Reading Matter

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If you’re a fan of The Wicker Man, but thought it could’ve done with a few mutant fish in there to liven things up, then this read of the fortnight could well be the book for you.

I also find out about this year’s Big Read coming to Sheffield Central Library. And recommend some books for a worried mum. What better way to teach our growing young men respect for women than by giving them books with strong female characters to read? Get in touch via email or twitter @AnnaCaig with Sheffield literary connections, a problem that I can solve with the right book, or with a reader review.

Read of the fortnight:

The Many by Wyl Menmuir

This is Menmuir’s 2016 debut novel.

At little over 150 pages, it fits a huge amount into a short volume, and was showered with critical acclaim, including a place on the Booker longlist.

The surface plot sees our protagonist Timothy living as a newcomer to a bizarre, insular seaside community. The story is told with gentle, understated language.

But despite its almost sparse style, the writing packs a real emotional punch.

Menmuir succeeds spectacularly well in endowing everything with several levels of meaning, without it seeming forced or self-conscious.

The village community life revolves around fishing, but this trade has been decimated by the presence of poisons in the water.

There is one fisherman, Ethan, who is moved by Timothy’s presence in the village more than any other – at first reluctant to make contact, but then seeking him out and deliberately spending time together. Menmuir splits our perspective on the story between these two men.
What we come to realise is that beneath the surface, this is a book about death.

Or rather, the impact that death has on the living.

We know from the beginning that Ethan’s interest in Timothy stems from the fact that he moved into the house of a dead boy named Perran, someone who meant a great deal to Ethan.

Ultimately, though, this is a story of healing, and how it is possible to put the pieces back together – even if it takes an extreme journey and some severe mental ill health to get us there.
I almost want to write two reviews of this book – one for those who haven’t, and one for those who have read it.

Because it is so laden with symbolism that reading the end becomes a delicious ‘what does this mean, what does that mean?’ process.
Without giving too much away, in my version of The Many we meet God, and a man so broken that his world is poisoned and falling apart.

But it is entirely possible you will experience something different. I’m not always a fan of such ambiguity in novels; it can be frustrating.

But Menmuir’s writing has the opposite effect; he makes you feel like a co-creator of the story, and it’s a wonderfully exciting read.

Get yourself a copy, and tell me what you think it all means.

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

Jane says: My son is eight years old.

He is great, but seems to have picked up some worrying ideas recently about the place of girls and women in society.

I’m looking for some books with great female characters to show him that women can do anything. I don’t want him to grow up with these prejudices.

Anna says: What a fantastic mum you are to provide your son with these positive examples.

There are so many female role models in books for children this age that I have struggled to narrow it down to two recommendations. But I think these should do the trick.

Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter is a rollicking good adventure story that deals with the issue you’re talking about head on.

Our hero Lila wants to become a firework-maker like her father, but he assumes he will have to send her away to learn dancing and find a husband.

Lila is horrified by this, and runs away to find the secret of ‘Royal Sulphur’, the ultimate knowledge that will complete her initiation into the world of firework-making.

All of us, male and female, children and adults alike, sometimes find ourselves moving through life on a tide of conventionality and expectation.

But often the best things happen when we stop and remember “I make the path.” I can do what I want to do.

That is the message of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter. It’s a compact 132-page lesson in forging your own destiny. Like Yann Martel’s The Life Of Pi, but for children.

With delights from incompetent pirates on a ship called The Bloody Murderer, to a talking elephant, to an epic journey to a magic mountain, every page brings a new twist; Pullman’s impressively efficient writing packs a huge amount of adventure into this short book.

My second recommendation for your son is the first in a series of seventeen books with a feisty female sleuth as their lead character.

Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series starts with The Thieves Of Ostia. Flavia Gemina is the daughter of a Roman sea captain with an uncanny knack for solving mysteries big and small.

In this first book she leads an unlikely band of children to discover who is behind the sinister dog mutilations happening in their neighbourhood.

My daughter absolutely devoured these books at around the age your son is now, with the bonus that she also learnt a surprising amount about Roman history in the process. Between Flavia and Pullman’s Lila, your son will soon be feeling all the admiration for girls and their unlimited potential that he should be.


Literary City: The Sheffield Connection

The Big Read is a series of reading group events hosted in libraries across the north of England by the The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, and it’s coming to Sheffield Central Library on Wednesday 14 June.

This year’s Big Read book is Ian Rankin’s breakthrough Rebus novel, Black and Blue. The reading group is at 3pm on the day, and will be led by award-winning writer Mari Hannah, author of the Kate Daniels and Ryan and O’Neil series.

Readers are being invited to delve into the world of Ian Rankin’s iconic detective in this celebratory year, as Rankin marks 30 years of Inspector Rebus.

Free copies of the book are also available in advance for those taking part.

Ian Rankin said writing Black and Blue was ‘bittersweet’: “My son Kit was being diagnosed with severe special needs at the time, and I was asking big questions – why me, why us, what does this mean for us – but because I’m a novelist I was able to channel that into that book and it made it a big angry, questioning book.

“Black and Blue was the first book I was happy with.

“All the books before it had been an apprenticeship, to learn about the genre and what you can and can’t do with it – and become more confident about Rebus as a character.

“So by the time I got to Black and Blue, all of that came into play.”

* To request a free copy of Black and Blue visit: Harrogate International Festival