October reading challenge

I am turning rather belatedly to October’s reading challenge book; I’ve had a few heavy reading weeks trying to work my way through the Man Booker shortlist. The winner was announced last week, and although I fell a little short of my target, managing only five out of the six, I feel I need a little break before tackling the monster that is Paul Auster’s 4321!  There is still a week to go before the end of October so completing this month’s challenge is still achievable. I’ll be posting my review of September’s reading challenge book, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, later in the week.

Continuing the theme of life-changing (it’s still Autumn and I’m still motivated!), my task this month is to read a biography or autobiography of someone I admire. Walk into any bookshop and there are dozens of course. They are particularly prevalent at this time of year as publishers turn their attention to Christmas sales. I tend to eschew those celebrity biographies which are so clearly ghost-written and which strike me as a cynical attempt to capitalise on someone’s popularity. But there are many other worthy books and authors out there.

Not My Fathers SonThere are a couple of titles that have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Scottish actor and comedian Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son, which was published in 2014. It is linked to his appearance in BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010 in which the result of his research caused him to reflect on his family, his upbringing and, in particular, his relationship with an abusive father. It has received glowing reviews and has also won prizes. The theme of secrets and family research is close to the book I am writing myself so it could be helpful. Or it may just make me feel like givng up now!!!

Watch Me

Option two is the second volume of Anjelica Huston’s authobiography Watch Me, published in 2015. I read the first volume A Story Lately Told, a couple of years ago and loved it. The first book gives an account of her childhood growing up in Ireland, and her relationship with her enigmatic father, the towering figure of John Huston. It moves on to London, her early adulthood and her first experiences in modelling and acting. Watch Me picks up when Huston is 22 years old and recounts her Hollywood years.

A life of my ownFinally, I saw in the bookshop recently that Claire Tomalin has written A Life of My Own, where, for a change, she is writing about herself. I admire Claire Tomalin hugely; she has written some of the finest biographies produced in recent years, covering subjects such as Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Mary Wollstonecraft. She has led the most astonishing life: an unhappy childhood, four children, the death of her husband, the loss of a child, and the eternal struggle between motherhood and work. I think I would find this book truly inspiring.

 

How similar are these three covers!?

So, which is it to be? Grateful for views

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the button below (or to the right, depending on your device). Let’s connect on social media too.

 

Man Booker Book Review 4: “Elmet” by Fiona Mozley

Well, I’ve improved on my performance of last year; I only managed to read 3.5 out of six of the books on the shortlist in 2016, but in 2017 I now have four under my belt with a week still to go! Book number four was Elmet by Fiona Mozley and, my goodness, it’s dark! I’m not sure when I last read anything like it, to be honest, although it reminds me very much of the Red Riding drama series which was aired on television in 2009 (I checked this fact and if you’d asked me to guess I probably would have said 2013/14 – tempus fugit!). That resonance could be down to the fact that it is set in the same part of the country (the Ridings of Yorkshire), but the book does have that same ‘Yorkshire noir’ feel to it, the hallmarks of which seem to be violence, corruption, poverty juxtaposed with crude wealth, and the bleak rural setting. Dialogue is mostly sparse, much is conveyed by a common understanding of the rules of social engagement, and by actions.

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36The narrator and central character is Daniel, who lives with his father (always “Daddy”) and his sister Cathy (a nod to Wuthering Heights, I wonder?) somewhat on the margins of society. Initially, they live with Granny Morley somewhere in the north east, and seem to attend school regularry, though not particularly successfully; it is clear they are ‘different’ and considered outsiders, rather akin to travellers. Cathy and Daniel’s mother has been mostly absent, seemingly a troubled soul with mental health problems and probably addiction, but who then disappears completely, assumed dead. Daddy is a more reliable carer, though he too is frequently absent as he tours the country competing in illegal boxing bouts. He is at the top of his game, however, unvanquished wherever he goes, and seems to make enough of a living from this activity, as well as making plenty of money for those with sufficient funds to gamble heavily on his success. 

When Granny Morley dies suddenly, leaving the children alone in the house with her body for several days, Daddy vows on his return never to abandon them again, and is determined that they will live together as a family. They move back to Yorkshire and set up home in a copse outside a village, land that is said to belong to Daniel and Cathy’s mother. Initially, they camp, while Daddy sets about building a house  with nothing but his bare hands and materials they gather from the woods and cast off items. Daniel and Cathy no longer go to school, but after a time Daddy decides that the children need some sort of educating so he sends them to Vivien in the village, who appears to share some intimacy with Daddy, although the nature of this is never made clear. She too is a bit of a loner and although she never seems particularly enthusiastic about her role as educator she reaches a kind of understanding and accommodation with the children. Cathy never really takes to her lessons, preferring to spend her time outside in the woods, but for Daniel this time comes to be precious and he enjoys the cosy domestic setting and this gentler side of life. Daniel, we increasingly see, is softer, more fragile, physically and emotionally, than either his father or sister, and prefers more feminine company. While Cathy shares the outlook and preferences of her father, Daniel is said to be more like their mother; perhaps this is why Daddy and Cathy love him so much and feel the need to protect him so fiercely.

Thus the scene is set, and the first third of the book is spent getting to know the characters and the setting. The plot thickens when Mr Price enters the novel. He is a wealthy local landowner who owns the land on which the family has settled. He claims that it was signed over to him by the children’s mother in payment of a debt when she ran into financial difficulties, there is clearly some history with the mother, but, again, this is never made clear. Price presents a real and present danger to the family; he clearly is set upon a battle with Daddy, it seems likely that he feels threatened by this bigger stronger man and wishes to emasculate him through his power and authority. There are also Price’s sons, privately educated at some distant boarding school where they learn to play rugby and cricket. They have all the arrogance of their father but their Yorkshire grit seems to have withered. They are particularly interested in picking on the children, especially Cathy, who seems to them to be easy meat, although always out of sight of their father.

Daddy teams up with some of the local villagers and becomes involved in a dispute with a number of the landowners, who are said to exploit poorly paid workers and their poorly treated tenants. They gain some success, but at a cost. Price clearly feels he has leverage over Daddy and says he will sign over the land to the family on the condition that he fights one last bout. Clearly, Price has nothing to lose – he will gain financially from the event, has no interest in the small parcel of land at stake, so it means nothing if he has to give it to the family, and if Daddy loses, well, that’s a problem solved. 

The last third of the book moves at a rapid pace, and events unfold dramatically. This final part of the book is a real page-turner. I read the last 100 pages in one sitting and I was almost breathless by the end! The characterisation is superb, I felt I really knew who these people were by the end. The evocation of the setting is also brilliantly done; Fiona Mozley is a fine writer and it is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The time in which the novel is set is not specified, deliberately so, I suspect, since there is a certain timelessness about it; Cathy, Daniel and their father (and to some extent, their mother) represent those people who will always live on the margins, never quite prospering, always struggling, even if they were to play by all the rules society sets. The world is simply stacked against them, their type, their way of life. But what is also timeless is the profound love between father and children, and Daddy’s instinct to protect is felt powerfully throughout.

This is a dramatic and powerful novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s bleak though! Recommended, but don’t expect a traditional happy ending or all loose ends to be neatly tied. But that’s not life either, is it?

Are you ploughing throught the Man Booker shortlist? How are you getting on?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. You can do so by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button. Let’s also connect on social media (various buttons to the right)

 

The latest in YA books – books for teens

Last week, I blogged about some of the interesting new children’s titles that had caught my eye. In recent years, YA fiction has rightly developed as a genre apart from younger children’s fiction, and there are some fantastic young writers out there catering for the needs of this age group. Most adults would accept I think that the pressures on teenagers these days are numerous and new, and for many parents navigating this unknown terrain can be challenging and worrying. In the same way that children’s literature can help our little ones work through some of their fears and worries (from the monster under the bed to the impending arrival of a sibling), so YA fiction can help teenagers deal with the issues they face, when they may feel their parents just don’t understand.

Here are a few of the titles that have attracted me.

No Filter

 

Irish writer Orlagh Collins’s story No Filter covers traditional teen territory, that of first love. It tells the story of Emerald who comes from a privileged background, and appears to enjoy an outwardly perfect life. Then Emerald discovers her mother unconscious on the bathroom floor and her world begins to fall apart. She is sent off to stay with her grandmother in Ireland for the summer, where she meets Liam, and begins to reevaluate what’s important.

 

 

Just Fly AwayJust Fly Away is the debut novel from 1980s brat-pack actor, turned award-winning director and author Andrew McCarthy. It tells the story of fifteen year old Lucy who discovers that she has a half-brother, the result of an affair her father had, living in the same town. Like No Filter it is a novel about secrets and lies, as Lucy escapes to Maine to live with her grandfather, himself estranged from the family, and to work through the confusion and torment her discovery has left her with.

 

 

all the things that could go wrongFinally, on a different topic, there is All the Things that Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster which concerns the relationship between two boys, initially at loggerheads, who find common cause when they are forced to spend time together. Alex suffers from OCD and worries about everything. His condition is so severe that he rarely leaves home. Dan is angry, because his older brother Alex has left home and he feels lost. Initially, he takes it out on Alex, whom he perceives as weak and ineffectual, but the boys’ mothers force them together on a garden building project and the understanding that develops between is healing for both.

 

I hope one of these might be of interest for your teenager. Better still, take them along to the library or bookshop and let them choose something themselves.

I’d love to hear what your teens are reading just now. 

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.

Book Review: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is what we would politely describe as quirky. She lives a fairly isolated lifestyle, seeing no friends or relatives. She lives alone in a flat where she was placed by Social Services after leaving the care system. She is a creature of habit, wearing identical clothes each day, and following habitual daily and weekly routines. She works, in the accounts department of a design company, but her lowly position seems out of kilter with her high intelligence. There is nothing especially remarkable about her quirkiness (apart from the fact that she drinks two bottles of vodka every weekend), but her habits mark her out from the usual crowd. In particular she eschews social interaction, is cool, often hostile, to her co-workers, looking down on them, never wears make up or gets her hair cut. She appears to others as someone who doesn’t make an effort, but through Eleanor’s eyes we observe some of the absurdities of ‘normal’ life and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments, for example, when Eleanor goes for a makeover at the department store.

Eleanor OliphantEleanor communicates poorly with others, being rather too literal and pedantic for most people to tolerate and is therefore unable to form effective relationships.  At first, she is not an easy character to love, except that we as readers know a couple of things about her that her workmates do not, and which make us more sympathetic to her. Firstly, we know she drinks herself into oblivion at the weekends: as a reader we are bound to ask what she is trying to escape from. Second, there is Eleanor’s mother, with whom she speaks every Wednesday evening; “Mummy” is controlling, manipulative, cruel, nasty. Eleanor is an adult and yet there is something disturbing about the way she always refers to her parent as a child would (never ‘Mum’ or ‘my mother’). The fact that Eleanor also receives regular monitoring visits from social workers tells us that there is something dark in Eleanor’s past that has contributed to her present quirkiness, but we are not told what.

Two incidents in Eleanor’s life set off a cascade of events that will alter her life immeasurably. First, she encounters and develops a teenage-like crush on a musician. He is the lead singer in a band, well-known in the Glasgow area, lives locally and Eleanor has a remote connection with him as he attended school with a work colleague’s brother. Eleanor decides that the musician is the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with. She fantasises about a romance with him and ultimately marriage. Emboldened by conversations with Mummy, who is all in favour of “the project” (whilst also questioning Eleanor’s worth), she tasks herself with contriving to meet him, including visiting his apartment block, and sets about buying new clothes and improving her appearance, to bring herself up to the standard she anticipates he would expect from a partner.

The second incident is the collapse of an elderly man in the street. The old man is immediately attended to by Raymond, not a co-worker but someone she recognises as working in the same building, and he involves Eleanor and commands her help. Between them, Eleanor and Raymond manage to give the man first aid and call an ambulance. After this, Raymond draws Eleanor into an unplanned friendship. It doesn’t seem to be something that either of them is seeking, particularly. Indeed at first Eleanor is very cool towards Raymond, looking down upon his smoking, his eating habits, his text-speak and what she sees as his lazy dressing habits. But he is warm and patient with her and the friendship evolves. Through Raymond, Eleanor gets a glimpse of what ‘normal’ life and ‘normal’ family relationships can be, with all their faults.

The action takes place over a few months and the pace is measured and authentic. It is ultimately a novel about mental illness, triggered by trauma in Eleanor’s case, and as the story unfolds, and we learn more about Eleanor’s past, so her present, tightly ordered life, held together so flimsily by a set of rigid habits, begins to fall apart. This unravelling may be painful for some readers. The novel echoes that tendency we all have to say we’re ‘fine’ even when we’re not, and Eleanor learns, the hard way, what ‘fine’ means, and how to use that word honestly on her path to healing. There are some dark moments but there is also humour, particularly in the drawing of Eleanor’s character. I found myself laughing both with her and at her, which was, I must confess uncomfortable in the context of later revelations, and caused me to reflect on how we as a society react to those who do not present with an ‘average’ or ‘easily-fit-innable’ personality.

Gail honeymanThis is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and it is a stunning achievement. A thoroughly enjoyable read. In an era where poor mental health, social isolation and dysfunctional relationships seem to have reached epidemic proportions, this novel is both an examination of one person’s particular circumstances and an antidote. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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

The latest in children’s literature

It was the Autumn Equinox yesterday, exactly halfway between the shortest and longest days, when the hours of daylight and the hours of night are the same. From now until Christmas, the nights will begin to draw in. It’s a while before you notice it fully, of course and I always find that as the leaves on the trees begin to turn and fall and the temperatures cool, I actually feel a burst of energy and an increased desire to get out for walks and enjoy nature. It’s as if I only realise what I have when it starts to go and then I want to make the most of it! Yes, that certainly sums up part of my personality!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and getting, correction, KEEPING kids reading – don’t they all love to be read a story when they’re little?! When and why does that stop? I spent hours in libraries when my kids were little, but I struggle to keep my 11, 13 and 16 year old children into their books. I’m not going to moan about screens; they are as inevitable a part of young people’s lives as food and drink, and, frankly, now mine all have pretty independent lives, I quite like the reassurance their mobile phones give me.

Help your child imgIf you are finding it hard to motivate your children to read you may find this little book helpful – Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading – which I’ve reviewed here and plugged many times, because it contains practical advice and will not chastise you for allowing them screen time.

I love the title and the cover photo – it’s not an instruction guide on how to make them do something against their will, but how to embrace one of the most joyful and stress-relieving habits there is. And with the shocking news this week about how many of our young girls experience depression, reading is a hobby that all of our children can benefit from. So as life for those of us in the northern hemisphere gradually returns to the indoors, there is no better time to revive a reading habit. As is my regular wont, I’ve picked out a few children’s books that have caught my eye recently.

Pax by Sarah Pennypacker (age group 8-12 years) was published last year, but seems to be getting a lot of publicity at the moment. It has a beautiful cover and is the story of a boy’s friendship with a fox. I’m really keen to read this one. Birthday Boy by David Baddiel (age group 9+) looks like being another smash hit in this genre for the comedian turned children’s author. Published earlier this month it considers the question, what if it was your birthday every day? Be careful what you wish for is the message! A Place Called Perfect (age group 8-12 years) by Helena Duggan concerns Violet and her family who move to the town of Perfect, where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind and where nothing is quite (as perfect) as it seems.

Most primary school age children are fairly easy to manage and get reading; it’s those pesky teens who present the biggest challenge! I’ll give you some ideas for this age group next week.

Happy reading!

Do you have any children’s books to recommend?

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog for weekly thoughts and book reviews. 

 

Autumn resolutions

back-to-school-1622789_1920

January is never a great time of year for me – I’m not good with the cold, dark days of winter so it’s pointless me making New Year’s resolutions. In contrast, Autumn is, for me, the perfect time of year to reflect and think about the future. As a mother of three school-age children, my life is, in any case, dominated by the term time calendar, and there is something about the feeling of newness (shoes, pencil cases, planners, etc), the fresh start and the enthusiasm (yes, really, even the kids are usually excited to get back) that screams hope. Outside it’s the time of year associated with decay, when the blooms in the garden are starting to fade, the leaves on the trees begin to turn brown and fall, and the nights are definitely drawing in. In a funny way, though, I find this reassuring. It makes me feel that everything is in the right place, the natural order of things is safely on track, and that is a comfort to me in this era of accelerated climate change.

Big MagicSo, September is my month of choice for resolutions. My reading challenge this month is to read a self-help book and after a bit of indecision I’ve decided on Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually been on my list of books to read for some time, but seems particularly appropriate now as my main resolution is to complete at least a third of the book I am writing by half term (and hopefully another third by Christmas). I’ve been tinkering with it for months, and made some good progress with Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but I feel really focused now and am keen to capitalise on my motivation.

2017-07-26 20.42.01Before the summer break I also read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel and it caused me to reflect on the time and care I give to myself. I think it’s true to say that, as a mother, when you have young children you can often put yourself and your needs at the bottom of the priority list, well after the rest of the family. Ultimately, this often takes a great toll. Now that my children are older, (all at secondary school as of this week, my eldest now in sixth form), I find myself not so much with more time, but definitely with more mental space to tend to my own needs, pursue some of my own passions and award myself more respect. So, I am re-reading WE, slowly and deliberately, a little each day, and working through the exercises.

As a Mum I feel I have for years ricocheted between feelings of resentment at the extent of my ‘self-sacrifice’ and guilt at not doing or being enough! I hope that over the coming weeks the reading and the exercises will help to shift my mindset more towards contentment, resilience, and gratitude – the Holy Grail! I don’t find it particularly difficult to change my habits, get a better eating or fitness regime, etc, but mindset change is much harder. Wish me luck!

Are you one of those who prefer to make their resolutions in September rather than January?

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

The Top 10 things I love about Lisbon

So, our wonderful holiday in Portugal has come to an end. After a week of rest and relaxation on the Silver Coast (near Obidos) we headed for a few days in the country’s capital, Lisbon, a city I have been wanting to visit for years. It did not disappoint. More compact and lower key than some other European capitals it comes in at number nine on TripAdvisor’s top European destinations, ahead of the likes of arguably more famous places like Amsterdam, Venice, Florence and Edinburgh. Excluding our arrival and departure days, we were there for four full days, and there was far more to do than we could squeeze in. The high August temperatures (mostly exceeding 30 degrees Celsius during the day) and the peak time crowds made sightseeing more challenging than it might be at other times of the year, which perhaps slowed us up a bit. Other people (and those without kids) might be able to pack more in. We were not in a hurry (we are determined to go back again anyway!) and spent a lot of time just watching the world go by in cafes, bars and restaurants. Here are the top 10 things I love about Lisbon:

1. The views

IMGP0029

Lisbon is a city of hills. There are many opportunities to get a higher perspective of the city and the surrounding area, including plenty of  well signposted Miradouros (viewpoints).

2. Castelo de Sao Jorge

2017-08-20 13.34.46This ancient fortress up on a hill is a potted Portugese history lesson. It’s fabulous and from here you can get a panoramic view of the city. You take the antique Tram 28 to reach it. Aside from the main site I recommend the tour of the ancient archaeological area (above, where they have found evidence of habitation as far back as the Iron Age) which is generally under-attended, and is fascinating because you get to see and understand exactly how people have lived in and used the fortress over the centuries.

3. Museu de Farmacia

2017-08-22 22.01.29

Quirky museum by day, bar and restaurant by night with some fab cocktails (both with and without alcohol), imaginatively served. See above, #Elixir, #Oxymetazol, Vinho Verde (see 6), and we-won’t-rip-you-off-by-making-you-buy-bottled-water H2O (see 4).

4. It’s relatively good value

I grew up in London, but haven’t lived there for 20 years now. When I go back as a visitor I am struck by the hugely inflated prices compared to the rest of the country. Sadly, this is true of many major cities. Lisbon, indeed, Portugal as a whole, does not fleece its tourists. Long may it last. Food, drinks, travel, entry prices all seem reasonable, even in the light of Sterling’s weakness against the Euro.

5. The Waterfront

We took many an evening stroll along the waterfront, where there was a great buzz. The stunning Praca do Comercio (above right) looks majestically out over the River Tejo. It lies at the foot of the area of Chiado, the main shopping and commercial hub of the city.

6. Vinho Verde

The so-called Portugese ‘green wine’ is very drinkable indeed, and ridiculously cheap for the quality!

7. Cascais

Golden beaches are less than half an hour by train (for 2 Euro!) from the city centre. The husband took the two girls for the day and had a fantastic time. A great escape if the sightseeing is getting too much!

8. Fish

To see? At the amazing Oceanarium on the Expo site to the north of the city – did you know that a cuttlefish looked like this?

IMGP0048

To eat? Fantastic fish is served everywhere, and Mr Cuttlefish is very tasty as well as cute! Cacilhas, a suburb of the city just a short hop across the river seems to be almost entirely made up of fish restaurants.

9. Pastellaria

If you have a sweet tooth, expect to be well-supplied in Portugal. From the delicious Pastel de Natas (ubiquitous small custard tarts) to Macarons (below) you will find much to choose from in the many small cafes and bakeries serving fine coffee and cakes.

2017-08-20 18.00.00

10. The people

Portugese people are warm, kind, laid-back and welcoming. The language is very different to Spanish and most visitors will not have even a smattering of Portugese, I suspect (though it’s a fascinating language and I’m determined to learn a little before I go again). The natives don’t seem to mind, however, and most speak excellent English. Lisboans seem quietly proud of their city and so they should be. As such, they are delighted to help you and keen that you as a visitor should have a great experience in their city.

If you have been to Lisbon I would love to hear what your highlights were. 

If you have enjoyed ths post, I would love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button below (or to the right, depending on your device).