August reading round up

Happy beginning of autumn! I am an autumnal person and always feel my energy rising at this time of year. Don’t you just love pulling the first cardigan on? And conkers.

This month, I’ve had some time off work so tried to adjust my reading to be more holiday suitable where I could.

Kololo Hill – Neema Shah

This is an interesting debut novel, bringing a really personal story about the expulsion of a family of Ugandan Asians from the country by Idi Amin in the early 1970s and how they manage to escape and come to England. Of course, many themes of refugees and asylum seekers are still relevant today, more so in fact, and this captures the indignities and unpleasantness of the system in detail. Worth reading.

The Bone Readers – Jacob Ross

A friend recommended this as she’s just taken part in a writing project with Ross, plus this is on the recent Jubilee Reads list to celebrate books from across the Commonwealth. It’s a crime story, set on Grenada where Ross is originally from, and is narrated by main character Michael ‘Digger’ Digson, the illegitimate son of the commissioner and a mother who was killed taking part in a protest about a raped girl on the island. Digger tries to make enough money to get by but is picked up and mentored by local police detective, who sends him to study forensics and then to take part in a new police force on the island. When the chance comes to investigate a cold case, Digger finds there are a lot of dirty secrets to be uncovered. It’s a gritty but fresh crime novel and despite featuring dialogue written in patois (something I’m not great at reading) I enjoyed it very much.

Lullaby Beach – Stella Duffy

Kitty is the beloved aunt to Sara and Beth, and Beth’s children, and she lives tucked away from everyone in an old hut on Lullaby Beach in the coastal town of Westmere. Kitty was a nurse, respected and beloved, so her suicide by pills comes as a shock to her family. The novel goes back and forth in time to explore the reasons for Kitty’s actions, and the consequences of old mistakes – by Kitty and by others. I liked the slow immersive way this was written, and though I found the ending was perhaps trying a bit too hard, this was an enjoyable enough read.

Yours Cheerfully – AJ Pearce

This is the second book in the series, following Pearce’s successful debut Dear Mrs Bird. It’s more of the same, a jolly(ish) yarn set during the Second World War and featuring Emmy and Bunty as they negotiate war work, love and life. This book especially highlights the issues faced by women going into the war industries (as encouraged by the government) and so many of them are – oh yawn! – still issues women face in modern times. There are moments when you wonder if we’ve made any progress at all. Anyway, while this isn’t something I would usually read, I enjoyed the first one and the author is lovely, and I like a bit of alternative social history – it wasn’t all Rosie the Riveter and all that nostalgic shite.

Dog Days: A Year with Olive and Mabel – Andrew Cotter

You may know Olive and Mabel from the YouTube videos that become famous during lockdown. This is Cotter’s second book about them – I’ve not read the first – but it was such a shock to have a display of new books in the library that I decided to read it. It’s a gentle diary describing the year containing our second and third lockdowns, and the re-emerging that took place afterwards, through the lens of a sports commentator and his dogs. I’d already forgotten (or suppressed the memory of) some of the details of the tier system and other weird rules, and the observations here are insightful and without rancour or too much judgement, which feels different in itself. All in all, this was a nice before bed read, not involving anything except gentle dog stories.

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

My reading group chose this for our book this month, it’s an Australian classic and features on the Jubilee Reads list which we decided should be the basis for much of our reading this year. You may know it from the film (which I’ve not seen). The plot, such as it is, involves a group of girls who go on a picnic from school one day when four of them and one of their teachers go missing in mysterious circumstances. One of the girls reappears some time later with no recollection of what happened but the rest is a mystery. I read that Lindsay wanted to write something spooky and unsolvable, which I suppose is fine (though I consider it lazy plotting) but I suppose the focus of the book should be the impact of the mystery on the people left behind, and I think this was what she intended. Sadly, I didn’t think it was done well, the consequences of the mystery were few, directly, and the incident felt on the whole like ‘something that happened’ to people and then they did something else. There was a lot more that went unexplained, and what did seem to be explained was incredibly miserable and depressing. Add to that, the Disney-like insistence of the author to have all the good people be beautiful and all the bad people be fat and ugly and I found no redeeming features in this book at all.

The Book Tour – Andi Watson

This, on the other hand, I liked very much, and it also features an unexplained mystery but this time was done better. The Book Tour is a graphic novel that I bought on a whim, and features Mr Fretwell, an author doing a book tour of his novel about an encyclopaedia salesman whose wife has left him and taken his display copy of ‘K’ in his encyclopaedia set. The K is meant to be a Kafka reference I think and the towns he tours do have a look of the continent about them so could conceivably be in the Czech Republic. The book tour goes sour: few people turn up (we’ve all had moments like that when doing book events, believe me), a mysterious theft of Fretwell’s suitcase and then the disappearance of one of the booksellers on the tour eventually lead to Fretwell’s arrest. It’s all quite surreal but has some moments of humour and insight into the publishing world in a funny way. I really liked it – quirky and fun.

A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale

This is an earlier book by Gale and has links in some characters to his book Notes From an Exhibition, which I enjoyed very much and keep meaning to reread. The good man in question is Father Barnaby Johnson, vicar of a Cornish parish who is called to pray at the home of Lenny Barnes, just as he commits suicide. The repercussions of both Lenny’s and Barnaby’s acts are told here, in a series of chapters that focus on different characters surrounding the two men, as well as the men themselves, and the action also flits back and forth in time so we get a well rounded picture of everyone and everything. I do love Patrick Gale’s writing and this is well worth your time. When character as plot is done well, as it is here, there isn’t anything better.

Moments of Pleasure

I’ve managed to plan these summer holidays with E so that we’ve done something each week, even if it’s just been as plain as going out for breakfast and a shopping trip. Our highlights have included:

The Commonwealth Games – the few days we spent in Birmingham were great fun, everyone was very friendly and it was all really well organised.

Braving a roller coaster – E hasn’t been on a rollercoaster before and I tend to avoid them as I’m a wuss, but at Margate’s Dreamland she wanted to try the ‘Scenic Railway’ (the UK’s oldest rollercoaster) so we had a go. She clutched my arm hard all the way round! But afterwards I could tell she felt really proud that she’d done it. Hopefully if she wants to go again, someone else can go with her.

Tudor Castles – We had a day visiting Penshurst Place in Kent (where they filmed The Princess Bride and Wolf Hall) followed by Hever Castle and now E is hungry for knowledge about all the Tudor queens.

Northampton Saints – we bought tickets for a pre-season friendly and took E who hasn’t been to a rugby game since she was very little. She met Saints captain and England star Lewis Ludlam, really enjoyed being so close to the action, and is a converted Saints fan wanting to go again. I’m very proud.

Writing – I’ve been trying to get a couple of pages of the new book done most days and this has largely been successful, a first draft is creaking into life. I have remembered what it is that I like about writing and it’s been a quiet pleasure to have these new pages under my belt.

And finally, Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War is currently showing at some selected cinemas or via home rental at Curzon Home Cinema. It’s a documentary about the life and work of Eric Ravilious, the war artist, and is a lovely film, honest and insightful. I love paintings from the 1930s and 40s anyway, but the extra level of insight here made these even more enjoyable.

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