Fargate from the Madding Crowd

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I hope 2017 is treating you well so far, and you are managing to get some reading time in amongst all the new year busyness.

Thank you for your reader reviews, and all your problems for Reyt As Rain Reads. Keep them coming.

Get in touch via twitter @AnnaCaig or email copydesk.southyorks@jpress.co.uk

The deadline for reader reviews of A Thousand Splendid Suns is January 26.

The next read of the fortnight will be Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet.

Deadline for reader reviews is February 9.

Read of the fortnight - Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

His 2007 follow-up to the hugely successful The Kite Runner tells the life stories of two very different women living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

In this book Hosseini draws vivid portraits of some entirely believable characters.

The depiction of many aspects of these women’s lives is nothing short of heartbreaking.

And when Hosseini brings children into the mix my empathy response went into overdrive; I sobbed my way through whole sections.

I’ll be honest with you, this one is not an easy-going read. But it is brilliant.

We follow Mariam and Laila, two women married to the same man, as they face oppression, bereavements and abuse.

But the joy of the story is in the solace they find in their relationship with each other; an unlikely friendship that cuts through the sadness.

Hosseini also writes beautifully on Kabul, its landscape, its people and, most enjoyably for me, its food. Many of the meals will have your mouth watering.

His straightforward narrative style lends great weight to the story. There is a real sense that he is accurately, and without melodrama, depicting lives being lived very much of this world.

These events happened in my lifetime, only separated from me by the good fortune of where I happened to be born. We’re not so different. Everybody wants to be loved, and we all want to give our children enough food to eat.

You may ask why I would put myself through what is, at times, a harrowing read. And why you should do the same. Fair question. We often seem to be living in a world of compassion fatigue, where the plights of those in terrible situations no longer move us. We’ve just seen too much of it. And this book is a shock to the system. It doesn’t allow you to harden your heart. In fact, it softens your heart to the point where it is mush. Which I don’t think is a bad thing.

But I don’t want to scare you off and give the impression that A Thousand Splendid Suns is harrowing from start to finish, because that would be misleading. The second half in particular is beautiful. As Mariam and Laila’s friendship deepens, it becomes a beautiful and almost redemptive source of hope. I love to see female friendship, that most underrated of relationships in much fiction, appreciated like this. Be brave, give it a read, and let me know what you think.

Reyt as Rain Reads... books to make it better

Laurie in Wadsley says: I watched To Walk Invisible, the Bronte sisters’ drama, over Christmas and was inspired by the story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne and the dynamic with their alcoholic brother Branwell. It was a brilliant programme, but I felt chastened that I knew so little about their work beyond Wuthering Heights. As I am raising two small Yorkshire people I know the Brontes’ brilliance will be practically drilled into them as soon as they’ve grasped phonics. But I’m a silly old southerner and don’t know which sister, and which book, I should read to them first. And are there any I should avoid? Any help gratefully received.

Anna says: I think this is the most difficult Reyt As Rain Reads I’ve had so far! I grew up in West Yorkshire not far from Haworth. The writing of these three sisters means so much to me that I struggle to make careful, considered recommendations to anyone else when it comes to their books. So just to warn you, there will be a lot of hyperbole in these recommendations. But I mean every word.

As you’ve already read Wuthering Heights, we’ll go for two others.

It has to be Jane Eyre first. I’m not going to try and be clever and recommend a more obscure one. This is the most dramatic and gothic of Charlotte’s novels, so is therefore my favourite.

People often think of Charlotte as a more civilised writer than Emily, and in some ways she is. But don’t expect anything too civilised here. This is a genuinely terrifying read. Ostensibly the story of an intelligent, spirited woman struggling to make her way in the world as a governess, it has some of the most powerful symbolism and imagery of all time. And for pure, knock-your- socks-off, plot, it is probably top of the Bronte pile.

My favourite Anne Bronte novel is her second, and last, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. If you enjoyed the depiction of Branwell’s descent into alcoholism and depravity in To Walk Invisible, you should enjoy these literary fruits of that real experience. We will never know for certain quite how these three sisters came to write some of the most spectacular fiction in the history of the English language, but it’s safe to assume that as well as the rich fantasy life they concocted and inhabited, they also wrung every last drop of inspiration out of their surroundings. And, as ably demonstrated in Sally Wainwright’s impressive programme, Branwell is likely to have provided a template for the difficulties of life with an alcoholic portrayed in this book.

This is an extraordinary book that tells the story of a woman going it alone for the sake of her son and her sanity, at a time when women almost always relied on the patronage and protection of a man.

I hope you enjoy your foray into the wonderful world of the Brontes, and that these two classics whet your appetite to read further. What would you recommend for Laurie?

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Reader Reviews: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

Jeni in Walkley says: “Women’s bodies are not seen as their own – they are birthing machines.”

Lauded by the likes of Caitlin Moran and flatteringly described as “Withnail with girls”, Emma Jane Unsworth’s “Animals” tells the story of Tyler and Laura, best friends living in a flat in Manchester.

The pair’s drink and drug-fuelled lifestyle, which might have been perfectly run-of-the-mill in their early 20s, is starting to jar now they approach their 30s, and is also creating an uncomfortable clash with Laura’s teetotal fiancé, Jim.

This tricky three-way relationship, with Laura torn between the early-to bed, staid and serious Jim with his plans for marriage and children, and Tyler, who thinks nothing of stealing from drug dealers, starting fights in underground nightclubs and downing a bottle of white wine for lunch, is the central tension of Animals. Will Laura go ahead with her planned wedding? Will she “settle down” and become a “birthing machine” like the mothers that she and Tyler so love to deride? Or will she carry on riding her rollercoaster existence with Tyler?

The problem with Animals is that it’s difficult to care about what happens to any of the characters because they’re never fully explored. Unsworth packs every page with one-liners – usually delivered by Tyler, bedraggled in a kimono, clutching a cigarette in one hand and a wine bottle in the other – but the sheer number of jokes means you don’t get to the heart of any of the personalities.