Reading hack #2 – audiobooks

1 min read

A few years ago, when I had a proper job, I used to commute 100 miles a day, three days a week, by car. Seven and a half hours a week driving alone.  I did this for nearly three years. Seems crazy now, but the two things that kept me sane were Radio 4 and audiobooks. One of the frustrations of car travel for me is the amount of dead time. I enjoy listening to music of course, but audiobooks make me feel that I am doing something for my brain whilst sitting in traffic or on cruise control on the motorway (wasn’t there a report published just this week saying that Britain has the most congested roads in Europe – I can well believe it).

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Most of my journeys now are shorter ones so I’ve fallen out of the audiobook habit. I subscribed to an audiobook provider recently, however, to get a copy of one of my teenage son’s English Literature set texts, and it has renewed my interest. What is more, with a smartphone or tablet I can listen not just in the car, but whilst doing mundane tasks, during exercise, etc. I’m currently listening to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, so I look forward to reviewing it here in due course.

 

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My kids have always enjoyed audiobooks too; for years now, it has been a tradition that whenever we travel to Ireland to see family we have to listen to The Twits read by Simon Callow, possibly the best children’s audiobook ever! That plus Matilda gets us to Holyhead!

 

 

If our family holiday involves a lot of driving, we will pick an audiobook for the journey. Now that the kids are a bit older, the titles are getting more sophisticated. Last year we listened to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which provoked a lot of in-car discussion!

I will always go for unabridged audiobooks as for me a book is about the words and the way an author puts beautiful sentences together, as well as the story. But if you don’t mind edited highlights, there are also radio broadcasts to enjoy: Radio 4’s Book of the Week and Book at Bedtime run for five 15-minute episodes a week so you can get these on the iPlayer or podcast if you want to listen to something shorter and for free.

So, a few options if you find yourself with time to spare on the move.

Happy listening!

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Dipping into science-fiction

I’m not a huge fan of science-fiction, but the friend who recommended this book assured me that I would enjoy the theme of pharmaceutical meltdown and the emergence of a post-apocalyptic society that it examines. This novel was the winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 2015, so it is acclaimed in its field.

station-eleven-imgThe book is set in Canada and the United States just 20 years after a catastrophic virus seemingly wipes out about 99% of humanity in a matter of days. The consequences of this are that, within a short space of time, electricity, running water and all the other basic services we take for granted, cease to exist. Vehicles are abandoned on motorways as their passengers leave their homes, to escape to…where? These people then die. Aircraft no longer fly and people are stranded pretty much wherever they happened to be at the moment the virus struck. And then mostly die. Whilst reading I recalled all those diseases in recent years that seemed to prefigure cataclysmic consequences (AIDS, Swine fever, SARS, Avian ‘flu, Ebola) fights which, for the most part, we eventually won; in this novel it is the disease (Georgian ‘flu) that prevails. And that’s scary.

The central character is Kirsten, who was 8 years old at the time of the disease, and was performing in a production of King Lear. The character of Lear was being played by Arthur Leander, a renowned celebrity actor, who dies on stage (not from the ‘flu). This seems to be a catalyst for chaos as that very evening the ‘flu takes hold and people start dying very quickly and in vast numbers.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

Station Eleven

The plot of the novel is complex. Kirsten survives the pandemic and we follow her in Year 20 as she becomes part of a travelling orchestra/theatre company bringing Shakespeare to remote and unconnected communities in the central states of North America. There is also Arthur Leander’s story – recollections of his childhood on a remote island off British Columbia, his early life as an actor before he became famous, then his acquisition of celebrity status, life in LA and, most significantly, his three marriages and relationship with his son.

There are two further significant characters: Clark, an old friend of Arthur’s, who survives the virus, but finds himself stranded in an airport, which becomes a significant community in the post-apocalyptic scenario. And Miranda, Arthur’s estranged first wife, who, when unable to cope with the trappings of fame and the effect this had on their marriage, sought sanctuary in writing a graphic novel (called Station Eleven) which envisaged a frightening future world controlled by an evil megalomaniac. Her graphic novel, a copy of which Kirsten treasures, provides a motif for the events of the book.

station-eleven-img-2The author has quite a task managing this complexity: each of the four characters’ stories are told separately and in a non-linear way, but they are like pieces of a jigsaw gradually being pieced together until the overall picture becomes clear. The novel jumps back and forth in time and I found this quite difficult to follow. Also, for me, the drawing together of the strands was a little too contrived; it just did not seem entirely plausible that a tiny number of survivors could have such a connected past. I think this has been my problem with science-fiction generally (but perhaps I haven’t read enough); I get that you have to suspend disbelief but it’s too much for me when that means suspending credibility.

Despite my reservations about the plot, I think the themes explored are very interesting: firstly, our vulnerability – technology has brought us so much but without it we are lost. Secondly, how we have so many communication tools at our disposal, but we don’t use them to say the things that really matter. And, thirdly, how society organises itself (or not!) when the usual social structures which keep us under control disappear. What is also interesting is that we take for granted that time equals progress, but in Year 20, so much ‘progress’ has been lost that things like engines and antibiotics seem like science-fiction. People can die of a cut from a rusty blade.

So, I enjoyed this aspect of the book, and it is well-written, but for me the plot did not work particularly well and the time-shifts were a bit frustrating and confusing. One to read if you like being a bit scared!

 

Do you love science fiction? Can you recommend a title for this reluctant sci-fi reader that I might enjoy?

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Reading hack #1 – book reviews save you time

1 min read

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I’ve blogged here before about how time vanishes and that if you’re a reader it can be so frustrating when it takes ages to read a book. Well, I would like to demonstrate that reading book reviews, rather than eating into more of your precious time, can actually save you time. Bear with me!

First, time is precious, so you don’t want to waste valuable reading time on something you’re not going to enjoy, right? And, if you’re like me, you don’t like giving up on books. I have to really dislike a book before I’ll give up on it. If it’s just that I’m not getting into it then I only allow myself to give up by promising that I’ll come back to it later; I felt able to re-shelve Zadie Smith’s White Teeth a few years ago after making this bargain! So, following a book reviewer you trust or who is on the same wavelength as you can help you choose more wisely.

Second, book reviews can help you engage with the conversation about a book even if you haven’t read it. Do you remember those How to bluff your way in… books? Great for appearing informed at dinner parties/interviews/meetings! Seriously, though, they can help you put things in context. You can watch those bookish Sky Arts TV programmes or listen to the high-brow radio shows and still feel part of it because you know something about the books being discussed.

Third, it can give you background and context about a book so you already have a bit of knowledge about it before you start. A book review can set a scene or give you some of the themes to look out for, thereby enhancing your appreciation of a book. Perhaps even give you some good angles for your book group!

books-1655783_1280There are so many books published that you may find people in your usual circle haven’t read the same things as you. But you will always find book review websites (whose authors would love you to post comments or engage in conversation, hint, hint!), or online reading communities, who have read your favourite most recent read. Sometimes, if I read a book I love (or loathe, though these are very few) I’m just bursting to talk about it with someone. I can always do that online.

Do you enjoy reading book reviews? If so, why? Or if not, why not?

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A bloody good book!

2 min read

This novel was one of the six titles shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize (and one that I did not get to before the winner was announced on the 26th of October). I wasn’t especially looking forward to it (possibly why I left it almost to last); crime fiction is not one of my chosen genres (though I’ve reviewed Frances Brody on this blog, and I like a bit of Agatha Christie now and then). Also, the typeface is quite small and there aren’t any chapters! Pathetic, I know, but I think most keen readers have their little quirks.

2016-11-16-15-34-36I have to say, though, that it’s a totally gripping story. Roddy Macrae is the 17-year old son of a crofter in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. The book begins with five short police statements from different witnesses who later testify in Roddy’s trial. They recount the incident, in August 1869, when Roddy murdered three other residents of the village: Lachlan Mackenzie, the village Constable and long-time foe of Roddy’s father, Mackenzie’s teenage daughter, Flora, and his young son Donnie. These witnesses observed Roddy walking through the village covered in blood and in addition to their account of the events they saw, they make observations on his character and background. Thus, there is little doubt that Roddy carried out the triple murder and the scene is set for an account of how these events came to pass.

Continue reading “A bloody good book!”

Finding sanctuary in reading

I have the builders in at the moment. If you’ve ever had building work done in your house, I’m sure you will be shuddering as you read this. The guys are very nice and pretty tidy, all things considered, but there is no doubt that it’s disruptive. This work (a loft conversion) has been in the planning for some time and I made sure to manage my own personal expectations about what I would achieve work-wise for the duration of the project. The continuous decision-making, tea-making and the noise and dust, have played havoc with my writing life; I’m currently working on a book, which picked up momentum at the start of the Autumn, but which this last couple of weeks has very much taken a back seat. And I’m struggling to get my book reviews written so I’ve got a couple of books that I’ve read recently which I’m dying to tell you about.

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My retreat awaits!

Funnily enough, though, the disruption has not affected my reading life. I set aside at least an  hour each day to read (as you would expect from any self-respecting book reviewer) and I’m actually finding that the amount I am reading is increasing in direct inverse proportion to how stressful the building work is! My reading spot, in the sunniest corner of the living room, seems far away from the chaos and I find I am able to completely switch off. It’s like my own little DIY retreat.

I’m currently reading His Bloody Project the Man Booker-shortlisted novel by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s set in a remote rural Scottish Highland community in the mid-19th century, and tells the story of a brutal triple murder carried out by seventeen-year old crofter, Roddy Macrae. The events, the atmosphere and the setting of the book could not be further away from my present daily concerns: have I got enough coffee in, how thick is that layer of dust on the TV and how many electrical sockets do I want? It’s a real page-turner too, and for that I am very grateful.

I’ll finish it in the next couple of days so hopefully I will be able to concentrate long enough at some point in the next week to pen a more thoughtful and helpful review of it!

I’d love to hear about what you’re reading at the moment and whether reading provides a form of escape for you too. 

 

Cookery books – a literary genre?

cookbook-761588_1280I have a friend with several shelves full of cookbooks and yet I know she rarely gets to use them. She and her partner both have full-time demanding jobs, three children and very busy lives, so why does she buy so many? I’m not quite as bad, my vice tends to be fiction, but we do also have quite a few cookery books, and yet we return to the same few recipes week in, week out.

The answer, of course, is that most families I know, rotate about 15-20 meals for most of the weekday refuelling stops (and in  houses with kids, that is usually what mealtimes are). Only occasionally do we get the time and opportunity to try out something new. My husband is an occasional (very good) cook and selecting a recipe, compiling the list, shopping and preparing the ingredients is a form of relaxation for him. In our household, though, I do the lion’s share of the cooking and all too often it is just another task to be completed. One of my daughters is a keen baker and a good experimenter so she likes recipe books (though vlogs and the internet are also a major source of ideas for her). I tend to go for the tried and tested things because on a midweek evening there is a low tolerance for failure!

So, if we’re not trying out all the recipes why do we buy so many cookbooks? Well, in this age of celebrity, TV chefs and their lives are as interesting to us as other Hollywood A-listers. How else does Gordon Ramsay’s daughter get her own TV cooking show centred around the family’s life in their holiday home in LA? Also, there are many more cookery shows on TV now, not just about techniques, but linked to all those other things we aspire to such as exotic travel; in our house we loved watching Gino’s Italian Escape and Rick Stein’s From Venice to Istanbul and bought both books.

I have two pet theories: firstly, reading cookery books has become the genre of choice for many time-poor adults. They are now incredibly visual, gorgeous to handle and to look at and the quality of the photography is as important as the quality of the recipe. The game-changer, I think, was Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess from 2000. Nigella made cooking sexy! The book is visually stunning and the recipes are written in a very conversational style. Cooking is a narrative journey, not the usual soulless step-by-step instructions. Secondly, evidence shows we cook less than we have ever done but I think many of us aspire to cook more. Some of these cookbooks, like a lot of fiction, provide a form of escapism into a life where we do everything ‘better’, where we have friends over for spontaneous dinner parties every weekend, our kids eat all their veg and someone else does all the washing-up. We all know that real life isn’t quite like that!

So, here are the top cookbooks on our shelves, and note there are two lists – one for the books we use the most and one for the books I like to own!:

Most used:

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Dog-eared and falling apart
  1. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, first published in 1978. Still our primary source book for most of the basics.
  2. Fish: the complete guide to buying and cooking, by Mark Bittman, first published in 1994. My husband bought this after our first child was born when we realised that we wouldn’t be going out to eat so often so he’d better up his game! I’d been a lifelong vegetarian up to then, but started eating fish when I became pregnant. It is still the most used cookbook we have and it has only a handful of photographs.
  3. How to be a domestic goddess: baking and the art of comfort cooking by Nigella Lawson. A classic and the main reason my kids love baking.

Like to own:

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Pristine
  1. The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater, published in 2005. I love Nigel, loved his column in The Observer, love his TV shows, love his gentleness. I love the way the book reads and is laid out, like a chronicle of his cooking life. But I’ve tried hardly any of the recipes….
  2. Economy Gastronomy: eat better and spend less by Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merret. I bought this after browsing through it in a friend’s downstairs loo (what does that tell you?!) I like the concept (cook a huge batch and then tweak it and turn it into several different meals) and we’ve tried a few of the suggestions, but not many. It feels like a big effort, but it’s a nice read.
  3. Hugh’s Three Good Things on a Plate by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Love Hugh, love the River Cafe, love the idea of the book, great pictures. Not tried many of the recipes and, browsing through it now, realise I should.

 

So, what are your favourites, to use and to own? Love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

A brilliant but complex novel – an essay passing as fiction?

It’s a week since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and, finally, I have finished it. There at least two other books on the shortlist that I have enjoyed more (I reviewed them here recently, Hot Milk  and Eileen), but by golly this is an extraordinarily clever book! I’m not even sure I’m clever enough to review it! The blurb doesn’t really tell you what it’s about and the arty commentators I heard talking about it on the news when it won the prize, didn’t really say what it was about either (I’ll bet most of them had not even read it!) And I’m not surprised, because it is a really difficult book to describe. But, for what it’s worth, here goes…

the-sellout-imgThis is a novel about race in modern America where the white population seems to feel it has solved the problem of racism. Firstly, it abolished slavery and then set in place several pieces of legislation to reinforce racial equality. Unfortunately, this has not addressed a fundamental problem of disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks (or people of colour more widely), in academic achievement, income, social status, crime, you name it, the statistics paint a troublesome picture. The thesis of the novel is that, whilst white America is slightly uncomfortable with the facts as they stand, they can point to a number of black high achievers (not least the first African-American President) as evidence that they have done all they could. The under-achievement of the rest can be put down to, for example, their own fecklessness or problems of character.

The novel is set in Dickens, California, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that is undesignated as a city and, literally, disappears from maps. Our central character, the eponymous Sellout, but otherwise nameless, known to us only as ‘Me’, seeks to restore its place through some unconventional methods, whilst also seeking to address problems associated with racial inequality. He decides to reintroduce segregation. He also takes a ‘slave’, Hominy an elderly bit-part actor who made a very small name as a black ragamuffin in minor films, made in an era when the black and white minstrels were quaint and funny. ‘Me’ takes his authority to do this from the fact that his father, an intellectual and social scientist, was a local hero of sorts. Known as the ‘nigger-whisperer’ he had a reputation for being able to calm down violent or suicidal black people, using his own brand of counselling and persuasion. He also set up the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which met in the local Dum Dum Donut’s store to engage in great philosophical debates. We learn a great deal about Me’s bizarre upbringing; he had no mother and his father used some unusual techniques, including violence and intimidation, to instil in his son his own theories about the ‘black condition’.

The novel starts with a prologue, where ‘Me’ is being tried in the Supreme Court for slavery. The rest of the novel tells us how a black man could possibly get to this point. The novel has been described as a ‘satire’ (although I’ve heard that the author does not like it described thus) and as darkly comic. Certainly, there are parts which are very funny, in a bleak sort of way, such as the circumstances surrounding the father’s death. I can see it is also satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, it is both poking fun at and calling out the self-interested and those who perpetuate injustice. It is a really tough book to pin down, but there is a moment towards the end where ‘Me’ is describing what he calls “Unmitigated Blackness” as “essays passing for fiction”. For me, that’s exactly what the book is, and it’s the author having the last laugh.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book; I admired it, most certainly. It’s brilliantly written and if you just love seeing how artists can put words together in unique and beautiful ways it is a treasure trove; I spotted a 218-word sentence which was absolutely breathtaking. It has quick wit, brilliantly acute observations of the absurdities of life, and is rich in irony (not normally seen as an American trait). For me, though, it was slightly too much essay and not quite enough story (fiction). Besides the satirical politics of the novel, which are, it has to be said, profound and thought-provoking, there is the story of a nameless black man in a modern-day, still racist world, in the shadow of a domineering father trying to work out his place in the world. This did not come through as much as I would have liked, until the end.

It’s a great read, but a complicated one. You need to be up for the challenge.