My March Books

I absolutely definitely do not have time to write this blog post! We are off to France for a week on Saturday, and I have a lot to do to get ready. It is a home exchange holiday, so in addition to all the usual pre-holiday prep of packing and so on, we also have to leave the house in tip-top condition for our guest family. And, of course, the children need feeding, watering and entertaining as usual. Just to make life even more fun, our drinking water went off this morning, and so I spent quite a lot of time I definitely did not have boiling and cooling water, and organising an emergency plumber. And then a lady from First Utility called to have a matey chat about my kilowatt unit costs and how I could be reducing them. It felt too important to hang up, but wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending 20 minutes of Sophia’s precious nap time!

However. If I don’t write my March books up today, then it won’t happen until mid-April, so I have despatched Anna to tidy her bedroom (possibly for ‘tidy’ read ‘curl up on her bean-bag and listen to her Paddington CD), and Sophia is in her cot. The chatting and burbling indicate that she is in no way asleep, but I am choosing to ignore that for the time being and call it nap-time. So, March books here we go.

March booksCasting Off  and All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

It feels like a long time since I finished the final two novels in Howard’s amazing family saga, right back at the very beginning of March. Having absolutely loved the first three in the series, these two definitely did not disappoint. We follow the lives of the Cazalets into the social change and economic uncertainty of the years immediately following the Second World War. The characters whom we met as children are now grown up, many of them with children of their own. The intimacy of the writing is such that every turn of the plot feels like news or gossip about old friends. “Ooh, Polly’s had twins!” or “Thank goodness Hugh has met someone else at last.” or “I always thought that Wills was probably gay”. I absolutely loved, loved, loved these books, and know that I will return to them again and again.

A Summer at Sea by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my top go-to authors for romantic escapism and comfort reading. I can also report *gets ready to boast* that she is an absolutely delightful person. I met her at the Romantic Novelists Association awards when my own book, Two for Joy was short-listed for Contemporary Novel of the Year a couple of years ago. Sadly I didn’t win, but it was fantastic to meet Katie, and she was kind enough to say that she had really enjoyed my books, which was a fantastic compliment. Anyway, a new Katie Fforde is always cause for celebration, and although I buy most of my books in our fantastic local Waterstone’s, when I saw this on special offer in Sainsbury’s as I did the weekly food shop one rainy Monday morning I just couldn’t resist.

Emily, the central protagonist, is a midwife – a career I seriously considered myself for a while – so it was particularly interesting for me. As always, Fforde has obviously done her research very thoroughly. Throw in some beautiful Scottish Highlands scenery, a heavily pregnant best friend and a ruggedly handsome Scottish doctor, and you’ve got a total feel-good read which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I understand very well just how much effort goes into writing a book, and it feels downright churlish to publicly tear all that to pieces because it doesn’t meet your personal taste. I would never say I enjoyed something I didn’t, but prefer to operate on the principle of ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. In this case, though, the author has been dead for many years, and so is unlikely to be hurt by my saying that this was one book I just couldn’t finish. I got about half way through, but found both characters and plot so implausible I was actually looking for excuses not t0 read! I decided enough was enough, and just skim-read to the end to discover whodunnit. I won’t be counting the book as one of my 52, but I have included it here for completeness.

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

After not enjoying Murder of a Lady I was looking for something to really get my teeth into, when this book by Margaret Forster caught my eye on a display in Waterstone’s. I still had book tokens from my birthday, so was able to treat myself, and I’m really glad I did.

The book does what it says on the tin. It is an account by Forster of every house she lived in during her nearly 80 years. She was born in a  two-up, two-down council house in Carlisle, and ended up with two homes, one in affluent Dartmouth Park on the borders of Hampstead Heath in London, and a holiday home in the Lake District. The book covers the personal – the story of her family, education, marriage, children, career and the illness which ultimately killed her, and the socio-political – how our homes and what we expect from them has changed over the course of the 20th and early 21st century.

Forster’s personality shines through her vivid descriptions, and so it was particularly poignant reading it just a few weeks after she died. The enormous importance and significance of ‘home’ to her is also something I feel very strongly myself, and so there was that fantastic chord of recognition which is one of the chief pleasures of reading.

Death in Devon by Ian Sansom

I wasn’t sure if I was going to love or hate this book before I read it.  It is the second in a new series of detective fiction set in the 1930s. They are a very deliberate ironic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novels I love so much, and at first I wasn’t sure if I would find the satire annoying. In the end, I didn’t. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was an affectionate, ironic satire, rather than a biting attack, and I enjoyed it. The narrator, a Spanish Civil War veteran, is highly likeable, and the plot was cleverly thought out, with a shock ending in the best tradition of Golden Age fiction. I will definitely be looking out for more books in this series.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

I had a bit of a Wodehouse-fest last month when I wasn’t well. Thankfully I haven’t had tonsillitis this month, but we did have an evening with a financial advisor talking about life insurance. The intellectual effort of trying to bend my mind around figures and statistics and probabilities and the pros and cons of different models, combined with the existential horror of contemplating a scenario where I am a widow with two young children, or my babies have been left motherless or orphaned meant that by the time our (very nice, helpful, friendly and intelligent) financial advisor left, I was in no fit state for anything but a mug of hot Ribena, bed and an instalment of Jeeves and Wooster. That made everything ok again.

 

 

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2016 Reading Challenge

As I have blogged about many times before, books and reading are absolutely fundamental to my life. Recently, however, I feel I have lost my reading mojo. I still read a lot, but more often than not I am re-reading an old favourite, or reading blogs or recipe books.Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but I am starting to feel a little bit stale.

There are a few barriers to reading new things. The first is time. The reading I do do is in snatched moments – a couple of pages when Anna is watching telly and Sophia is happily occupied with one her toys, another sneaky glance when I’m waiting for the pasta to cook, and then as much as I can manage (normally not much) before I fall asleep at night. It is quite difficult to accommodate anything that needs much concentration or brain power in these tiny windows.

The second is my unruly emotions. Since having Anna I have found that I can’t cope with sad, poignant, violent or traumatic events very well, either in art of life. Since having Sophia, that has worsened. I spend far too much time silently panicking about all the misery and pain in the world, all the illnesses and accidents and senseless violence, and how they could affect my precious girls. In the little time I have for reading I want escapism, not powerfully crafted reminders of the vulnerability and fragility of life.And many books provide this escapism. The problem is, it’s hard to predict. A few years ago I read an utterly charming and heartwarming book about a single mother starting up a knitting shop in New York, and through the classes she taught meeting a wonderful group of friends who enriched her life. It was absolutely delightful until, without much warning, she died of ovarian cancer in the penultimate chapter, leaving her friends bereft and her young daughter heartbroken and motherless. I haven’t quite got over that yet.

The third problem is my addiction. I don’t want to be flippant, but, rather as people who have issues with alcohol or tobacco learn that they can’t be social drinkers or have ‘just one’ fag at a party without sending themselves spirally back into damaging addiction, so I worry a bit about me with books. When I am reading a new book I love I tend to lose myself to the world completely. And I do mean completely. I have missed my stop on trains and buses countless times. I have been late for work. I have sat in a busy public place in floods of tears, utterly oblivious to the consternation of those around me, because I am so absorbed in the world of my book. The thing is, I can’t afford to do that now. I genuinely am a little worried that if I read too much my compulsion will grow and my children will spend too much time in front of the telly  in dirty clothes eating cheese sandwiches because I am too absorbed to play or wash or cook.

So, three good reasons for me not to read. But the overwhelming case in favour is that reading is so much a part of who I am that if I don’t read I will be losing myself.

bokcaseLocal libraries set a summer reading challenge for school children – to read and rate six new books over the course of the summer holidays. In other words, six books in six weeks. So it occurred to me that if they can do that, so can I. Only to make it a more sustained effort I am challenging myself to 52 books in 2016. I was very sceptical that I could achieve my Advent blog challenge, but I managed it, so to incentivise myself with this I am also going to blog monthly about what I have been reading. The aim is not that these books are all great literature. I am going to read what I love, and so I expect that chick lit, detective fiction and the odd cookery book will make up a large part of the list.

I am doing pretty well so far. We are half way through January, and I am right on target having read 2.5 new books so far this month. And so far Anna and Sophia remain (reasonably) clean, well-fed and contented. Early in February I will be reporting back on them – watch this space!

The Sixth Day of Advent: Reading

After my family, the great love of my life is undoubtedly reading. Ever since I can remember it has been absolutely fundamental to me. Discovering that English Literature was an academic subject, and I could effectively make it my job to read, felt like winning the jackpot. Some of my happiest moments ever have been immersed in a book, accessing worlds I could never have known any other way.

I get nervous going out without a book in my handbag, even if I’m only doing the school run. After all, you never know what might happen. And much as I love real books, and could never dream of giving them up, the invention of the Kindle has significantly improved the quality of my life. Going on holiday, especially backpacking round Europe was tricky, because I could never fit the volume of books necessary for a two week holiday into my bag. The only solution was to try and persuade my husband to take books I wanted to read as part of his allowance, and that was difficult as he normally favours political biographies or academic history books, which aren’t really my favourites. Almost inevitably we would end up in Lisbon or Budapest or Istanbul searching for an English Language bookshop so I could get my fix. Now I can just load up as many books as I want (Amazon one-click is a bit dangerous for my finances) onto my Kindle.

My Kindle was also fantastic during my pregnancy. I spent a lot of time waiting around in hospitals to see midwives or obstetricians, or have a scan or blood test. Later in my pregnancy I had a couple of scares and needed to spend a few hours being monitored to check that the baby was doing ok. As long as I had my charged Kindle in my bag, I was completely relaxed about the waits, even welcomed them.

bokcaseNow Anna is reading ‘chapter books’ as well, finding space for books in our house has become an ever more pressing issue. I recently had what I felt to be quite a brutal cull, asking myself in all honesty if each book was something either I would read again, or would want to lend to someone else. I amassed an enormous pile, in fact filled one of those huge blue Ikea bags, and staggered off to Oxfam with it.Unfortunately, that only made space for the books which had been piled up in the corner of the room, there wasn’t actually any more space for new ones. The solution was obvious. A local dad I know from the school-run is a carpenter and cabinet-maker, so I texted him and asked him to pop round to give us a quote for building more bookcases. Simple as.

When I set my website and blog up, one of the first things I wanted to do was put together some lists of my favourite books. Lists and books, it doesn’t get much better than that. One day when I have a bit of spare time I want to add lists of my favourite children’s books and my favourite cookery books as well.

It’s a brief blog this morning, as I am in sole charge of three children. My husband is working, and Anna had her best friend to sleep over last night. They were very good, and we all got much more sleep than I’d anticipated, but my concentration is limited as I am writing this while participating in a game which is a cross between princes and princesses and cops and robbers. on the third day of christmas coverI, needless to say, am playing the role of the servant. They are currently sitting, Anna wearing a green embroidered cloak which belonged to my mother-in-law in her hippy youth and her friend with an old purple silk scarf draped around his shoulders, compiling notes of all the heinous crimes which are being committed in their kingdom. These range from murder to failing to say thank you for a gift. But if you have a little bit more time on your hands than I do at the moment, and fancy a Christmassy read, then *shameless advertising plug coming up* do consider downloading my novella On the Third Day of Christmas...

The Third Day of Advent: My daughters

The day Anna was born, nearly seven years ago now, took happiness to a new level. A transcendent, luminous ecstasy I could never have imagined, even though I had always known I wanted children. With that joy, however, came a darker side. Lying in the hospital that night with my darling little bundle tucked up next to me in her perspex cot, I realised that there was now the also the potential to be more bitterly unhappy than I could previously have envisaged. Anna cotThe gates of Hell seemed to gape open as I glimpsed all the things from cot death to leukaemia, traffic accidents to falls, autism to asthma which now seemed to be lying in wait for this tiny fragile person in whom my happiness was ineluctably bound up. One day I will die and leave her. That is intolerable. But the only alternative is literally unthinkable.

The unbearable intensity of both these emotions is a product of a potent cocktail of hormones, sleep deprivation and strong painkillers, and thankfully they subside somewhat, because it just isn’t possible to live ordinary life like that. What remained was the deepest and most powerful love I could ever have conceived of. Pardon the pun. Before Sophia was born I fretted that I could never feel so strongly for someone else. I was wrong. My second perfect girl stole my heart just as completely as my first.

These two girls deprive me of sleep, cash and freedom. The DINKY lifestyle I alluded to a couple of days ago, of spontaneous nights out, weekends in boutique hotels, reckless consumption of alcohol hasn’t quite disappeared, but it is certainly considerably more elusive. In place of tailored pencil skirts, high heels and a large department to run I have grubby jeans, bags under my eyes and a pile of lovingly cooked food to sweep up off the floor. Again. But I also have Anna and Sophia.somerset house

Anna is more and more developing her own personality, and is such fun to be with and so interesting to talk to. Like me, she loves reading more than anything, and it makes me very happy to share with her the books I loved as a child. Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit are particular favourites at the moment, and I am very much looking forward to introducing her to the likes of L.M. Montgomery, Louisa M. Alcott and Noel Streatfield in due course. She is thoughtful, gentle, imaginative, creative and fascinated by the world around her. This leads to a lot of ‘whys’, many of which challenge my memories of science GCSE, my limited knowledge of philosophy or my spiritual, ethical and theological convictions. I really don’t know what parents did before Google.
She also feels things very intensely – be that happiness, excitement, frustration or sadness. Her happiness and excitement at Christmas approaching is very infectious, and although it can be upsetting to see her sad, it also makes me happy that, normally, at the moment, her problems are still such that a cuddle and a chat with mummy or daddy can sort everything out.

Sophia may only be eleven months, but she also has her own distinct little personality. She is the sunniest, sweetest-natured baby it is possible to imagine. When she sees me or my husband or Anna after a short absence her whole face lights up, and she waves her arms and legs around, unable to contain the joy which overwhelms her at our presence.
sophia chair
Which is nice. She smiles at strangers in the street, and loves to try and engage with other children from babies at playgroups through to Anna’s schoolfriends. She’s just developed the loveliest habit of crawling up to me as I’m on the floor playing with her and climbing onto my lap, laying her face against my chest momentarily, and then climbing down to carry on with her important baby business. It is so touching and melts my heart every time. She is always on the move, and the cuddles and stories which her sister loved (and loves) are, for Sophia, a waste of time which could be spent crawling, climbing, exploring.

Seeing them together as sisters, developing their own relationship and love for each other also makes me particularly happy.

In her novel, Larger Than Life, Adele Parks has one of her characters, Libby, a young single mum, describe how she feels about parenthood and her daughter: “It’s an amalgamation of a zillion squabbling emotions: joy, rapture, satisfaction, fear, guilt, wonder, relief, worry. Especially worry…But mostly she’s about joy. An indescribable, unrepeatable splash of colourful, wonderful joy.”. Which describes perfectly how I feel about my girls. I look at them and can’t believe I am lucky enough to have them. But I also panic that I don’t deserve them, that no-one can possibly deserve as much happiness as they bring me, and it is all too easy to let the crippling fear of that first night in the hospital creep back in. anna and sophia

That is more of a problem when they are not with me, as now when Anna is at school and Sophia is napping upstairs. When I am with them, their gift of living absolutely in the moment draws me in too and I can be happy just being. With my precious daughters.

 

Books in prisons

I make no secret of the fact that books are the most crucial non-animate element of my life. I can’t remember a time when my life didn’t revolve around books and reading, nor imagine a time when it ever will. When I am sad, angry, ill, tired, bored or scared it is to books I turn, and reading has never failed to comfort me.

I remember being taught Heinrich Heine’s famous quote – “Where they burn books, they will also burn people” – in a GCSE history lesson, and that I was powerfully struck by its fundamental truth. Books contain the very essence of what it is to be human, and it is inarguable that to destroy books is to damage the whole of humankind. I believe that the same also goes for denying people free access to books.

One of the great achievements of this country is our public libraries. I would say that, wouldn’t I? Both my parents were librarians, my holiday job as a student was in my local library, and now I’m a writer. But it seems like a great hallmark of civilisation that anyone, no matter what their personal or financial circumstances can walk into their local library and read whatever they want, for free. Current austerity measures mean that many public libraries have been closed, and funding is severely restricted. This angers and saddens me, but I can see that when local authorities are being forced, often against their will, to make stringent cuts, that the decisions are tough. Free access to books is crucial, but so too are Meals on Wheels, child protection, the fire service, and so on, so choices have to be made.

However, the news which has emerged this week, namely that Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, has introduced a ban on parcels being sent to prisoners, and that this ban will include books, is iniquitous and utterly indefensible. The excuse that it is too time consuming to put parcels through security checks doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, meaning that the policy can only be seen as petty and malicious. Government sources point out that prisoners are able to earn money which they could use to buy books, but £8 a week doesn’t go very far. I’m a fairly devoted reader, but even I would baulk slightly at spending 100% of my disposable income on books, which is what this would amount to for prisoners who want to read a modest paperback book a week. Yes, there are prison libraries, but given the cuts to which which ordinary public libraries have been subjected, I find it very hard to believe that prison libraries have particularly extensive resources. And there is also an emotional significance to books – a book received as a gift from your partner, parent, child, friend is doubly precious.

Denying prisoners free access to books makes a complete mockery of the notion that prison is about rehabilitation as well as punishment because books are a cornerstone not only of education and learning, but also of spiritual and emotional nourishment. Of course, this ban is not only on parcels of books, but parcels fullstop, meaning that prisoners are also to be denied the consolation of a small gift from their child or basic necessities such as changes of underwear or socks. The punishment aspect of prison is the deprivation of liberty and the separation from loved ones.  Extending it further than that, denying prisoners basic human rights such as free access to books, is immoral but also self-defeating. Almost all prisoners will be released at some point. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in their wellbeing, it is surely basic common sense that sending someone back into the community when they are angry and resentful at the way they have been treated, have had no opportunities to enhance their employability, and are nursing years’ worth of crippling boredom into the bargain is asking for trouble.

I feel angry and ashamed that I am living in a country in which this can be introduced as serious Government policy. However, I am also proud and happy to live in a country with fantastic campaigning organisations such as Liberty and The Howard League, and one in which over forty eminent writers, including Alan Bennett, Sir Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Carol Ann Duffy, Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman, Irvine Welsh, Nick Hornby, Ian Rankin, Joanne Harris and Caitlin Moran have formed a coalition to urge the Justice Secretary to rethink his policy. You can add your voice to theirs by signing the petition at www.change.org.

I know not whether Laws be right,

Or whether Laws be wrong;

All that we know who lie in gaol

Is that the wall is strong;

And that each day is like a year,

A year whose days are long.

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’

Oscar Wilde