Annual Roundup: My Books of 2021

new-years-books

Christmas once again approaches and with it the excuse, should one be needed, to buy books for family and others we care for, including ourselves. The titles selected here represent just some of my personal recommendations from my reading over the past year. I posted reviews for well over one hundred books in 2021 so choosing just a few from the many enjoyed wasn’t easy. I hope those who share my literary tastes will find this post useful, or at least of some interest.

As with my monthly roundups, click on the title below to read my review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

We start with fiction likely to appeal to a wide variety of readers.

stone diaries case study
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, published by World Editions
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Saraband

Beautifully told stories dealing with just one of the shameful periods in Irish history.

emmet-and-me  small things
Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin, published by Honno
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published by Faber & Faber

Short stories that capture the Irish mindset with aplomb.

the last resort   intimacies
The Last Resort by Jan Carson, published by Doubleday
Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell, published by Faber & Faber

An academic study of contemporary Northern Irish writing that is fascinating and written to be accessible to all.

northern irish writingNorthern Irish Writing After The Troubles by Caroline Magennis, published by Bloomsbury

Exploring areas of Great Britain – fine non fiction.

coasting  where
Coasting by Jonathan Raban, published by Eland
Where? by Simon Moreton, published by Little Toller

Non fiction with bite.

chauvo feminismChauvo Feminism by Sam Mills, published by The Indigo Press

Fiction with a darker edge.

beasts turned away  fox fires
The Beasts They Turned Away by Ryan Dennis, published by époque press
Fox Fires
by Wyl Menmuir, published by Salt

Fiction that shines a light on our less than admirable behaviours, beautifully told in imaginative ways.

the high house  Pupa
The High House by Jessie Greengrass, published by Swift Press
Pupa by J.O. Morgan, published by Henningham Family Press

Poetry that powerfully explores our present situation, living through a time of plague.

SpringJournal  the heeding
Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, published by CB editions
The Heeding by Rob Cowen, published by Elliott & Thompson

Should have, at least, made the Booker shortlist if not gone all the way.

an islandAn Island by Karen Jennings, published by Holland House Books

Deliciously dark short stories.

dead relativesDead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy, published by Dead Ink

Reminders that I should read more translated fiction.

ramifications  winter flowers
Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney), published by Charco Press
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), published by Peirene Press

For when we need a laugh, within damn fine storytelling.

domestic bliss
Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions, published by Bluemoose

Encourage children to pick up books by giving them compelling reads.

sunny wicked lady  last bear
Sunny and the Wicked Lady by Alison Moore, published by Salt
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, published by Harper Collins

So there we have it, 23 books that particularly impressed me, many published by our wonderful small, independent presses – do please support them when you can. Whatever your choice of literature over the festive season and coming year, I wish you many hours of satisfying reading.

Book Review: A Boy Called Christmas

boychristmas

A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig, is the spirit of the season wrapped up inside the covers of a book. It is funny, poignant, mischievous, magical and joyous to read. It provides all the warm fuzzies without ever descending into schmaltz.

The protagonist, Nikolas, is a woodcutter’s son living in Finland more than a hundred years ago. He and his father, Joel, are very poor, subsisting on berries, stale bread and soup made from foraged mushrooms. When a hunter appears unexpectedly at their remote home offering untold riches if Joel will join him on an expedition to the dangerous north, Nikolas is left in the care of his cruel aunt. Even hungrier now, desperate and unhappy, Nikolas counts the days to his father’s return. When he does not reappear the boy determines to follow in the woodcutter’s footsteps and search him out.

The dangers Nikolas encounters and the friends he makes on his adventures offer explanations for many of the traditions now associated with the festive season. We learn how reindeer fly, why presents are placed in stockings, how crackers save lives, and the origins of the naughty and nice lists.

The author slips in many points to consider about humanity, greed, and how grown ups seek to justify their selfishness. He also reminds us of the joy of giving, the value of a clear conscience, and the power of hope.

If I had read this book years ago then I would not have told my growing children that Father Christmas was not real. Why limit life by accepting what others regard as impossible?

“An impossibility is just a possibility you don’t understand yet…”

This is a book that deserves to appear in every stocking on Christmas Eve. I have no doubt it is destined to become a perennial festive favourite with child and adult alike.

Christmas

This week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop has the theme: Merry Christmas!

Well, what else could have been chosen for this week?

Remember the Time Blog Hop

 

Christmas Eve. My sister and I would be put to bed, but we couldn’t get to sleep. Her bed was by the window and she would pull back the curtains, just a little, and peer out into the dark night sky. Somewhere up there a man dressed in red was flying from house to house delivering presents down chimneys. She hoped beyond hope for a glimpse, especially of the reindeer.

Outside our bedroom door we could hear our parents moving softly around the house, up and down the stairs. This was most unusual. Occasionally there would be a faint rustle of paper, but if we suspected what was going on we never voiced our thoughts. We wanted to believe in the magic.

We thought that we would stay awake all night but somehow, at some point, fell asleep. Waking in the morning to a quiet house we would wait, as instructed, until 7am. It was so hard to remain quiet as we whispered and wondered and checked the clock yet again.

Eventually, at the appointed hour, we could wake our parents. But our teenage brother always wanted to sleep! How could he on Christmas morning…

And so we would enter the lounge and stare in awe at the piles of colourfully wrapped parcels. The paper was always the same: slightly crumpled, with a few tears and the remains of previous year’s sticky tape. My mother required that we open each present carefully to preserve the wrapping paper, which she would smooth out and fold before placing it in a storage box. Somehow this ritual did nothing to spoil our belief in Santa Claus.

The new toys were treasured, the books set aside for later, the clothes from ancient relatives (probably in their thirties at the time) discarded. And then there were the selection boxes. Chocolate bars, bags of candy and toffees would be consumed for breakfast as we struggled to remove the packaging from the toys we had longed for, and many that we had not realised we had wanted but now adored.

Eventually we would have to dress and get into the car to go fetch Grandma. This was not a chore as the unfailingly generous soul always gave us a major new toy. Throughout the journey we would try to guess what it might be, what from the list that we had sent to Santa had we not yet received?

When all presents had been opened and Grandma had been safely brought back to our house my mother would serve dinner. I was a hungry child and loved this day, when I could eat my fill without fear of comments about my girth. Replete we would settle down in front of the television to watch the Christmas film, hugging a favourite toy from the day’s haul.

My Grandma never wished to stay for long after the meal and my father would be required to drive her home. My sister and I would return to snacking on our confectionery and investigating toys that had not yet warranted much attention. Having produced all the food, my mother would be left to clear up the debris from dinner.

By the evening we would be tired from the excitement and activity; we would go to our beds hugging a new, soft friend.

I have only happy memories of the Christmases of my childhood. It was a magical time, as rose tinted as they come.

I feel blessed to have had parents who made it so.

Christmas presents

Read the other posts in this Blog Hop by clicking on the link below 

 

Weekend thoughts

I have been immersed in my book for much of the weekend. I will talk more of this when I have reached it’s end and have had time to process the many threads of the plot, the ideas explored, and have decided if any of the characters are to be liked or admired as seems to be expected. Too often I find that an author writes in a weakness, a flaw, that changes my perception of an otherwise admirable person. Their life’s work is tarnished by their inability to be faithful to those who were close to them and trusted them.

I lay great store by how a person treats those who support and rely on him. Academic ability, commercial success, even a great contribution to society will become less impressive to me if the person has not treated his family and friends as they deserve. As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela I find myself holding back. How must his family have felt when he put his country’s needs before them? Perhaps no great things would ever be achieved if there were not men willing to do this. Perhaps his family were supportive and proud that he did not give up on the apparently impossible dream that he helped make come true. I did not know him. I do not know if he was a good man, only that he achieved remarkable advances for his country.

I am sceptical of those in the limelight. I wonder who supports them unseen to enable them to climb to such heights. Have they shown due gratitude for the support, or trampled on those who got in their way?

My social media feeds are full of mixed messages today. The government of this country appears to be outdoing itself with it’s wasteful spending alongside withdrawal of financial support for those most in need. Cogently written comment pieces abound yet the policies of suppression continue. Perhaps we too need a powerful figurehead to shake up the establishment and orchestrate change.

Alongside these depressing, political postings are the photographs of friends as they enter into the spirit of the festive season. When I declined the various invitations that I received I wondered how I would feel, if I would regret missing out on the dinners and parties. For this year at least I find that I am deriving enjoyment from afar. My lovely friends look so fine and happy in their party dresses, but I am not wishing that I were there to join them.

On Friday evening I had a fun filled few hours at home. My husband has recently acquired an amplifier and new cables that allow our old turntable to be linked into the digital music system that runs through our house. I put on a few vinyl records and started to compare tracks against the digital recordings we have stored. I was amazed at the depth of the sound. My old vinyls may crackle under the ancient needle, but the quality of the music is rich and fabulous. Beside this the digital recordings seemed clean but void. It amused me that my teenage children complained that I was playing my music way too loud.

It was good to be home, surrounded by warmth and love. I am happy for those who are posting photographs from interesting holiday destinations, from seeing friends enjoying their outings dressed so beautifully, but I am glad not to have to face the crowds myself. I can be content with my family gatherings at home.

Perhaps today we will deck the halls, play our corny Christmas music, try to capture a little of the joy of the season. I still have much to do to ensure that expectations are met, but we are getting there. I find that I cannot close my eyes to the selfish evil and lies that our leaders perpetuate, but I can derive pleasure from the happiness of those closer to home.

It is sickening that those same leaders who will order the violent suppression of dissent at home are singing the praises of a man who fought for freedom and won; a man who was imprisoned as a terrorist yet inspired a nation and much of the world. I wonder can they even see the vainglorious irony of their words and actions.

English: The prison cell where Nelson Mandela ...

Santa Claus

Spoiler Alert! If you are expecting your Christmas presents to be delivered down your chimney on Christmas Eve by a big, bearded, soot sprinkled, magical elf dressed in red with white fur trim then please do not read this post.

I hope that was warning enough. I do not wish to spoil anyone’s Christmas.

That was my problem when I first had kids. It was very important to me that my children should trust me; I did not wish to lie to them about anything.

Sometimes this aspiration got me into trouble, such as when I gave birth to my third child at home and my eldest burst into the room before we were ready. I explained to her carefully, in what I thought was age appropriate language, how her little brother had emerged from mummy’s tummy. She then wanted to know how he had got in, which I also tried to explain as honestly as I could. The next week she was passing on this important information at playgroup. At no point were any birds, bees or storks involved; just a mummy, a daddy and a special hug; followed nine months later by something like a big poo.

So, what to do about the existence of Santa Claus in the Christmas story? At first I simply ignored him. I explained to my children that Christmas was a birthday celebration for Jesus. When a child has a birthday, family and friends give the child gifts and a party is held. Because Jesus is so very special we all get given gifts on his birthday and everybody celebrates with a party. I reckoned that I could cover other religions when my children got a bit older.

Except me not mentioning Santa Claus didn’t stop every other adult that my children came into contact with just expecting them to be in on this tale. Without a word from me they came to believe in the flying reindeer, presents coming down a chimney and a funny little old man all dressed in red who granted every material wish.

At no point did I ever say that this was how it was. I didn’t have to. However, whilst I may not have lied explicitly, I did implicitly as I went along with the established orthodoxies. The night before Christmas, when my kids asked to put out cookies and milk for Santa along with a carrot for the reindeer, I obliged. I ensured that they were tucked up in their beds before sneaking the presents down the stairs on Christmas Eve. When they were old enough to write a letter requesting particular gifts, I helped address the envelope to the North Pole and walked them to the village postbox to send the carefully crafted missives on their way. I made no mention of the wonderful service that the Post Office provides when, a few weeks later, each child received a reply from the man himself.

What else could I do? Had I told them the truth then that important information would have been shared at playgroup or school too. I was not willing to take responsibility for removing the magic from all those children’s lives. Perhaps more to the point, I was not willing to face the potential wrath of their parents.

When my elder son eventually asked outright if Santa existed I told him the truth and, as I had feared, he rightly accused me of lying to him. I felt dreadful. It is not the only time that I have fallen short of his good opinion, but I do not recall any other deliberate untruth that I have perpetuated.

On Day 4 of my countdown to Christmas then, I am feeling glad that I can now celebrate Christmas with my family without a pretence that I never felt comfortable with. I may be the only one in my family who still looks on this event as a birthday party for the son of God, but we exchange presents with each other out of love, not because a mythical stranger invades our home in the dead of night.

My daughter still remembers her little brother’s birth, probably her first real memory. I do wonder if witnessing the aftermath of that momentous but very real event has scarred her for life.

1914 Santa Claus in japan

December

And so it begins. December. Today we can open the first door on our advent calendar and start the countdown to Christmas. Light the advent candle, deck the halls.

Despite having an enjoyable and relaxing day with my family yesterday, I felt jittery. After a pleasant and easy dinner, just before we settled down together to watch a film, I had to control myself to prevent weeping. For no reason. Nothing had happened to upset me.

I am fighting to overcome the dread that has settled in the pit of my stomach, that threatens to wrap itself around my heart.

Yet this will not do. The festive season will not go away and I have a family who will want to enjoy the build up and the event itself. Much as I would like to hide under my duvet for the rest of the month, this is not an option.

I need to find strategies that will enable me to cope. Perhaps if I exhaust myself at the gym each day I will be able to sleep, an elusive activity when I feel anxious. Perhaps if I avoid all gatherings and instead head out into the countryside to enjoy the stark, cold beauty of this time of year I will find solace.

There is only so much that I can choose to eschew without causing offence. I have no wish to cast a shadow on the bonhomie of the season. I want to run away and hide but am aware that my absence would tarnish what is a happy time for others.

A season of joy has become a season of obligation. The enforced sociability, the expectation of gaiety has stripped my resoluteness to the quick. I wish joy to the world, goodwill to all men, as I fight to quell the rising panic in myself.

So much negativity.

Throughout this month, as I open each door on my advent calendar, I will seek out a reason why this season is good, a reason that will help me to get me through that day. It is the anticipation of what is to come that I fear, not what is happening today.

So, what can I find that is good today?

In my garden there is a small flock of hens who crowd around me the moment I step into their garden. They follow me to the shed for the handful of corn that they know I will scatter for them to enjoy. They find happiness scratching over an area of freshly dug soil.

P1010826

These creatures rely on me yet demand so little. They always make me smile with their funny little ways. They tolerate my hugs and welcome me, even if it is only for the food that I provide. Their presence will help me get through today.

The Best Christmas Ever

It is coming. I can duck, dive, weave and hide but I cannot avoid it. Yesterday, as I walked through our village to the gym, I saw the first decorations glittering outside a house. To misquote Eddard Stark, Christmas is coming.

I used to love this time of year. I would bake my huge fruit cake in October ready for the children to ice and decorate on Christmas Eve. Throughout November I would make copious present lists and place numerous online orders. I would write more cards than I needed to send; spend days composing and rewriting my annual update, carefully choosing photographs that I felt depicted each family member’s year. I enjoyed this preparation and looked forward with excited anticipation to the big event.

As the day approached there would be dinners out with friends, celebratory drinks and house parties to attend. I took pleasure in putting on my glad rags and heading out into the cold, dark night to drink and chat with my lovely friends. The children would take part in organised events at school and their various activity groups, bringing home goodie bags of sweets and small toys. It was a joyous time.

And then it all started to go wrong. Little things happened that took the shine off the anticipation. That general feeling of wellbeing and joy slowly dissipated. Friends fell out and would not accept an invitation if another was to be there; the children were less keen to partake in organised events; I was asked by one recipient of my annual update to please stop sending it. The relaxed, happy expectation leaked away to be replaced with stress and confusion. I found it harder to please even those I felt close to; I began to worry about everything.

But before all that, before I began to feel that I was a square peg in a round hole, sometime in between the joy that it had once been and the drudge that it is threatening to become, before it all started to go wrong for me, there was The Best Christmas Ever. For three days running I was as relaxed and happy as I believe it is possible to be.

It started on Christmas Eve, after a typically manic December. We closed the curtains to keep in the warmth, turned on the corny Christmas music and filled the oven with party snacks before starting the little family party that had, over time, developed into an annual ritual. It was a time together between the plethora of parties and socialising with others. The children were still young enough to enjoy the company and attention of their parents. We chatted and ate and messed around together before snuggling up on the sofa to watch a funny film. Afterwards I read aloud ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas  and we all settled down for our long winter’s nap to allow Santa to visit (we had been good, of course).

Christmas Day started early with much excitement as presents were opened and happiness reigned. This day was even more special than usual though; this was the only Christmas Day we have ever experienced when it was just the five of us.

With only us to please it had been agreed that we would forgo the big turkey dinner and let the children choose what we ate; they chose pizza. With only us to please there was no need to get dressed so we spent the entire day in pyjamas. With only us to please we could do what we wanted, when we wanted, so we spent the next two days watching the entire, extended edition of the director’s cut of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy on DVD. Each film was around four hours long but we still managed to watch loads of the extras as well. How they managed to film grown men alongside each other looking so wizard tall and hobbit small was impressive.

Between disk changes we would dash out to grab food from the fridge, refill drinks and take comfort breaks. Other than that we stayed sofa bound, in our pyjamas, with the curtains closed for the entire time. It was fabulous. I don’t believe I have ever felt so snug and happy as I did over those few days, alone with my family, eating what we wanted when we wanted, the rest of the world ignored.

It is not something that would be easy to repeat. My children have become less satisfied with me as they have grown older. I am no longer regarded as amusing, but rather foolish and behind the times. We can still spend time together and enjoy that time, but the underlying antipathy towards me from one teenage child or another rarely goes entirely.

Last year I tried to recapture the spirit of the season but it all went wrong. I tried to turn back the clock, but it cannot be done. For now, my wishes are no longer heard or are not regarded as important. My family have their own ideas about how they wish to celebrate, and much of what they do involves me only as a facilitator.

And so to this year. If we choose to have a cake it will be shop bought. Only my nearest and dearest feature on my very short present list; I have yet to place any orders. Cards will be sent to just a few people; I have not prepared a Christmas update and am undecided if it would be worthwhile. I have declined all invitations to outings; my children will organise for themselves any that they wish to attend.

The day will happen and I am steeling myself to cope with whatever expectations my family have. I will cook the big dinner if it is required and try to fit in around the plans that are now made without consultation. I will make the most of any moments when we can recapture the joy that can still be shared if the five of us choose to spend time together, but I will try not to expect such times to happen for fear of disappointment.

Last year I did not manage to get through the festive season unscathed and it took me many months to recover. This year I will be more aware of the catalysts that bring me down and work to manage them. There are some things in life that can neither be avoided nor changed and I must cope.

Alongside all of this I will hug the knowledge that we once enjoyed The Best Christmas Ever. I have that happy memory, and January brings a whole new year of opportunities to explore. Life moves on and, just as Christmas was once a time of joy, it may become so again. I will do my best to go with the flow and keep my head above water. Who knows, I may even find a new way in which I may celebrate that I can enjoy.

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