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Summer Reading

Last month I attended the excellent Greenacre Writers Literary Festival in Finchley for the second year. Last year I was one of the speakers, this year I was a member of the audience, but I feel "one of the family". At the end of the day a few of us who are associated with Greenacre Writers agreed to post a few good reading suggestions on our blogs. My suggestions follow, some other Greenacre Writers people have also made recommendations.

You can find Wendy Shillam's suggestions on her blog here:

My selection is a list of fiction or non-fiction books that I've either read in the past eighteen months, or intend to read before the end of summer. I try to make sure that my book-pile consists of fiction and non-fiction, and includes a variety of points of view; so I try to include authors from many countries.

1. Walking Home, by Simon Armitage

Next month I'll be walking a part of the Pennine Way - my intention is to complete it in short sections before I'm seventy, so I've got five years to go. I started last year and did about forty miles. So I'll begin my reading suggestions with "Walking Home" by poet Simon Armitage, which I read a month or so ago:


Armitage lives at the Southern End of the Pennine Way and in 2010 he decided to walk the length of the footpath North to South (the opposite direction to most walkers) carrying no money, and finance his walk by giving poetry readings in all sorts of venues - pubs, public halls, cafes and private houses. At the end of each reading he passed a walking sock round for donations to raise money for food. A quirky book, it's a must for anybody who loves the rugged Pennine countryside and enjoys reading events.

2. The Dark Road by Ma Jian



Since I went to China for the first time three years ago I've been fascinated and concerned by China's "one-child policy". Two months ago I read a review of "The Dark Road" in The Guardian and felt compelled to download the book to my Kindle so that I could read it there and then.

The Dark Road is a very bleak, profound and disturbing fictional polemic against the one-child policy and a repressive, brutal and corrupt bureaucracy. Ma Jian is a London-based Chinese dissident and writer who spent several months posing as a vagrant and a journalist researching what happens to Chinese peasants who "go on the run" to avoid the attention of the Fertility Police.

Meili, a simple peasant girl married Kongzi, a village school teacher when she was just sixteen. they have a daughter, Nanaan, who is two years old at the beginning of the story. It's very important to Kongzi to have a male heir. He's determined to impregnate Meili enough times to make this happen, despite any objections she may have, and (more significantly as far as the plot is concerned) despite the attentions of the Fertility Police.

Near the beginning of the book, Kongzi remarks "If a panda gets pregnant the whole nation celebrates, but if woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal." Nearer to the end, Meili observes "Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs.” This book contains graohic descriptions of cruelty -it is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

I've written a previous blog post about China's one child policy, which incorporates a longer review of the Dark Road. You can read it here


3. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini


I've just been given this for Father's Day so I haven't read it yet. Khaled Hosseini's earlier novels "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" gave the children and women of rural Afghanistan a voice that is seldom heard in the west, or indeed in Afghanistan itself, so I'm looking forward to reading this much longer family saga that traces an Afghani family over fifty years and across three continents.

4. NW by Zadie Smith

I thought that Zadie Smith's first novel "White Teeth" was a celebration of the London that I love; and it made me laugh as well as moving me. I wasn't quite as impressed by her next two novels, but in "NW" she returns to the London where she grew up. The novel follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. After a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel.

5. A Delicate Truth by John le Carre

I've been reading le Carre since the 1970s - I've just checked that there are twenty le Carre novels in my bookcase. He's simply the master of moral ambiguity and the architect of the complex plot that grips the reader.

A counter-terror operation, codenamed Wildlife, is being mounted in Gibraltar. Its purpose is to abduct a jihadist arms-buyer. The operation is so sensitive that even the Minister's Private Secretary, Toby Bell, is not cleared for it.

Suspecting a disastrous conspiracy, Toby attempts to forestall it, but is promptly posted overseas. Three years on, Toby is questioned by Sir Christopher Probyn, retired British diplomat, in his decaying Cornish manor house. Toby must now choose between his conscience and his duty to the Service.

6. Breath in the Dark by Jane Hersey


Jane Hersey is a friend of mine who I met through an online writing peer review website. Jane lives in Blackpool, is married with a grown-up son and enjoys music and gardening. Nothing remarkable about that until you read her moving and disturbing childhood autobiography “Breath in the Dark” and wonder how she survived into adulthood at all.

Jane was born into the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Cheetham Hill in Manchester in 1953. She was the middle child. Shortly after the birth of her younger brother her father abandoned the family, leaving the children in the care of their mother Annie.

 Annie simply couldn’t cope. She suffered from depression, asthma, diabetes and a compulsive eating disorder. She was addicted to prescription drugs and spent most of her life asleep on the sofa. The family survived on National Assistance payments and handouts from Jewish welfare agencies. When Jane was just six years old Annie depended on her daughter to cash the National Assistance money, blag the doctor or the chemist to give her more amphetamines and to sell the second hand clothes that the community provided for her children in order that she could afford to binge eat.

Jane’s childhood was non-existent. All her waking hours were devoted to her mother’s and her brothers’ needs. She was socially isolated, physically and emotionally neglected, and sexually abused by her father on the few occasions when she came into contact with him.

Jane tells her story through the unmoderated voice of her childhood self. The voice is intense, innocent and powerful. The book begins when she is six and ends abruptly when she is fifteen and breaks away from the community that had failed her so miserably.

Jane has now written "Full Circle"; a sequel to "Breath in the Dark" which I reviewed here. She plans to publish the third volume of her life story next year.


7. Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Sara-Wiwa

Noo Sara-Wiwa is a travel guide writer. Born in Nigeria and educated in England; she's also the daughter of Ken Sara-Wiwa, a human rights activist who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995, on charges widely viewed as entirely politically motivated and completely unfounded.


So though she's written several Lonely Planet Guides to African countries, she's never wanted to write a tourist guide to the country that killed her father.


Instead, she writes "Looking for Transwonderland"; a very moving but humorous personal journey back to the land of her birth. Her compassion and keen eye for the ridiculous shine through the book.

8. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a moving, passionate love story set amid the turmoil and terror of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.

All manner of Kigali residents pass their time by the pool of the Mille-Collines hotel: aid workers, Rwandan bourgeoisie, expatriates, UN peacekeepers, prostitutes. Keeping a watchful eye is the narrator, a cynical middle aged French-Canadian journalist Bernard Valcourt. As Valcourt slips into an intense, improbable affair with Gentille, a young hotel waitress with the slender, elegant build of a Tutsi, the delicately balanced world around them - already devastated by AIDS - erupts in a Hutu-led genocide against the Tutsi people.

Valcourt’s efforts to get Gentille to a place of safety end in their separation. It will be months before he learns of his lover’s shocking fate. Like "The Dark Road" this book is not for the faint hearted - it's incredibly graphic and the imagery is some of the most disturbing that I have ever read, but it's humanity shines through.

Good reading everyone!

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