Literary Challenges

Louise – Senior Librarian Manager – Local & Family History

Lou WutheringWhen I found the BBC list of 100 books you should read before you die I must admit to feeling quite smug.  Here I am a graduate with an English degree, 17 years’ experience of working in libraries and reading as a favourite pass time, surely I can score highly on this list.  However it was not to be, I was brought back down to earth with a score barely in the twenties, and while my English course had covered some of the lists authors, they were not the right books to allow me to tick them off the list.  And so began my literary challenge, my aim to complete at least two thirds of the list, why not the full thing? Because I know there are some on it I have no interest in reading and I fully believe that life is too short to read a book that doesn’t grip you.  I started with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and found to my surprise it was not at all the story I thought it would be, thanks to overly romanticised TV adaptations and one Kate Bush song I really thought this was an epic romantic tale, instead I found a book full a characters I really couldn’t like, spoiled, abused, abusive and cruel these were lives to be endured not rooted for, but it did grip me, and so I look forward to continuing on and finding more from this list of classic and contemporary books to keep me invested.

lou AnimalSo far I’ve discovered that ‘Animal Farm’ is as relevant to today’s political landscape as the time it was written, that the minor characters of Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ are as fascinating as the main ones (I mean you Mr Wemmick), and that Roald Dahl is as enjoyable now as he was when I was young.  So far this challenge has allowed me to focus my reading, and I’ve read more in the last 6 months than in the year leading up to it adding another 12 to my running total. I’ve begun to read outside my comfort zone, enjoying books I never thought I’d been interested in.  The challenge has also reinvigorated my reading and I’m spending less time in front of the TV and internet and more time curled up with a book, it also sparked conversations with colleagues who I found out have a number of literary challenges of their own.

Antony – Deputy Manager – Local & Family History

My reading challenge – started ten-years ago, and still ongoing – is to read one book for each entry in the Dewey sequence (e.g. 172, 389, 505, etc). That’s a lot of books – and I’ve only managed around forty in that time. That’s OK, though, because the challenge was really only designed as a way to focus my reading when I had nothing specific in mind to pick-up next: confronted with the myriad of possible options presented in any public library, all equally valid and thus impossible to choose between, I needed a system that would help me work my way through that maze – and so the Dewey Sequence challenge was born. A secondary purpose: the challenge would oblige me to read books that I wouldn’t normally choose (so no ticking off as complete just because I knew I’d previously read a book for that sequence number).

What have been the most and least interesting books? Well, I don’t really want to single anything out as being dull, because I firmly believe that no amount of learning about the world is ever wasted (another motivation for the challenge) – but I do have to admit that titles such as Teach Yourself: Windows Vista (005) and  Skywriting: The Best of Air Jamaica’s In-Flight Magazine (052) were, let’s say, a bit niche (albeit that reading the latter did mean I’ll never forget the name of Jamaica’s first Premier, Norman Manley).

Lou NaturalAs for the best reads – Roger Clarke’s A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting For Proof (133) stands out in a relatively crowded field, just above books such as Phillip Blom’s Encyclopédie : the Triumph of Reason in an Unreasonable Age (034), Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (070), and Melissa Katsoulis’ Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes (098). Most recently I’ve read Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (300), which in some ways perfectly sums up the challenge: I’m not sure I completely agree with every argument made in the book – but I’ve at least opened myself up to the kinds of perspectives that I wouldn’t usually be confronted with; a core purpose, surely, for any public library service.

Helen – Librarian – Local & Family History

I set myself a literary challenge many years ago and I am still slowly working my way through it. In my youth I was a big fan of the band The Divine Comedy. If you’re not familiar with the name then you may remember the theme tune to Father Ted as well as the (fictional) Eurovision entry ‘My Lovely Horse’ – both written and performed by the band. In 1994 the Divine Comedy released their third album Promenade and track 3 features an unusual song entitled The Booklovers. The song itself is little more than a list of authors followed by a greeting or reference to a piece of their work. For example, we hear singer and songwriter, Neil Hannon, recite ‘Graham Greene’ followed by the words ‘Call me ‘pinky’, lovely’ (a reference to Greene’s Brighton Rock)’.  The song clocks in at nearly 6 minutes long and over 70 authors are mentioned in total.

Lou MobyLong ago I decided that I would read something by each of these authors. Luckily the list is of fairly well known writers so getting hold of works by each has not been a problem so far, especially working in a library… I’ve managed to read 33 of  the authors so far, possibly more, but if I cannot recall the storyline of a particular work then I’ve discounted it and will have to read it again sometime for it to properly ‘count’. Through this song I’ve discovered many of the classics of literature including Melville’s Moby Dick, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and one of my all-time favourites Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Ross – Librarian Manager – Local & Family History

I’ve set myself a reading challenge based on the traditional Japanese parlour game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, usually translated as ‘A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales’. The game became popular in the 17th Century and often an entire village would play. After sunset, villagers would gather in a darkened house and light a hundred candles. Each would then relate a strange or supernatural tale, finishing by blowing out one of the flames. The game would continue long into the night, and it would be up to those present whether or not they dared extinguish the last remaining candle. (As well as being a frightening prospect in itself, doing so was also believed to summon a demon!) In my version of the game, I plan to read a hundred ghost stories, blogging about each as I go. I’ll try anything from Victorian classics to modern creepypasta, but I definitely intend to include some works by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who’s written some brilliantly spooky-sounding short stories but is better-known for Rashomon. I probably won’t get going until December (that being perfect ghost story season) but, if you want to follow my progress, you can do so at: 100flickeringflames.blogspot.co.uk

Sally – Deputy Manager – Local & Family History

Lou HarryTo coincide with our latest exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic I set my self the challenge to read the Harry Potter book series. To everyone’s dismay I have never given the books a proper chance, and even more embarrassingly I was the perfect age to read them when they came out, being ten years old when The Philosopher’s Stone was released – somehow they managed to pass me by and I never got past the second book…

Whilst still not quite finished, I’m ploughing through with a new found, and growing appreciation for the series.  I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition in London whilst working on our own here in Leeds Libraries along with watching live panel discussions on the books and their effect on the world – working with and understanding our special collections which are on display in our exhibition has enabled me to put clear links between legendary literature and the hard work and real magic Jk Rowling put into the series. I’m excited to finish and become a fully-fledged fan!

So those are our literary challenges, I think a common theme appears to be that these challenges will take time, in some case decades to complete and while reading off list is fine in some ways it’s nice to have something to come back to.  Do you have a literary challenge of your own?  If so please let us know in the comments box below.

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Librarian’s Choice: Sci Fi

This blog comes from Liam, an assistant community librarian based in the east of Leeds.

Sci-fi has been unfairly maligned within the literary community for many decades, mainly by folk who believe literature equals being beaten around the head with a 19th Century thesaurus. Those of us who actually read it know that it is in fact an endless source of creativity and imagination, a way of reflecting today’s society through futuristic funhouse mirrors, and an important and compelling method of examining what’s ahead. It isn’t just aliens and spaceships and planets with names like Zygolythkah-7. Not only that, anyway. So I have compiled a list of sci-fi novels, some more well-known than others, but all of which I believe would stand up against any classic 20th Century novels. I could have talked about so many more, but hopefully this will whet your appetite!

Liam Left HandThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

No list of classic sci-fi would be complete without Ursula K. Le Guin, a true heavyweight of the genre. The Left Hand of Darkness won the Hugo and the Nebula Award, and remains as popular today as it was in 1969, when it was published.
Genly Ai, an envoy for Ekumen – a coalition of humanoid species – is sent to Gethen to encourage its leaders to join the union. He spends two years trying to persuade Karhide and Orgoreyn, the two dominant nations, to join, but encounters scepticism from both. Though capable of a type of telepathic communication, he struggles to understand the Gethen concept of ‘shifgrethor’, a system of social rules and status, and the effeminate mannerisms of many of the ‘male’ folk he meets. His task becomes all the more difficult as both nations distrust one another, and he gets caught in the middle.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an early example of feminist sci-fi, and explores themes of androgyny, sexuality and gender and their effects on society, particularly when you take gender away. Genly, for example, is unable to understand how his sexuality affects his way of thinking, and thus finds it incredibly difficult to communicate with the ambisexual Gethenians, who in turn find his motivations hard to understand. Another fascinating aspect of the story is the idea of ‘shifgrethor’, a complex system used by Gethenians extensively with regards to their society. So much of this story is as relevant today as it was when it was written. A particular passage about the dangers of patriotism rings true, especially with what’s happening in the world at the moment: “No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.” Another longer part about nations and borders should be mandatory reading. In fact, the entire book should be!

Liam CandidateA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for anything post-apocalyptic. Oryx and Crake, The Road, Earth Abides, Station Eleven, I Am Legend, Greybeard, The Gone-Away World… the list goes on. Show me society collapsing and I’m all over it. I chose ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ for this blog as it is widely regarded as one of the finest examples, and hasn’t been out of print since it was first published in 1960. It’s the only novel Walter M. Miller ever wrote, which I guess proves the old adage of quitting while you’re ahead.

At the beginning we follow a religious sect that seems to live in the Middle Ages, but as we progress, we learn that this desolate landscape is actually 600 years after a terrible nuclear war. One of the few survivors, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, collected and stored any books he could find. Centuries later, they have become the basis for a new religion called the ‘Albertian Order of Leibowitz’. The story follows humanity as it tries to rebuild civilisation and is split into three parts, with a six-century time-jump in between. Much of the novel focuses on the aspects of religion versus state, and cyclical history – how we’re doomed to repeat it if we fail to learn from our mistakes. A true masterpiece which is well worth a read.

Lilith’s Brood (The Xenogenesis Trilogy) by Octavia E. Butler

Though less so today, sci-fi in the past was often a reserve for straight white male authors. Octavia E. Butler, an African-American lesbian, broke that mould and helped pave the way for a more diverse representation of voices in this genre. Her Xenogenesis trilogy – Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Iago, recently released as an omnibus titled Lilith’s Brood – was written between 1987-89. Nuclear war has left the earth uninhabitable and humanity on the brink of extinction. The Oankili, an alien race, takes the handful of survivors left and holds them in suspended animation while they make the earth safe for life once more. Lilith Iyapo, our hero, is one of the first to be awoken aboard her new home, and is trained to help the other survivors come to terms with this new earth. The Oankili, however, know what the humans cannot accept – that humanity holds an innate self-destructive gene manifested in a need for hierarchical systems that will once again lead to their downfall – and wish to interbreed, removing this gene and thus allowing humanity the chance to flourish. But some of the survivors believe these hybrid offspring won’t truly be human, and will only cause the extinction of humankind. Some rebel…

Lilith’s Brood is a fantastic story about human nature, biological determinism, gender, sexuality and race. It could be seen as an allegory of immigration and integration that we see in society today. Though it could be argued that Butler doesn’t hold humanity in much regard, her characters are nevertheless brilliantly written and believable, the prose is tight and efficient, and the ideas are out of this world. Lilith herself is a true feminine hero, an archetype we need to see more of in sci-fi, and all genres.

Liam SiriusSirius by Olaf Stapledon

One of our librarians, Chris, recommended Sirius to me. Though the plot – a scientist breeds a super-intelligent dog with the ability to speak – sounds like it could’ve been lifted from a straight-to-DVD flop voiced by Rob Schneider, the result is actually a poignant study on consciousness, innate nature, the relationships between human and animal, and the fear of the ‘other’.

In rural Wales, a scientist begins using steroids to increase the cognisance of farm dogs. Though most fail, one little pup, Sirius, grows and develops until he holds the intelligence of a human. Born at the same time as the scientist’s daughter Plaxy, the pair forms a tight bond despite their sibling rivalry. While the family tries to keep Sirius’ intelligence a secret, locals soon begin to wonder about the dog’s smart behaviour, and react with fear and hatred. Sirius, neither man nor beast, struggles with his own identity and battles his innate wild nature against his carefully nurtured character.

‘Sirius’ is a remarkable novel by a true sci-fi legend, Olaf Stapledon, who influenced a whole generation of authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, Brian Aldiss, C.S. Lewis and many more. First published in 1944, its main themes are still just as relevant, and have been explored in other novels such as Flowers for Algernon.

Liam AndroidsDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

With the recent release of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and the current TV anthology series ‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’, now would be the perfect time to revisit Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel. Set in a future San Francisco, a devastating nuclear war has seen the majority of the surviving population leave Earth to live in off-world colonies. A group of androids, used as labourers throughout the solar system, go rogue, murder their owners, and flee Mars for Earth. It’s down to Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, to track them down and ‘retire’ them, while the androids hide out with John Isidore, a simpleton who lives in an abandoned apartment building. These androids, though superficially identical to humans, are incapable of empathy. Though they’re trying to learn…

The novel explores what it means to be human; whether it’s our emotions, experiences, souls, or simply biology. It’s darkly funny in places too. Early on, Deckard and his wife use a ‘Penfield Mood Organ’ which feeds them the emotions that their lifeless world has taken away. Deckard’s wife Iran uses this organ for a “six-hour self-accusatory depression.” With the nuclear war devastating animal life most people can only afford mechanical replicas, such as the title’s electric sheep. Yes, the film’s popularity has overshadowed its source, but this remains a noteworthy book and is a must-read for anyone with an inclination to enjoy one of cyberpunk’s original sources.

Liam More thanMore Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I put up a Gollancz sci-fi masterworks display at Headingley Library, with their gorgeously cheesy 30s pulp style paperback covers or the yellow with pink lettering hardbacks. This was one I found that I’d never heard of before, and quickly became one of my favourites. Theodore Sturgeon, a New Wave sci-fi author, and one of the few to escape a middle initial, was prolific in his writing – before his death in 1985 he had written over 200 stories. ‘More Than Human’ was one of his most famous and won 1954’s International Fantasy Award for best novel.

The story follows six individuals who, when apart, are societal misfits with weird powers – a 25 year old with a very low IQ who can control minds; two teleporting twin toddlers who can only say “he-he” and “ho-ho”; a severely disabled baby (described in the books as “mongoloid”… different times) who can think like a computer and answer any question; and an 8 year old telekinetic girl. But when these characters come together they form a symbiotic being capable of almost anything – they are“homo gestalt” humanity’s next evolutionary step.

I loved this book so much. From the first chapter where two girls, hidden away from society by their over-protective father, come face to face with the feeble-minded Lone, ending in tragedy, to the accidental creation of an anti-gravity machine while trying to build a tractor that works in both wet and dry conditions. It is truly a story that stays with you long after you’ve finished.

Summer Reading Challenge 2017

Well that’s it! Our summer reading challenge is over for another year. Over the summer holidays over 7000 children across Leeds joined the challenge to read books and win prizes. This years theme was Animal Agents and that gave us a great chance to celebrate the animal kingdom as well as our love for a great mystery.

During the summer children could not only indulge their love of reading by getting stuck into free library books but could take part in a whole range of events and activities. Who’d have thought that you could stroke an owl in the library?! 

Reading Challenge-16

Jason Beresford entertaining the crowd. 

We ended on a high note with a fun filled ceremony to award children chosen at their local library for their hard work doing the challenge. On the 26th October we held our Summer Reading Challenge Celebration Party, attended by over 100 children, young volunteers, parents and carers. Children’s author Jason Beresford entertained the crowd with tremendous tongue-twisters, side-splitting jokes and extracts from his book with eager volunteers keen to act out various characters. The winners from each library were presented with their certificate, medal and a book of their choice. A great afternoon was had by all.

Reading Challenge-3

Choices, choices – its a serious business picking a free book! 

Reading Challenge-46

Jason with some of our library winners. 

Here are some of our fantastic figures from this years challenge:-

• Over 7000 children joined
• Over 3700 children completed
• 400 more completions compared to 2016
• 920 children joined the library to take part in the Challenge
• 34 volunteers worked hard supporting and delivering events and promotions
• School winners All Saints C of E Primary, Alwoodley Primary and Lady Elizabeth Hastings C of E Primary had the most completions and won a visit from author Scott Allen who delivered fun filled interactive workshops enjoyed by pupils and teachers alike.

We will of course be back next year to do it all again!

Black History Month

October is Black History Month so Sapphia, an assistant community librarian based in the north of the city has compiled this list of titles that she recommends.

Sapphia HenriettaThe immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951 America an African-American woman goes to hospital and finds out she has cancer. This non fiction title looks at how colour and class affected hospital care In 1950’s America but also how ethics were dramatically different for all of us.
Using a sample taken from Henrietta Lacks without her permission on a hospital visit, the first first immortalised cell line was made. The cells known as ‘He-La’ have been mass produced and helped create vaccines for Polio, research Cancer, AIDS and the effects of radiation and much more. He-La cells have been reproduced to the weight of over 20 tonnes and has over 11,000 patents. Yet still her family were only informed of the importance of Henrietta’s cells in the 1970’s after the original He-La cells were contaminated and scientists tried to get samples from family members to investigate their genetics further.
By both informing you of who Henrietta was, and looking at the struggle and fight of Henrietta’s family to seek truth, ethical fairness, and recognition this is an incredible story, that should never be allowed to happen again. It’s hard to believe in this day and age, it could of happened in the first place.

Sapphia HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

Skeeter is the daughter of a white family who own a cotton farm in 1960’s America. After graduating from university, intent on becoming a writer against the ambitions of her mother she embarks on her first piece of writing. Constantine, Skeeter’s maid who cared for her as a child and brought her up has left the family home, quitting and going back to family in Jackson. This seems completely out of character for Constantine and Skeeter is determined to find out the truth. Talking to ‘help’ from other families Skeeter learns that she has truly lived another life compared to the often faceless men and woman that are employed as ‘help’ for the white families she represents. Skeeter will find out what happened to Constantine but she will also create a written account of the stories of the ‘help’ from her small town near Jackson. The stories will show them as individuals, with personality, loving and kind but also highlighting some of the deplorable conditions they faced everyday. This happened. This story may be fictional but is based on a history that was quite recent and the way that black people were treated as ‘help’, as a subordinate human is hard to conceive. But in some places, for some cultures it still happens. We need to learn from our history so that our future shows that we have changed.

Sapphia Hidden FiguresHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

During World War 2, the civil rights movement and mass labour shortages, Hidden figures looks at the true story of four African American women whose great intellect got them jobs working as ‘human computers’ for NASA. They defied segregation, forged alliances and overcame the prejudice that was common place for that time, for being black, and for being women. Their guts and determination is exemplary and these women need to be acknowledged and revered for their amazing accomplishments. Without these women the first American astronaut wouldn’t have made it to space, taking on each and every hurdle, changing their lives but also changing their countries future.
The film version of this book has been used to educate young, impoverished black women in America to show them that they can aspire and that they can reach the stars. I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I hoped. It wasn’t the story. It was the way it was written. I’m just happy that these amazing black women have had their stories publicly acknowledged and inspired millions more.

Sapphia Born a CrimeBorn a Crime : Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

I don’t think I can even describe how much I loved this book. I loved Trevor Noah before but now I am in awe. His biography tells you his childhood stories, starting with his first; that he was born a crime. Born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father in apartheid South Africa, Trevor was hidden indoors and always an outsider no matter what community he was in. Whether in poverty or becoming a business man in the ‘hood’. He is a mischievous yet endearing boy mentored by a determined, unconventional and loving mother who you can feel with every story Trevor’s love and admiration for. The memories are beautiful and vast, wether humorous or heartbreaking and seen through the eyes of a child living in a dangerous time, armed only with the aspirations his mother ingrained in him and hope.

Sapphia MockingbirdTo kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Written through the eyes of a child, To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in 1930’s Alabama. Scout and Jem’s father Atticus has been given the hardest case of his life, to defend a black man accused of raping a white girl. For a town steeped in prejudice, ignorance and violence the irrationality of Maycomb’s adult population leave Tom Robinson’s life in the balance. This is a heart rendering story, I almost cried on a bus. It’s sometimes hard to read with language that was the norm at the time, with the treatment of black people as second class citizens and getting lost into a story that you think couldn’t be real but most certainly was rife at the time. Atticus tries his hardest to get Tom Robinson justice and acquitted of the crime he clearly hasn’t committed, however the verdict is predictable and unfortunate. As a teen Jem is ashamed and betrayed by the adults around him for their lack of rationality and goodness. ‘Baby steps’ as Atticus says, is just not good enough, where is there humanity? I don’t want to tell you too much of the story in case I ruin it for anyone but I will say that it’s heartwarming to be captivated into a book because you see life from the perspective of an innocent. Reading this story as an adult you feel ashamed for being an adult and for the stereotyping that you do in your everyday actions, and although not to the extremes of the 1930’s we are all a little guilty if it. Even simply judging a book for its cover. But it’s lovely to reflect and force yourself to challenge these prejudices and to take every day as it comes.

Sapphia PoemsThe complete Collected Poems by Maya Angelou

Simply put Maya Angelou rocks. She is full of a wisdom that enlightens the soul. She was a civil rights activist and personally selected by Dr. Martin Luther King jr to be a co-ordinator for the Southern Christian Leader Conference. Just read her poetry. Think about what’s she’s saying to you. She knows what she’s talking about. Simply beautiful.

Other titles to consider:-

The Secret Life of bees by Sue Monk
Scottsboro by Ellen Fieldman
George the Poet (collection)
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
Their eyes were watching god by Zora Neale Hurston
Kindred by Octavia Butler

Librarian’s Choice: Fiction for foodies

This blog post comes from Maddie, a Community Librarian based in the east of Leeds.

I enjoy baking and love books which have food at the heart of them. I particularly like the idea of books which recipes in them.

Maddie Cupcake CafeMeet Me at the Cupcake Café by Jenny Colgan

When Issy Randall loses her boss/boyfriend and her job she decides to make a new start and open a cafe. With recipes handed down to her by her Grandpa Joe she turns her life around. This is an easy reading chick-lit romance and in true chick lit style Issy eventually manages to find Mr. Right. If you’re a fan of Sophie Kinsella then this is one you might like to try.

Maddie Shape of waterThe Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

My next choice is completely different, as this is a crime book. This is the first in a series of books about the Sicilian inspector Montalbano. The books are set in Vigata, a quiet little town where not very much happens apart from bizarre murders and lots of them. Inspector Montalbano is passionate about food and always eats his meals in silence appreciating what he is eating. There are lots of descriptions in the book about food that he is ordering in restaurants and has inspired me to look up recipes of the food described.

Maddie chocolatChocolat by Joanne Harris

This seems an obvious choice to include in this selection. I read this book many years ago before the film was made of it. The book is about a young single mum – Vianne Rocher who arrives in a quiet French village with her young daughter and opens up a chocolate shop much to the discontent to the parish priest and divides the whole community. It is probably the only book where the description of the cooking has been so vivid that you can almost smell the chocolate being made.

Maddie Like water for chocolateLike Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

The protagonist of this story is 15 year old Tita who falls in love with her neighbor Pedro. They want to marry, but her mother forbids it because of a family tradition where the youngest daughter is not allowed to marry as she is expected to look after her parents as they age. The book is set out in monthly chapters and at the beginning of each one there is a Mexican recipe.

 

Maddie Baking Cakes in the KigaliBaking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Meet Angel Tangaranza a professional cake maker, matchmaker and a shoulder to cry on. This book reminded me very much of Alexander McCall Smith’s book The Lady’s no. 1 Detective Agency. The book is set in Rwanda. The people who order cakes from Angel for special occasions relate their problems to her and she does her best to help. I liked the way that the food is the connecting factor. I’m not in Angel’s league when it comes to baking cakes, but I am tempted to try one although it might have to be a simplified version.

Librarian’s Choice: Books with a local connection

We asked the staff in our Local & Family History Library for their favourite books with a local connection. Here are their suggestions:- 

LFH Death avid readerDeath of An Avid Reader by Frances Brody, Set in the Leeds Library

Kate Shackleton’s sterling reputation for courageous sleuthing attracts the attention of the venerable Lady Coulton. Hidden in her past is a daughter, born out of wedlock and given up to a different family. Now, Lady Coulton is determined to find her and puts Kate on the case.
“I like this book because it is a very good detective yarn which keeps you guessing to the end. It is set in Leeds in the 1920s, The plot is centred around the Private Library on Commercial Street. I can relate to the staff in their roles as library assistants and can visualise the descriptions’ of the building from my visits there.” –Lynn, Library Officer

LFH Never trust a rabbitNever trust a rabbit by Jeremy Dyson, Leeds – Yorkshire

Unsettling premonitions, fortune-telling cashpoints and disappearing mazes all converge in Jeremy Dyson’s first book – a collection of short stories that established him as a formidable storyteller on original publication.
“Jeremy Dyson’s short stories are utterly terrifying in the smallest possible ways – tiny changes in routine lead to disturbing consequences, or a simple wrong turn leads somewhere scary and unexpected… Read ‘The Maze’ for an eerie story set in Leeds Central Library!” – Ross, Librarian Manager

LFH ChocolatChocolat by Joanne Harris, Barnsley – Yorkshire

When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud denounces her as a serious moral danger to his flock – especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial. As passions flare and the conflict escalates, the whole community takes sides. Can the solemnity of the Church compare with the sinful pleasure of a chocolate truffle?
“This is without a doubt my favourite book, if I need comfort there’s no better way than to follow the wind and completely immerse myself in Vianne and Anouk’s world along with the mysterious Pantoufle (who doesn’t love an imaginary Rabbit)
Vianne is a strong female character who lives by her own rules and doesn’t care what other people think. Chocolat is a feel good book with a twist, a fascinating mixture of Folk Tales and Witch Craft with a dash of romance. Darker than the film, but the descriptions are far more magical than a film can show. Perfect for curling up on a rainy day with a cup of hot chocolate.” – Klara, Library Officer

LFH Damned UnitedThe Damned United by David Peace, based upon Leeds United Football Club

In 1974 the brilliant and controversial Brian Clough made perhaps his most eccentric decision: he accepted the Leeds United manager’s job. As successor to Don Revie, his bitter adversary, he was to last only 44 days. In one of the most acclaimed novels of this or any other year, David Peace takes us into the mind and thoughts of Ol’Big’Ead himself, and brings vividly to life one of post-war Britain’s most complex and fascinating characters.
“David Peace’s searing vision of life inside the head of (probably) the most charismatic football manager this country has ever produced remains a vital and necessary read. It’s not even really “about” football; instead, the novel carries a deep and pervading sense of loss for a very particular vision of ‘England’, of a community much diminished in the brutal face of very different notions of what a nation can and should mean.” – Antony, Assistant Librarian Manager

LFH Behind the scenesBehind The Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, York – Yorkshire

Ruby Lennox was conceived grudgingly by Bunty and born while her father, George, was in the Dog and Hare in Doncaster telling a woman in an emerald dress and a D-cup that he wasn’t married. Bunty had never wanted to marry George, but here she was, stuck in a flat above the pet shop in an ancient street beneath York Minster, with sensible and sardonic Patricia aged five, greedy cross-patch Gillian who refused to be ignored, and Ruby…
“I enjoyed this first novel from York-born author Kate Atkinson, which won Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995. It follows the life of Ruby Lennox, interspersed with flashbacks which cover the lives of six generations of women from Ruby’s own family.” – Karen, Assistant Librarian Manager.

LFH The HobbitThe Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien, reader of English and Professor at Leeds University (a tenuous link but for a book as good as this we’re letting it in)

The Hobbit is a tale of high adventure, undertaken by a company of dwarves in search of dragon-guarded gold. A reluctant partner in this perilous quest is Bilbo Baggins, a comfort-loving unambitious hobbit, who surprises even himself by his resourcefulness and skill as a burglar. Encounters with trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves and giant spiders, conversations with the dragon, Smaug, and a rather unwilling presence at the Battle of Five Armies are just some of the adventures that befall Bilbo.
“Tolkien, with almost ease creates this complex world full of imaginative creatures, including simple hobbits, beautiful elves, mischievous dwarves, dastardly orcs, and the dreaded dragon, Smaug. I like this book because it represents all of the fun of the fantasy genre while creating perilous obstacles that the characters must overcome. I have read The Hobbit numerous times as a child, teenager and adult, each time ending the novel with a new insight and as an added bonus it has one of the most iconic opening lines, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’” – Josh, Library Officer

Book Reviews: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Flowers for Algernon and Toby’s Room

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Stu Brief HistoryTo begin, a couple of notes on the title. This book cannot accurately be described in any way, shape or form as being “brief”; it clocks in at nearly seven hundred pages of tiny print, and even for it a super-speedy reader like me it takes some getting through. Secondly, although the title refers to seven killings, there are an awful lot more than that contained herein. If I said the body count was closer to triple figures it would sound like an exaggeration, but it’s probably actually not far off the mark. This is a brutal, nasty affair in places, packed with the kind of cinematic violence you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, with gallons of claret flowing throughout.
What you’re really dealing with here is a history of Jamaica in the second half of the twentieth century – centering on the savage political violence that split the country in half after its independence from Great Britain in 1962 – told through the distinct voices of innumerable characters, from gangsters and slum-dwellers to CIA operatives and American journalists. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, with each chapter and episode being narrated by a different protagonist with a distinct narrative voice, from Jamaican patois to American hipster slang. It’s epic in scope, taking in the slums of Kingston, the keys of Miami and the desolate urban sprawl of 70s New York, and it works on so many different levels that it almost defies belief. It’s a literary page-turner, a pulp-fiction thriller, an investigation of the shooting of Bob Marley (referred to as “The Singer” throughout) two days before the Smile Jamaica peace concert in 1976. It contains flavours of Southern gothic and film noir, and the whole thing is shot through with a rich vein of super-dark humour which can’t help but raise a smile, despite the bleak nature of the subject matter. The characters are beautifully drawn and their individual voices are superbly rendered – this really is writing of the highest order. According to the blurb on the cover it made it onto 23 ‘book of the year’ lists when it was published. All the plaudits are richly deserved. I absolutely caned my way through this, desperate to see how it would finish, and yet was disappointed when it finally ended as I felt like I wanted to read more. A genuinely challenging, stimulating and thoroughly entertaining read, and how many Booker Prize winners can you say that about? Absolutely brilliant.

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Stu FlowersI’ve long been familiar with the plot and general themes of this vintage sci-fi novel, but it’s only recently that I’ve finally got around to reading it. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who works a menial job sweeping the floor in a baker owned by a friend of his uncle, who secured him the job to prevent him being sent to a mental institution. Charlie is selected by scientists to take part in a trial for a new surgical procedure which can increase intelligence, a technique which has previously been tested on laboratory mice, one of which is the Algernon referred to in the title. The surgery is a success, and Charlie’s IQ triples, but the effects are not quite as anticipated.

He realises that his ‘friends’ at the bakery aren’t his friends at all; they like having him to be around to make fun of and make them feel better about themselves, and they’ve coined a phrase – “pulling a Charlie Gordon” – to describe someone doing something to unintentionally make a fool of themselves. They feel threatened by his new intelligence, turn against him and he ultimately ends up losing his job. Despite being blessed with a genius level IQ, Charlie still has the emotional intelligence of a child, and struggles in social situations; he speaks to scientists and professors, but finds their conversation limited and dull; he seeks the love of a woman, but his intellect is such that he can’t engage with the opposite sex on any kind of basic level, and he’s lonelier than he ever was before the operation.

I don’t want to give the ending away so won’t say any more about the plot, but this is a great take on the Frankenstein fable about scientists playing God and the terrible consequences that it can bring. For those who don’t consider themselves fans of Sci-fi, don’t let the label put you off. The premise may be sci-fi, but this is set in a very recognisable universe, features very real, believable characters and shows some uncanny psychological insight throughout. Be warned though – it’s not a happy read and the ending is a real tear-jerker. It’s a startlingly original bit of writing which has become a stone cold classic since its first publication in novel form in 1966, and deservedly so. Well worth checking out if you fancy a left-field, thought-provoking read.

Toby’s room by Pat Barker

Stu Toby's RoomThis novel sees Pat Barker return to the subject of the First World War, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The story starts in 1912. Elinor and Toby Brooke have a relationship far closer than any brother and sister ever should, and one that they never dare acknowledge. Fast forward to 1917 – Toby is gone, missing presumed killed in the carnage of Flanders. Elinor is trying to find her feet as a professional artist, and is struggling to come to terms with what happened to her brother. Only one man – Kit Neville – an old friend from art school who was one of his stretcher bearers knows what happened to Toby, but he is suffering too, struck down by a hideously disfiguring facial wound. Only their mutual friend, commissioned war artist Paul Tarrant, can find out the truth, but will it be too much for Elinor to bear?
One of the great strengths of this novel is Barker’s incredibly perceptive understanding of her characters and their motivations, and her depiction of the complex relationships between them is first class. Her descriptions of the chaos of war and the effects it has on the men fighting it are startlingly real, and the climactic scene in which Neville describes the real events that lead up to Toby’s death while a winter storm rages outside is staggeringly emotional.
Technically it’s superb – practically flawless, actually. The descriptive prose is brilliant, the dialogue pitch-perfect, the scenes of war cataclysmic and the bits about the facial injuries suffered by many – as painted by Henry Tonks, who appears as a character in this novel – stomach-churningly graphic. Barker sets the plot in motion immediately, and right from the first couple of pages I was absolutely hooked on this. It’s a great story, beautifully written and told by an artist with an absolute mastery of her craft. Superb stuff.

Reviews from Stu, a Community Librarian based in the east of Leeds