In the Nicki of Time – take 3!

Lighthouse Whitehaven 2I started this blog in 2014, my 50th year, having set myself a 50/50 challenge. Read 50 books and see 50 films in one year.

By the end of 2014, I hadn’t achieved my goals. I toyed with the idea of closing down the blog. But I recalled one of my children telling me that the man who patented lightbulbs tested thousands before found the one which would work. I’m not sure if the tale is true, but it sparked a lightbulb moment of my own! I didn’t want to give up – failure is a learning opportunity and so I tried again last year. 50 books and 50 films in one year. I did better in 2015, managing to read (and review) 50 books – but fell short of the films total having watched just 31.5.

My failure has irked me, nagged at my conscience. So, here I am for the third time. Third time lucky, don’t they say? I’d say I have more than a 50/50 chance of success!

I hope you enjoy exploring the blog and find some inspiration for your own reading or viewing. You are welcome to get in touch, I love hearing from visitors to the blog!

Book No 7 (2016) : A Place Called Winter

place called winterEvery now and then I read a book which, for weeks afterwards, whenever anyone asks me ‘what shall I read next?’, I press a copy into their hands. So far in 2016, Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’ has been that book.

Harry Cane is a young man of seemingly limited ambition who is able to live comfortably with his young wife and child without the need to bother himself with a career. His marriage is not without love, but is without passion. Following a chance encounter with an attractive voice coach, with whom he embarks upon an illicit sexual affair, Harry discovers the ardour missing from his matrimony. When the relationship is discovered and Harry faces public disgrace, he decides upon emigration from England to Canada. There is the promise of anonymity, but also land and the chance to forge a new beginning.

The opening chapter of the book is difficult to figure out, as it seems as if Harry is now in some kind of hospital or institution, but his supposed crime is not entirely clear. By the end of the novel, the author has cleverly brought the narrative full circle and the explanations are unexpected.

Gale explores many themes in ‘A Place Called Winter‘, including sexuality, gender, isolation, forgiveness and acceptance, all handled with a quietly confident style, whose simple prose belies the strength of the plot and its main players. The historical perspective and sense of place are highly evocative, capturing both the social and physical landscapes of England and the Canadian prairies in the early 1800s.

The success of the novel lies in the characterisation of Harry Cane and his capacity for love in its many guises; parental, platonic, sexual and romantic. He is also an essentially good man, in the truest sense of the word. Despite Harry’s experiences he retains an almost childlike nature, trusting and guileless. I was with him all the way.

 

Book No 6 (2016) : Life After You

Life after youStill on the death theme after ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘, I chanced upon Lucie Brownlee’s autobiographical account of her life after her husband died suddenly, leaving Lucie and their small daughter bereft. To start with,  the author is writing from a position of disbelief; staring at her husband’s coffin at the funeral, Lucie can’t believe who is inside it. The realisation of the permanency of her separation from Mark is a slow, painful dawning. With the new knowledge comes acceptance and hope.

The situation when my partner died suddenly was not the same as Lucie’s; we had been together only a few years and the child who lived with us was his, but not mine. Nevertheless, I found myself scouring the pages of ‘Life After You’ for common ground. There seems to be comfort in knowing that your own experiences have echoes of others’. Grief is a personal, private affair with no blueprint but I recognised Lucie’s behaviours as she struggled on. Anxiety, panic attacks, crying in public, visiting a clairvoyant, a tentative and wholly unsuitable relationship just to prove you can get back on the bike, so to speak. And the drinking. Oh yes, the drinking. It’s not cool and it’s not funny to be so drunk you can’t stand up and fall asleep in your clothes, the wise-mummy now tells her teenagers. But in the early days of grief, the mind-numbing relief to be found in the bottom of a bottle sometimes feels like the only way to get through the next few hours.

Having your husband die on you is clearly not funny, yet ‘Life After You‘ is shot through with a gentle humour which endeared me to the author and her situation. The tone of the book is frank, matter-of-fact and I laughed, and cried quite a lot as well.

Now I have finished ‘Life After You‘ I am reflecting upon the fact that there are very few people to whom I would recommend it. Not because of the quality of writing, which is insightful and poignant, but because of the subject matter. All I can think is that if you have a friend or acquaintance who has been suddenly widowed, this book will give you a little window into their world. Knowledge which would be invaluable should you be unfortunate enough to ever need it. Because if there is one thing I learned from my bereavement is that what gives strength is the people around us and what remains. Not what has gone.

Book No 5 (2016) : The Angel Tree

The Angel TreeChoosing what to read next is like choosing from a menu. I run my fingers down the literary à la carte and make my choice according to what takes my fancy; something long, not too difficult, a bit romantic and slightly fairy-story. After the seriousness of my last read, I opted for Lucinda Riley; Enid Blyton for grown-ups. And I don’t consider that to be an insult. Like many of my generation, I cut my bookish teeth on Mallory Towers and St Clare’s. Stories to get lost in. I’ve only recently forgiven my mother for not letting me go to boarding school.

Dumped by her American lover when he discovers she is a Windmill girl, Greta Simpson is forced to leave London when she realises she is pregnant. Luckily,  her friend ‘Taffy’ (David) offers her sanctuary at a small cottage on his family’s Welsh estate, and so Greta is drawn in to Marchmont. After a disastrous marriage and haunted by grief, Greta takes her daughter back to London to try and re-build their lives.

The Angel Tree‘ follows the life of Greta, revealed through flashbacks from Christmas 1985 when she has re-joined her family at Marchmont Hall. As well as her grand-daughter, Ava, Greta is also accompanied by her David, now a lifelong friend. David is hoping that re-visiting Marchmont will help Greta to recover her memory, which was lost when she was involved in an accident. Throughout Greta’s unsettled life, David is the one constant. But will they ever declare their love for one another?

All in all, this is a pretty awful book. The characters are wooden, they are stereo-typed and make terrible choices. There is a very dubious portayal of mental illness in Cheska’s character and Greta seems to lie without compunction. The plot is predictable and uninspiring and the whole thing could have done with being edited down to about two-thirds of its final length. I also spotted more than a few jarring grammatical errors (yes, I am a punctuation pedant).

But did I care? Not a jot. There is room in my reading life for Lucinda Riley as well as Lionel Shriver, I just allowed myself to drift along. The words slip through my mind like sand in an egg-timer, almost imperceptibly and requiring very little effort. Continuing my earlier culinary references ‘The Angel Tree‘ is a bit like the literary equivalent of a Chinese takeaway – it’s quite satisfying at the time, but an hour later you’ll have forgotten all about it and will be hungry again!

Book No 4 (2016) : Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Smoke gets in your eyesDeath has always been a big part of my life. My Mum will tell you I was quite a morbid child at the best of times. Having suffered a number of significant bereavements by the time I’d reached my early twenties, my preoccupation with the Grim Reaper was well, set in stone. I don’t think anyone who knows me well was particularly surprised when I decided to pursue a qualification in Civil Funeral Celebrancy.

Studying for the celebrancy course revived my interest in many things death-related and so I came across Caitlin Doughty’s fascinating autobiographical book ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium’. The author was in her early twenties when she made an unlikely career move and become a crematorium operator. The book not only recounts Doughty’s experiences at the pointy end of disposing of dead bodies, but also lays the foundations for a much wider debate about the whole business of death. Although set in the US, the issues she raises are also relevant to the UK. As well as examining the death rituals of historical and contemporary cultures and belief systems, Doughty also challenges the modern ways of disposing of the dead. We have become distant from the actual processes involved in caring for our loved ones after death, preferring instead to entrust those final ministrations to strangers, whom we pay for their skills. Doughty cites some 10 pages of sources for her work, testament to her meticulous research and obvious knowledge of her subject. I was particularly fascinated by the references to Jessica Mitford’s seminal work ‘The American Way of Death‘, which criticised what Mitford saw as funeral directors’ profiteering and led to national debate.

It all sounds as if it would make very heavy reading, but that is not the case at all. Whilst the author does not shy away from some of the detail you would expect – decomposition, the disposal of medical remains, embalming and dressing a body, there is no salaciousness or irreverence. Instead, Doughty writes with compelling conviction about a subject which she has clearly made her life’s work and which is an important one for all of us. There is even humour, although never a lack of respect for the dead.

In some ways it is difficult to recommend this book as I have no doubt that most will shy away from even thinking about the subject matter. After all, death is the only certainty in life and most of us would prefer not to think about the realities. But I believe the discussions Doughty initiates are essential ones for 21st Century society and reading such a frank, passionate and enlightening book is a great way to open the debate. Go on. Read this book and then talk about it with your loved ones. It might just change your life. Or your death.

Book No 3 (2016) : The Visitors

The VisitorsWhen I was a child, I was fascinated by the life of Helen Keller, an American deafblind woman whose world was transformed by the patience and techniques of her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan literally unlocked Helen’s world, enabling her pupil to flourish: Keller was the first deafblind person to achieve a BA and she went on to become a renowned author. It is an amazing story.

Rebecca Mascull’s ‘The Visitors‘ deals with a similar theme, as Adeliza (Liza) Golding is trapped in a world of blackness and silence. She can see something, but the vague apparitions seem somehow unrelated to Liza’s daily struggles. Her life changes when her father engages Lottie, a hop-picker, to help draw his daughter out of her lonely world. Using simple sign language initially, Lottie gives Liza the tools to communicate.

What is particularly clever about Mascull’s writing is the way in which the construct and complexity of the narrative develop in line with Liza’s gradual acquisition of  language. The reader goes with her on a journey into an ever-expanding world, leading Liza eventually to the Boer War. Her evolution from a frustrated, lonely young child into a self-assured but, more importantly, equal young woman, is an inspiring read.

Song of the Sea Maid‘ by the same author was one of my favourite books of last year. I was impressed by the strong female characters, the historical detail and unusual plot and it was the same with ‘The Visitors‘. This novel actually has some roots in Mascull’s own family background. I don’t think Becca Mascull gets the exposure she deserves – I rate her alongside Tracy Chevalier and Geraldine Brooks. Certainly worth a try if you like your historical fiction with a twist!

Book No 2 (2016) : Our Endless Numbered Days

endless numbered daysBy coincidence, the first two books I have read this year have centred upon people living in little huts. But whereas Guy Grieve’s Alaskan abode was real, Clare Fuller’s ‘die Hütte’ is imaginary. And very creepy.

Peggy’s father is a survivalist. He and his fellow North London Retreaters plan to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. In preparation for this existence, James trains his daughter in essential techniques: they camp out in the garden, eating squirrels, foraging for food and sleeping in a shelter. Peggy’s mother, Ute, is often away from home due to her career as a concert pianist, but James is not too lonely because he has a friend, Oliver. Although unusual, Peggy’s existence is tolerable. But that all changes when her father says he is taking her away to ‘die Hütte’. Deep in the forest, the hut is totally isolated. Then, not long after they arrive, James’ prophesies come true and the rest of the world is destroyed. James and Peggy are the only people left and they have to survive in die Hütte.

Clare Fuller’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ examines what happens when the extreme behaviour of an unstable parent goes unchecked and a child’s unquestioning trust in a father is betrayed. This novel is deeply unsettling.

I am always honest in my reviews, even when I am swimming against the tide of popular opinion and, in this case, the judges of the Desmond Elliott Prize (the novel won this prestigious prize for new fiction last year). For me, the balance between ambiguity about James’ motives and behaviour as Peggy matures into a young woman, and exploration of his actual actions, was not quite right. I like to have something to think about when a novel ends, but this just left me feeling frustrated! However, this aspect of the writing means that ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ would be a great choice for a book club, there is so much to talk about.

Book No 1 (2016) : Call of the Wild

Call of the WildTo celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband and I stayed in The Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh. It used to be the head office of the eponymous Scottish daily newspaper. And the connection with Guy Grieve’s autobiographical book ‘Call of the Wild‘ is….? Well, Grieve was working as the Head of Strategic Marketing at the paper, but becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the daily grind. Although happily married with a young son, he yearned for freedom, open spaces. Having formulated a plan to travel to Alaska where he would build a cabin, then live in it for the winter, Guy approached his boss. Grieve told Iain Martin he was quitting his job, and wondered whether the Editor would be willing to commission a regular column from him. Despite thinking the plan a little more than foolhardy, the hack agreed. And the rest, as they say, is history. Soon, the adventurer had landed at Galena, a tiny village on the Yukon.

After some difficulties with locating a suitable plot, but with the help of some local contacts, Grieve finally started work on constructing his cabin. Now my DIY skills are to all intents and purposes, non-existent: I famously axed my hand whilst taking my Girl Guide Camping Permit and a bow saw is about as much use to me as bicycle is to a fish. So I was surprised to discover myself enthralled by the author’s descriptions of the actual building of his winter home. Felling and moving trees, cutting logs and piecing them together like a massive 3D jigsaw, I could visualise the whole process. What Grieve had to accomplish in order to survive, his encounters with wildlife, descriptions of the Yukon and mastering a husky team, are  all fascinating

Grieve writes with a clarity and self-deprecating humour which I found enchanting. He says himself that he survived his time in Alaska largely due to humility, and this comes across so clearly. Although determined and focused, Guy acknowledges his limitations, accepts help gratefully and is unself-conscious about his feelings of despair and loneliness, as well as the more uplifting times. This insight, combined with the unlikely subject matter, makes this an absorbing read.

Actually, this book has acquired something of a mythical status in our house. It is the only book, other than Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Shadow‘, that my now 14-year old son has ever read voluntarily. As the parents of reluctant teenage readers will attest, ‘Call of the Wild‘ needs no other endorsement.

The Books 2015 : I did it!

Book pile 2015Having failed my self-imposed challenge to read 50 books in 2014, I paced myself more steadily this year – and I did it! 50 books in a year.

I’ve figured out a couple of things on the way. Firstly, working my way through a book a week was not going to happen by accident; I really had to commit to the task and prioritise reading over other things occasionally. To anyone I have ignored because my nose has been stuck in a book, I apologise!

The other discovery I made is that whilst the Kindle App on my IPad hosts an impressive collection of books (review copies are usually downloads), digital reading doesn’t really do it for me. Maybe its because my IPad doesn’t have that distinctive new-paper-and-ink smell, but I just don’t absorb books in the same way on a device as from real pages in a real book. No doubt someone eminent and learned has researched this phenomenon and can find as many readers whose experience is the exact opposite of mine, but my preference is still for a paperback than a gadget.

There have been some high highs and some low lows during my literary year and I have had a bit of fun organising my 2015 books into a list. I rather like lists and this one is self-explanatory; everything I’ve read, from what I liked best to what I liked least!

In my top 3 books were Bella Pollen’s ‘The Summer of the Bear‘ and ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ by Rebecca Mascull. Both gave me a great deal of reading pleasure and I wholeheartedly recommend them. The latter is due out in paperback in 2016 and I’m planning to read Mascull’s first novel ‘The Visitors‘ next year. Emma Kennedy’s ‘The Tent, the Bucket and Me‘ is probably the funniest book I have ever read in my whole life (although Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry have given me plenty of laugh out loud moments) and I defy anyone not to be cheered by it.

I hope my reviews have given my followers some ideas about what to read, and maybe what to avoid.

1 Summer of the Bear (The) by Bella Pollen
2 Tent, the Bucket and Me (The) by Emma Kennedy
3 Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull
4 Paying Guests (The) by Sarah Waters
5 Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig
6 Sea Legs by Guy Grieve
7 You by Joanna Briscoe
8 Narrow Road to the Deep North (The) by Richard Flanagan
9 More Lives than One by Libby Purves
10 Light Behind the Window (The) by Lucinda Riley
11 Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
12 Invention of Wings (The) by Sue Monk Kidd
13 H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
14 A to Z of You and Me (The) by James Hannah
15 Shoes for Anthony by Emma Kennedy
16 Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
17 Lives of Stella Bain (The) by Anita Shreve
18 Children Act (The) by Ian McEwan
19 Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blackman
20 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
21 Girl Who Wasn’t There (The) by Ferdinand von Schirach
22 I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
23 Sea Sisters (The) by Lucy Clarke
24 Secret History (The) by Donna Tartt
25 Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
26 Something to Hide by Deborah Moggach
27 Taxidermist’s Daughter (The) by Kate Mosse
28 The Blue by Lucy Clarke
29 We were Liars by E Lockhart
31 Harvest by Jim Crace
30 Other Side of the World (The) by Stephanie Bishop
32 Last Pier (The) by Roma Burke
33 Daughter’s Secret (The) by Eva Holland
36 Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty
35 Girl On The Train (The) by Paula Hawkins
34 Miniaturist (The) by Jessie Burton
37 Secrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore
38 Versions of Us (The) by Laura Barnett
39 Waiting for Doggo by Mark B Mills
40 Best of Times (The) by Penny Vincenzi
41 Cuckoo’s Calling (The) by Robert Galbraith
42 Night Guest (The) by Fiona McFarlane
43 Senator’s Wife (The) by Sue Miller
44 Artificial Anatomy of Parks (The) by Kat Gordon
45 Bad Blood by Arne Dahl
46 Dolly by Susan Hill
47 Find Me by Laura van den Berg
48 Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
49 All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
50 Girl on the Ferryboat (The) by Angus Peter Campbell 

And what about 2016? Well my Christmas stocking included Guy Grieve’s ‘The Call of the Wild‘, Paul Heiney’s ‘One Wild Song‘ and ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair‘ by Joel Dicker, so my TBR pile is already stacking up. I’m also looking forward to reading Clare Fuller’s ‘Our Endless Numbered Days‘ and ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways‘ by Sarah Winman. Reading is as essential to my wellbeing as oxygen so I’ll be reading on. I will continue with the blog, but am undecided about whether to repeat the 50/50 challenge – watch this space!

The Films 2015 : wack, wack, oops

oscarsOh, come on. How difficult can it be? Every week, watch a film and write about it in an interesting, informative and (if appropriate) amusing way. But, for the second year in a row, I have failed in my challenge to view 50 movies in a year. I only managed 31. Actually, it is 31.5 as I fell asleep half way through ‘A Little Chaos‘ this evening – sorry, Kate (Winslet).

Part of my failure has been that I was also trying to read 50 books during the year, and reading is my first love – I’d rather read a novel than watch a film. Nevertheless, there have been some great viewing moments over the past 12 months and I’ve ordered the movies I did see into the following list, best to worst. Just for fun, there is no critical appraisal here!

What was your must-see film this year? I started 2015 with ‘The Theory of Everything‘ and Eddie Redmayne re-appears in ‘The Danish Girl‘, released tomorrow. I’m planning to get to the cinema to see it – and maybe 49 other films in 2016!

1 Theory of Everything (The)
2 What We Did On Our Holiday
3 Imitation Game (The)
4 Amy
5 Mona Lisa Smile
6 Still Alice
7 Pride
8 Boyhood
9 Life of Pi
10 Insurgent
11 Vera Drake
12 Les Miserables
13 Road to Perdition
14 Talented Mr Ripley (The)
15 Lion King (The)
16 Finding Nemo
17 Amazing Grace
18 Young Victoria (The)
19 Lucy
20 Rush
21 Vanilla Sky
22 Fast and Furious 6
23 The Descendants
24 Hunger Games (The) – Mockingjay Part 1
25 White House Down
26 Maze Runner (The)
27 Parkland
28 Secret Window
29 Girl, Interrupted
30 Saving Mr Banks
31 Spy

 

 

 

Book No 50 (2015) : The A-Z of You and Me

the a-zA chance conversation over a lunch table lead me to read this book sooner than I may have. I was bragging about having ghost-written Shades in the Sun this year, when another diner side-swiped me by disclosing that her husband had written a book. I’d heard of it. James Hannah’s ‘The A-Z of You and Me‘, had already set Twitter alight with rave reviews and praise. I was not sure if his wife believed me when I showed her that  her Jim’s book was already on my TBR list. Suitably chastised for showing off, I ordered the paperback and earmarked it as my final book of 2015.

Sheila is trying to encourage Ivo to keep his brain cells ticking over. After all, being stuck in a hospice bed is not the most stimulating of environments and Ivo has a tendency to be melancholy, wrapping himself up in the crochet blanket which still carries the vetiver scent of his ex-girlfriend. Sheila suggests that Ivo think of a part of his body for each letter of the alphabet, and tell a little story about each part. Ivo starts with ‘Anus’. His journey through the ABCs gradually reveals more about Ivo’s life, and how he finds himself facing the end of it.

This book defies categorisation, which I believe to be a good thing. It is one of the most original books I’ve read in a while, largely due to the fact that Ivo is a totally credible narrator. He is fallible, has messed up, and admits that his mistakes have cost him dear; because of this honesty, I believed every word he says. Life can be messy and complicated, which makes it all the more important that we nurture love and treasure those who love us. This novel has guts, surprises, raw emotion and disarming sensitivity. A fine end to my reading year.