Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias; dystopian fiction or a very possible future?

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias is set in a future Britain where Brexit has indeed happened; the country is governed by The Party, a deeply conservative, right wing, authoritarian government. The Party’s prime focus is on the creation and implementation of the Immigration and Residency Act: anyone not born in the UK, who has been resident for fewer than twenty-five years, does not have an automatic right to remain. There is a points assessment system as well as forced deportation and it is law to report anyone you believe not to be BB (British Born). As you may gather, this book packs quite a punch and takes its YA target audience incredibly seriously. It is equally a wonderfully written love story between two teenagers, Ash and Zara, who are forced to navigate their lives together within this extreme, political context.1413431402

The main reason I picked up Night of the Party is the political element, which is actually so frighteningly close to the present reality that it feels more real than futuristic. I am an immigrant and all the fears I have for my future, should a hard Brexit go ahead, are all explored in this story. Sometimes it even got to the point where I had to stop reading for a little while as the storyline felt so very immediate, so very personal. Powerful stuff indeed.

flag peopleThe concept of nationalism and how this is used by politicians to manipulate thinking is brilliantly interwoven throughout the book. There are so many echoes of fascist governments of the past as well as the prevailing idea present today that all was better in the “good old days of Britain”. World War 2 films are produced en masse and are highly popular, the National Anthem is played at the end of each film. Churchill is once again an icon and his image displayed in cafes and restaurants. A strong emphasis is placed on all things traditional and the word itself crops up over and over again – how subtle the manipulation of language can be and how effective when it is part of everyday life! Pubs have signs that say that non-British Born are not welcome; the segregation is blatant and ordinary practice. There is talk of “duty” to report “Illegals”. There are also Neighbourhood Watch volunteers patrolling the streets and the presence of The Agency, which runs surveillance- everyone is watching or being watched. And all of this is wrapped up as a “necessary defence of national resources, security and culture” by the prime minister. Frightening.

flag peopleWithin this context, I loved the exploration of what “home” means as part of nationalism and the persecution of immigrants. Zara has lived in the UK for most of her life, for her, Romania can never be home even though she was born there. She wants to study English Literature at university; everything she knows and loves is here. Her roots are here. Home is about so much more than where you are born.

flag peopleI also think Mathias’ writing is exceptional in the way she threads current political viewpoints clearly throughout the story in a very genuine, accessible way, inviting readers to challenge their own perceptions.  An example of this is a very well written conservation that takes place between two of Ash’s friends, each on the opposite side of the political divide; whilst The Party supporter Lewis talks about the UK being a small island with limited space and resources and how non-BB are placing too much demand on the NHS, on housing etc, Chris talks of the deportation being an infringement of basic human rights.

flag peopleIn connection with this, one of the most powerful sections of the book focus on the scenes in a detention centre, where non-BBs are awaiting deportation. I don’t want to give the plot away but do want to mention how perceptively and sensitively written these scenes are. Dignity is stripped away, basic needs are not met, human rights are abused and for all intents and purposes it is a prison for those that have not committed a crime other than not being born in the UK. However, within this dark, soulless world there are kind individuals, other detainees who provide hope and solidarity; Mathias shows how things can happen for the good when women unite – this highlights a defying, resilient humanity, which can prevail regardless of the odds and that hope is so very important for our future.

flag peopleIt is of course much more than a political comment, at the heart there is an intense, genuine and beautifully written love story. Ash has experienced a terrible loss in his recent past and then he meets Zara. Though the two have not met before, their history is interlinked. Ash is BB, Zara is Romanian. I realise this sounds very vague, but it is hard to say more without giving away the mystery that unravels throughout the book! The story is told by both Ash and Zara’s perspectives in alternating chapters – this works brilliantly because we not only get to see into the hearts and minds of both characters – and I was emotionally engaged with both characters as if I personally knew them, but we also see in great detail how different their experiences of living in the UK are and how different their futures look. Ash and Zara’s belief in each other, the depth and sheer resilience of their relationship was so very lovely and also reminded me what teenagers are indeed capable of even though they are often portrayed otherwise.

flag peopleAsh and Zara are forced to deal with fundamental life questions as part of their relationship, questions that everyone needs to ask themselves in the world we live in. For instance, Ash’s dad tells him it is best to avoid friends who aren’t BB as soon as the law takes affect and his mum adds, “You don’t want to have to choose between reporting someone or breaking the law.” What would you do if it came to the crunch – do what you know to be right and follow your heart or adhere to the rules? And it is this humanity that absolutely shines through in the book, the message that each life matters because each one of us is a human being with emotions, needs and dreams.

This book needs to be read. It needs to be shouted about from the rooftops. It needs to be promoted in schools. It needs to be read by those adults in our world who are either unaware by choice or circumstance of our current political situation.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

I came across Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik when the Walter Scott Prize longlist for 2018 was announced (it made the shortlist too). Without even opening the book, I knew it would be just my cup of tea – it has so many elements that I love: a World War II backdrop and the British countryside; intriguing female lead characters; a character driven story line as well as an exploration of friendship and hidden lives.

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The story is of Rene Hargreaves, who, one day in 1940, walks out on her husband and children to join the Land Army and is billeted to the remote Starlight Farm where she then meets its owner, Elsie Boston. The two are strangers from totally different worlds and weary of one another but they soon come to depend on and care for each other immensely. They are forced to leave Starlight and become itinerant farm workers, travelling the country together, always sticking to isolated farms where questions won’t be asked. After the war, they then settle in a Cornish cottage where their life together is shaken to its foundations when someone from Rene’s past intrudes. Everything is threatened, and the resulting choices and actions have far reaching consequences.

My thoughts…

The wonderfully crafted characters:

Elsie. Oh, how I identified with this socially awkward soul with an exceptional ability to care for animals and plants, who likes nothing better than being settled in a place she knows and loves with her radio to keep her company and routines to guide her days. Though she is the gentler of the two characters, there is a core strength within in her, a fierce determination to live her own life and not be constrained by others.

Rene. Based on Malik’s research of her own grandmother’s past, Rene challenges society head on and is a character of many layers (there is a wonderful article on Malik’s discoveries on the Penguin website). She breaches gender rules; walks away from being a wife and mother even though the consequences for her family and for herself are heart-breaking. But she knows herself well enough to know how her life needs to evolve and she makes it happen. Even in the hardest times. However, whilst Elsie craves isolation, Rene also enjoys the company of other people and being a part of the outside world and is often torn between these two worlds – I loved this contrast.text dividers-12 2The development of the relationship between Rene and Elsie is intricately and incredibly beautifully written in all its depth, complexity and human connection. I loved that their relationship as a same sex couple was not once explicitly mentioned yet all the nuances and small details spoke volumes. I especially enjoyed the way the characters spoke to each other, which gave a real sense of what they were like as people at the same time: Elsie’s more formal, slightly awkward constructions with such an underlying need for belonging; Rene’s more extrovert, direct and warmer ways, a voice that protects and nurtures on its own terms. This is not to say that life is perfect, unspoken words and underlying tensions run alongside; it is a hard existence for them and their contrasting personalities cause some heart-wrenching moments of distance between them too.text dividers-12 2I absolutely loved all the tiny details of home life for Elsie and Rene: playing patience, reading to each other, listening to the radio of an evening. I was transported back in time, picturing everything so clearly. The way Malik describes how every new dwelling is made into a home, despite an immense lack of financial resources, is also beautiful in its detail: every piece of furniture is hard won, every dark corner made the best of, hours and hours of hard graft to turn dismal surroundings into somewhere that they can belong.text dividers-12 2The descriptions of the landscape and how the two women are bonded with the land are gorgeous; starting at Elsie’s Starlight Farm then moving on to the places they travel as itinerant workers during the war and beyond. There is a wonderful description of them riding their bikes on a whim one evening to celebrate Rene’s birthday, their destination being an ancient white horse carved into the hillside, the outline of which has been covered with turf to prevent German planes using it for orientation purposes. Tipsy on a found half bottle of brandy and the exhilaration of spending time with each other, they uncover the horse just long enough for Rene to see it as a whole.text dividers-12 2There is a darker side to the story, which involves a trial in the last section of the book, when a visitor from Rene’s past intrudes and turns the women’s secluded life into a living nightmare. It is based on the newspaper article Malik found during her research. Elsie and Rene’s life, always so carefully kept out of the spotlight, is now under public scrutiny and, without giving more away, the way it was written really broke my heart. A brilliant contrast.text dividers-12 2In a Walter Scott Prize interview, Malik considers what history means to us today and talks of how perceptions of history are ever evolving as different aspects become important to us as a society. It is this kind of history that I love; the stories that haven’t yet been told, an emerging focus on women’s history and female perspectives, social history that allows you to have a real sense of connection with the past. Malik’s book does all this and much much more.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is one of the most beautiful, gentle, uplifting yet also tragic books I’ve read in quite some time. An amazing character piece of two women who refuse to fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has for them.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; how small acts of kindness can be life – changing

Every now and again a book comes into your life that has such a profound effect, that reaches deep into your soul and changes you for the better. Eleanor Oliphant is such a book. I’m actually finding it difficult to find adequate words for my thoughts and emotions about this debut novel, so bear with me.

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Eleanor is a woman in her thirties, she has crafted a carefully ordered life for herself without genuine human connection. She is a survivor of severe childhood trauma, which we learn more about as the story develops; this trauma has locked so many doors in Eleanor’s emotional and mental development. She is an outsider and doesn’t understand society’s rules; she is one of the loneliest characters I have ever come across. This all sounds very bleak and parts of the story are so very sad but, at the same time, this is the story of how Eleanor learns to open herself up to the world, to find meaning in her life and to allow love in. It is a story of so much courage as she tries to navigate a world, which feels alien to her and tries to come to terms with the dark experiences of her past.

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I’ve seen Eleanor Oliphant marketed as a ‘funny book full of humour’. I agree that there are many such brilliant moments as Eleanor’s perspective is so honest, her observations delightfully plain speaking and often childlike in honesty. There is a wonderful section where she is on a quest to look more socially acceptable, to look like the other women she sees as being normal. Her bewildered observations when she has her nails done and when she wants to buy trendy clothes in a department store, really did make me laugh, largely because I can totally identify with the bewilderment! When having makeup applied, the beautician asks her whether she likes a smoky eye look, Eleanor replies that she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. When asked whether she likes the finished effect, she say in all seriousness,

“I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon. It’s charming!”heart hands

However, selling it primarily as a comedy doesn’t sit right with me. I went into reading this book not knowing a lot about it but having the expectation of a Bridget Jones style narrative – this doesn’t begin to do Honeyman’s writing justice. Eleanor drinks two bottles of vodka at the weekend to make time pass quickly as there is nothing and nobody to fill the days when she is not working. Her mind becomes so dark at one point that she doesn’t know if life is worth living. This darkness is so well written, her mental health incredibly sensitively explored. I cried. Lots.

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Another thing I absolutely loved, is how Eleanor has moments of deep understanding, precisely because she doesn’t conform to what society expects; she doesn’t play by the social rules. For example, there is a scene in a café, where she is waiting for the rather wonderful Raymond, her first real friend. She attempts general conversation with a member of café staff and finds out he is leaving his job as his wife is terminally ill. Instead of shying away, finding a polite response, she tells him that she understands he would rather spend the short time left with his dying wife rather than serving random strangers.

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The friendships Eleanor develops are just so very lovely in their honesty and acceptance. This book shouts from the rooftops that there are good people out there and I love it for that. I shan’t say much more as they are for you to discover (but I hope you love Raymond as much as I do!) I will mention the cat that comes into her life though – because, you know, me and cats! Eleanor takes in this traumatised, scrappy little cat and allows her to become the centre of her long empty life. There is a special, tender moment when they first meet, remarkably, Eleanor has so much love to give:

‘I held her like a baby, close against my chest, and felt, rather than heard, her deep, sonorous purring. Oh, the warm weight of her! I buried my faced in what remained of her fur and felt her gently turn her head towards me as she gently sniffed my hairline.’heart hands

I read Eleanor Oliphant just before reading Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie (see my review here) and these two books together have played a huge part in restoring my hope in humanity. They have both reminded me how those small acts of everyday kindness can change someone’s world and that we humans are capable of so much compassion, care and indeed love, if we only put our minds to it.

 

 

Three Things About Elsie: how each one of us makes a difference

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Every now and again a book comes along that really makes a difference to your life, that opens your eyes and your heart; Three Things About Elsie is such a book. Printed on the inside of the Three Things About Elsie cover is the phrase,

Even the smallest life can leave the loudest echo.

This is the core message I took away from Joanna Cannon’s second novel and I feel so much richer for having read it.

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In contrast with her first novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (read my review here),which has two young girls as leading characters, Three Things focuses on the elderly Florence and her friend Elsie. Florence lives in a care home and we meet her lying on the floor after a fall, waiting for someone to find her.

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To keep herself busy, she reflects on her past and present life, believing that she has never made a difference, even though it turns out that is far from the truth. This perspective spoke to my heart in a very fundamental way. I have lost both of my much-loved grandparents over the last couple of years. They were such a fundamental part of my life and I loved, respected and was in awe of them. For me, their old age was something to admire, they had so many stories to tell, so many experiences to share.

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{Table decoration at my grandparents’ 65th wedding anniversary}

My grandparents were married for 68 years, imagine that. They fled from East to West Germany before the wall was built. My Omi had a children’s short story published in a newspaper at Christmas time. My Opi was an awesome photographer and had his work displayed in the care complex where they lived. I could go on and on. When their bodies started to slow down in their mid 80s, their minds were still incredibly active, and they struggled to come to terms with this change in pace and change in physical freedom.

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{My lovely Omi}

Shortly before their deaths, both faced rapid mental decline and they felt so frustrated in moments of clarity. They were lucky as they lived in an outstanding home, with staff who treated them with such care and respect. They lived in an  environment where there were countless activities and events to promote inclusion in society and to keep their minds stimulated.

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{My equally lovely Opi}

I write all this because my grandparents have made me think so much of what it means to be old, they have made me look at how we as a society treat older generations, they have made me think about what my own future could look like. What happens if I am forgotten, what if I forget who I am myself? Three Things gave me the opportunity to explore some of these thoughts, emotions and fears.

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Florence has the onset of dementia, she spends a lot of time without human interaction and at the beginning, the few people in her life don’t see beyond her old age and dementia. Her confusion and disorientation is so heart wrenchingly described. Florence says,

‘I never used to be like this, and if you’re not in charge of the inside of your own head, what are you in charge of?”

A man arrives at the home and she recognises him from a dark moment in her past, yet he is there with a different name and Florence finds it very hard to be taken seriously. And so the wonderful mystery element begins! This treatment of Florence seems rather bleak and in some ways it is; I found Cannon’s observations very true to life; she writes with honesty, integrity and understanding. The elderly are often treated in a child-like way and without the respect they deserve. Their rich lives are often forgotten and their present lives are often dismissed. Loneliness is certainly a massive issue here in the UK (and it is my biggest fear to be old and alone).

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However, this book is also one of the most life affirming books I’ve come across. Warm, strong friendships are formed; the characters are interconnected in all sorts of ways that remind us of what it means to be human; Florence becomes empowered and becomes an amateur detective of sorts; several of the care home staff open up their hearts and minds. There is also much humour, even in the darker times, Flo’s feisty spirit shines through. The conversation she has at a dementia assessment clinic really made me smile:

It (the piece of paper) said, Close Your Eyes on it.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked.

“Because I’m asking you to.” Doctor Andrews held the instructions a little closer.

“Is it a surprise?” I said.

I heard Doctor Andrews sigh. “Do you not usually do as someone asks?”

I frowned. “Not if I can help it.”

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And then there is the care home outing to Whitby. Whitby makes my heart sing, it is one of the most special places on earth for me. Joanna Cannon clearly loves Whitby too; the descriptions are wonderful.

‘We’d only been there a matter of minutes, but already the sea air had pulled away some of the worrying. The colours seemed brighter and other people’s laughter was more obvious, and my face fell into a smile so much more easily.”

“The yards and the snickets, and the alleyways, hold on to the footsteps of our ancestors, and somewhere at the point where the cliffs reach out to the North Sea, the past is valued rather than abandoned…”

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I also love how Three Things is full of small, thought provoking moments to make you think about how the treatment of dementia could be changed for the better. For example, Florence talks about how her senses play such an important part in remembering;

‘Sometimes you feel a memory before you see it. Even if your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.’

So why aren’t we doing more to actively engage minds and stimulate senses, why aren’t we celebrating all that experience and all those memories? Instead, there are far too many communal day rooms with televisions as focal points. I read a really interesting article recently about an East German care home, which has created a room full of artefacts from the old GDR so that inhabitants with dementia can physically access this time period; a time that feels clear and safe to them (and I know the GDR was by no means safe but you get the picture).

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Having finished Three Things, I had this strong need to act on what I had just read. It is easy to be inspired, to have good intentions and then life gets in the way and thoughts of making a positive contribution are pushed to the side. So, I researched – and there are so many opportunities out there to make a difference to the lives of older people. I want to play my part in combatting loneliness, I want to learn the stories behind the faces, I want to talk and listen. And though I am looking at more formal volunteering opportunities, I will be putting my intentions into everyday practice; it doesn’t take much to reach out to someone on a bus or at the shops, or to stop and chat to a neighbour on your way home.

What an incredible read this was.

 

Stories from the Homefront

I adore history and am especially interested in the two World Wars. I think a large part of this is because I have such strong connections with both Germany (I am German) and the UK (I have lived here for most of my life). Therefore, I have a rather interesting perspective, trying to come to terms with my native country’s past but also knowing that not all Germans were the enemy – there was a German resistance movement, there were people who helped Jews, some people feared for the lives of their loved ones to the extent that keeping them safe took priority. Indeed, there was suffering on both sides of the channel. Alongside this, I have grown up with the British perspective of history. I have learned about the fear, loss, sacrifice, sheer resilience and stubborn determination experienced on this island I call home. I believe that good historical fiction brings history to life, it engages on a very human level; here are two recent reads that did just that.

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Reasons why I picked up The Night Raid:

  1. It is set in Nottingham where I live.
  2. One of the main characters is Dame Laura Knight, a war artist, originally from Nottingham, who I have always wanted to find out more about.
  3. I am very interested in the role of women during the war and this book promised strong female characters.
  4. I am really interested in learning about the everyday life experienced by people in war time and the plot focuses on this.
  5. I saw that the author, Clare Harvey, would be in Nottingham to talk about her book and I love hearing authors talk about their work.

The story focuses on two young women, Violet and Zelah, working in a munitions factory in Nottingham. Both have pasts they are trying to escape, both are trying to find a way forwards in this world where women are very much holding life together. Commissioned to paint a propaganda portrait of women workers in the factory, Dame Laura Knight becomes a part of this factory life too, facing her own demons along the way. The lives of these three women become intertwined in ways that changes each one of them forever.

Why I loved reading this book:

The Nottingham setting is very special: Clare Harvey has lived in Nottingham herself and her writing feels very genuine. I could really imagine the city during wartime and it was clear that Harvey put a lot of time and effort into making the setting as accurate as possible. It is historical fiction, and there is creativity in terms of events and timelines, but the essence is very real.

Dame Laura Knight: I had heard of her in general terms, I knew she was commissioned to paint propaganda art, but that is as far as I had got. This book made me want to immerse myself in her work (a lot of it is available to view online) and Harvey writes in her author’s note that a particular piece, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, was an inspiration point for her. I loved the connection of art with fiction very much. I now want to read more about Dame Laura, who comes across as such a strong, complex woman, with an incredibly individual voice. I know that she wrote an autobiography so this is where I shall begin.

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Very human, rounded characters: It is easy to connect and invest emotions in The Night Raid characters. Each has a very personal story to tell and Harvey writes in a way that makes you genuinely care about what happens to them.

An emotionally engaging plot with a twist that I didn’t see coming: It isn’t a fast paced page turner and it is very much a character piece, however the plot itself flows really well ,coming together piece by piece, using the viewpoints of four characters. As for the twist – let’s just say I had a tear or two in my eye!

I went to the Waterstones author evening with Clare Harvey here in Nottingham and it was such a wonderful experience. She is an author, who has a genuine interest in her audience and I loved how animated she was. When you see how much an author has invested in her characters, it gives the whole reading experience an extra layer of meaning.

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It was love at first sight with Letters from the Lighthouse. Isn’t the cover gorgeous? I have a bit of thing about lighthouses (it is my dream to live in one) so this, combined with the topic at hand, was a perfect match for me.

Olive and her brother Cliff are evacuated to the Devonshire coast, when living in London becomes too dangerous due to heavy bombing. The children become involved in a mystery that will see them discovering a dangerously brave rescue mission and indeed playing their own part. It is also a story about war time communities and the treatment of both evacuees and refugees; prejudice, acceptance, friendship and loss are all explored beautifully. And there is a handsome, mysterious lighthouse keeper to boot;)

Why I loved this book:

The writing itself: Emma Carroll has a really rich, engaging, often beautiful and very honest writing style. Her words transported me to the Devon Coast and made me travel back in time. Simply gorgeous. I really like how seriously she takes her readers, not shying away from difficult issues, many of which are just as present in today’s society.lighthouse-clip-art-lighthouse-clipart-0-clipartix-free

The quirky characters: I especially loved Esther, the German girl who came over on the Kindertransport and is then evacuated with her class to the coast. She is prickly, feisty, hard to read and struggles to connect with others. Yet she is also so brave and resilient and there is a huge heart hidden away. Then there is mysterious Queenie, whose clocks have all stopped and show the same time ( She refuses to fix them).lighthouse-clip-art-lighthouse-clipart-0-clipartix-free

The war time detail: It is well researched and its presence is detailed yet not to the extent of information overload; just how I like it. I think children reading this book, will experience enough to be hooked and that they will be inspired to find out more about this period in history.lighthouse-clip-art-lighthouse-clipart-0-clipartix-free

The rather wonderful mystery: I really enjoyed how this played out as the book progressed, I loved the codes involved and I can’t really say much more 😉

Letters from the Lighthouse is book that I know I shall read again and that I will certainly recommend to my oldest niece – I like the idea of an auntie niece book club.

 

 

 

Three haunting tales to curl up with on a cold winter’s night

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Oh, I do love a good haunting tale led by strong, resilient female characters and even more so if it has elements of mystery and a psychological edge too. I’ve read three of such books recently and want to highly recommend them to you here. They are absolutely perfect for these cold winter days and nights!  I like to sit wrapped up in a blanket, with a cat (or two or three), a steaming cup of tea (I am in love with apple and cinnamon at the moment) and the radiator on full blast. In my perfect world, the radiator would obviously be a cosy wood burner.

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Thornhill by Pam Smy is unlike any book I have ever come across as the story alternates between text and illustration; a totally unique reading experience. The story is of two girls, one in the present day, whose story is told in words, the other back in the 80s (or is she?) and her story is illustrated. I can’t really say much more without giving the plot away but I will say that I loved both characters and that I really felt drawn into the storyline. As well as this, I found the images stunningly effective in their simplicity; I love that each reader adds to the story by what they see in the illustrations.

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My second recommendation is The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. I have to be honest and say that I partly chose this book for the cover alone- truly gothic. And I wasn’t disappointed. A dark, haunting tale of a young widow living in a remote house, who learns about a mysterious ancestor, whose legacy lives on. Moving wooden figures, who have a life of their own, a running exploration of what is real and what is not, who is sane and who is insane, and last but not least, a writing style, which creates such a haunting atmosphere – I loved it and even thinking about it now gives me the shivers.

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The last one doesn’t need much of an introduction as talk of Jessy Burton’s The Miniaturist is everywhere, especially since Christmas, when the BBC produced the most brilliant tv adaptation of it. The eerie, mysterious presence of The Miniaturist on the outskirts, who fashions furniture and dolls that predict the future of the dolls’ house owner in intricate detail. Feisty Marin, desperate to remain independent in a man ruled world, sticking to all the rules outwardly whilst her private sphere is full of maps, seeds and ornaments from faraway places.  And the wonderful Nella, who tries to navigate her new, complicated, married world and bit by bit, begins to see the world through different eyes. All of this is set in 17th century Amsterdam, a time and a place I knew very little about – of course I researched and loved learning more about Nella’s world.

I would love to hear your recommendations for this genre, my tbr list can never be long enough!

 

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

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My reading has been a little haphazard of late as I’m setting out as a freelance translator and am therefore working all the hours I can to establish myself. As this involves a lot of screen time my eyes have been too tired to then physically read a book for any length of time. However, I have just finished The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. Here are 10 reasons why I absolutely loved this book:

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1.The story itself: The heatwave of 1976. A small, suburban avenue community and a woman who disappears. Two ten years old girls turn amateur detective to unravel the mystery. An underlying, secret within the community waits to be revealed. Need I say more- this was bound to be my cup of tea. This book manages to be both cosy (well as cosy as you can be in a summer heatwave) and dark all in one go. Warning: this is a character driven, slow paced read – I know that its critics found it too slow but I loved the time taken to fully explore human behaviour in an ordinary, everyday context.

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2.The girl detectives: Grace and Tilly are just wonderful. Their perspective is so fresh, so full of an insight only children can manage. This is a coming of age story too and these girls discover as much about themselves as they do about the people on their avenue- and I do love a coming of age story.1544706

3. 1970s nostalgia: I absolutely loved Joanna Cannon’s attention detail. It created such fondness in my heart – I was a child of the 80s but many of the details flowed into my childhood. Having to go and turn the television on with plenty of time to let it ‘warm up’. The Generation Game. The Good Life. Planning viewing rigorously using The TV Times. Crocheted blankets. The original Sodastream. Serious studying of catalogues and paying off purchases in weekly instalments. Babysham. The importance of a local corner shop… and oh the food references- see number 4.

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4. Custards Creams and Co: I think this book should come with a warning on the front. Something like:warning-clipart-1237099306261031288Steren_Warning.svg.med

Warning: Includes many references to 1970s sweet treats. May cause urgent need for Angel Delight, custard creams and party rings!

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5. Humour: Though this is very much a book about the darker side of human nature, the lengths people will go to hide mistakes, the prejudices humans carry and the judgements they make, all this is accompanied by a lighter, subtle humour, carried by the two girls. Where there is despair and bleakness, there is also warmth and hope. A message I very much need to be reminded of as often as possible.

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6. Outsiders: There is a member of the community shunned by the rest, hated even. At first Cannon lets the reader willingly believe all the information as fact but then as the story continues, she throws in questions and possibilities- what if he isn’t what he has been painted to be? I don’t want to give away the story here but you will see what I mean as you read.

The other outsiders are a new family, who move onto the avenue, they are from Birmingham and also have Indian heritage. The contrast in the reactions between the girls and the adults is brilliant. I had to remind myself that this is 1970s suburbia and a family with a different culture would have been a big deal at the time. But I know that the attitudes are sadly still present in too many people today and I think this is point Cannon so cleverly makes. Mum bakes a cake in anticipation of a new family, when she sees the colour of their skin and how the woman is dressed, she puts the cake away. Dad, when he introduces himself, talks about curry, poverty in India and he is determined to find out what it is like in their country although they are from Birmingham. A deeply conservative neighbour tells his wife that such families should ‘get used to our customs’ and how they should be thankful to the Raj for teaching them English. Another talks about ‘keeping Britain great and not letting any old Tom, Dick or Harry in’. Grace on the other hand embraces the family whole heartedly, she is accepting, genuinely welcoming, inquisitive and excited by this new experience. The world needs more Graces.

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7. The similarity to An Inspector Calls: I loved studying this play by J B Priestly back at secondary school and there are certainly parallels. In a nut shell: a young woman dies and an inspector comes to interview a family known to have connections with her, each member in an individual way. Each person has a negative trait to hide, all are guilty of prejudice, judgements and lack of love for a fellow human being. Each contributed to her demise. I strongly urge you to have a read as it is another great social commentary piece.

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8. The very accurate, very real observations on human behaviour: Apart from the already mentioned, there are so many further behaviours explored, some hinted at and some more detailed, all of which incredibly well written. Themes such as domestic violence, single motherhood, the onset of dementia, post-natal depression and hidden homosexuality.1544706

9. Mental health: The third outsider is Mr Creasy; whose OCD increases each day his wife is away. His anxiety is portrayed so gently, but also very accurately. None of the neighbours can deal with this and dismiss his behaviour as odd and comment on how he needs to snap out of it. His growing isolation without his wife to support him is incredibly sad, his love for her so tender.

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10. The book design: I bought the hardback from a charity shop for 99p and it is a thing of delight. Embossed title, a gorgeous blue linen, a beautifully drawn goat on the front and a sheep on the back, the inner cover with wool pattern print. Gorgeous.

So, I was just going to write a short list but I should have known nothing I write is ever short! I would love to hear if you have read this book and if so, what you thought of it.