June reading round up

June is a surprising month. You get through May hoping for some warm weather and trying not to get annoyed at people wittering on about not casting your clouts and all that, and all of a sudden it’s baking hot, the summer solstice appears and people start talking about the nights drawing in. I would prefer something more subtle, a build up of sorts. Perhaps another month in between? We could call it Mane as a combo of the two?

Anyway, here we are past the halfway point of the year and it’s been a bumper reading month.

Slug – Hollie McNish

I’ve been reading this at bedtime for a while. Poems work well just before bed. This is quite a large book and I like Hollie McNish as her poetry is straightforward and modern. She covers a lot of things that people don’t like women to talk about – masturbation, periods etc – and although parts of this are funny, when reading it night after night I did start to get a bit weary. However, on reflection I think my weariness comes from having to still feel like we need to remind people that women have periods, sexual urges, medical complications and so on. As Tracy Thorn put it, “What year is it? Still arguing the same old shit.” And then the US Supreme Court serve up their same old shit and here we are again. Jesus. Anyway, thank God for Hollie M and for all of the girls (Thorn again, great song). I’ll be passing this on to my daughter.

Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason

The shortlist for the Women’s Prize this year looked really good and I wanted to read as many as possible before the winner was announced. This was the first I got to. It’s had a lot of hype. I raced through it, I must be honest, read it in two days so there’s clearly something to it. It’s a first person telling of mental illness and I should confess to something first. The first time I read Rebecca I was struck by Mrs Danvers telling Mrs De Winter that Rebecca “like all healthy people despised illness.” It’s not that I despise it but I have little patience for it, and am terrible at nursing other people. I didn’t know it was a type until Rebecca. Anyway, I was reminded of being impatient with illness when reading this. It does try to show you what it’s like to be mentally ill and the impact this has on your family, however, I had some problems in general with the book. First up, the mental illness is never named. She finally gets a diagnosis and it’s meant to be like a truth bomb exploding but we never know what it is. For me, this is a massive weakness – if the illness is such a revelation to her, if her mother and several family members had it and never mentioned it before, if her husband guessed she might have it but never said anything – WHY NOT TELL US WHAT IT IS? My guess is that she didn’t want to write about one particular illness that already exists but also didn’t want to make something up in case people thought it was real. And so we’re left with a frustrating limbo. I also found her husband to be incredibly dull. He is meant to be patient and kind and forgiving but yawn, what a dullard. I also started reading it thinking it was set in the USA, though it’s actually set in London. The author lives in Australia and tbh I’m unclear why it needed to be set in the UK. It didn’t have a strong sense of place. So, I know some people have loved this. I am not one of them

That Green Eyed Girl – Julie Molyan

Molyan is a fellow Springsteen fan and as such I could never write bad things about her book. I did enjoy reading this, although with a creeping sense of dread as her main baddie Judith is soooooo nasty. What a bitch. Anyway, this is a dual narrative set in 1955 and 1975 New York. In 1955 Dovie and Gillian live together, quietly, happily, keeping their relationship secret right up until Judith at work finds out about them. Twenty years later in the same apartment, Ava Winters lives with her mother who has serious mental illness, when a box arrives from Paris containing letters, a necklace and a photo of Dovie with the word LIAR scratched into her face. The book follows the dual narrative to find out what happened. It is a solid debut and while I felt that the emotional impact was greater with the later story, the character of Judith is nevertheless well written and her malice hangs over the whole thing. It’s also an interesting slice of social history that I was unaware of.

My Sand Life, My Pebble Life – Ian McMillan

This is a memoir of sorts, a series of memories in short essays in a sort of gentle Radio 4-type way, all involving the British coastline in parts. McMillan, best known as a poet, has a way of spinning a tale in that way of older men who like to tell anecdotes at the dinner table or down the pub. It’s all rather charming and light hearted – and contains some lovely sentences.

The Island of Missing Trees – Elif Shafak

My second read of the Women’s Prize shortlist and, while I found this difficult to get into initially, I loved it once it got going. It’s a dual narrative set around the Greek-Turkish Cypriot war of the 1970s and the ramifications of the conflict on the island, its nature and its people. Defne, a Turkish woman, and Kostas, a young Greek man, fall in love in secret in 1974, meeting in the back room of a tavern run by their friends. As war breaks out, their story will be interrupted and broken and, years later their daughter Ada, living with her father in London, starts to try and find out more about her parents’ life before they came to England. It’s a lyrical and involving look at the burdens of history, the dark acts of war and how we can try to move on.

Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead

Book 3 of the Women’s Prize shortlist, the third dual narrative of the month as a structure and my favourite so far. This is a long novel, 600-odd pages and a sprawling narrative that takes in history, folklore and the main events of American aviation, while telling the story of Marian Graves, female pilot. We get the whole background to Marian: her family before she was born and their history, business interests and mistakes, before moving on through her life, which is full of intrigue and determination. The book is also framed around a modern day Hollywood story, featuring Hadley, a young actress whose life in some ways parallels that of Marian, and who stars in a biopic – can Hadley piece together what happened to Marian, whose body was never found when she tried to circumnavigate the globe in a plane? This book takes its time and is shot through with rich plotting, characters and recurring themes. It’s a bumper ride and despite its massive size, I raced through it but didn’t want it to end. Really recommended.

Long Players – Tom Gatti (ed)

This is a series of essays where writers talk about the albums that shaped them. I find it really hard to write about music and have admiration for people who can, but when it comes down to it, every piece of writing about music is helped by hearing that music. Sometimes you know the album they’re talking about but not always so it’s good that there is an accompanying playlist on Spotify. Anyway, it’s interesting enough… BUT the playlist really highlights how morose a lot of the choices are AND sadly, no one chose a Kate Bush album, Carole King’s Tapestry or Springsteen’s Born to Run so I can only pity their formative listening experiences for not being as good as mine…

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

This was a reading group choice of mine mainly as it’s been on my shelf for ages and I thought I’d better put a deadline in to read it. To be honest I found it difficult to get into, and did consider putting it down but I’m glad I persevered. It’s a coming of age story of Francie Nolan and her family, who grow up very poor in Brooklyn just before the First World War. Francie’s mother Katie, descended from a German immigrant, marries a drunken Irish boy Johnny Nolan, and struggles to make ends meet. But Katie is determined that her children Francie and her brother Neeley will get an education and not have to struggle. The book is a detailed study of growing up poor, how the families manage without needing charity and Francie is an engaging main character, curious and determined and so lonely at times, bless her. Once I got further into the book I really enjoyed it, it starts off with a lot of tedious Irish stereotypes but the author tends to forget these as the book goes on and Francie’s character comes to the fore.

Ten Days – Austin Duffy

I picked this up thinking it would be a father-daughter story with a strong New York setting and while it is those things, I missed the part that mentions the father’s memory issues. So, Wolf takes his daughter Ruth to New York to meet up with her mother’s family, following her mother’s death. Miriam (the mum) had cancer and only reconciled with Wolf when she was ill, meaning he and Ruth have had a lot of time apart, leaving room for Ruth’s resentment of him to grow. And it is difficult to read her at times without getting annoyed at how endlessly critical she is – because it’s told from Wolf’s point of view you do share his bewilderment at times. But of course she has legitimate reasons for resentment. We know, however, that something else is going on and Wolf is making arrangements for Ruth’s future without him. These reasons become clear quickly and oh, how I find stories about Alzheimer’s to be deeply upsetting. Having said that, this is an exquisitely written book with a real sense of place and some excellently realistic characters.

Moments of Pleasure

This final part of this blog is named after a Kate Bush song and it’s been such a great month for Kate fans such as myself. Obviously, my daughter has been brought up with a heavy diet of Kate and doesn’t need a TV programme on a streaming service we don’t subscribe to know who Kate is but to everyone else who joins the legion of Kate fans via Stranger Things, welcome. It was glorious to hear her interviewed on Women’s Hour this month, a rare treat to hear her interviewed at all but you could really tell the delight she had in this new acclaim from a new set of fans. Check her out on BBC Sounds – it really is lovely.

And as part of a nostalgia throw back, we’ve also had to introduce my daughter to the concept of having to wait a week for an episode of TV to come out, something unheard of for the Gen Zers or Gen Alpha or whatever she is. But when this week’s Ms Marvel finished she asked to watch another and had to be shown there weren’t any more until the following Wednesday. Heh. We’re generally enjoying Ms Marvel and, despite not really being that into the MCU – it’s too big, the films are way too long and are really bangy – the spin off TV series seem to be trying more interesting things than the films. A female Muslim superhero in New Jersey is something I can get behind – I hope they don’t waste her.

Finally, like many in Notts, we’ve been watching Sherwood on BBC1. The Mr is from the area surrounding the programme and we’ve enjoyed watching for places we recognise. But it’s an engrossing watch although it does remind me of the time I bumped into David Morrissey at a music festival and was too intimidated to say hello to him.

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