April Reading Challenge

At last, it’s starting to feel a little more spring-like as we enter April, which must mean it’s time for this month’s book on the Facebook Reading Challenge group.

2018-03-29-10-08-25.jpgLast month, we battled our way through Madame Bovary, some enjoying it more than others, it has to be said. Our theme was a classic novel, and this can be a challenging genre. It can take you right back to schooldays and unhappy memories of working line by line through a text that had no relevance to your teenage life. And if you are out of the habit of reading classic, usually older, novels, the language can feel outdated, and hard work.

For me, the challenge was the size of the typeface in my University days edition! Not only was this a strain on my ‘mature’ eyesight, but it meant that pages were turned less frequently than I am used to. A trivial point perhaps but it gave me an insight into what motivates continued reading, and feeling like you are making progress can be a part of that. Personally, I really enjoyed it – it was all about the writing for me. Just sublime. Irony on a par with Jane Austen. I had forgotten how good a novel it is.

2018-03-29-10-28-24.jpgThis months’s challenge is something altogether different – a children’s novel and I have chosen Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. This book first came to my attention before Christmas and I have been keen to read it ever since. It is written from the perspective of three different polar bears: the first , a female, who flees her homeland in Soviet Russia, the second, her daughter, a dancing bear in a Berlin circus, and the third, the most recent, born in captivity in Germany.

The book has won high praise for its Japanese author. It’ll be the second children’s book I’ve read recently that is written, in part at least, from the perspective of an animal (the other being Pax, which I enjoyed enormously), so I’m looking forward to it. I expect it will be one of those books that blurs the boundary between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’ fiction. Happily.

If you would like to participate in the challenge, do join us on the Facebook group, or if you have read this book and have a view on it, I would love to hear it. 

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Waiting for Spring…

…feels a bit like Waiting for Godot this year!

Tomorrow it’s the Vernal Equinox, the mid-point on the calendar between the Winter and Summer Solstices, when the number of hours of day and night are equal. It may be the official start of spring in meteorological terms, but, here in the UK, it still feels very much like winter! The daffodils in my garden are putting a brave face on it, but we have just had a weekend of snow-related disruption in many parts of the country and the strong winds blowing in from the east mean it is freezing out.

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Spring bulbs are flowering in the sunshine, but it’s freezing out!

It is at this time of year that many of us start to get itchy feet, desperate to get outside after the long winter, and yet the weather is making that quite challenging. I’m keen to blow the winter cobwebs away, but not to get blown away! We have been relatively lucky here in Manchester, in the north west of England, with very little snow settling, particularly compared to other parts of the country. Temperatures look set to improve by the middle of the week.

The downsides of this protracted winter are obvious: less fresh air, less getting out and about, less exercise and more hours with the heating on! I’ve written here before about my reluctance to make New Year’s resolutions, but at this time of year, I start to get some energy and motivation back. So I’m trying this year to see more of the positive in events, to default to ‘Yes’ and to see a glass half full. In that spirit, I’m trying to think about the upsides of this unexpected weather and one definite bonus is more time for reading: I can still justify curling up with a blanket and a book when it’s too cold to go out!

I’ve almost finished Madame Bovary, the March title in my 2018 Reading Challenge, and am looking forward to starting our children’s book for April, which I’ll be announcing next week. After blogging here about my difficulties with 4321 last week, I’ve resolved to give it another go and take it on holiday over Easter. I’m also looking forward to reading my next book from the children’s library, Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, a Young Bond adventure set during the Cold War. Very topical!

What are you reading at the moment?

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Book review: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges are not the only fruitThis was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.

Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.

I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.

I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.

“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”

It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.

There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:

‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’

There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.

The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.

Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.

This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.

Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.

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Book review: “The Disappearances” by Emily Bain Murphy

At the start of this year I set up a Facebook reading group, based on a challenge I undertook for myself last year where I read a book with a different theme each month. I have been delighted with the response and that so many people are keen to push their reading boundaries a little. The theme for January was a YA book and I chose The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, a first-time American novelist. This book has had rave reviews and I’ve come across a few vlogs where the reviewers have spoken passionately about how much they loved it. I was keen to see what all the fuss was about!

The Disappearances imgThe book is set in Connecticut in 1942-43. Aila, is 16 years old when we first meet her and she has a younger brother Miles. Their mother, Juliet, has just died and their father has been called away to fight in the war. Aila and Miles are sent to live in Sterling (their mother’s birthplace) with Matilda Cliffton and her family; Matilda was Juliet’s childhood best friend. Aila is keen to take something of her mother’s with her and she finds a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, much scribbled in, into the back of which has been placed an envelope, containing a ring Juliet always wore, and a mysterious note to an unknown person, Stefen, at the end of which Juliet signs herself ‘Viola’.

 

When Aila and Miles arrive in Sterling it quickly becomes clear that things are not as they should be. First of all, Aila notices that other townspeople seem quite hostile towards her, and that this has something to do with Juliet. She also quickly observes that there are no stars and no smells in Sterling, and that the inhabitants have no reflections. Matilda Cliffton reveals to her the curse that struck Sterling (and its two nearby ‘sister’ towns Corrander and Sheffield) some years before which means that every seven years something in their life disappears (ie stars, reflections, smells). They are due another Disappearance shortly. Over the years, Matilda’s husband, Dr Cliffton, has been instrumental in developing ‘Variants’, powders which temporarily restore the losses, and these are traded in the market in town. Thus the scene is set and Aila and her brother settle into life in Sterling. We see Aila making friends at the local high school, particularly George, Beas and Will, the Cliffton’s son, and a few enemies, namely Eliza, who has a thing for Will and whose indifference to Aila borders on antipathy.

Interspersed between the events in Sterling are short italicised chapters where we meet the dark characters of Stefen and his father Phineas. Phineas is a former grave-robber, and has served time in jail for this. He is also dying. We know that Stefen wants to find ‘the Stone’ to try and save Phineas’s life though it is not clear how it would do so. Stefen is also obsessed by birds and at the start of each of these chapters is a short description of a bird species, and its characteristics give the reader clues to the action that is taking place in Sterling.

A kind of chase commences, as Stefen goes in search of Juliet’s ring, and Aila tries to understand the root cause of the curse (suspecting that it is somehow connected with her mother). She is convinced she can also find a way to lift it, and believes clues to the mystery lie within the Shakespeare volume of her mother’s. The plot is complex and I have to confess that some elements of it left me slightly confused. However, I loved the characters, particularly Aila, who is well-developed and very credible. I also loved the handling of the relationships among the young people, particularly the dynamic between Aila and Will. The book is beautifully written and the Shakespeare references are lovely and very cleverly incorporated. It is well-researched and well-thought through. I liked the ‘fantasy’ element less, but perhaps that is because I am not a particular fan of that genre, though I can see how it would appeal to a YA reader. Also, the twist at the end (which many of the YouTube vloggers loved) left me feeling a bit cold. I just couldn’t believe in it. The pace of the book is also a little uneven; the reader is thrown into the action and the plot quite quickly, but then it slows right down and becomes less engaging before the sprint at the end. Those things aside, it’s a good read that I would recommend and I think if you do find it a bit slow, stick with it because you will be rewarded. Hence, I’m not giving spoilers on this one!

For younger readers I would recommend the 14-17 age group. The plot is complex and not likely to appeal to those under 14, and there is some romance more suited to slightly older teens.

Have you read The Disappearances? Did you think it lived up to the hype?

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Julia’s 2018 Reading Challenge

2018-02-01-10-47-18.jpgAt the beginning of January I set up a Facebook group for a reading challenge. I was motivated to do this after I set myself the task last year of stepping outside my usual genres and reading choices. I enjoyed it so much and posted all my book reviews on this blog. Some friends and contacts suggested there might be some interest in sharing this more widely. I set a theme/genre for each month with a view to selecting a title at the start of the month. In January we read The Disappearances  by Emily Bain Murphy, the theme being a YA novel.

Not surprisingly there was a mixed response; some absolutely loved it, others found the pace a bit slow or the fantasy element a little hard to buy into. But what I loved was the discussion it provoked. It was so nice to have a literary conversation!

Oranges are not the only fruitIf you’re interested in taking part in this Reading Challenge you can join the group here or else just read the titles selected. I’ll be posting all about them on the blog. Our theme for February is a title by a feminist writer, celebrating the centenary of the extension of voting rights to women over 30 this week. The title we are reading is Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

 

 

 

It would be great to get as many people as possible involved in the Facebook group so hop on over and take a look.

 

Short story review: “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian

2018-01-10 10.43.49I concluded my 2017 Reading Challenge with something a little less challenging (in terms of length anyway), a short story. I knew it would be a busy month so I did not want to set myself up to fail by choosing some lengthy tome. (I’ve done the same for my 2018 Reading Challenge). December was so busy that it actually took me a couple of weeks to get around to choosing what to read, and then Cat Person fell in my lap, so to speak!

It’s hard to write a review a short story without spoilers so you can read it here, and then move on the reading the rest of this post, if you wish. It will take you no longer than 20-30 minutes, or you can actually listen to the author reading it herself via the same link.

Cat Person imgCat Person, by Kristen Roupenian has caused a social media storm. Set in America it is a story about Margot, a 20-year old college student, and a brief relationship she has with 34-year old Robert. Margot works at a small independent cinema and she meets Robert when he buys some confectionery from her stand before watching a movie. She feels mildly attracted to him:

“She did think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class.”

Margot flirts lightly with Robert, to ease her boredom, but, initially, at least, he does not reciprocate. He returns to the cinema a week later and this time they exchange phone numbers. Over the next few weeks they develop a text relationship, then he meets her late one night at a convenience store. She expects that he will try to kiss her but he merely gives her a peck on the forehead. They eventually go on a date, to see a movie about the Holocaust that Margot finds slightly inappropriate for a first date. Afterward, when they have been for a drink at a bar, he kisses her, ineptly, and she finds she has mixed feelings about him. Despite this, Margot seems to feel she cannot back down from the inevitable, at this point, and they go back to his place to have sex. Margot finds the sex repellent and decides that she does not want to see him again, but she also feels that her flirtatious behaviour may have ‘led him on’.

This is a highly topical story about the complicated business of dating and sexual relations in the 21st century. The “cat person” of the title refers to Robert; when they go back to his place he announces that he “has cats”, although Margot never sees them. This is clearly meant to convey a slight ‘oddness’. In Margot’s eyes Robert falls well short of expectations (on all levels not just physically and sexually, she does not even feel completely safe with him) and she decides she wants nothing more to do with him, which he clearly finds confusing. When she finally rejects him by text (encouraged by her roommate who becomes impatient with Margot’s dithering and takes the matter into her own hands), Robert reacts in quite a needy way, before becoming angry (all by text). His final text “Whore” clearly echoes the aggressive and unsolicited sexual behaviour we are hearing too much about at the moment, but it could be argued that Margot’s behaviour, her flirtation, her initiation of the sex, means she created that situation for herself and it is no wonder that Robert, clearly no master at relationships, does not know how to react to her seemingly unpredictable behaviour.

It is a story that left me somewhat morally adrift.  There is no clear right and wrong party here. How you judge Margot, or Robert, will depend entirely on your perspective – your age, your gender, whether you have male or female children, etc. And it perhaps goes to show how the sexual politics that are currently being renegotiated make for a complex environment for both men and women.

A thought-provoking read, highly recommended.

If you have read this story, what did you think?

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The 2018 Reading Challenge!

I read a great article yesterday about new year’s resolutions that struck a chord with me. It talked about the Christmas and New Year break can be a time for powerful reflection, on what has passed as well as what is to come, as you step away from the day-to-day routine. But it also said that 1st February is a much better time to start your resolutions if you really want to succeed at them. I was saying similar things when I posted the other day about New Year and how I prefer not to resolve to change things at the start of January – how can I possibly keep to a promise to, for example, eat a perfect diet when there is still Christmas chocolate lying around?

All of which is building up to giving myself an excuse for posting about my 2018 reading challenge when it’s already the second week of January. Ah, but my kids only went back to school on Monday. Anyway, who minds?

So, here it is, my 2018 reading challenge! Care to join me?

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Click The 2018 Reading Challenge to download and print your own copy.

At the beginning of each month I will post my choice of book for the month and then share my review at the end of the month. I’d love for you to join in the conversation, so do look out for my posts. I’ve also set up a Facebook page for the challenge, so do join that too.

35529075The first book in the challenge (the theme is a Young Adult novel) will I hope be a nice one to start with – The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy. It’s part science fiction/fantasy, part coming to terms with love and loss.

I have a particular passion for children’s literature, and we know that kids like reading about characters a little older than themselves. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that even younger teenagers are reading books that we might assume are more for 17-18 year olds. So, if you are a parent, knowing what is going on in these books can help you to engage with the culture your young people might be in (or encourage their reading if they have a preference for more digital distractions). And if you are not a parent, you might find this particular genre is not one that you usually pick, and, for me, that is what reading groups are all about.

I look forward to you joining in the conversation.