A Cloak and Dagger Christmas

a cloak and dagger christmas 2018

So, here’s the second catch-up post for the end of last year – I’m on a roll! Though 2019 is in full swing, I really want to mention what a lovely time I had reading murder mysteries back in December. I was more than ready for some murder mystery goodness last month, so the Cloak and Dagger Christmas Challenge 2018 was absolutely perfect timing. Hosted by the lovely booktubers Kate (Kate Howe) Mel (Mel’s Bookland Adventures) and Kate (The Novel Nomad), this was such a fun way to connect with other readers, find new books and discuss old favourites. Because of course, nothing quite says Christmas like a good murder!

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The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie. This is a short story collection with 4 short Poirot cases and a Miss Marple at the end. Of course, I read it for the Christmas pudding story, and it was glorious.

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I have it as a BBC audio drama and usually listen to it throughout December each year, but I thought it was about time to actually read the words! I bought myself a Christmas pudding scented candle from Good Book Hunting to enjoy whilst reading – what a treat 😊

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A Christmas Case: A Posie Parker Novella by L B Hathaway. This is such an underrated series in my humble opinion. I’d read the first two books, Murder Offstage and Tomb of the Honey Bee, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. They are well written, witty and imaginative. Plus they are set in the 1920s and feature an independent and spirited female private detective – just my cup of tea. This novella was absolutely brilliant, my favourite Posie Parker mystery yet and, because I gobbled it up in one sitting, I had to read the next book in the series, Murder at Maypole Manor straight after!

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Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan. A classic crime novel written in the 1940s. Lots of snow, strangers snowed in at an old country house, a suspicious death… what’s not to love I thought. And enjoy it I did, although it just wasn’t all I hoped it to be…the characters fell a bit flat, I didn’t engage with any of them especially and there were parts of the plot that were so far flung that it took away some of my reading pleasure as it all felt rather disjointed. Nevertheless, the setting was fabulous and as we had a lukewarm Christmas here in the Midlands without a snowflake in sight, it gave me that winter feeling I craved.

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The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle. I listened to this on Audible with Alan Cumming as a brilliant narrator. Sherlock Holmes stories are a bit hit and miss for me and I often find myself liking the idea of them more than actually reading them. I also find that audio versions suit me far better – yes, I’ve got the collection read by Stephen Fry (that man could read me the shipping forecast and I would be happy). Anyway, this was a short, quirky and entertaining story, perfect for a cosy listen on Boxing Day with a glass of port and a rather too much cheese 😉

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Last but definitely not least, I enjoyed my yearly re-listen to the audio book version of Mistletoe and Murder, one of the Murder Most Unladylike books by the very talented Robin Stevens. It is one of my favourites from the series so far and the descriptions of Oxford and Christmas time make my heart sing each time I listen. This is middle grade fiction at its finest, set in my favourite period of history, the 1930s, and with two sparky, incredibly intelligent and unique girl detectives – plus I love how relevant the themes are throughout the series and how great the representation is. Check out Robin Stevens’ booktube channel by the way – she has so many great recommendations and is just a joy to watch.

 

Victober (and yes, I know it’s January!)

To say I’m behind with this whole book blogging thing is somewhat of an understatement! The last months have been utterly bonkers work wise and, combined with a bit of a mental health wobble and seasonal ailments, the reviewing just hasn’t happened. Fortunately, the reading part did though! I am determined to start this new year with a couple of bookish catch-ups and a regular (ish) posting schedule. Because I love books and would rather like to be a part of the book blogging community.

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So, first of all: Victober! I absolutely LOVED Victober this year and totally immersed myself in the literature and writers of the Victorian period. I don’t think I’ve ever read so many classics in one month – go me! Here’s a quick summary of what I read:

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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: This was a buddy read with the lovely Oly Bliss (find his booktube channel here) and I’m so glad that this was the case as I really needed someone to bounce my thoughts and opinions off – I found this book baffling at times to say the least! I knew the premise of course and shan’t bore you with it here but I struggled with establishing what I thought Wilde was trying to say with this story. I constantly found myself asking, “Is this social criticism? Does Wilde really believe this? Where on earth does his empathy lie? Is that Wilde’s voice shining through or is he just playing with the reader? What is it he wants us to know?” I realised that although I know a fair amount about the times Wilde lived in, I actually know very little about the man himself apart from the very obvious. Though he has always fascinated me, and I feel I have a better grasp of his plays, I feel I need to know more to fully form an opinion of this narrative. Did I enjoy Dorian Gray? I enjoyed analysing the story, I appreciated all the commentary and questions it put out there, I loved the exploration of the relationship between life and art and the idea of a painting showing a soul’s decline is fascinating. But in terms of writing style, structure and characters, I felt let down. And I know so many readers love The Picture of Dorian Gray, I know I am in somewhat of a minority but my opinions on this blog are always honest. This book kept me at a distance.

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell: In contrast, this book was an absolute joy; I totally lost myself in the characters, the class politics, the industrial setting, the role of women, the value of education…and I could go on for quite some time!  This was also a buddy read with Oly and it was a pleasure to share this reading experience with someone who loved the story and the characters as much as I did #TeamMargaret 😉 The thing that struck me most about North and South was how relevant the themes it addresses still are today; there was so much in there to identify with.  This book really deserves a review of its own so that I can do it justice, so watch this space…

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{Isn’t this cover amazing? I now have three versions but who’s counting!}

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: I read this as a teenager and quite honestly, I didn’t get why it was presented as such an amazing classic piece of literature. The characters were dark and twisted and I didn’t identify with any of them, I couldn’t see any romance whatsoever and parts of it seemed to go on for what seemed like eternity. This time round my experience was totally different: I loved the complexity of the characters and how Emily really explores their psychology in great depth; though the majority of the relationships presented are truly toxic, I really felt the passion, confusion, frustration and power present. I absolutely adored Nelly Dean as a narrator and think she very much deserves her own backstory – time to investigate if such a book exists. I listened to Wuthering Heights as an Audible book with Joanne Frogatt as the narrator; she was absolutely incredible and very much added to my connection with Nelly Dean. When a narrator gets a book so spot on and offers such a genuine, engaging performance, it’s like the story in question is given a whole other layer of meaning. And of course, the whole Yorkshire setting spoke to my heart too; I love the Yorkshire Moors in all their beauty and their stark bleakness and yes, Haworth, where the Brontë sisters lived, is one of my favourite places on earth.

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë:  I read this in my later teens as well and again I can’t say that it had a lasting impression on me. To be honest, I found it slow going, Jane was far to meek and passive for my liking and I thought Rochester used Jane for his own needs despicably. The nearly 40-year-old me read very differently. I loved the detail, the interludes, the variation of pace (although I do still think that Charlotte could have done with an editor!). Jane was so much more complex than I remembered her to be and her resilience, strong will and people watching skills were just fabulous. What a journey she goes on. The situation with the first Mrs Rochester locked away due to her mental illness was fascinating and frustrating and difficult– Charlotte left me wanting to know so much more and I felt so sad that the first Mrs Rochester didn’t have a voice of her own apart from her aggression. I thought Rochester was  a desperately lost soul and I liked him! Manipulative. Yes. Rather short sighted in his actions and without the best grasp of how to treat women. Yes. But also a very lonely human being looking for connection. And at this point I have to mention my  favourite adaptation of this by the BBC, starring the awesome Ruth Wilson as Jane – if you haven’t seen it, you MUST!

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë: I watched the brilliant BBC adaption of this a few years back with the incredible Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and I remember being stunned by how contemporary the themes of domestic abuse and alcoholism were and how Anne presented such a modern woman in Helen. So, again I’ll be honest: the book wasn’t all I wanted it to be and it made me realise again how adaptations very much depend on the influences of the times they are created. Just like reading really. Although the above mentioned themes still had a lasting impression and their darkness was explored brilliantly, I was left wanting more when it came to Helen. I saw her strength and sheer resilience in the protection of her boy, her intense struggle in her marriage and her attempt to finally break free. But then she returns to him at one point in the story and I almost felt like she was a different person from this point on. The moral aspect of forgiveness and human kindness prevailing above all else just didn’t sit right with me. It was a let down after Anne had put so much energy into Helen and it felt like she changed her mind about a woman being so daring in her behaviour or felt that she had to conform to a more more subtle ending for the readership of her time. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a modern reader with an experience of abuse in my past. Perhaps I don’t like my endings too sweet with all ends tied up nicely. Perhaps I just fell in love with Tara Fitzgerald’s interpretation a little too much.

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To end on a positive note: I still have the Lucy Worsley biography of Queen Victoria on my tbr and I know this will be a such a treat – a unique insight into Victoria’s life and the period she gave her name to. I was lucky enough to spend an evening listening to Lucy talking all things Victorian when her book was launched and, as always, I was in awe of the sheer amount of interesting information she knows and her wonderful quirky humour. For me, history needs to be accessible, engaging and written with energy and I know that this is exactly what I shall find.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

The first time I came across Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, was as a teenager in the early 90s. I stumbled upon the channel 4 tv adaptation, which Winterson also wrote the screen play for. It was totally out of my comfort zone, totally beyond anything I had ever experienced, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.

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It was also certainly the first time I had come across a tv series with a lesbian relationship – this was back when same sex relationships were just beginning to enter mainstream entertainment. Fast forward a good 26 years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book itself, thanks to it being the July/August read for the Feminist Orchestra book club that I am part of on Goodreads (I can’t believe how long it has actually taken me to write a review and I’m really not sure how we’ve got to October already!)

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Winterson used her own life as a base for this novel, later returning to this time in her life to write her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? In the introduction of my copy (the one pictured) Winterson writes,

“The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own.”

The story is of Jeanette, as a child and then as a young woman, who is adopted by a zealous Pentacostal, deeply complex mother and a father, who pretty much fades into the background and is most noticeable for his absence. Against a Northern, working class setting, a bright and incredibly resilient Jeanette finds her way through her childhood and is relatively happy to settle into the role her controlling mother has shaped for her with the end goal of becoming a missionary. Then everything changes as she falls in love with a girl and in doing so she fundamentally challenges her relationship with her mother and the church.

I absolutely LOVED this book in so many ways…

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The northern setting and memories of my own childhood: I grew up in The Midlands of the 80s and so Jeanette’s world felt like home to me; be it a description of her street or a reference to this larger than life period of time. Having grown up in what was a very poor part of Nottingham,  I also really appreciated Winterson’s very genuine, honest and identifiable portrayal of the working class.clipart47719038

Jeanette’s observations of the world around her: Winterson’s writing style is an absorbing combination of humour, a really dry matter of factness  and really dark moments, all intertwined with such skill. It felt like Jeanette of the book was talking to me, that the book was a conversation taking place and I really like this informal connection with the reader.clipart47719038

The incredibly complex character of her adopted mother and the often very difficult relationship she has with Jeanette. Love is probably not the right term to use for this but I certainly thought it was extremely well portrayed. Though some of the mother’s actions are described in a very matter of fact way, there is no doubt to the sadness and sheer neglect going on. Not only does her mother have no idea how to raise a child or how to connect with Jeannette, her own needs are always put first. This was difficult to read and also made me really appreciate Winterson’s honesty. Towards the end she describes her mother as enlightened and reactionary at the same time and this is it in a nutshell. On the one hand, she is very much in charge of her own life, following what she believes in, making the things she wants to happen a reality. On the other hand, she is incredibly prejudiced, sticks to the rules of the church without question and has an intense adverse reaction to Jeanette’s  same sex relationship. There is so much more I could write about this relationship – I would love to have had this as a set text for A-Level English literature!clipart47719038

I love how little Jeanette is so fierce in what she believes and what she feels. She only goes to school once the education department forces her mother to send her, by which time she has experienced a very alternative, certainly not age appropriate version of homeschooling and is consequently incredibly isolated in the school environment, which is such a stark contrast.  She seems alien to the children and the teachers don’t know how to handle this unique girl. Yet she put her point of view regardless: when she submits her needlework for a prize and is frowned upon by her teacher, Jeannette fiercely says, “Just because you can’t tell what it is , doesn’t mean it’s not what it is.”  Her imagination is equally awesome; her re-imagination of  Noah and the Whale at Sunday School is hilarious.clipart47719038

The running theme of what makes a relationship and what is expected of a girl in society. There is much talk of settling and making do. Whilst there are certain opportunities as a woman in the community, as I will mention later, everything is strictly confined, anything out of the “normal” faces a harsh backlash. There is also very little genuine love of any kind in the world Jeanette grows up in. When Jeannette fall in love with Melanie, the treatment of this relationship is horrendous and utterly heart-breaking. Having confided in her mother, she is physically locked up in the house so that the pastor can drive the demon out and her unnoticed glandular fever means much of that time is spent hallucinating.  Her mother also arranges for Jeannette to be ‘held to account’ (read publicly shamed) for her sexual orientation at their church, where she is forced to stand up and repent or face being ostracised. A further attempt to destroy Jeanette’s identity is when her mother  burns all her letters, cards and jottings, taking away any form of expression.clipart47719038

This is a book of fierce, resilient females. They are not always likeable, a lot of what they do is hard to get behind, but it is a book of women, who run their local church, run their families, their shops, their social circles. Men are few and far between, either absent in character or portrayed almost comically even when they try and assert their dominance (though often, their actions are not in themselves comical). There is such strength there to create a world they can navigate in challenging economic and political circumstances. Life was hard, their resilience strong.clipart47719038

Stories to make sense of the world: Jeanette tells fictional tales within the main narrative and these stories are a way to make sense of her world; it is a way for her to find her voice and the only way for her to break free of the many constraints she faces.  These stories take a lot of thinking about and I still need to return and analyse a bit deeper – that is how rich they are. Some readers have questioned the need for these stories in the narrative, I think they add a whole other layer.clipart47719038

In one of the last stories, the protagonist Winnet  knows she must find a boat to navigate a river, much like Jeanette needs to find her way out in the world regardless of the many challenges she faces. Winterson writes,

“No guarantee of a shore. Only a conviction that what she wanted could exist, if she dared to find it.”

I think this is what I will take away from Oranges more than anything else; that energy and need to write your own story, even if you are frightened and alone, even when the path is not linear and there is still darkness ahead, even if you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.

 

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Tin Man by Sarah Winman was all over booktube last year and was loved by so many of the wonderful people that I subscribe to. Of course, I bought it there and then and couldn’t wait to immerse myself in a book promising stunning writing, deeply engaging characters and emotions that left some reviewers with a tear in their eye.  However, when it came to opening the book, I felt an odd sense of resistance – it somehow didn’t feel right. This may sound strange, but I felt like I had heard too much about it; I needed to almost forget some of what I had heard in order to have my own reading experience.  So, a year on, I finally read Tin Man and oh my goodness, it lived up to my expectations and went far beyond; what an intensely emotional, personal read!

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Tin Man is the story of two friends, Ellis and Michael. It is the story of their intense friendship and their first emotional and sexual feelings for each other. It is also the story of how complicated things become when we become adults. How loss, insecurities and how we deal with society’s expectations can consume us. How vital it is to truly know ourselves, and how true human connection is what matters most in the end.

Tin Man is just under 200 pages and I really don’t want to give any of the storyline away, so I’ll try and talk as generally as I can!

I loved…

Van Gough’s Sunflowers: I’ve always loved Van Gough for his story as well as his work and his sunflowers are a beautiful leitmotif throughout this book, weaving in and out of the narratives and bringing them all together. I now understand why the book is yellow too😉It all begins when Ellis’ mum Dora falls in love with a print of the sunflowers, having won it in a raffle. I love it when she tells a young Ellis and Michael,

“I like to imagine how it would have been for him, stepping out of the train station at Arles into such an intense yellow light. It changed him. How could it not? How could it not change anyone?!”

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Ellis and Michael: The vulnerability and tenderness of these characters, the contrast of their personalities, who, in the end, just want to belong. How I loved their quirks, their inner worlds, their passions and their dreams but also their darker edges and their failures.

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The beauty and tenderness of Winman’s writing style: I loved how Winman catches moods and scenes in so few words. Here is just one example where I was instantly drawn in:

“We mapped out a future away from everything we knew. When the walls of the map were breached, we gave one another courage to build them again. And we imagined our home an old stone barn filled with junk and wine and paintings, surrounded by fields of wildflowers and bees.”

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The sensitive, spot on portrayal of grief, lost opportunities and loneliness.

That sense of holding on to the past, of living there because it means so much that you can’t live in the present, whilst everyone else seems to be moving on. This spoke directly to my heart.

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Dead Poets Society references: It is my favourite film of all time and the fact that there are references to it in Tin Man is the icing on the cake for me. If you haven’t seen it – YOU NEED THIS FILM IN YOUR LIFE. O captain my captain. Sigh.

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The impact that small acts of kindness have: I am becoming more and more partial to books that are life affirming in their own way. Why? I need to believe in human connection, to believe that good is out there in everyday life – this world we live in often overwhelms me.

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The ending: get the tissues ready for the beauty, hope, sadness and truth (just thinking about this has me on the verge of tears- all the feels. In the margins ( I love to annotate the books I read) I wrote:

This is love.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: the book and recent TV adaptation

I was inspired to read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay when the BBC scheduled a new series adaptation back in June (produced by Fremantle Media and Foxtel). I have a thing about needing to read the book before I can watch a screen adaptation and the previews just looked so good!

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is often described as a modern Australian classic. Written in the sixties, the book is actually set at the turn of the 20th century and is the story of a group of teenage girls attending an Australian boarding school, who go missing along with a school mistress during a picnic at the ancient Hanging Rock and the impact this vanishing has on those at the school and in the local community.

I will be honest and say that it was a slow starter for me, it took me a while to get into the writing style and connect with both the plot and the characters. But once I was in I was in! It is only a slim novel yet there was so much packed into those pages. In many ways, I felt it needed to be longer to explore the themes and characters in more satisfying depth; I’m all for making the reader do some work but there was so much more potential there!

I loved:

The themes of mysticism and nature: The Hanging Rock felt like a character in itself, linked to the ancient traditions of its Indigenous People and not understood by a white society trying to enforce its customs on the land. Its energy is mysterious, foreboding, timeless and tantalisingly just out of reach. I can see why so many people are frustrated with this book as there isn’t a clear, logical narrative and it is really difficult to pinpoint the nature of the rock’s role in events. One interpretation is that the girls use the picnic to escape from their lives, that there is a silent pact that the reader is not privy to. I really like the idea of the girls’ search for freedom being intertwined with the rock’s energy and being a portal for a life beyond the restrictions forced upon them as young women. Whether they do in fact commit group suicide, find a secret path through the rocks and build new lives elsewhere or, more fantastically, are swallowed by this energy portal, their lives are changed forever, and this has a profound ripple effect on all those connected with it as well. I was very much left with the impression that nature cannot be tamed, it holds the true power in the narrative.

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The Head Mistress Mrs Appleyard: again, the character details were few and far between but there was just enough there to make me wonder what darkness lay beneath her rigid, harsh facade. It is deliciously dark how she represses herself, only escaping by means of a secret stash of alcohol in her desk drawer, and all the time constructing a cage for herself and the girls in her care. I got the impression that there was torment in her past back in England and felt incredibly sad that having managed to  escape the country, she then becomes a repressor herself. The inevitable unravelling of Mrs Appleyard was so interesting, so intriguing and I think there is a whole other book waiting to be written about her.

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The delicious web of secrets that everyone carries below the surface whilst trying to be part of a “civilised” society: I’m not going to go into detail here but let’s just say that the enticing contrast within Victorian society between what was being presented on the surface and what was in fact going on below the surface is present in abundance.

The theme of time: I’ve read that Lindsay was obsessed by time, believing it was a destructive force destroying creativity, restricting freedom and expression. The clocks stop when they get to Hanging Rock. I loved the symbolism of this. I also got the slightest hint of time travel every now and again, adding a further layer to the mystery of the girls’ disappearance.

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The girls: Irma with an intense love of all things beautiful and almost narcissistic in nature; Marion with her deep thirst for knowledge and, above all, strong willed, sparky, provocative Miranda.

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What I thought about the adaptation…

I absolutely loved it! It is very much made for a modern audience and is interpreted accordingly yet this isn’t a negative for me- it brings a fresh perspective and creates a new audience.

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The production is stunning. The sumptuousness and piousness of Victorian Society is so well captured, the flashbacks and inner thought sequences totally captured my imagination. I adored the steam punk/Gothic element to Mrs Appleyard and her darkness is deliciously tangible. I thought the girl’s back stories were really well developed using the book as a starting point; they became so much more rounded than on paper – Miranda is a passionate feminist in the making, Marion explores her attraction to her teacher Ms. McCraw, and is given an Indigenous heritage background; Irma’s sensuality crackles with electricity. The purists among Lindsay’s readers were generally not impressed (according to the reviews that I read)  but as far as my own experience is concerned, it captured the essence of the book brilliantly and, after all, isn’t a book interpreted differently by each reader anyway?

 

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias; dystopian fiction or a very possible future?

Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias is set in a future Britain where Brexit has indeed happened; the country is governed by The Party, a deeply conservative, right wing, authoritarian government. The Party’s prime focus is on the creation and implementation of the Immigration and Residency Act: anyone not born in the UK, who has been resident for fewer than twenty-five years, does not have an automatic right to remain. There is a points assessment system as well as forced deportation and it is law to report anyone you believe not to be BB (British Born). As you may gather, this book packs quite a punch and takes its YA target audience incredibly seriously. It is equally a wonderfully written love story between two teenagers, Ash and Zara, who are forced to navigate their lives together within this extreme, political context.1413431402

The main reason I picked up Night of the Party is the political element, which is actually so frighteningly close to the present reality that it feels more real than futuristic. I am an immigrant and all the fears I have for my future, should a hard Brexit go ahead, are all explored in this story. Sometimes it even got to the point where I had to stop reading for a little while as the storyline felt so very immediate, so very personal. Powerful stuff indeed.

flag peopleThe concept of nationalism and how this is used by politicians to manipulate thinking is brilliantly interwoven throughout the book. There are so many echoes of fascist governments of the past as well as the prevailing idea present today that all was better in the “good old days of Britain”. World War 2 films are produced en masse and are highly popular, the National Anthem is played at the end of each film. Churchill is once again an icon and his image displayed in cafes and restaurants. A strong emphasis is placed on all things traditional and the word itself crops up over and over again – how subtle the manipulation of language can be and how effective when it is part of everyday life! Pubs have signs that say that non-British Born are not welcome; the segregation is blatant and ordinary practice. There is talk of “duty” to report “Illegals”. There are also Neighbourhood Watch volunteers patrolling the streets and the presence of The Agency, which runs surveillance- everyone is watching or being watched. And all of this is wrapped up as a “necessary defence of national resources, security and culture” by the prime minister. Frightening.

flag peopleWithin this context, I loved the exploration of what “home” means as part of nationalism and the persecution of immigrants. Zara has lived in the UK for most of her life, for her, Romania can never be home even though she was born there. She wants to study English Literature at university; everything she knows and loves is here. Her roots are here. Home is about so much more than where you are born.

flag peopleI also think Mathias’ writing is exceptional in the way she threads current political viewpoints clearly throughout the story in a very genuine, accessible way, inviting readers to challenge their own perceptions.  An example of this is a very well written conservation that takes place between two of Ash’s friends, each on the opposite side of the political divide; whilst The Party supporter Lewis talks about the UK being a small island with limited space and resources and how non-BB are placing too much demand on the NHS, on housing etc, Chris talks of the deportation being an infringement of basic human rights.

flag peopleIn connection with this, one of the most powerful sections of the book focus on the scenes in a detention centre, where non-BBs are awaiting deportation. I don’t want to give the plot away but do want to mention how perceptively and sensitively written these scenes are. Dignity is stripped away, basic needs are not met, human rights are abused and for all intents and purposes it is a prison for those that have not committed a crime other than not being born in the UK. However, within this dark, soulless world there are kind individuals, other detainees who provide hope and solidarity; Mathias shows how things can happen for the good when women unite – this highlights a defying, resilient humanity, which can prevail regardless of the odds and that hope is so very important for our future.

flag peopleIt is of course much more than a political comment, at the heart there is an intense, genuine and beautifully written love story. Ash has experienced a terrible loss in his recent past and then he meets Zara. Though the two have not met before, their history is interlinked. Ash is BB, Zara is Romanian. I realise this sounds very vague, but it is hard to say more without giving away the mystery that unravels throughout the book! The story is told by both Ash and Zara’s perspectives in alternating chapters – this works brilliantly because we not only get to see into the hearts and minds of both characters – and I was emotionally engaged with both characters as if I personally knew them, but we also see in great detail how different their experiences of living in the UK are and how different their futures look. Ash and Zara’s belief in each other, the depth and sheer resilience of their relationship was so very lovely and also reminded me what teenagers are indeed capable of even though they are often portrayed otherwise.

flag peopleAsh and Zara are forced to deal with fundamental life questions as part of their relationship, questions that everyone needs to ask themselves in the world we live in. For instance, Ash’s dad tells him it is best to avoid friends who aren’t BB as soon as the law takes affect and his mum adds, “You don’t want to have to choose between reporting someone or breaking the law.” What would you do if it came to the crunch – do what you know to be right and follow your heart or adhere to the rules? And it is this humanity that absolutely shines through in the book, the message that each life matters because each one of us is a human being with emotions, needs and dreams.

This book needs to be read. It needs to be shouted about from the rooftops. It needs to be promoted in schools. It needs to be read by those adults in our world who are either unaware by choice or circumstance of our current political situation.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

I came across Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik when the Walter Scott Prize longlist for 2018 was announced (it made the shortlist too). Without even opening the book, I knew it would be just my cup of tea – it has so many elements that I love: a World War II backdrop and the British countryside; intriguing female lead characters; a character driven story line as well as an exploration of friendship and hidden lives.

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The story is of Rene Hargreaves, who, one day in 1940, walks out on her husband and children to join the Land Army and is billeted to the remote Starlight Farm where she then meets its owner, Elsie Boston. The two are strangers from totally different worlds and weary of one another but they soon come to depend on and care for each other immensely. They are forced to leave Starlight and become itinerant farm workers, travelling the country together, always sticking to isolated farms where questions won’t be asked. After the war, they then settle in a Cornish cottage where their life together is shaken to its foundations when someone from Rene’s past intrudes. Everything is threatened, and the resulting choices and actions have far reaching consequences.

My thoughts…

The wonderfully crafted characters:

Elsie. Oh, how I identified with this socially awkward soul with an exceptional ability to care for animals and plants, who likes nothing better than being settled in a place she knows and loves with her radio to keep her company and routines to guide her days. Though she is the gentler of the two characters, there is a core strength within in her, a fierce determination to live her own life and not be constrained by others.

Rene. Based on Malik’s research of her own grandmother’s past, Rene challenges society head on and is a character of many layers (there is a wonderful article on Malik’s discoveries on the Penguin website). She breaches gender rules; walks away from being a wife and mother even though the consequences for her family and for herself are heart-breaking. But she knows herself well enough to know how her life needs to evolve and she makes it happen. Even in the hardest times. However, whilst Elsie craves isolation, Rene also enjoys the company of other people and being a part of the outside world and is often torn between these two worlds – I loved this contrast.text dividers-12 2The development of the relationship between Rene and Elsie is intricately and incredibly beautifully written in all its depth, complexity and human connection. I loved that their relationship as a same sex couple was not once explicitly mentioned yet all the nuances and small details spoke volumes. I especially enjoyed the way the characters spoke to each other, which gave a real sense of what they were like as people at the same time: Elsie’s more formal, slightly awkward constructions with such an underlying need for belonging; Rene’s more extrovert, direct and warmer ways, a voice that protects and nurtures on its own terms. This is not to say that life is perfect, unspoken words and underlying tensions run alongside; it is a hard existence for them and their contrasting personalities cause some heart-wrenching moments of distance between them too.text dividers-12 2I absolutely loved all the tiny details of home life for Elsie and Rene: playing patience, reading to each other, listening to the radio of an evening. I was transported back in time, picturing everything so clearly. The way Malik describes how every new dwelling is made into a home, despite an immense lack of financial resources, is also beautiful in its detail: every piece of furniture is hard won, every dark corner made the best of, hours and hours of hard graft to turn dismal surroundings into somewhere that they can belong.text dividers-12 2The descriptions of the landscape and how the two women are bonded with the land are gorgeous; starting at Elsie’s Starlight Farm then moving on to the places they travel as itinerant workers during the war and beyond. There is a wonderful description of them riding their bikes on a whim one evening to celebrate Rene’s birthday, their destination being an ancient white horse carved into the hillside, the outline of which has been covered with turf to prevent German planes using it for orientation purposes. Tipsy on a found half bottle of brandy and the exhilaration of spending time with each other, they uncover the horse just long enough for Rene to see it as a whole.text dividers-12 2There is a darker side to the story, which involves a trial in the last section of the book, when a visitor from Rene’s past intrudes and turns the women’s secluded life into a living nightmare. It is based on the newspaper article Malik found during her research. Elsie and Rene’s life, always so carefully kept out of the spotlight, is now under public scrutiny and, without giving more away, the way it was written really broke my heart. A brilliant contrast.text dividers-12 2In a Walter Scott Prize interview, Malik considers what history means to us today and talks of how perceptions of history are ever evolving as different aspects become important to us as a society. It is this kind of history that I love; the stories that haven’t yet been told, an emerging focus on women’s history and female perspectives, social history that allows you to have a real sense of connection with the past. Malik’s book does all this and much much more.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is one of the most beautiful, gentle, uplifting yet also tragic books I’ve read in quite some time. An amazing character piece of two women who refuse to fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has for them.