot lines (and later twists) greater force. Also, the historical thread, the background on the genocide, would have been given greater prominence.

The author states in the Acknowledgements that she was put on trial in 2006 for “denigrating Turkishness” with this novel (charges were later dropped). For that reason, and for the historical detail, it is worth a read, but I’m afraid, for me, it was a novel that did not quite live up to its potential.

If you have read The Bastard of Istanbul I’d love to hear your views.

If you have enjoyed this post, do follow my blog by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button. Let’s also connect on social media. 

Give a book a home this Christmas!

xmas-2928142_1280I love Christmas, especially since having children, but now my kids are a little older (11, 13, 16) I find that I enjoy it more and more as we tend to ‘hunker down’ as a family. We do visits to and from our extended families before and after the 25th of December, but Christmas itself is spent rather quietly together, just the five of us. We have a great time hanging out together (the kids all make a real effort to get along!), watching films, playing games (poker was our favourite last year!), cooking and eating. As the children have got older, the gift-giving (or more accurately, the gift-receiving!) has become less important.

The build-up to Christmas is fun too; I love the mince-pies, the lights, Christmas carols, school performances, and drinks with friends. What I don’t love is the commercialism. I know it’s ‘the golden quarter’ for retail and it’s particularly important for small businesses, but as I’m watching with awe the footage on the BBC’s Blue Planet II and hearing stories in the news about plastics and microfibres being discovered in underwater species, it pains me that Christmas is an orgy of plastic, unrecyclable packaging and ‘novelty’ (useless) gifts. There are some corkers out there! How many of those so-called ‘stocking fillers’ should we more accurately call ‘land-fillers’?

box-2953722_640

Am I sounding like Ebeneezer Scrooge? Sorry! I’m not here to preach to anyone, I have been and will no doubt continue to be an offender as I get into the last-minute buying panic, but I just want to tell you about my own personal mission this year, which is to give books as much as I possibly can. Now, I am no paragon of virtue – I would be persona non grata if Santa delivered a sackful of books to my kids! – but I’m going to book-give to everyone else on my list (sorry for any spoilers, friends of mine). Books give long-lasting pleasure, they are reusable, re-giftable, and mostly recyclable. What’s not to love? I will also try not to buy from one large online retailer of books – yes, there is usually a discount and it’s an expensive time of year, but bookshops often have lots of offers this time of year too. Independent bookshops need our business; use ’em or lose ’em, our town centres and communities will be much poorer without them. There are two brilliant ones in my locale – the Chorlton Bookshop and the Urmston Bookshop. And if your funds are limited, secondhand books are very acceptable gifts, especially when you chuck in a bar of Fairtrade chocolate! (Oh and books are really easy to wrap.)

So, I’d just like to leave you with this thought – BUY BOOKS THIS CHRISTMAS! It’s also UK Small Business Saturday on 2 December, so you can add to that KEEP IT LOCAL.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be letting you know how I’ve got on and posting my suggestions for books to look out for which will make great gifts.

GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR CHRISTMAS SHOPPING!

What do you think about giving books for Christmas?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow the blog.

 

Top #10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading

read-515531_640

I’ve been having lots of conversations recently about how to get kids reading. Social media and electronic devices appear to be the main culprits keeping our children away from books, according to the parents I have spoken to. Not only are they described as “addictive” but parents feel they are behind what is seen as our children’s ever-shortening attention span. On this, Universal Children’s Day, it seems appropriate to publish my Top 10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading.

Top Ten tips:

  1. Do not put yourself or your kids under any pressure to read (done that, failed). Do not bribe them (done that, also failed), coerce them or make it a condition for getting some sort of reward. All that does is turn something that should be pleasurable into a chore.
  2. Model desired behaviours – read in front of them, put down your own devices. You are their greatest teacher. Let them see your joy.
  3. Value all types of reading (especially if you are starting from a low base), including non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and comics. Even leaflets! Never judge their reading choices.
  4. Fight the urge to tidy and leave reading material lying around. My teenage son, having told me a couple of years ago that he “hated” (yes, hated!) books, started reading again when we left the weekend papers on the dining table all week. It started with five or ten minutes at mealtimes. He now orders all sorts of books for himself from Amazon, mostly quite heavy non-fiction, history, politics, philosophy.
  5. Have lots of books around the house, in every room.
  6. Buy books for your kids, but take them to the bookshop and let them make their own choices (see 3 above). Yes, it’s probably more expensive than buying online, but the pleasure is immeasurably greater. Bookshops can be very exciting places these days, and you can often lose hours in there on comfy chairs and having a hot chocolate. It’s a very pleasurable way to spend an afternoon. The average children’s book costs £6-£8. That’s less than a cinema ticket, or an hour in a play centre. If cost is an issue for you, there are charity bookshops and libraries (see 7 below).
  7. Rediscover your local library. Libraries are under threat and if we don’t use them we will lose them. They have fantastic stock and you can usually reserve and order books in from other branches.

children-684606__340

8. Talk to your kids about what they are reading. Show an interest in and respect their opinions. If they love a book and recommend that you read it too, then please do it. It will open up all sorts of conversations and they will be chuffed

9. If concentration is a real issue for your child try audiobooks. When my kids were little we had all the Roald Dahl CDs, which we played when travelling. They adored these books and it has provided a powerful memory for them. A good narrator can also help to bring it alive for them. (Simon Callow reading The Twits is our absolute favourite.) There are also audiobook subscription services which they can listen to on mobile devices.

10. Finally, if you’re feeling bold, create some family time for reading. Half an hour on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps. It may be challenging at first, but, like most challenging things, it gets easier if you can build the habit over a period of time.

Good luck!

Help your child imgA book I am particularly fond of is Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading which I reviewed on this blog last year. Much of what I have learned on this subject and which I commend to others is distilled from that book.

As Christmas is now fast approaching, look out for my recommendations on reading material for your kids over the next couple of weeks.

 

 

 

What are your top tips for getting kids reading?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog, and let’s connect on social media.