Bang in the Middle by Robert Shore
I'm a total travel book addict and the UK is one of my favorite regions to read about. Spotting this book on NetGalley made me realize that I really don't know that much about the Midlands, so I picked it up to see what I could learn. England is a little like the US in that certain areas have specific identities - for instance, if I tell you that someone lives in New England, you probably have a different image spring to mind than if I tell you they live in Florida. Brits tend to have a similarly solid idea of what someone from the North is like vs someone from the South, but much like our Midwest, the midlands are pretty fuzzy in terms of a clear identity. Despite being the birthplace of many famous names (Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, and Tennyson... the poet, not my cat.) the Midlands are mostly known as an industrial area of mines and factories. Bang in the Middle came about from the author's quest to answer his son's question about where he's from. How do you explain a region with no easily defined identity?
The book is broken down into one city for each chapter, visiting Mansfield, Nottingham, Meltam Mowbray, Grantham, Northampton, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Coventry, Birmingham, Lichfield, Stoke-On-Trent, Chatsworth and The Crags along the way. If you're like me, you've probably heard of most of these but don't know much of anything about them. (Other than the obvious Shakespeare/Stratford connection, and maybe Nottingham/Robin Hood.) I can't say that I came out of the book feeling like any kind of Midlands scholar, but I do definitely feel a bit better informed.
There are sections where the author goes off on a tangent that while related in some way, isn't all that much about the actual location, which leaves me wondering if there was just nothing there to write about. (For example, almost the entire Lichfield chapter is about heavy metal music. Totally interesting to read, but not that informative when it comes to understanding Lichfield. He brings the narrative back around to the fact that Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne are both from Birmingham, but again... not about Lichfield.)
Despite several references to the Staffordshire Hoard in earlier chapters, I was starting to think that the author would never get around to actually discussing it, so I was happy that the hoard, as well as a bit about Mercia in general, were discussed in the Chatsworth chapter. (If you're interested in awesome in depth info about the Staffordshire Hoard, the British History Podcast interviews with some of the experts involved are here! A very worthwhile listen. You're welcome for the kind plug for your show, Jamie. You owe me coffee now.)
I'd recommend this book to those who want to fill in some gaps in their British geographical knowledge, anyone planning to visit the area, or, of course, Midlanders who are are totally excited to see their region talked about for a change. However, if it's not something that you already have at least a bit of interest in, it's probably not going to spark any kind of new passion.
Zac and Mia by AJ Betts
Let's be honest, right now when you think teens and cancer, The Fault In Our Stars pops to mind instantly. I'll be honest and tell you that I haven't read the John Green novel of so much fame, but from what I can tell there are quite a few differences. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of the two title characters during their time in and out of a cancer ward.
One thing that I really appreciate about this book is that Mia is NOT the "manic pixie dream girl" that has become such a cliche. She's not one of those Mary Sue characters who is "flawed" in that OMG! She sometimes stumbles or trips over things! Nope, Mia has real flaws, and she's not always that likeable.
It's an engaging, quick read that I zipped through in one night. I think this would especially appeal to teens who have been through medical issues, for obvious reasons, but also because the two kids feel authentic - they act like actual teenagers, not the idea of teens that a lot of YA authors seem to have.
I also finally read Great Expectations last month after suddenly realizing that I never had! I was taking a "Literature of the English Country House" course through Future Learn,which included close readings of excerpts of several novels and poems, one of which was this Dickens classic. I was surprised that the pages I read were totally unfamiliar, I had somehow always categorized it as "already read" in my brain. Oops! Anyway, it's now moved over to that category for real, and it was quite enjoyable!
Read anything awesome lately that I should know about?