Sunday, 31 January 2016

This week everyone is talking about these books.....

It's time to have a look at which books have been trending on Twitter this week and offer a brief low down of the top picks from this Saturday's Guardian Review section (my book review bible!).

First up is "First Bite: How we learn to Eat" by Been Wilson. This has been appearing on my timeline from various different sources from the bookish to food fans to parents. For those of us that have endured the minefield of weaning with our children it sounds like an interesting read. The premise of her argument seems obvious and logical - that we need to stick to offering savoury and vegetable flavours to babies and children first and that memories and experience have a lasting impact on our relationship with food. However, I am a little cynical, as I felt was the reviewer in the Guardian, as having tried very hard three times to follow the rules of gurus like Annabel Karmel with my weaning and recipes, there is always a battle with veg and trying new foods unless they are covered in chocolate! Probably worth a look for new parents.

I am itching to read "The Woman who Ran" by Sam Baker! Taking the story of Anne Bronte's "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" (although all the reviews reassure me that you do not have to be familiar with this novel in order to enjoy it) Baker has updated the tale of a woman renting a cottage in a Yorkshire village and the mystery and gossip that ensues. It promises to be more than "chick noir" as it retains the "fierce feminism" from the original text and follows in the new tradition of "Grip Lit" with its title implying it will appeal to readers of "The Girl on the Train" and "Gone Girl". Samantha Ellis called it "disquieting and thought provoking", full of "twists and turns as it hurtles towards a hair raising climax." No doubt this is a book we will be seeing and hearing a lot about.

"The Trouble with Goats and Sheep" by Joanna Cannon is another book featuring in the paper reviews and Twitter timeline throughout this week. Set in 1976 and narrated by ten year old Grace it is about the disappearance of a neighbour and explores Cannon's interest in the everyday tragedies of ordinary people as she leads an "investigation into the wealth of secrets and heartbreak that even the most commonplace street can hold" (Emma Healy). I was intrigued by the comparison with an Agatha Christie novel -there are six different voices weaved into the narrative; all with a secret. It is also described as a humorous, lively and funny read.

In the Guardian's paperback roundup they review "Owls do Cry" by Janet Frame which was originally published in 1957 and is about four siblings in New Zealand and their struggles with financial worries, mental health, disability and grief. Possibly not a very light read but the reviewer said that it was still innovative and relevant and had the power to "unnerve, astonish, impress and endure" which made me think it was worth a look.

Also mentioned was "Wilful Disregard" by Lena Anderson which claims "every other word packs a punch, every other sentence so wise and funny it begs to be quoted". As a lover of language, this seems a must read.

There is a long interview with Frances Hardinge in this Saturday's Guardian - the most talked about author this week after winning the Costa Book Award with her teen novel "The Lie Tree". I have just finished reading it and it is innovative, filled full of mesmerising imagery and poetic writing with an unnerving gothic feel. Her win has triggered a well deserved focus on YA Fiction and the other book in this genre that I am really desperate to read following its publication this week is "How Not To Disappear" by Claire Furniss. With a dual narrative of present day and the 1950's it explores the changing role of teenagers and their experiences. It sounds great.

Don't miss Sophie Hannah's article on "Grip Lit" in the Guardian too - also featured via Twitter and retweeted from my account (@katherinesunde3) which is also full of great suggestions for those who enjoy this genre.

So many books........So little time! Hope you all get to grab a chapter with something that excites you today!

Friday, 29 January 2016

Review: "Sofia Khan is not Obliged" by Ayisha Malik

I heard about this book via Cornerstones Literary Agents - they are a brilliant gang who offer editorial advice, direction and support -whatever stage of your manuscript- to writers, using both their own wealth of experience and also a network of real life authors. I went on a creative writing course with them many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed myself! So when I noticed that one of them had published their own novel I was instantly intrigued. A book by someone who spends their day editing, proofing, nurturing new talent and presenting the best stuff to agents- a story by someone who knows intimately what makes excellent writing, engaging characters and a well structured plot -no pressure Ayisha.........!

Sofia is a young Muslim woman working in publishing, living at home in London with her parents, who would very much like to see her married and can never resist the urge for a quip or aside about this one thing Sofia seems unable to do. Set the challenge of writing a book about Muslim dating by her boss, Sofia tumbles into the world of love, marriage and online dating and navigates her way through it with wit, humour and shrewd observations. Essentially this is a romantic comedy; light, entertaining and heartwarming. It will make you smile and to be honest, it is the first book that has made me laugh out loud since "Bridget Jones' Diary" - with which it has been frequently compared (and let's face it, it's not a bad comparison to have made about your debut novel considering the appeal, success and longevity that book enjoys!).

Not a big chick lit fan? Well, it's a bit more than that. Sofia is a Muslim and this book is about being a modern, young Muslim woman in Britain. It does challenge stereotypes. Sofia is bored rather than reactionary about peoples responses to her wearing a hijab. Her parents' constant presentation of "candidates" for marriage is comical and endearing rather than oppressive and controlling; they are simply trying to make sense of their daughter's world. Ultimately the family love each other deeply and their exchanges are delightfully humorous -anyone who has parents will feel Sofia's frustration and exasperation. Sofia respects the problem of modern life versus traditional customs. She is devout and her regular prayer routine is mentioned with the same matter of fact casualness as her muffin eating. There is no sex and no alcohol. Malik has created an insightful, authentic voice; subtly challenging preconceptions without moralising but through the presentation of situations and characters who are ordinary, rounded, flawed, realistic and most importantly likeable.

There is a certain comfort in the predictability of the plot but it feels fresher than some of it's contemporary titles and although it focuses on being Muslim, the book has a much more universal appeal. It's lighthearted but raises several serious issues and the section dealing with the loss of a parent is particularly moving. I liked the chatty style, the dry one liners and the sprinkle of slapstick. This book delivers a good giggle, a happy satisfying ending as well as giving you food for thought. The mixture of blog posts, emails, text messages and diary extracts make it a quick read and I promise that when you sit down to "just read the next few pages", you'll find yourself still there an hour later with a half eaten muffin and a cold cup of tea still deep in conversation with Sofia.

Ayisha Malik can spot talent and create published authors out of first drafts. She can tell you what makes excellent writing and what is missing from your manuscript.

And she can write a bestseller!

Thursday, 28 January 2016

A few YA recommendations

Patrick Ness "The Rest of Us Just Live Here"
Goodreads Rating: 3.84/5, 10,081 ratings, Amazon 4/5, 31 reviews
Sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. This novel is clever. It looks at the underdog; the overlooked characters that hide in the background of a story, the unsung heroes. Mikey just wants to have the courage to ask a girl out to the prom and graduate despite the fantastical story of superheroes unfurling around him. It explores siblings, mental health, friendship, talent, uniqueness and framilies (when you choose to form a new family with your friends). Engaging and innovative. A fresh look at the real main characters in a story.

The Accident Season (Paperback)
Moria Fowley Doyle "The Accident Season"
Goodreads rating 3.65/5, 3,464 ratings,  Amazon 4.5/5, 26 reviews
At the end of October, every year, Cara's family become inexplicably accident prone - break bones, tear skin, bruise everywhere. Why?
I loved this! It's compelling and completely absorbing and I read it almost in one sitting. A fusion of ghost story and fairy tale, mixing dream and reality. It is beautifully written and highly imaginative. This novel truly deserves recognition.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow (Paperback)
Katherine Woodfine "The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow"
Goodreads 3.9/5, 438 ratings , Amazon 4.5/5, 59 reviews
This is set in the grand Sinclair's Department Store and echoes the popularity of "Mr Selfridge", "The Paradise" and Sherlock Holmes. It's an exciting read with captivating characters, a plot full of mystery and adventure, topped off in the wonderfully depicted Edwardian era. This will be popular with anyone who enjoyed Blyton or Nancy Drew.

The Amber Fury
Natalie Haynes "The Amber Furies"
Goodreads  3.5/5, 1,140 ratings, Amazon 4/5, 66 reviews
This is a good psychological thriller which really gains pace towards the end of the novel. The main character, Alex takes a job at a Pupil Referral Unit which accepts students excluded from other schools in the city. She is out of her depth with these challenging students but, with the use of Greek tragedies, she begins to develop a relationship with them and begins to feel she is making a difference. The students are enthralled with the tales of revenge and cruelty and until suddenly they are embroiled in a tragedy of their own making. A great plot which shows that classical literature remains appealing and relevant. 

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
Annabel Pitcher "My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece"
Goodreads 4/5, 7,250 ratings  Amazon 4.5/5, 268 reviews
Not a new book, in fact Annabel Pitcher has published two more titles since but this remains a book I constantly recommend and remember. It is a poignant and emotional read about the strength of a family during a period of grief and loss. It is narrated by ten year old Jamie and Pitcher succeeds in creating a believable voice which deals with the themes of terrorism, death and parental neglect with conviction and sensitivity. I don't want to say any more only read it - and keep a box of tissues at the ready for some wonderful writing.

Why your next read should be a Young Adult fiction read

So Frances Hardinge's "The Lie Tree" has been awarded the Costa Book Award. It's only the second time a teen novel has won the prize since Pullman's "The Amber Spyglass" in 2001 giving us all a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the often overlooked work of some of the most innovative writers around today.

You've heard of YA Fiction? You've read "Harry Potter"? You've seen "Twilight" - although don't rush to judge, it kept me up until one o'clock in the morning on several occasions and despite some cringing prose, you can't deny it was a fresh reinvention of a traditional genre and captivated millions of imaginations and hearts! But beware- Teen Fiction isn't just about high school, love triangles and supernatural monsters.

If you don't read YA fiction you are missing out on an incredible wealth of outstanding novels. Shops often only stock the most popular titles which misrepresents the breadth of this market. If you can search fuller shelves then you will see that YA writing is diverse, complex, sophisticated and powerful. It has as many genres and sub-genres as adult fiction and includes some of the most talented authors writing today.

Teen Fiction isn't there to encourage reluctant readers, inform, moralise or educate. Teenagers hate being patronised as much as adults do. They want a story. They won't persist with anything that doesn't engage, inspire, move or excite them -making them a much more challenging audience to please! YA Fiction isn't frightened of breaking taboos or creating new genres or giving the reader the chance to explore something difficult or new through the safety and neutrality of a book. And for any concerned parents, Gayle Foreman said in a recent You Tube video not to be scared of the darkness that is written about but to embrace it. "Use it to start a conversation. It can be a tool to start a whole number of conversations." Don't for one moment think that YA books are merely fluffy fairy tales and happy endings! They can be as chilling and haunting as some of the psychological thrillers hitting the adult book stands.

The YA market has got to be at its most exciting point. There is such a huge wealth of titles to chose from these days with some of the most gifted authors dedicating themselves to writing for them. The rise of MA's and University Courses on Children's Literature, such as the one running at Goldsmith's led by the fascinating Michael Rosen, show just how seriously this area is being taken and how it should never be underestimated, undervalued or over looked as simple and less worthy.

We all know that novels can be a source of information, a great support and a fantastic friend but ultimately YA Fiction is to be enjoyed. By all of us. As C S Lewis said, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest."

Look out for my top recommendations in my next post!

Monday, 25 January 2016

Review: Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton

As one of the "Richard and Judy Book Club" Spring reads (written by the author of "Sister" which became the bestselling novel of its year) referred to as a "sophisticated thriller" by The Telegraph and a book which would send "shivers down your spine" by the Guardian, I was keen to make a start on this.
Set in Alaska, it already creates a cold bleak darkness before the reader has even turned the first page. The story begins with Yasmin and her ten year old daughter Ruby, who is deaf, arriving in Alaska to give her husband an ultimatum about the future of their marriage but she is met at the airport with the news that he is dead. Refusing to accept this, she sets off with Ruby to find him braving sub zero temperatures, treacherous icy roads and then the threat of menacing headlights which drive them deeper in to the inhospitable snowstorms.
Further intensity is created by setting most of the novel in the confines of the truck cab with the company of just the thoughts and reflections of only two characters. Dialogue is limited as Ruby is deaf and refuses to use "her words" so Lupton has had to work hard to keep the passages dynamic. She attempts this by alternating between the two different voices and Ruby's use of twitter, email and her laptop to break up the text. Ruby's voice is convincing, well observed and adds a lightness and freshness needed in the darkness of the Alaskan landscape. At times I found the alternation between the two voices of Ruby and Yasmin frustrating and jerky and some of Yasmin's observations were a little clumsy and cliched.
We also get to hear the truck driver Adeeb's thoughts although I was less sure of his role in the novel - apart from the fact that he does not show any prejudice or preconceptions towards Ruby and challenges Yasmin to look at beyond the restrictions and assumptions she has unwittingly placed on her daughter.
Lupton explores lots of themes including the environment, politics, survival, love, marriage but most significantly for me was the relationship between the mother and daughter. They need this journey to reach a deeper understanding of each other and we are rewarded when Ruby explains that when she "talks with her mouth-voice, I disappear!" and "Mum nods. I can see she understands." In a landscape disappearing in snow and the hope of finding their missing husband and father fading, this is a poignant moment.
The last third of the book picks up pace and becomes more of a thriller / mystery story. More characters arrive to provide further drama, complications and revelations.
All in all it's an easy read and the emotional journeys of the two female characters are engaging. I felt it was more of an adventure / crime story than a psychological thriller and would agree with The Telegraph's comment that there were "countless implausibilities" to get to grips with which perhaps compromise the dramatic impact of the story. Amazon has rated it 4.5/5, Goodreads 3.7/5 and Waterstones an impressive 5/5. I would give it 3/5. I think the descriptions of the arctic cold will probably stay with me over the next few weeks while I don my hat, scarf and gloves on the school run and I'll remember the things Yasmin and Ruby had to do to save themselves in the plummeting temperatures although I hope I'll never have to face the harsh environment they set out to overcome!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Review: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

I admit I was reluctant to start reading this - I had seen it in every chart list and on every book stand since it was published and then again once the new film staring Julianne Moore was released but the topic of Alzheimer's held me back. It sounded like it could be sad, over sentimental, depressing and bleak. My grandfather suffered cruelly from this illness and my mum is paranoid she'll suffer similarly- did I really want to put myself through this? Then last week it was once again parading itself in front of me in the Libraries Quick Choice stand. Fate, I thought, wants me to read this book.

It is a truly captivating read. I got caught up in the story straight away and read through the first quarter of the book in one sitting without even noticing. The main character, Alice Howland, is not old, not poor, not stupid, not weak, not helpless. She is an intelligent mother aged 50, sensible and pragmatic. I liked that the book took a strong character who went against the stereotype of an Alzheimer's patient. Alice is likeable and you are immediately drawn to her. The novel is told in third person from her point of view which is well done with memory lapses, repetition and Alice's loss of herself cleverly woven into the narrative so the reader at times experiences the nature of the illness. It also means that some objectivity is retained as Alice is not always aware of the disease and it's effects which prevents the novel from becoming unnecessarily sentimental. It also shows the disease to be more complex than just forgetting the present. Alice's loss of herself, her sense of time, her sense of what she likes or dislikes, her personal hygiene, her mistakes are told with frankness and her inability to understand fully or understand how to respond to her challenging situation keep the novel grounded, poignant and brave. It is a sad story but it is sensitive and plain speaking. I think the ending held hope and presented Alice had reached some sense of contentment, happiness and renewed relationships with her family.
The chapter headings follow the months of the year which is a great technique to keep the story moving showing the decline of Alice through snippets which suggest more to the reader than a more  indulged wallowing approach. I suppose it also creates a sense of distance which almost mimics Alice's own sense of distance from herself as she becomes more lost.
It is a fantastic read. It is captivating and engaging and unputdownable. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend you read it.
The film is available on Amazon and I hope to watch it soon - I will let you know how I feel it compares!

A review of the review

So I'm ready for my Saturday treat of reading the paper at my leisure rather than glancing headlines on my phone while preparing breakfast, dressing children and testing spellings! 
In this week's review section of the Guardian, Kate Clanchy writes about Helen Dunmore's new novel "Exposure". I'm a Dunmore fan and have enjoyed all her books; they are always a reliable choice as the writing is good, sometimes there are sinister twists or chilling atmospheres and the characters are convincing and often live on beyond when you've finished the pages. She seems to be continuing with her interest in war and spies seen in "The Siege", "The Lie" and "The Greycoat" with "Exposure" as it is set in 1960's London during the height of the Cold War. It echoes themes from Nesbit's "The Railway Children": a father is arrested for being a spy, the family have to move to the countryside and face poverty and questions about their father and their family relationships. But in this retelling, it is from the view point of the adults and set in a very different world from that of Nesbit's Edwardian England which will provide a much more thrilling and sinister environment for what Clancy describes as a "surprising and fulfilling" read which will "haunt you for months, if not years." It's definitely going on my "want to read" list. 
Philip Hensher has written a 10 point guide to "War and Peace". I am embarrassed to confess I have not read this epic tale - I have downloaded the current BBC adaptation but not yet psyched myself up to watching it despite the rave reviews I hear all around me. I was heartened by Hensher's conviction that if you "get past the first 100 pages you will read it in 10 days maximum." Sounds like a challenge to me! 
In the roundup of paperback fiction, "Nobody is Ever Missing" by Catherine Lacey is reviewed. I recognise this title from my list of "to read" books so was interested to see the Guardian had also picked it out. It is the story of Elyria who leaves her life in New York for the rural New Zealand without telling anyone and her journey through the backwaters also becomes an exploration of her mental and emotional self and past. Goodreads has rated it a respectable 3.37 with over 2,000 ratings saying it is "full of mordant humour and uncanny insights" and the Guardian says it is a novel of "uncomfortable power". It may not be easy reading but it sounds interesting. 
And I managed to complete the crossword with only minimal assistance from Google so all in all a satisfying afternoon!