26 Books in 2017 Book 22: A Memoir or Journal

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Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Book number 22 in the 26-books-in-52-weeks challenge has to be a memoir or journal.

I enjoy reading books which come into this category. I like that they tend to follow a particular theme or a specific period of time in the author’s life. This makes them less dry than straight forward biography or autobiography. For me a good memoir or journal will present the reader with thoughts, stories and reflections that they can relate to, be inspired by or take comfort from.

Out of the many memoirs/journals that I’ve read, six spring to mind as worth a mention.

Three journals themed around the natural world

The Wilderness Journeys

The Wilderness Journeys by John Muir: Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar in Scotland and he is credited as being the father of American conservation. His name has become synonymous with the preservation and protection of wilderness and wild land. At over 600 pages it’s a big book bit it’s an easy and rewarding read. It’s a collection of Muir’s writings gleaned from his journals. And in the words of the back cover – These journals provide a unique marriage of natural history with lyrical prose and often amusing anecdotes, retaining a freshness, intensity and brutal honesty which will amaze the modern reader.

Findings

Findings by Kathleen Jamie: Jamie is also a Scot and her writing is exquisite. From the book’s back cover – It’s surprising what you can find by simply stepping out to look. Kathleen Jamie, award winning poet, has an eye and an ease with the nature and landscapes of Scotland as well as an incisive sense of our domestic realities. In Findings she draws together these themes to describe travels like no other contemporary writer. Whether she is following the call of a peregrine in the hills above her home in Fife, sailing into a dark winter solstice on the Orkney islands, or pacing around the carcass of a whale on a rain-swept Hebridean beach, she creates a subtle and modern narrative, peculiarly alive to her connections and surroundings.

The Old Ways

The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane: McFarlane, is an English nature writer and in this book he records and  reflects on his thoughts whilst out walking in the natural landscape. From the back cover – Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.

Three memorable memoirs

Angela's Ashes

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: Irish-American author, McCourt was born in New York but grew up in Ireland and in this book he writes about growing up in poverty in Limerick. It is honest, funny and poignant writing. From the book’s back cover – Frank McCourt’s sad, funny, bittersweet memoir of growing up in New York in the 30s and in Ireland in the 40s. It is a story of extreme hardship and suffering, in Brooklyn tenements and Limerick slums – too many children, too little money, his mother Angela barely coping as his father Malachy’s drinking bouts constantly brings the family to the brink of disaster. It is a story of courage and survival against apparently overwhelming odds.

Thunderbolt Kid

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson: In complete contrast to the above memoir, travel writer, Bryson’s account of his childhood in the 1950s and 60s in Iowa is laugh-out-loud funny. From the back cover – Bill Bryson’s first travel book opened with the immortal line, ‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.’ In this deeply funny and personal memoir, he travels back in time to explore the ordinary kid he once was, in the curious world of 1950s Middle America. It was a happy time, when almost everything was good for you, including DDT, cigarettes and nuclear fallout. This is a book about one boy’s growing up. But in Bryson’s hands, it becomes everyone’s story, one that will speak volumes – especially to anyone who has ever been young.

THe Learning Game

The Learning Game by Jonathan Smith: As a teacher myself, I found lots to relate to in Smith’s account of his teaching career. From the back cover – We are all caught up in our children’s lives. We all remember our own schooldays and, as parents, we watch anxiously as our children go through it. As we look at the world of teaching from the outside we wonder not only what is going on but what we can do to help. Jonathan Smith, a born teacher and writer, takes us on his personal journey from his first days as a pupil through to the challenges of his professional and private life on the other side of the desk. He makes us feels what it is like to be a teacher facing the joys and the battles of a class. How do you influence a child? He describes how you catch and stretch their minds. What difference can a teacher make, or how much damage can he do? Should clever pupils teach themselves? What works in the classroom world and what does not? And while influencing the young, how do you develop yourself, how do you teach yourself to keep another life and find that elusive balance? This is a compelling and combative story, warmly anecdotal in approach, yet as sharp in its views of the current debates as it is sensitive in its psychological understanding. From the first page to the last, and without a hint of jargon, this inspiring book rings true.

So, are memoirs and journals something you enjoy reading? If so which ones stand out for you?

Book Review: My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal @KitdeWaal @PenguinRHUK #bookreview #MondayBlogs

Charming but realistic, moving but full of hope.

The standard of the writing and storytelling in this book is so high, it’s hard to believe this is Kit de Waal’s first novel. And telling the story from the point of view of a nine-year-old child isn’t the easiest of things for an adult novelist to do. However, this author makes it look easy and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Leon telling his story.

The events in Leon’s young life could add up to a rather grim tale. But while there are definitely sad and poignant moments, because we’re seeing everything through Leon’s eyes, it never gets too much.

Leon is in foster care because of parental neglect. He likes his foster carer but all he really wants is to be back with his mum and his baby brother. Because of his age he is naively hopeful that he’ll be able to achieve his dream.  So he hatches a plan.

Throughout Leon’s quest he’s aided and befriended by a cast of the most unlikely helpers – people not normally to be found in the role of guardian angels.

It all adds up to a charming, believable and moving read.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

Genre: Adult Contemporary Fiction

Back Cover Blurb:  A brother chosen. A brother left behind. And a family where you’d least expect to find one.

Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not.

As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile – like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum.

Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.

My Name is Leon is published by Penguin and is available as a hardback, paperback, ebook and audio book.

26 Books in 2017 Book 18: A Previously Banned Book

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Prohibition did it no harm

Book number 18 in the challenge has to be a book that was previously banned.

Originally published privately in 1928, DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t widely available until it was picked up for publication by Penguin at the end of the 1950s. But before it could be released for sale the book was banned. Its contents were described as including unprintable words during the obscenity trial that ensued. However Penguin won the case and the full unexpurgated version of the novel went on sale in 1960. Millions of copies were sold.

The book tells the story of a love affair between an upper-class woman and a working class man and it seems that this cross-class relationship was judged almost as offensive as the sexually explicit language.

It wasn’t the first of Lawrence’s books to be banned. Two of his earlier novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love were also initially blocked from being released.

Of course things have moved on considerably and nowadays Lawrence’s writing would hardly raise an eyebrow. But exploring sexuality as he did in a lot of his writing was considered pornographic at the time he was writing.

However, by the time I was at high school in the 1970s, Lawrence’s work was considered respectable enough to be included in the reading list for the upper school literature syllabus. I read both The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers while I was at school. And, yes, for a teenage school girl they were fairly shocking reads but the message from our teacher was definitely that we were reading first-rate literature.

I went on at university and beyond to read more of Lawrence, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and he’s an author I have huge respect for. He wrote thought-provoking and engaging stories. And he didn’t just write about sexual relationships. He also wrote about emotional and mental health, about living life in a way that’s spontaneous and true to the self, and his female characters were strong and unconventional women.

Yes he was controversial and his writing was ahead of its time, but banning his books only served to raise their profile and the profile of the issues he wrote about. His writing paved the way for novels that were more broad-minded and inclusive than what had gone before. The rights and wrongs of censorship is a whole other post topic, but having his work banned has done nothing to sully Lawrence’s long term reputation as a first-class writer.

Have you read any previously banned books?

Book Review: Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty @maclavertyB @JonathanCape #bookreview #MondayBlogs

Simply Superb Storytelling

If I was about to be exiled to a desert island and I could take only three books with me MacLaverty’s 1998 novel, Grace Notes, would be one of them. It was my introduction to this author’s work and I’ve been a fan ever since.

But being a fan of MacLaverty’s novels requires patience. It’s been sixteen years since MacLaverty’s last novel as he’s been busy with other forms of writing in the meantime.

However, it’s been worth the wait. Midwinter Break is superb. The quality of the writing is classic MacLaverty, not a word is wasted, but each scene is way more than the sum of its parts.

The story about a long-married, retired couple on a winter holiday in Amsterdam is, on the face of it, a simple one. But it’s a deceptive simplicity. This is an emotional, truthful and intimate story of marital love. MacLaverty is a master storyteller and Midwinter Break is a compact, meaningful and thought-provoking tale that is beautifully told.

Back Cover Blurb:

A retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, fly from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam for a long weekend. A holiday to refresh the senses, to do some sightseeing and generally to take stock of what remains of their lives. Their relationship seems safe, easy, familiar – but over the course of the four days we discover the deep uncertainties which exist between them. 

Gerry, once an architect, is forgetful and set in his ways. Stella is tired of his lifestyle, worried about their marriage and angry at his constant undermining of her religious faith. Things are not helped by memories which have begun to resurface of a troubled time in their native Ireland. As their midwinter break comes to an end, we understand how far apart they are – and can only watch as they struggle to save themselves.

Midwinter Break is published by Jonathan Cape and is available as a hardback, paperback, and as an ebook.

26 Books in 2017 Book 17: Book You Can Read in a Day

Quality versus Quantity (2)

Book 17 in the 26-Books-in-52-Weeks Challenge has to be a book that can be read in a day. So a category in complete contrast to book 16 which had to be over 500 pages long.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole novel in a 24 hour period. This is probably due to the fact that I mainly read in bed at night, so no matter how gripping the story might be, the need to sleep wins out in the end.

Some children’s books, however, easily fit the category.

For example there are the ones I read to my pupils when I was a primary school teacher as well as the books I read to my young grandchildren. Favourites would include:

  • The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, The Gruffalo’s Wean ( Scots version of The Gruffalo’s Child) The Stick Man, – heck just about anything by Julia Donaldson.
  • Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown and Scott Nash
  • The Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman

And I’d also like to include some fabulous and slightly off-the-wall graphic novels for older children. They all provoke great discussion:

  • The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
  • Way Home by Libby Hathorn and Gregory Rogers
  • Tuesday by David Wiesner
  • The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

And finally

There are some books for grown-ups that I have actually read in a day and they’re a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine and these are the LADYBIRD BOOKS FOR GROWN-UPS. 

My particular favourite is The Husband. It’s hilarious.

 

 

So over to you – what books would you suggest for this category?

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine @GailHoneyman @HarperFiction #bookreview #Monday Blogs

Original, warm and poignant. 

I loved this book. I loved the excellent writing and I loved Eleanor.

Eleanor, who narrated her own story, describes herself as a survivor. She’s right. She has survived a terrible childhood trauma, and, as she sees it, now’s she’s in her thirties with a job and a flat, she’s completely fine. Only she’s not.

Eleanor’s complete lack of social skills, her literal interpretation of events and conversations, and her unique and quirky take on life in general, mean she’s rather a lost and lonely soul.

Gail Honeyman’s portrayal of Eleanor is stunning. The story of Eleanor’s search for love and friendship is overflowing with poignancy. There are bleak aspects to the story, but there are humorous moments too. And overall it’s a tale where kindness and humanity win through.

This is one of my top three books so far in 2017. And I do hope the author is busy writing her next one.

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is published by Harper Collins and is available as a hardback, an audio book and as an ebook.

26 Books in 2017 Book 15: Finding Alison by Deirdre Eustace @bwpublishing #bookreview #MondayBlogs

 

Book 15 in the 26-Books-in-52-Weeks Challenge has to be a book that someone else recommended to me.

As with many of the other categories in this challenge the list of potential choices was quite a long one. This is because I base most of my book choices on someone else’s recommendations. I sometimes go with suggestions made by bookshops or by reviewers in newspapers and magazines, but by far my main source of recommendations are a trusty group of book bloggers.

I’m a member of a Facebook group called Book Connectors set up by the utterly amazing and awesome Anne Cater. This is a group made up of readers, writers and reviewers. The reviewers are all book bloggers and many of them are amazingly dedicated and prolific. Their review posts are done out of a love of reading and a desire to share their thoughts on what they’ve read. Their reviews aren’t paid for by publishers and so there is no bias other than personal taste.

I follow quite a few blogs written by Book Connector members and some of them are almost entirely responsible for my rather large TBR (To-Be-Read) pile of books.

It was Book Connector, Joanne, whose blog you can visit here who recommended my most recent read. It is book number 15 in my 26 Books Challenge and it is Finding Alison by Deirdre Eustace.

Back Cover Blurb: In Carniskey, a small fishing village in Ireland, the community is divided, wracked by grief and guilt; love and resentment; despair and hope. Sean Delaney has been missing at sea for three years, and no one – least of all his grieving wife, Alison – knows what really happened to him. Having lost her husband, her financial security, and having grown distant from her daughter, Alison feels alone and estranged from the villagers. Sean’s mother has not spoken since her house was burgled after his disappearance, and Alison’s only friend, Kathleen, harbours secrets of her own. Isolated by their stunning, yet often cruel, surroundings, the community is forced to look inwards. But when artist and lifelong nomad William comes to town, he offers Alison a new perspective on life – and love. What she doesn’t realise is that strangers have secrets of their own, and William’s arrival threatens to unearth the mysteries of the past. A story of courage and humanity, we follow a community through their struggles and triumphs in love, loss and betrayal. As each of the characters strives to find their own sense of belonging, they are led to the realisation that it is only through the truth that they can truly find happiness.

My Review of Finding Alison:

I loved this book. It was a difficult book to put down and had me reading way past my usual lights out time. It was also one of those books where I desperately wanted to know how it ended, but I also didn’t want to finish it because it was so enjoyable a read.

The book tells the story of Alison who meets and falls in love with William whilst recovering from the loss of her husband Sean. As Alison gets to know William, she also gets to know her true self. Themes of redemption, recovery and mortality are woven through the story as Alison faces up to the challenges of parenting her teenage daughter, accepting her marriage was far from a happy one, and to moving on with her life.

On the face of it, it’s a contemporary romance, but it’s also so much more. A man and a woman meet and fall in love but the challenges their relationship faces are far from the usual sort. The characters are superbly drawn including the supporting cast.

This is a beautifully written, captivating, intelligent and very moving story.

Type of Read: Snuggle in, tea and tissues to hand, and immerse yourself.

Finding Alison is published by Black and White Publishing and is available as a paperback and as an e-book.

QUESTION: Where do you get your book recommendations from?

Book Review: Courting the Countess by Anne Stenhouse

courting-the-countess

Genre: Historical Fiction

Regular readers of my book reviews will know that crime and contemporary fiction along with the occasional work of non-fiction are my main areas of choice when it comes to reading. But historical fiction by this particular author will always get my intention. I’ve read, enjoyed and reviewed all her previous books and all are full of romance, wit and great period detail.

So I knew the chances were I’d also enjoy her latest novel and I certainly did.

But even if I’d not read this author’s previous books, the chances are I’d have been sufficiently intrigued by the premise behind this Regency romance to give it a go. In an interview on Rosemary Gemmell’s blog which you can read here, Anne Stenhouse explains that the idea for Courting the Countess arose out of a writing competition entry she did. The competition brief was to come up with the first 2,000 words of a story which gave a new slant on a fairy tale. The author chose to base her story on the tale of Beauty and the Beast.

But in this new version of the old story, it is the main female character, Countess Melissa Pateley, who is disfigured having been badly burned in a house fire. And it’s the main male character, Colonel Harry Gunn, who is the physically beautiful one.

There is the usual attention historical detail and as before this brings the story fully to life. It’s easy to visualise the murky streets of Edinburgh’s old town and the wide streets and large houses and shared green spaces of the city’s Georgian New Town. I also learned two new words/ phrases – namely – reticule which is a woman’s small decorated handbag, and haut ton which means anything pertaining to the elite, the fashionable and wealthy, and those of good-breeding.

This is a darker tale than Anne Stenhouse’s previous books, but there are still nice touches of wit and humour. The dialogue is, as always, to the fore and fairly crackles and zings. And, as in the earlier books the women are never helpless or witless and give as good as they get. The romance is high, as are the stakes, and the plot turns and twists right up to satisfying conclusion.

Yes, dear reader, I loved it.

Back Cover Blurb:

England, 1819 Lady Melissa Pateley is not having an easy time of it. Her beloved husband Neville has died, and a fire at her London home has left her covered in scars. If it wasn’t for a band of loyal servants, she’s not sure how she would survive. Things take a turn for the worse when one day, Colonel Harry Gunn and his fellow soldier Zed break into her home, bundle her into a coach and kidnap her. She is at a loss until she learns that Harry Gunn is the cousin of George Gunn, a man who has been stalking her for years, and that Harry’s Uncle John had warned him that as long as George is out there, Melissa is not safe. Uncle John insists that Harry finds Melissa and keeps her safe. But that very night George shows up at Harry’s home with Harry’s sister Lottie, who thinks Melissa and George would make a good match. Perhaps Melissa would have been safer at home after all. Yet even with her scars, she is certain that the handsome Colonel Gunn is attracted to her. But of course, nothing is ever simple. Startling revelations rip the family apart, causing everyone to question what they once held dear. As Colonel Gunn goes in search of George and the truth, he has to wonder – had the keeping of secrets not marred more lives than the secrets would have destroyed?

Type of read: In an Edinburgh New Town hotel or residence, but failing that, in your own living-room, curtains drawn, on your chaise longue by a roaring log fire and a do-not-disturb sign on the door.

Courting the Countess is published by Endeavour Press and is available as an ebook.

Book Review: Fly or Fall by Gilli Allan

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Genre: Contemporary Fiction

This was a slow burner of a story. As I began to read it, I reckoned I knew where it was heading. I reckoned I knew the territory the writer was leading me into. This was going to be a tale of English, middle-class, bored and desperate housewives getting up to all sorts.

I was wrong. I should have known better, having read other books by this author. Gilli Allan doesn’t do stereotypes. She’s also always original in her approach to character development. And she’s a clever writer.

Yes, the story begins slowly, but there’s enough detail and intrigue to hook the reader. Yes the characters seem at first to be familiar types, but there are layers of complexity to them and lots to be discovered as the story progresses. The characters are not even particularly likeable at the start, but as you get to know them, you warm to them and soon begin to care what happens to them.

Nell, the main character, is in her early thirties, but boy, has she packed a lot into her three decades including being mother to teenage twins. Fly or Fall sees her life going through upheaval and change and she has the choice of letting it all overwhelm her or of at last making a stand and refusing to be the victim.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the story, the originality of the characters, and the unpredictability of the plot – and the ending was unexpected but satisfying.

Despite everything that happens, this is a life-affirming story. It reminds you that life is what you make it and its obstacles are there to be overcome.

Type of read: Tea and cake to hand, on the sofa, raining outside, cosy inside – and just indulge and enjoy.

Back Cover Blurb: Wife and mother, Nell, fears change, but it is forced upon her by her manipulative husband, Trevor. Finding herself in a new world of flirtation and casual infidelity, her principles are undermined and she’s tempted. Should she emulate the behaviour of her new friends or stick with the safe and familiar? But everything Nell has accepted at face value has a dark side. Everyone – even her nearest and dearest – has been lying. She’s even deceived herself. The presentiment of disaster, first felt as a tremor at the start of the story, rumbles into a full blown earthquake. When the dust settles, nothing is as it previously seemed. And when an unlikely love blossoms from the wreckage of her life, she fears it is doomed. The future, for the woman who feared change, is irrevocably altered. But has she been broken, or has she transformed herself?

Fly or Fall is published by Accent Press and is available as a paperback and as an ebook.

Good Fathers in Literature

As a follow up to last week’s post about my own father, I’m posting again today, the day after Father’s Day in the UK, about dads.

I was inspired to do this one after reading a post by fellow blogger, Christina Philippou, on good examples of fatherhood in literature. So thanks, Christina. You can read her post here

When I began thinking about who I’d put on my list, I was surprised how difficult it was to come up with a few. I decided not to ask for Mr Google for suggestions and to just trawl my memory – so it it would indeed be my list.

Lots of what I’ve read has had absent fathers, bad fathers or no mention of fathers. I could come up with a few good fathers from my childhood and young adult reading and two from my most recent reading, but for all the years of reading in between I was struggling to come up with any. There’s perhaps a PhD thesis in why they seem scarce.

Or perhaps this says more about what I choose to read than about whether these male characters exist or not. I’d be interested to know what readers think about that.

Anyway, without further ado here are my five best dads in literature:

Malory Towers

  • From childhood and Enid Blyton’s first book in the Malory Towers series, it would be Mr Rivers, the father of main character, Darrell Rivers. She’s having a hard time settling into her new boarding school until her surgeon dad saves the life of her fellow pupil and future best friend, Sally who needs her appendix out. Not the easiest example for dad’s to follow but hey surely, if you’re kid is having trouble making friends or being picked on at school, it would surely be worth it to get yourself off to medical school.

Little Women

  • From later childhood reading, I would nominate Mr March. He is the much loved father of the four March girls in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. He’s absent for most of the book, but in a good way as he’s off being an army chaplain during the American Civil war. His absence is a significant presence (if you see what I mean) and is central to the story.

To Kill A Mockingbird

  • From my young adult reading days, best father has to be Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mocking Bird. His integrity, honesty and respect for his fellow humans makes him just the best role model.

And coming up to date, my final two are from my current weakness for contemporary crime fiction.

Keep the Midnight Out

  • Firstly, there’s Detective Superintendent William Lorimer who is the lead cop in Alex Gray’s novels. He’s not actually a father but in Keep the Midnight Out his longing to be a father is poignantly told as he and his wife come to terms with infertility.

Thin Air

  • And finally, it’s another detective, this time Jimmy Perez from the Ann Cleeves, Shetland set crime novels. He’s a flawed but loving step-dad, struggling to do the best for his step-daughter.

So, who’d be on your list?