Book 19of25 The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

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This is number 19  – the book published before you were born. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, was published in 1898 so thankfully, that falls firmly in that category.

turn of the screwIt’s a novella which was originally a serial, and it’s a Christmas paranormal story too. I am interested in cross genre and I like the idea that Christmas and ghost stories are intertwined – something about the veil between worlds getting thinner in the height of winter. My other choice was “A Christmas Carol”, of course – another serial published  concerning ghosts and hauntings, although it also includes time travel, of course. Seriously, Dickens was definitely ahead of his time. I decided to read the James because I’ve read the Dickens more than once, and it was time to read something new.

The opening of the book is on Christmas eve, around a fireplace. One of the guests claims to have the best story ever (I  might be paraphrasing) and promises to tell it.  When the story arrives, it’s from the point of view of a nameless governess, who takes a job in a remote house in England. She has two young charges, Miles and Flora, as well as a housekeeper to keep her company.

It’s fewer than 150 pages long but took me longer than it would to read a book three times that. The writing, the dialogue is so densely packed that I had to read every word, twice, to understand it and what James is trying to say. To be honest, even when I finished it I had to look up the plot to make sure I understood it. i enjoyed being challenged – most of the books I read are not stretching, mainly because I like to read as a bit of downtime. This is something I need to address, actually – I can’t keep taking the easy route with books. Those ones are fun but they are not always the best choice for me as I’m not learning anything new.

Anyway, back to the plot. I’m not going to reveal the details, of course, but basically the governess starts seeing the ghosts of people dotted around the grounds of the house. I thought it was so interesting as an exploration of mental health  – is she seeing the ghosts or is her mind playing tricks on her? Can other people see them and are pretending not to? Just so you know – James does not answer those questions. Not many questions are actually answered so don’t read this expecting a nice neat answer.

Although I probably won’t read this again, I did enjoy the change of pace in narrative and thankfully, it wasn’t too spooky!

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Book 18of 25 Seven Days of Us – Francesca Hornak #ReadwithRD

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Seven Days of Us is my ‘recommended by a reading buddy’ book in the Read with RD Challenge. It’s Simon Mayo’s Christmas recommendation.

Seven days of usI know you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover, but I was interested in this because it has a pretty cover. It’s also set in Norfolk which, being the county I live in, is also pretty cool. It’s fun to spot your home in print, right?

The basic premise is that Olivia Birch is the oldest daughter in a Berkshire family who’s been off saving the world from an infectious disease. She’s coming home for Christmas and because she’s contagious, needs to spend seven days in quarantine. Her family are spending it with her, in their family pile in Norfolk. So far, so first world problem. Emma is her mother, a flapping hen who needs something to do with her time. Andrew is her father, a thwarted war journalist tied down by his baby daughters, 30 years previously. He’s now a bitter food critic who takes joy in pulling down local pubs and restaurants in print. Phoebe is the younger daughter, spoiled and wants a perfect insta life, and pouts when her big sister ruins it all. Olivia is the holier than thou, medic on the frontline who lectures everyone on sanitisation but has had sex with a fellow medic who turns out, got Haag disease. Cue many pages of teeth gnashing as she waits to see if she’s infected her family.

Well. Turns out, I’m not a fan of the family!

I actually enjoyed the book, and reading the story. Each person in the family has a secret and the point is around what happens when everything comes out in the open, basically. I did like the relationship between the girls – it felt like it came from a place of experience. The character arcs were good too, if a little bit predictable.  I was genuinely surprised at some of the plot twists, and the story ticked along pretty well.

A couple of small irritations which pulled me out of the story – there’s no mobile phone signal in deepest, darkest Norfolk which is a source of much irritation within the novel. There is wifi though, even if it is a a bit flaky. What was annoying about this was that the characters kept complaining that they couldn’t WhatsApp because there was no phone signal. WhatsApp works by connecting to the internet, it’s not tied to phone signal.

The other thing is the not-Norfolkisms. They’re in a place called ‘Blakenham’ which I think is a mash up between Blakeney and Fakenham, but it’s not quite in the right location. Norfolk actually isn’t that far from civilisation but it’s depicted as such, which is a bit tiresome.

The complaints about having to handle a huge house, bequeathed from a titled family, is a bit tough too. Oh no, a beautiful old mansion which would hold all of you family twice over, a bolthole to escape London to, and all they seem to do is moan about how dusty and cold it is so they have to have the big fire going all of  the time. Yawn.

Basically, there is a sweet story in there, of family and secrets being better out in the open. If you can ignore the minor grumbles I have, then it’s a nice, light read with a Christmassy feel.

Book 17of25 Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada #ReadwithRD

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I read this in September, which seems like so long ago now I hope I can do it justice.

Alone in Berlin

I thought it would be funny to read a book about Berlin, while I was in Berlin. I also thought it’d be cool to spot the locations and street names in real life.  It turns out, reading a book about Germany in the height of Nazi-ism, isn’t really funny.

So, the story. An older couple’s son is killed on the front line, and they are notified by telegram. The stoic, hard working couple are devastated in their own, quiet way and deal with it on their own. The Quangels hatch a plan to write postcards denouncing Nazism, and leave them out for people to see. That doesn’t sound like much, really. A postcard? Who cares? In the context of 1940s Germany though, it’s enough to get you imprisoned, tortured and killed for treason.

Hans Fallada writes beautifully, and we actually follow more than the Quangels in the course of the story. The Hitler loving family the Persickes, the kindly judge downstairs, the lone Jewish woman and the Gestapo inspector chasing the postcard patron in an effort to save face – and his neck.

It’s so tense, and I found myself rooting for the Quangels at the same time as booing the bad guys. Except, there are no bad guys, really. There are people who think they’re doing the right thing. Men who drink too much because they’re afraid of what they have to do. Afraid of what their sons have become. I don’t mean that Fallada has drawn his characters sympathetically – there are definite greedy, mean and spiteful bad guys, but I think they’re so well rounded that it’s possible to see past the white and black to the grey.

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a ‘postcard’ seen from a Berlin metro platform

In a time where we seem to be edging closer to a government who wish to register people based on their ethnicity, regardless of where they were born, where walls are being built all over the world and it feels like people are turning on each other, this is a tough read. The gap between then and now narrows, when it used to be so far away that it was hard to imagine that people could act like that. Now we know. It happens gradually, not so you’d notice.

The other thing I found interesting about this book was the Afterword – a story of Hans himself, growing up gay in a time where that too was punishable by death. A tragic accident, a change of name and a story was born which is worth reading alongside this one.

I’m not sure I enjoyed this book – it felt close to the bone and was quite uncomfortable, but it was important and even three months later I’m still thinking about it.

Book 16of25 “One of Us” – Craig DiLouie #ReadwithRD

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“One of Us”, by Craig DiLouie,  is my YA released this year, book 16 of 25 with the Readers Digest challenge.

It’s set in the not too distant past, in a timeline which is different to ours, in small town, backwater America. A sexually transmitted disease has taken hold of the population and babies born to carriers are monstrous – no eyes, no feet, pliable shapes, resembling dogs and gorillas and cats. They’re immediately removed from society and placed in care until they’re old enough to work the land as slaves.

It’s a tale with familiar tropes – teenage kids who are outsiders even though the look ‘normal’ on the outside. Teenagers who are shunned and made fun of because they don’t look like everyone else – even if their insides are the same. The attention is focussed on a small group of kids from both ‘sides’ – those in mainstream school and the so-called ‘plague’ kids, who live in a home outside of town.  It reminded me of the X Men narrative – where some think their mutations are abhorrent, others can see that they are a genetic step forward. In the same way as Magneto and  Professor X agree fundamentally on the premise but differ on the actions, so too do Tiny and Brain. I do realise it draws on real life, echoing Malcom X and Dr Martin Luther King, which is also made clear.

One of Us coverI really enjoyed reading it, and it’s one of the few books which I’ve been eager to read from the first page. The character voices are distinct and switch from plague kids to ‘normals’ and all in between. We hear from some adults as well, which lends an interesting perspective.

One aspect I was surprised about was the frankness of sex and violence. The girls in the group  are barely fourteen but have to contend with adult males trying to have sex with them at regular intervals, on the basis that they don’t carry the germ. These scenes were vividly described and the panic came across well from the girls. In more than one instance it doesn’t end well for all involved, and that’s where the violence comes in – it’s pretty gory. People are covered in blood, heads come off, limbs are broken and mangled. I think I had forgotten that YA does tend towards pulling no punches – even Roald Dahl is pretty blunt in his torture at the hands of the older boys in his autobiography.

The ideas explored are big ones, and ones I didn’t expect to see in this story, if I’m honest.  They talk about life and death and value of each human on earth. Of morality and consequences. When is it okay to retaliate, if ever? What if your suffering could be ended by a flick of the wrist, and no-one would miss them? Does that make you a monster on the inside? Lastly – don’t underestimate anyone. They could be a god underneath that pretty dress…

Thanks to Netgalley for supplying me with this copy.

Pieces of Me – Natalie Hart

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Newlyweds Emma and Adam are finding their feet and lives together in Colorado Springs after meeting in war torn Iraq. The story is told from Emma’s point of view as she adjusts from being a Brit in Iraq to one in the US, where her sentiment on helping refugees is not always carried forward to her American neighbours.

Pieces of me

It’s a much more complicated story than I had initially thought based on the cover and the write up, to be honest. I had expected something quite light and romantic, and actually what I found was a study in people in war, and what those people do when they are no longer in combat situations. There was definitely romance and the relationship with Emma and Adam is written well – I believe in them.

 

This makes it harder when things start to change and go wrong, first when Emma stays behind in Iraq to continue her work in helping refugees get to America, and then when the positions switch and she is left behind while Adam goes back to war as part of the Special Forces.   (sidenote, I just had to confirm his name and switch it from Jason to Adam – my brain rather than the book!).

 

While I enjoyed the book I did get frustrated with Emma at times. She mopes around on her own at home in Colorado Springs as if she never expected to be left alone, and hadn’t done it before. Nevermind that she’s lived all over the world and had been fine before she met Adam. It did make me want to shout at her “Get a dog and go for a hike up the mountain” or “Get a job and meet people”, but I think that was part of the point. There is a lot of internal dialogue about her family and feeling that she is separate from hers in the UK, and guilty that she ran away when her Dad died.

 

I found the ending a bit rushed and unsatisfying – I wasn’t really sure what the message was – but I think that shows how I wanted to know what Emma does next! Maybe a sequel?

 

Thanks to Netgalley  for providing the platform and to Legend press for the copy, and to Natalie Hart, of course, for writing it!

 

Book 15of25 This Really Isn’t About You #ReadWithRD

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This is number 15, the book ‘that is non fiction’: “This Really Isn’t About You”, by Jean Hannah Edelstein.  I am grateful to have received a review copy of this book through Netgalley.

It’s a first person autobiographical account of a young woman’s life, from her early years to current with her father in the centre, holding hands with the spectre of cancer. It’s not as gloomy as it sounds, but Edelstein tells her story through the filter of living with a set of genes which holds a predilection for cancer diagnoses, usually young and an unusual presentation.

This Really Isn't about youShe examines lots of different aspects of her life in an interesting, almost passionless way, and I think that makes it more powerful as it doesn’t feel like you’re being manipulated into feelings.  Her relationship with her parents, her siblings, her boyfriends. The places she lives and that battle between what she wants to do and what she thinks she should do, as a dutiful daughter.  Time spent in Berlin is described as both lonely and fulfilling, and she is warned that she will be a target as her looks and name are so ‘Jewish’ – a novelty in Germany.

I enjoyed the book and her story, especially as there are as many things I can relate to as those I can’t. Jean is female and probably about the same age as me, she does not live in the same area as her parents and therefore struggles with feelings of guilt about not being close enough to help. On the other hand, I have been fortunate enough to not have to deal with a cancer diagnosis, or persecution due to religion, and that made it interesting.

 

 

Book 14of25 Not That Bad #ReadwithRD

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This is my ‘book based on your spiritual beliefs’, number 14: “Not That Bad: Dispatches from a Rape Culture”, by Roxane Gay.   Before I review it, I am going to say that I am a little disappointed in myself that I haven’t kept up the momentum and I’m not currently writing the 22nd book review, which I should be really if I want to finish the challenge before the end of this year.  On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have read close to this many books than I would have done if I hadn’t been following the challenge, so that is good. I’m also not going to beat myself up over it, I am going to finish it although it’ll be a bit later than December 31st!

So, back to the book. I was fortunate enough to get a copy of this from Netgalley, and was recommended by a friend. “Not That Bad” is a collection of essays and stories Not that bad coverbringing together the voices of a couple of dozen and more women of all ages and backgrounds. They write on the topic of ‘not that bad’ – it could have been worse. He didn’t kill you, at least.  All of the stories, from some well known names such as Gabriele Union and Ally Sheedy, are staggering in their raw honesty and vulnerability.

 

Of course, you don’t need to read them in order but I did, and the ensuing tumult is relentless accounts of the every day encounters. The guy who asks for the woman to take her contraception in private, away from other people. The one who wrote the story of he and his girlfriend having sex for the first time without realising it’s a date rape scenario. The young woman who dates an older man who rapes her and then assumes he’ll see her again, that the pillow that muffled her screaming was there because she was having a great time.

 

It’s about the aftermath, too. How these babies and girls and women, and boys and trans and everyone else in the LGBTQIA, deal with what happened. By ignoring it, by pretending it didn’t happen. By suffering the well meaning but ultimately misguided murmurs of ‘at least he didn’t kill you’.

 

Not all of the essays are physical, but these don’t provide respite. The woman walking down the street with her daughter, being cat called by guys who get angry when she doesn’t respond to their commands.

 

This carefully curated anthology should be read by everyone. Especially those who don’t understand consent. Yes, mainly boys, but girls too. I can’t help but wonder if it’s really clear how many people change their behaviour to avoid contact – physical or not.  Women are particularly good at risk assessment. Don’t go in there, it’s dark. Don’t walk home alone, don’t talk to anyone, don’t wear tight clothes. Definitely don’t leave your drink unattended and absolutely don’t drink too much.

 

I am so encouraged by the wave of voices standing up over the last few years, with #MeToo and #TimesUp, and sometimes it feels like there’s so much to do it’s hard to know where to start. It starts with you. Call out sexism, misogyny and bullying where you see it. Be brave and people will stand with you. I promise.  When you’re with That Friend who gets handsy when he’s drunk, let him know if he’s being a pain. Tell him to go home. Maybe our sons and daughters and all in-between will be able to go out alone without making sure they know where their keys are, or watching what they eat or drink for fear of being exploited or harassed as a result. Or, you know, killed.