New books this summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What new publications have caught your eye?

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog by clicking the ‘Subscribe’ button, and let’s connect on social media.

“Everything Everything” by Nicola Yoon

Everything Everything, first published in 2015 to great acclaim, was reissued in 2017, after the novel was made into a film, and my edition shows a still from the movie with our two main protagonists, Maddy and Olly, gorgeously pictured on the front cover. It’s a YA novel which I selected for my May reading challenge, having bought it for my teenage daughter a few weeks ago (she hasn’t read it yet!), and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, especially when, leafing through, the chapters looked a bit short and I saw that there were several pages with line-drawn illustrations of, for example, diary entries, notes from an exercise book, emails, set out as if they were on a screen, text conversations, etc. Hmm, I thought, all designed to sustain the digital native’s interest! Well, as is so often the case when I stray off my well-beaten literary track, I was truly humbled.

2017-06-21 11.08.32The novel opens with our central character Maddy’s eighteenth birthday. She celebrates this with her mother and her nurse, Carla; Maddy suffers from severe allergies and lives an isolated existence in her hermetically sealed home, which she has not left for many years, so these two women provide the only relationships she really has. Maddy is home schooled, receiving almost all her tuition over Skype from various tutors. Occasionally, they are allowed to tutor her in person, but only after they spend a period of time in a decontamination unit in the house, to ensure Maddy does not come into contact with any pathogens or foreign particles which might harm her. Maddy’s father and older brother were killed in an accident when Maddy was a baby and she and her mother are therefore incredibly close.

Maddy is a voracious reader and in the absence of a lived experience of the world she has framed all her perception of life outside the bubble of her home, and her tiny circle of human contact, from the books she has read. Whilst she is initially reasonably content with her life, accepting its limitations and appreciating the love of her mother and Carla, her love of books is an early hint of her desire to embrace the world. Early on, we learn that she has taught herself not to want things she cannot have:

“Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.”

But then she meets Olly, when he moves into the house next door with his parents and sister, and everything (everything) changes:

“Maddy knows that this pale half-life is not really living.”

Olly has his own troubles: his father is a violent alcoholic who terrorises the rest of the family. Olly and Maddy begin to communicate by text and email, and it is clear that not only are they deeply attracted but that each fulfils an unmet need in the other. A cascade of events follows which will expose the inexorable pull of the world to the young and vulnerable Maddy, and the pointlessness of an anxious parent’s attempts to protect her child from all risk.

It is a coming-of-age novel, in that we see a young woman separating from her mother, but it is also a great novel for a parent coming to terms with the coming of age of their kids! To that extent, it is an instructive read for parties on both sides of the debate: the older generation can see how important it is for our youngsters to live, love and to learn for themselves, but the young can also see the parent’s perspective, Maddy’s mother’s fear of losing something (everything) so precious to her when she has already experienced so much loss in her life (her husband and son).

It’s a cracking story, with some clever plotting, and great themes which are beautifully handled for a younger readership. It’s well-written and well-crafted and the line drawings do add to the experience! There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s very subtly and sensitively done. Recommended for parents and teenagers alike.

If you have read this book or watched the movie, would you recommend it for teenagers? Could boys and girls alike enjoy it?

If you have enjoyed reading this post, it would be great if you could ‘like’ by clicking below, or follow my blog by hitting ‘Subscribe’. Let’s connect on social media too!

June reading challenge – a literary travel book

2017-06-14 12.50.24

We have just booked our family summer holiday and so I’m delighted that June’s reading challenge is to read a travel book, not a guidebook, but a literary travel book. I’m certain there will be plenty of titles to choose from in your local charity bookshop, if you’d care to join me.

2017-06-14-13-19-11.jpgI’ve decided to pick a long-neglected title from my well-populated ‘not yet read’ bookcase – On A Shoestring To Coorg: an experience of Southern India by Dervla Murphy. I bought it as part of a set of three some years ago, and of the trio I only read Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by bicycle. I loved that book: Murphy cycled across Europe to India, through countries like Afghanistan and Iran, before they were devastated by conflict. Sadly, these wonderful and fascinating places will probably not now be visited by travellers for many years so this book provides a vicarious experience that most of us will never be able to have.

Last summer, I watched a wonderful documentary about Murphy on a long-haul flight to New York, where we spent our holiday last year, and I was fascinated once again. Murphy is a complete one-off, somewhat eccentric, perhaps, but undoubtedly fearless and someone who has always pushed the boundaries. She is now 85 and still lives in Co. Waterford in Ireland. On her last trip in 2011 she visited the Gaza Strip.

Murphy has one daughter and On A Shoestring is about a trip she took with her then 5 year-old child. This would no doubt have been been considered a very reckless act in 1973! I wonder if she did it during term-time…?

Everything Everything imgMay’s reading challenge was fairly straightforward, to read a YA novel, and I expected to zip through Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. Alas, half term and ferrying my eldest to and from GCSE exams has rather cut into my reading time this last few weeks, so I was still reading it a few days into June. However, I have now completed it and will post my review here next week. I thorougly enjoyed it and recommend it highly for YAs and OAs (older adults?!) alike. Look out for my review and let me know your thoughts if you or any teenagers you know have read it.

 

 

I would love for you to join me in my reading challenge this month. What literary travel books do you fancy reading?

If you have enjoyed this post, it would be great if you could subscribe to the blog by clicking the button below or to the right, depending on your device.

Book review: “Sometimes I Lie” by Alice Feeney

I don’t read many thrillers. They’re not usually my ‘thing’. Sometimes I think it’s simply because the covers put me off! They seem invariably to have neon writing with a black background (as in fact, does this book) and sensational taglines designed to suck you in. The tagline here reads “I’m in a coma. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.” I’m afraid that, in my experience, books that promise much on the front cover deliver somewhat less between the pages. And, yes, that could indeed be true of life in general!

2017-06-14 12.37.04

So, I approached this book with some apprehension. I probably would not have chosen it myself, but it was suggested by my book club. That said, I was open-minded, having been equally sceptical about Disclaimer by Renee Knight (also neon writing on a black background), which was suggested by a book club I used to belong to, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. (You can read my review of that book here.)

The central character is Amber, a married woman in her mid-30s, who when we first meet her, on Boxing Day 2016, is lying in hospital in a coma. She is also our narrator. The chapters alternate between ‘Now’, ie Amber lying in her hospital bed, ‘Then’, looking back over the days of the previous week and the events which have brought Amber to this position, and ‘Before’, looking back at Amber’s childhood. It is clear that Amber has been involved in some sort of car accident, although the circumstances are mysterious. As the narrative progresses we are drip-fed information about the other characters in the story and the part they have each played in bringing about Amber’s near-death.

Amber works in radio on a popular morning show called Coffee Morning with the very unpleasant but very powerful Madeline Frost, who is nothing short of a bully towards everyone else involved in the show, but who is loved by her audience. Amber is married to Paul, a struggling author, whose movements in the pre-Christmas week are suspicious. She also has a sister, the rather too-perfect Claire, who is attractive, confident, and a mother of twins, where Amber is under-achieving, stuck in a career rut and apparently infertile. There is also the sense that the relationship between Amber and Claire is not all that it seems at first; increasingly we see Claire as controlling and rather too controlled. It is clear that this dynamic has had some sort of impact on Amber’s present situation. A further character enters the book part-way through, Edward, a former boyfriend of Amber’s who she bumps into in London one evening. There is the suggestion that perhaps Amber chose the wrong guy when she married Paul.

Thus the scene is set, with our vulnerable central character and a full complement of secondary figures, each of whom could have dunnit. It’s a complex plot, which at times I found difficult to follow; perhaps this is my problem with thrillers – complexity seems to be prized above all else. There is cleverness in the way some parts of it are handled, however, I also felt there was rather too much going on. For example, not wishing to give anything away, I felt the Edward sub-plot was superfluous, and Amber’s OCD was unnecessary and rather randomly included.

I did enjoy the book, it’s certainly a page-turner, but the ending left me vaguely dissatisfied. Perhaps it is fashionable to have ambiguous conclusions, or perhaps the author is planning a sequel, but in a thriller, a genre where questions are continuously posed, I want answers, I want loose ends tied up, and I don’t want to be left hanging.

It’s a decent beach read if you’re off on your holidays soon.

Happy blogging birthday to me!

birthday-1208233_1920

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

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

heart-1288420_1920

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

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

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

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Please subscribe by clicking below or to the right (depending on your device).

Book review: “Days Without End” by Sebastian Barry

I listened to this on Audiobook, which was narrated by the wonderful Aidan Kelly. It’s a brilliant book, with the most sublime use of language, my appreciation of which was enhanced by Kelly’s fabulous reading. I had the same experience with Holding by Graham Norton, but sadly not with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, which I’m listening to at the moment, where I’m finding the narration rather irritating. Aidan Kelly’s reading brings such an authenticity to the listening experience that I actually believed I was listening to Thomas McNulty.

Days Without End img

The book is set in America in the 1850s, where our very young narrator and central character, Thomas McNulty, finds himself after fleeing devastating famine in Sligo, Ireland, and searching for a new life, any life, in the New World. He signs up as a mercenary soldier for the Government infantry in the civil war against the Confederate south. There he meets ‘handsome John Cole’, an American, with whom he develops an intimate relationship. When their time in the infantry ends the two make a living for a while as entertainers where Thomas masquerades as a woman. He finds he is comfortable playing this role with John Cole as his beau, and in the periods when the two live a settled life together, it becomes his costume of choice, as well as providing a convenient disguise in times of trouble.

The accounts of war and violence are graphic and horrific and no detail is spared, which I found difficult to listen to at times, although also strangely compelling. Thomas and John rejoin the army further on in the novel and are involved in head to head battles with native American Indians. These accounts were even more harrowing as the contrast between the two sides is exposed so starkly, the soldiers having far superior firepower. In one of these encounters, Thomas and John rescue a young girl, Winona, whom they practically adopt as their own daughter and determine to look after.

Some of the scenes in the book are brutal and hard to read (or in my case listen to). The injustice of the men’s situation, the terrible conditions in which they have to live, the way that soldiers are treated as cannon fodder and afforded very little respect by their military masters is shocking. They are forced to live a most brutal existence and for many of the men the experience is completely dehumanising. The extreme violence they both administer and experience is like nothing that most of us will ever have come across and the novel is very powerful as a result. And yet, there is also tremendous tenderness: the relationship between Thomas and John Cole is beautifully drawn, though we never hear John’s voice first hand, and never gratuitous, never titillating. Even Thomas’s cross-dressing is handled with a beautiful innocence. The love that is shared between the two young men and Winona is also very powerful; that they are capable of such care of another human being is all the more moving when you consider the extremes of violence, deprivation and injustice in which they have existed.

There is a tale here, though mostly the novel is about a time and place in history and what that was like for the people immersed in it. It is a tale not just of survival but about how people who have nothing, have love and find a way, ultimately, to live peacefully.

This is one of a series of novels about various members of the McNulty family. I haven’t read the others, but I will certainly do so after reading Days Without End. The novel won the Costa Book Award in 2016 and has been widely acclaimed.

I recommend it highly and can particularly recommend the audiobook. That said, the language of the book is so beautiful that I would also love now to go back and read it, to see those words dance on the page.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

If you have enjoyed this post, it would be great if you could follow my blog by clicking the subscribe button below or to the right, depending on your device. 

 

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

This might be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and certainly one of the most unsettling reads in a while. It’s the sort of book where you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat as you observe some very disturbing behaviour.

The Vegetarian imgIt’s basically a book about sickness, and the various forms it takes; the sickness of the troubled central character, Yeong-hye, whose decision to renounce meat from her diet is the catalyst to a catastrophic sequence of events; the sickness of some of her relatives who simply cannot accept Yeong-hye’s decision or who use it to perpetrate their own base acts; and the sickness in the society which degrades and dehumanises Yeong-hye. The insidious and malevolent control meted out to Yeong-hye over a period of many years (a control that was legitimised by social and cultural norms) leads to her attempting to starve herself in a desperate attempt to assert her autonomy, and this has explosive consequences

The novel is written in three parts (originally each was published separately). The first part is narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband. Mr Cheong is a selfish, misogynistic fool who is completely indifferent to his wife. There is no trace of affection in their relationship. Any fondness that may have existed has disappeared and Mr Cheong is now bitter that Yeong-hye makes no effort to be the good wife: she embarrasses him in front of his boss, fails to wear a bra and does not keep the house tidy. Mr Cheong rapes his wife repeatedly and sees nothing wrong in ensuring his physical needs are met in this way. And yet, so desperate is Yeong-hye’s family to save face in what in their eyes is a good marriage, they turn against her when she decides to stop eating meat, seeing it as a kind of protest which must be seen to be crushed. There is a very disturbing family dinner scene.

The second part is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. At first he appears more sensitive than Mr Cheong and shows some kindness towards Yeong-hye, particularly after the events at the family dinner party. He is an artist and claims he has always been fascinated by his sister-in-law’s fragility, both physical and emotional. At first he seems to be helping her, enabling her to express herself in a new way. But, ultimately, he too will exploit and damage her.

The final part concerns the relationship between Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye. She emerges as the strongest character in the book and through her we have a reliable witness to the events of the novel. She reflects on the period since her sister became a vegetarian and how her world, and her family’s world has turned upside down. But rather than see it as her sister’s fault (as her parents do) she understands how Yeong-hye’s mental illness has been brought about by the abuse she has experienced.

The Vegetarian img 2

This book won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and has had universal acclaim. It is a very poetic novel, beautifully translated by Deborah Smith; the motif of Yeong-hye’s dream and her desire to transform into a plant provides a powerful element of fantasy, although for me this was not always coherent. However, it is also deeply troubling. Not one for the faint-hearted!