Book Review 9 – The Little Voice by Joss Sheldon

I have to confess that this weeks’ book comes from an author for whom I have a bit of a soft spot. Why? Well you may remember from my early warblings in previous posts that I was new to Twitter up until a couple of months ago. There I was, all alone on the Twittersphere until one day my phone pinged. I had a notification: Joss Sheldon followed you. My heart soared. My first follower – my very first, own actual follower! Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t suffer from any disillusions that the two of us would become bosom buddies, sharing tweets as we sipped at foamy caramel macchiato’s in different cafe’s across the country (even less so, on the caramel macchiato front, since reading his book.) I realised that I was being followed as part of a marketing drive and that Sheldon (I so badly want to call him Joss on account of our “followship” of each other) saw my interest in all things literary and thought I may be interested in his book. But still, he was my first follower and in my book that counts for something. That earns him a special place in my Twittering heart.

The notification that started it all

Joss Sheldon is the self published author of ‘The Little Voice.’ I have just started to dip my toe into the world of self-published writers and have been astounded at the quality of the writing on offer. Sheldon is a prime example. He has written a few other books, but ‘The Little Voice’ seems to be the one that has got him noticed. The book is a no holds barred run through Sheldon’s life and the experiences that have brought him to his current unusual way of life. A lot of the early part of the book focuses on his formative years. Sheldon’s thesis is that society forces us to behave in certain ways that don’t ultimately lead to our happiness. He talks a lot about Operant Conditioning: the fact that we are punished when we break rules and rewarded when we adhere to them. This, he says, makes us (by and large) rule following automatons that question little to nothing if it comes to us from an authority figure. Sheldon’s experiences have led him to reject Operant Conditioning.

The problem was that half way through the book, I become acutely aware that Operant Conditioning is exactly what I practice on my children. So if I didn’t give them stickers for using the potty and put them on the naughty step for hitting each other, then how would I teach them right from wrong? I can hear the followers of Attachment Parenting methodology screaming at their screens in frustration right now. Let me clarify that I’m not advocating my parenting style over any other. My point is a more general one, wouldn’t a society where there was a lack of punishment for rule breaking result in anarchy or is there some kind of Attachment Governing methology that can be applied? I wondered what Sheldon’s answer would be.

It was at this point, I must reluctantly admit, that I began to suspect him of subterfuge. You see, I came to the conclusion that the whole book was headed in a particular direction. I thought that Sheldon had a pre-determined plan to suck me in and then tell me the only way to get out of this conundrum and lead a more fulfilled life was to do X or Y or to, heaven forbid, Z (please no, not Z, anything but Z)! And herein for me lay an unexpected lesson. What I have started to learn from this 52 week challenge is that I am an extremely cynical reader, prone to jumping to premature conclusions (see my review of ‘Swing Time’) which have the nasty potential of curbing my enjoyment of a book while I am reading it.

So let me just state for the record that there was no hidden agenda. I had totally misinterpreted Sheldon and his motives. The guy isn’t playing preacher. Sheldon freely admits that he himself has not worked out the best way to live his life and also (bravely) that some days he even questions whether he is truly happy with his chosen path. This admission adhered him more to my heart than even our Twitter history. I am not a fan of black and white “answers”. Someone who is real enough to admit that they don’t know it all and are still working it out; well that’s just someone like the rest of us isn’t it?

The Little Voice poses a whole host of questions

Sheldon came to the conclusion that he had spent his life trying to achieve the goals that others had set for him, going to university, searching for a high-flying job, trying to get a promotion. None of these were things he wanted for himself. Just things that those around him expected him to do. Once he rejected this, he began a journey of trying to understand what it was he did want. A journey that continues to this day. Whether you, like Sheldon are a seeker of truths or not, this is a book that makes you stop and reassess why you do the things you do. How did you come to this juncture? What part did society play in getting you here? And where, if you were totally free to choose, would you want to go from here? ‘The Little Voice’ is a thought provoking book that offers a refreshing take on accepted social norms. A must read for anyone interested in what a different world could look like.

Next week I’m taking a long car journey accompanied by the audio-book of ‘How to Stop Time’ by Matt Haig. Come back on Monday to see my review!

Book Review 8 – I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

24 hours.  24 glorious hours. That, is how long it took me to read this book. So if like me you thought memoirs were boring, let this be the moment that you are disabused of that notion.

For my blogging purposes, I read from Friday to Friday so that I have two days to write up my blog post and get it ready to publish on the Monday. Usually I start reading the next book as I do this, so that it will be read by the time Friday comes around again. However last Monday, by the time I was writing up my post on The Underground Railroad, I had already finished I Am, I Am, I Am. In fact by the time you guys got your peepers on last weeks book review, this one had already been drafted by and large – I have been twiddling my thumbs all week!

I thank my lucky stars for the day that I decided to go to the Chiswick Book Festival (if you didn’t make it, do check it out for next year) because it was there that I decided to attend the event where Maggie O’Farrell spoke about her new book. I had of course heard of the book. Mentions in the press, posters on the train and so on, but up until that point I wasn’t actually thinking about reading it. The thing is, you can’t really go to an event like that and then not buy the book afterwards. And you can’t buy the book at an event like that and not get it personally signed by the author afterwards.

The subtitle of the book is ‘seventeen brushes with death’ and that is indeed the morbid axis upon which each of O’Farrell’s chapters turns. O’Farrell has led an astonishing life. The things that have happened to her are terrifying. Whether or not they are all times that she nearly died is debateable (some more than others) but the fact that one life has encompassed all these experiences is mind boggling. ‘How has she coped with all this?’ I kept finding myself thinking.

This may sound faintly ridiculous but I actually felt grateful to O’Farrell for writing this book. For allowing me into the most personal and turbulent moments of her life. Most of us have the luxury of keeping our personal lives just that way: personal. It takes some courage to lay the innermost parts of our lives open to scrutiny. Kudos to Maggie O’Farrell for having the gumption to do it. 

Despite the subject matter at hand the book is not morbid. O’Farrell’s zest for life and thirst for adventure really come through. In fact her self confessed restlessness did at times have me sighing and a-shaking of my head. As a mum myself I empathised with the second hand remonstrations of O’Farrell’s mother who regularly called to the heavens for justice to be done and her daughter to understand one day what she had gone through as a mum. O’Farrell concedes that someone appears to have heard her mother’s call.

When you get to the end of the book (sadly, yes it does have to end) you get the sense that here is a woman who has been defined not by her proximity to death but rather by her attitude to life. I came away with her message resounding in my ears. That life is precious, that it should be cherished, that it should be celebrated. So if you too want to celebrate life with a book that you can’t stop reading then I have one and only one suggestion for you. Read this book. You won’t regret it!

Next week I’m going to be all about something slightly different. I’m reading ‘The Little Voice’ by self published author Joss Sheldon. It promises to be a treat! Come back next Monday and see my review.

Book Review 7 – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

There are of course all sorts of books in the world. The flirty, easy reads that are devoured on summer getaways; gritty crime novels that keep commuters turning pages on packed trains; emotive roller coasters where you dive into the mind of the protagonist; literary heavyweights with awe inspiring imagery and language, the list goes on. I would perhaps pick up any of these before selecting a book about slavery. Not because I don’t think it’s important to understand more about this dark time in human history, but more because many years ago I read the unforgettable, Roots by Alex Haley.

It was one of those books that you can’t wrench your eyes from, despite the abject misery that you are confronted with. The fact that human beings are capable of such horrific cruelty sat heavily with me. And whilst I can’t remember the details of the book all these years later, the residue of that feeling (horror, sadness, shame?) is still nestled inside my brain somewhere, to the extent that when the BBC recently put on an adaptation of Roots, I knew two things. The first, that it would be a brilliantly made, unmissable programme; the second, that there was absolutely no way that I could bring myself to watch it.  No way that I could witness the subjugation and degradation of innocent people. Even if it is a fictionalised re-creation. It happened. The fact that it happened here on the soil that we walk on deeply saddens me.

So when I rocked up at the recent Croydon Literature Festival, and found The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead prominently displayed at a stall, I hesitated. A book about a slave who decides to escape from her bondage… was this the kind of book that I could read without it haunting me for the rest of my days? Wasn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable? How could I enjoy reading something so tragic?

There were a couple of things that tempted me. I am a sucker for prize winners and nominees and The Underground Railroad is peppered with them: winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, winner of the National Book Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a Sunday Times top ten best seller – my fingers are getting worn out just typing the list of Whitehead’s accolade’s for this book. On top of this, I was listening to some podcast or other before the Booker’s shortlist was announced and the presenters were so sure that he was going to be shortlisted. As it happens he wasn’t but then you can’t win everything all of the time. The nominations and prize winnings suggested that this was no ordinary book, and difficult subject matter or not, I just had to bite the bullet and read it.

Perhaps it was because I had primed myself for it, or maybe because I’m no longer the naive young grasshopper I once was, but The Underground Railroad didn’t leave me with the same electric sense of shock that Roots had done many years ago. Whitehead doesn’t dilly-dally over the treatment of slaves, but neither does he linger. In one sense this makes it worse. It gives you the impression that the maltreatment of slaves was so commonplace, their misery so ubiquitous that there was scarcely time to draw breath before you were on to the next atrocity.

In The Underground Railroad we follow Cora who flees captivity and stumbles from one place of seeming refuge to another. Everything is in flux for Cora and those who seek to assist her. The prospect of a merciless death, should they be caught, lurks around every corner and bares it’s teeth any time Cora or her friends get too comfortable. Every time they think that there is a better life, a chance, a place of opportunity; the violence that they are fleeing rears it’s head to remind them, I’m still here, I’m still hunting you down.

Some other tough reads – what are yours?

For me, whilst the central story-line was great, I felt there was a lot of surplus information about the numerous peripheral characters. Cora would often refer back to a character that had helped in some earlier part of her journey and I found myself struggling to remember which particular act of benevolence they had bestowed. But overall, and despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed the book. It got me thinking, perhaps I have been too hasty in dismissing a book just because it might make me feel uncomfortable. Is there a world of literature that I am missing out on because of it? I’m interested to know your experiences. What has been the hardest book you ever read? And if you could go back in time and make the choice would you put yourself through the experience of reading it again?

I look forward to hearing your tales and I’ll see you here again next week when I’ll be reviewing I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O’Farrell. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you about that one, but it’ll have to keep till next Monday!

Book Review 6 – Autumn by Ali Smith

Hello wonderful readers of my blog and welcome to the first post on my brand new, shiny, very own website 52goodbooks.com. I am beyond excited to be here. It’s like going from renting to buying your first house ? As with any move, there are still boxes to unpack and pictures to put up. Maybe this table goes best against the wall, on the other hand, maybe it is better under the window… Hopefully things will bed in over the next week or so, but I must say this feels like home.

How have you been getting on this week? Enjoying the turn of the weather?

Brisk mornings with clear skies that give way to warm sun kissed afternoons. And those leaves on the trees that morph from green to shades of gold, orange and red. Time to wrap a scarf around you and crunch your way through the October leaves on a walk with your dog / child / great-aunt.

It has felt most apt to be reading a book called ‘Autumn’ at this time. Although, I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of Ali Smith before I read this book. It was only once I turned up at Croydon library and found myself wading through a foot of Ali Smith books in the search for this one, that it hit me – hang on just a cotton picking minute, this Ali Smith is a bit of a heavy-weight author! Mind you, I should have already guessed that. Autumn has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is the first of four books. The next in the series, titled ‘Winter’ is out now, and the other two ‘Spring’ and (you can see where she’s going with this) ‘Summer’ are yet to be published.

In Autumn, we meet Elisabeth who regularly visits an old neighbour in his care home while he sleeps away the final ebb of his life. Elisabeth has a fondness for the old man Daniel, who was a friend and babysitter to her as a child. The story reaches back into her memories of that time as well as touching on Daniel’s own memories from before he met Elisabeth.

Yes – I really did put this library book into a pile of leaves…

Autumn is a clever little book and it turns out that Smith is much more than just a teller of stories. In this one book she does so much. There are current and historical strands running through the books. Facts meld into fiction and fiction back into fact. There are references to Brexit and events from the life of the model Christine Keeler, who was at the centre of a political scandal in 1963 and Pauline Boty, a founder of the British Pop art movement. And on top of this merging of realities, Smith writes fragments of poetry into the book and juxtaposes this with the domesticity of ordinary life. I giggled as I read her account of Elisabeth trying to get her passport picture accepted through the Post Office, check and send service. It was, as you can imagine, a painful experience!

I found Autumn a slow burner though and have fallen more in love with it after I finished reading and doing a bit of research on Keeler and Boty, which then led me back into re-reading sections of the book. When I look back on it as a whole, the reality, the fiction, the poetry, the prose, the ordinary life, the story; I am pretty blown away by what Smith has managed to produce. We’ll have to wait till 17th October to find out if Smith will win the Booker. She’s up against some debut authors, as well as some old timers like Mohsin Hamid, who’s book Exit West I have already reviewed. I can only compare Autumn to Exit West and out of the two my money would be on Autumn and its clever fusion of concepts. Anyone want to take my bet?!

Next week I will be looking at the last of the titles that I have picked from the  Booker. Colson Whitehead’s highly acclaimed, ‘The Underground Railroad’ was longlisted and has come up in many a recommendation as an unput-down-able experience. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one. For now, I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of your own autumn…

Book Review 5 – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Do you want the good news or the bad news? What’s that you say? The bad news first? OK well here it is. This is going to be my last blog post on this website. I know what you’re thinking – she’s had enough. Five weeks of reading have done her in. She’s thrown in the towel. Would I do that to you? Never! Let’s give you the good news. Next week’s blog post will be coming to you from my very own website 52goodbooks.com The enthusiastic ones amongst you will find that if you click on this link before Monday 9th October you get nothing, nada, zip. The website is currently under construction whilst my web developer (oh yes, I have one!) makes it all nice for you – ain’t he sweet? The reason for this sudden move is down to a few teething problems with the blogspot account, but fear not you’ll still be getting the same weekly dose of my literary ravings at the new address.

Fess up – who nicked my copy of White Teeth?!

So, on to this week’s read. Is it a surprise that the brilliant Zadie Smith was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Absolutely not. I scanned my bookshelves and found her name came up a few times. Turns out Smith is a household favourite, we appear to have two copies of ‘Autograph Man’ – one for each hand… though I can’t lay either of my hands on my copy of ‘White Teeth’ at all… I know it’s around here somewhere. Grr!

Smith’s latest book, ‘Swing Time’ is the story of a young woman who is born and brought up on a London housing estate and ends up travelling the world with her overbearing celebrity employer. You get the sense that Smith knows people, she really understands what makes them tick and it is this more than anything that makes her books so compelling. Her character dissection is a thing of beauty. Sometimes she hits the nail so squarely on its naily head that it makes you want to weep:

“Maybe luxury is the easiest matrix to pass through. Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money,”

she says, whilst describing a poverty stricken man’s enrapturement with the affluent world he is thrust into. I never want to forget this statement. That’s why I picked it out and wrote it down here as evidence (as if Smith’s books aren’t enough – who am I kidding!) of Zadie Smith’s sublime understanding of the human condition.

And yet, I can see why ‘Swing Time’ has not made it to the Booker’s shortlist. There were things about this book that I’m sorry to say, irked me. About a quarter of the way through (or perhaps less) I noticed something peculiar about the protagonist and her parents; none of them had names. I wasn’t going to mention this, because it seemed somehow spoiler-y, but honestly having this prior knowledge changes nothing for a reader. In fact it probably would have helped me had I known this, because once I had noticed this incognito narrator it totally threw my expectation of the kind of book this was going to be. I kept thinking that there must be a reason that she was nameless. I was primed for something crazy to happen, maybe her mother was going to turn out to actually be her, maybe she and her best friend were the same person, maybe something even more bonkers than I could possibly cook up in my limited imagination was going to happen. Of course, it didn’t. And then I felt underwhelmed. You get to the end and it’s like, she just had no name. Get over it.

I wonder if the name shortage was some kind of commentary on the lack of pizzazz, the absence of mojo, the complete want of chutzpah the protagonist portrays. I can’t say I particularly warmed to her. I understood her – Smith’s talent is such that you always understand the motives of her characters, but the permanent presence of characters that dominated her began to jar after a while. Her mother, her childhood best friend, her boss. I felt like grabbing her by the nameless shoulders and shaking her. Life just appeared to be a spectator sport to her. She sat there and watched to see what would come her way. Her apathy irritated the bejesus out of me. All in all, I’m glad I read the book, if only to get back in touch with Zadie Smith’s stunning excavation of the human mind, but I’m afraid this one won’t be going on my favourites list.

My portrait of Swing Time’s protagonist

So, week five and the ‘to be read’ list continues to swell. It seems the more I read, the more I go to websites and social media on book related topics and become aware of what other bloggers and reviewers are recommending, the more I notice posters when returning books at the library; and the longer the list of what I want to read becomes. Then in amongst all this; these posters and websites and well-established reviewers is my own little blog. It’s nice to be a part of this mechanism and, for what it’s worth, recommend some books myself. It has been really heartening to hear several people tell me that the blog has inspired them to get out a book and read for themselves. So let’s end with that thought in mind. I’ve done this weeks reading and am onto the next, but what about you guys? What have you been reading? Why not share a comment and let the rest of us know? As a mummy friend of mine often says, ‘Sharing is caring!’ So, care to share anyone?!
Don’t forget, see you next week on 52goodbooks.com for my review of another Smith (they get everywhere)! Autumn by Ali Smith has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and you’ll get the lowdown on my blog next Monday.

Book Review 4 – Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I first came across Mohsin Hamid a decade ago as I trawled Waterstones near

My signed copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

my then office in Piccadilly. I hadn’t heard of him before, but there in prominent position, with a ‘signed by the author’ sticker were a whole stack of fuchsia covered hardback copies of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. I idly picked one up, scanned the blurb and thought ‘yup, I’m gonna like this,’ and I took it to the till. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like Exit West, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and this alongside Hamid’s scrawl on the first page was enough to seal the deal for me. I wanted my very own signed book. Until last week, this was the only book I had ever owned that was signed by the author. (The more recent acquisition is I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell; which I will of course be reviewing in a couple of weeks.)

I hadn’t been following the Man Booker longlist all that closely when I first heard Hamid being interviewed about his latest book, Exit West on a Guardian Books podcast. If you have heard anything about this book you will know that it is about these strange doors that are portals through which refugees escape, thereby, as Hamid explained on the podcast, dispensing with the necessary and perilous journey that is faced by every asylum seeker (which is a whole story in itself) and focusing more on the human element and what happens to those who actually make it.

In Exit West we follow the story of Saeed and Nadia who meet in an unnamed country which is experiencing civil war. The book explores Saeed and Nadia’s feelings about leaving their home. I liked the fact that things weren’t black and white. Just because you might die if you stay where you are doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t think twice about leaving everything you have ever known. Equally, once the migration has actually taken place life is far from ideal. What happens to a relationship when all you have left in the whole world is each other? When you no longer have a place to call home and can’t guarantee your future? What then?
Exit West isn’t just a commentary on the refugee experience. It is a story about ordinary people, about love and life. It is a story about the choices we make, but also the legacy of those choices. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid reminds us. We are constantly reminded that existence is transient. That things have happened before and that they will happen again. The book is contemplative and philosophical and Hamid is an expert crafter of words, churning out page long sentences without batting an eyelid. But is it a prize winner? We shall have to wait and see. Hubby and I are off to the Man Booker Prize Readings in a few weeks at the Southbank centre, where the shortlisted authors will be talking about their work. I’ll be listening closely for any clues for 17th October when the winner is announced. Good luck Mohsin Hamid!

A glimpse of what’s to come

So there we are, four books down… I must say, so far so good. I haven’t found it too difficult. In fact the more I delve into the world of reading, the more I begin to think perhaps 52 books isn’t so impressive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that reading a book a week isn’t any sort of challenge to me. It is, after being out of the habit for so long. It would be so easy to put my book aside and just watch TV or browse the internet, so I am pleased that at least thus far I’ve stuck with it. It’s just that others put me to shame. I am following a rather marvelous woman on Twitter who goes under the name of Bibliophile Book Club, and she posted the other day that she had read 141 books this year. 141. No really, 141. By the time this goes out she will probably have got another five or so under her belt. I am in awe! But I guess that is her challenge (she’s wondering if she might hit 200 by the end of the year) and this is mine. I’d better learn to walk before I can run ?.

Come back next Monday – we’ll be taking a look at a Man Booker Prize longlisted book, Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Book Review 3 – Tin Man by Sarah Winman

They say don’t judge a book by its cover but any publisher worth their salt would tell you that is nonsense. If nobody judged a book by its cover then all books would have plain white covers with simple black typeset print giving the title and author. And if that was the case then the world would have been deprived of the canary yellow beauty that is Tin Man.

The choice of colour isn’t incidental. The story is told around a famous yellow painting and the colour crops up again and again under various guises. It’s an extension of Sarah Winman’s touching tale of a trio of friends. As if the story itself has seeped out onto the jacket.

Tin Man begins with Ellis, following the quiet and melancholy rhythms of his world. Ellis is cautious, tender and bruised. The latter part of the book is told from Ellis’ friend Michael’s point of view. Where Ellis is lonely, Michael is desolate, parched of hope.

Tin Man’s fragile characters are utterly endearing. They don’t shout and rampage. This is a book where lives unravel, but slowly, poignantly and with an ethereal beauty that leaves you gasping.

Winman also breaks ground with her writing style for example through her refusal to use speech marks around dialogue. It is remarkably done. I don’t think I was once confused about when a character was speaking. Part of this is to do with the poetic style she employs. The book is almost one long poem that is more engaged with the characters’ feelings than the action. In one sentence Ellis will be lying in bed, in the next he is out in the street. Winman dispenses with the banalities of the quotidian and focuses on her characters experiences. The outcome is a strong affinity between the reader and her characters. We live in their heads and their hearts. We feel the depth of their pain. We bask in the warmth of their memories.
A certain famous yellow painting
Alongside the speech marks, Winman also more or less dispenses with chapters. Tin Man is merely made up of a few separate sections all of which contain a storyline that flits between past and present. It works. Too well in fact. Since there weren’t so many natural breaks I had to force myself to put the book down in the wee hours of the night to make sure I could get some sleep! This particular problem was resolved quite quickly. You can’t hold yourself back from Tin Man. You find yourself immersed in it until it is sadly, achingly, but satisfyingly over. It is testament to Winman’s ability to put such beauty on the page that I read this book in three days.
You’ll remember that I am trying to read a book a week. This book was devoured so quickly that I forgot I was even taking part in any such challenge!
In the next few weeks I’ll be embarking on something of a man booker fest. First up is a shortlisted one. Come join me next Monday when I’ll be poring over Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.