Tomorrow, September 8, 2015, is the United Nations’ International Literacy Day; its purpose is “to raise people's awareness of and concern for literacy issues in the world.”
“Whether it’s reading or writing, literacy is an outlet to an untouchable world – your imagination. Not only is literacy a basic human right, it is a fundamental building block for learning as well as a personal empowerment tool. It is the catalyst for social and global progress” (http://internationalliteracyday.org/).
In preparation for the day, I read a novella which was published as part of the British “Quick Reads,” a series of short books by bestselling authors and celebrities “designed to encourage adults who do not read often, or find reading tough, to discover the joy of books” (http://www.quickreads.org.uk/).
Review of Chickenfeed by Minette Walters
Minette Walters has written over a dozen crime novels. Her “Quick Reads” novella is based on the real life case of Elsie Cameron, a young pregnant woman who was supposedly killed by her boyfriend, chicken farmer Norman Thorne who was hanged for the murder in 1924. Walters recreates the events leading up to the crime.
This novella, like the other “Quick Reads” books, focuses on a fast moving plot. Interestingly however, Walters manages to develop strong characters. Because the reader is given the perspective of both Elsie and Norman, he/she comes to know both people in the relationship. We can sympathize with both Elsie’s fear of “being left on the shelf – unwanted and unloved” and the feelings of Norman, “a church-going boy of nineteen who was both flattered and trapped by Elsie’s devotion.”
Though the vocabulary is relatively simple, the book does not insult the reader’s intelligence. It raises some interesting and important issues: Would Elsie have been diagnosed with a mental illness if she had lived today? Would the case have had a different outcome if it were tried today? Was the death penalty appropriate?
This book may have been intended to appeal to reluctant readers, but I think it would be appropriate for anyone who has only a little time to devote to reading.
In Canada, Orca Book Publishers has its own series of similar books called “Rapid Reads.” On the publisher’s website, the purpose of these novellas is explained: “Author Ian McEwan once wrote that ‘the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.’ In our increasingly fast-paced world we believe there is a need for well-written, well-told books that can be read in one sitting. Rapid Reads are short books for adult readers. They are intended for a diverse audience, including ESL students, reluctant readers, adults who struggle with literacy and anyone who wants a high-interest quick read” (http://orcabook.com/rapid-reads.com/).
I have read one of these “Rapid Reads”:
Review of A Woman Scorned by James Heneghan.
George Hamilton Nash, a Vancouver councilor, is found dead and police initially rule the death a suicide; Sebastian Casey, a city hall and police beat reporter, is unconvinced and sets out to investigate. Soon the suicide is deemed a homicide.
This novella is intended for ESL or reluctant/struggling adult readers. As a former English teacher/teacher-librarian, I am familiar with the need for high interest fiction for these readers. The language level is appropriate and the book includes a contemporary Canadian setting and adult themes, all necessary elements for this niche market.
My problem with the book is that Casey seems more like a police investigator than a reporter. People often express reluctance to speak to a reporter, but Casey has no difficulty getting people to talk to him; no one ever turns him away and a business partner of the deceased even says, “’I’m glad you’re here.’” His questioning certainly sounds like that of a police officer; he even ends his interviews by saying, “’If you think of anything, please give me a call.’”
The ineptitude of the police is also problematic. The police immediately conclude the death is a suicide, an “open-and-shut case . . . [n]o signs of monkey business,” and don’t even check whether the victim was left- or right-handed though that detail is something that bears directly on the case. Casey emerges as the true investigator and provides the police with crucial information. It is doubtful that an investigation into a death, especially that of a prominent community leader, would be conducted so shoddily.
There is an attempt to provide the reader with more than one possible guilty party. In fact, so many characters are introduced that readers may have difficulty remembering them all. Several people have motives, but the identity of the murderer can be quite easily surmised because of rather obvious clues.
I found myself becoming frustrated because of what is missing in the book. Casey’s relationship with Emma lacks development; the entire relationship is reduced to his waiting for her once weekly calls from Ireland. He also seems insufficiently affected by something Emma tells him she has done. Since this book is intended more as a mystery, perhaps it might have been best to omit this romance interest since it really does not add much to the book as a whole.
What I did enjoy is the references to the politics of Vancouver city council. There are references to urban farming, the Olympic Village financial crisis, and the Falun Gong protests outside the Chinese consulate – all actual topics discussed at Vancouver city council meetings. The discussion of backyard chickens is hilarious and the turns of phrase and puns like “ruffled feathers” and cries of “Fowl” and “eggstrordinary” provide developing readers with an interesting aspect of the English language.
This book needs to be approached as a fast read. It lacks the character development I look for in a book, but it fulfills a need – providing interesting reading for adults wanting to improve their literacy skills. If it encourages someone to read for enjoyment, then it belongs in all public/school libraries.