Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Things We Learn When We're Dead by Charlie Laidlaw

Small decisions can have unintended consequences, but sometimes we get a second chance.

On the way home from a dinner party she didn't want to attend, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital - but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery. She is served wine for supper and everyones avoids her questions.

It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident. Or does God have a higher purpose after all?

At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return - some good, some bad - she realises that she has decisions to make and that she needs to find a way home.

I have heard this book being compared to The Wizard of Oz, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Lovely Bones and it is true that there are influences from those books throughout. However, I stress the word influence because, in my opinion, this book is very much better than all three of those books.

This is a book which refuses to be put into any specific genre. It is humorous, quirky and moving  and I enjoyed it very much. Alongside the death of Lorna is the story of her life which Mr Laidlaw tells with a detailed eye for the minutae of every day living. Changing from the present to the past is flawlessly achieved throughout and I was enthralled by the believable characters regardless of whether they were mortal or celestial.

This original story is well worth reading. It is a story of life and how the small decisions we make have an impact on ourselves and those around us. I highly recommend this unusual book. There is something for everyone within it's pages and I think most people would enjoy finding this in their Christmas stocking.

ISBN: 978 1786150356

Publisher: Accent Press

About the Author

Charlie Laidlaw was born in Paisley and is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. He has been a national newspaper journalist and worked in defence intelligence. He now runs his own marketing consultancy in East Lothian. He also wrote The Herbal Detective under the name of Charles Gray. He is married with two grown up children and lives in Gullane.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

What's in the Air? by Ivor Morgan

What's in the Air?

What's in the air? There's a murmuring note
Winding it's way through a bugle's throat.
A sound in the distant far away,
Not very much in the air today.

What's in the air that travels so fast
Following the sound of that bugle's blast?
A sinister note of war's alarms
Louder and clearer 'To arms, to arms'.

What's in the air? The soul scaring tramp
Of armed soldiers marching to camp,
A rattle of bayonets, stern commands,
Martial music from military bands

What's in the air? Oh, strategic plans,
And banquets for men in corned beef cans,
Oh yes, there's fever and dread disease,
Mosquitoes, bluebottles, lice and fleas.

What's in the air? Loud thuds and wild yells,
Fire and flame and poison gas shells
Making a hell of a world so gay,
Oh, yes, there's more in the air today.

by Ivor Morgan

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Lest They Forget

On this Armistice Day I have been thinking about the fact that as the years pass us by our brave and heroic wartime veterans are becoming fewer. For my generation, who's parents and grandparents lived through two world wars, we were drip fed their first hand accounts of life in wartime.  My parents were born and bred in London and experienced the horrors of the Blitz and I can remember growing up with a real sense of the fear they endured due to their personal recollections.

With each subsequent generation the lives of people in WWI and WWII become more distant and I got to thinking about the books I shared with my children when they were young to impart this hugely significant time through which their grandparents and great grandparents lived. 

Although aimed at a young readership, these books I have selected have relevance for us all and are the ones I most enjoyed reading with my children and continue to enjoy reading.

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

From the Children's Laureate of 2003 - 2005, a stunning novel of the First World War, a boy who is on its front lines, and a childhood remembered.

"They've gone now, and I'm alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won't waste a single moment of it . . . I want tonight to be long, as long as my life . . ." 

For young Private Peaceful, looking back over his childhood while he is on night watch in the battlefields of the First World War, his memories are full of family life deep in the countryside: his mother, Charlie, Big Joe, and Molly, the love of his life. Too young to be enlisted, Thomas has followed his brother to war and now, every moment he spends thinking about his life, means another moment closer to danger.

ISBN: 978-0007486441

Publisher: Harper Collins Childrens Books

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

The gruff and surly Mr Thomas Oakley is less than pleased when he is landed with a scrawny little city boy as a guest, but because it is compulsory that each villager takes in an evacuee he reluctantly agrees. It soon becomes obvious to Mister Tom that young Willie Beech is hiding something, and as the pair begin to form an unlikely bond and Willie grows in stature and in confidence he begins to forget the past. But when he has to return to war-torn London to face his mother again he retreats into his shy and awkward ways once more.

ISBN: 978-0141354804

Publisher: Puffin Classics

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

This semi-autobiographical and unforgettable story, of a Jewish family fleeing from Germany before the start of the Second World War, now reissued with its original cover illustration in this very special edition.
This internationally acclaimed story of one Jewish family’s flight from Hitler’s Germany has become a much-loved classic, and has been in print since its debut 45 years ago.
Suppose your country began to change. Suppose that without your noticing, it became dangerous for some people to live in Germany any longer. Suppose you found, to your complete surprise, that your own father was one of those people.
That is what happened to Anna in 1933. She was nine years old when it began, too busy to take much notice of political posters, but out of them glared the face of Adolf Hitler, the man who would soon change the whole of Europe – starting with her own small life.
One day, Anna’s father was missing. Then she herself and her brother Max were being rushed by their mother, in alarming secrecy, away from everything they knew – home and schoolmates and well-loved toys – right out of Germany…

ISBN:  978-0007274772

Publisher: Harper Collins Childrens Books

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

First published over sixty years ago, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl has reached millions of young people throughout the world.
In July 1942, thirteen-year-old Anne Frank and her family, fleeing the occupation, went into hiding in an Amsterdam warehouse. Over the next two years Anne vividly describes in her diary the frustrations of living in such close quarters, and her thoughts, feelings and longings as she grows up. Her diary ends abruptly when, in August 1944, they were all betrayed.

ISBN: 978-0141315188
Publisher: Puffin

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

An infamous murder in Victorian London.

On 8th July 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nattie set out from their East London home to watch a cricket match. Over the next ten days they spent extragantly, visiting the theatre and eating out. The boys told neighbours their father had gone to sea, and their mother to visit family in Liverpool. But when a strange smell began to emanate from the house, the police were called. What they found threw the press into a frenzy - and the boys into a highly publicised trial.

Despite the notoriety this case attracted at the time Ms. Summerscale has taken this crime, which was little known to a modern readership, and developed it into this fascinating and absorbing account of matricide in Victorian London.

It is a thouroghly compelling read and I was gripped by the events that led these vulnerable and neglected boys to commit the shocking crime that they did.

Through meticulous research the author creates a powerfully informed and vivid description of events both before and after the extraordinary happenings which took place on 8th July 1895. Through wonderful storytelling the reader is transported back to London's East End to rural Australia via the courts and prisons of London.

Despite the grim nature of the facts, this is an uplifting and heartfelt historical narrative that tugged at my heartstrings through the redemptive power of the story contained within the pages of this book. Anyone who likes history or true crime will love this book and I highly recommend it.

ISBN: 978 1408854466

Publisher: Bloomsbury

About the Author:

Kate Summerscale is the author of the number one bestseller, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2008, the Galaxy British Book of the Year Award, a Richard and Judy Book Cub pick and adapted into a major ITV drama. Her first book, the bestselling The Queen of Whale Cay, won a Somerset Maugham award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award. Her third book, Mrs Robinson's Disgrace, was a Sunday Times bestseller. Kate Summerscale was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010. She lives in London.

Monday, 30 October 2017

A Horse Walks Into Bar by David Grossman

A comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience has come expecting an evening of amusement. Instead they see a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic  - charming, erratic, repellent - exposes a wound he has been living with for years; a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between two  people who were dearest to him.

Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dov provokes revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn't know whether to laugh or cry - and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he's been summoned to this performance.

Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017, at 198 pages this is a very short but brilliant novel. Whilst I found this an excellent read in every way I am glad that it was not any longer because it is very intense and any longer would have been hard to bear.

Like the audience in the novel, I was expecting some humour. What we, and the audience get, is to witness the disintegration of a comedian on stage, and quite frankly, it is shockingly painful to observe. However, it is done with such humanity and with an anguished genius that I can easily envisage reading this book again.

Please don't be put off by the sombre nature of this book as it is well worth reading. Having never read anything quite like this book before I read it in one sitting. I really hope you will all read it.

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

ISBN: 978 1784704223

Publisher: Vintage

About the Author:

David Grossman is the bestselling author of numerous works, which have been translated into thirty-six language. His most recent novels were To the End of the Land, described by Jacqueline Rose as 'without question one of the most powerful and moving novels I have ever read', and Falling Out of Time. He is the recipient of the French Chevalier de l'Ordre des Art et des Lettres and the 2010 Frankfurt Peace Prize.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, two young people notice one another.

They share a cup of coffee, a smile, an evening meal. They try not to hear the sound of bombs getting closer every night, the radio announcing new laws, the public executions.

Meanwhile, rumours are spreading of strange black doors in secret places across the city, doors that lead to London or San Francisco, Greece or Dubai. Someday soon, the time will come for this young couple to seek out one such door: joining the multitudes fleeing a collapsing city, hoping against hope, looking for their place in the world.

From the Man Booker shortlisted author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes a journey crossing borders and continents, into a possible future. Exit West is a love story from the eye of the storm. It is a song of hope and compassion. It reaches towards something essential in humankind - something still alive, still breathing, an open hand and a thudding heart under all the rubble and dust.

This is a contemporary novel with both significance and relevance for modern times. Told from the perspective of refugees it provides an opportunity for the reader to understand the issues facing people who find themselves a long way from the place they call home and who frequently arrive in destinations where they are not made welcome.

The magical realism in this book is used to great effect and is designed to correspond with the feeling of some native born residents that refugees seem to arrive suddenly and from nowhere. This is an extremely clever device and very much enhances the main issues of the story.

However, the main thing that this book does is to allow the reader to empathise with the refugees and which makes this an extremely relevant book in today's current climate. We are able to understand the plight of refugees amidst our own current political and sociological situation.

This is a profound text which influences the reader and has the potential to make us understand how to be better people both as individuals and communities. This book deserves the accolades it has received and I would not be surprised if this does not appear on the school syllabus as there is so much to learn from it.

This is a slim volume with a massive significance and I encourage everyone to read this as I am sure that you will get as much from reading it as I have.

ISBN: 978 0241290088

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

 About the Author:

Mohsin Hamid writes regularly for The New York Times, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, and is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Moth Smoke, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Discontent and its Civilizations. Born and mostly raised in Lahore, he has since lived between Lahore, London and New York.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen year old Noa saves a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness.

Passing through the woods is a German circus - a troupe of waifs and strays, led by the infamous Herr Neuroff. They agree to help Noa and the baby - on one condition.

To earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze - under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid. Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another - or plummet. But, as war closes in, Noa will earn that loyalty can be the most dangerous trait.

Based on real events, The Orphan's Tale is a spectacular story of love, sacrifice and courage.

This book absorbed me from the very first page and captivated me right through to the end with it's original portrayal of the events of World War II. The circus setting for this novel dealt with the very serious circumstances that war brought to occupied territories but within the outwardly colourful and vibrant setting of the circus.

The chapters alternate between the two main characters of Noa and Astrid. I must confess there were times I could not find their individual voices but I was so gripped by their story that this really did not seem to matter. It was very interesting to observe their relationship develop as the back story for both of these characters was heartbreaking. Their bravery was astonishing and I felt nothing but admiration for them.

Based on true events Ms Jenoff  successfully weaves fact into fiction and has created a thoroughly well researched and captivating read.

Ultimately, this is an uplifting story of survival that I could not wait to get back to between reading sessions. It is a heartfelt and memorable story that I could imagine reading for a second time - and there are very few books that I place in that category.

ISBN: 978 1848455368

Publisher: HQ

About the Author:

Pam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her Master's in History from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.

Following her work at the Pentagon, Pam moved to the State Department. In 1996 she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Pam developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.

Pam left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for several years as a labor and employment attorney both at a firm and in-house in Philadelphia and now teaches law school at Rutgers.

Pam is the author of The Kommandant's Girl, which was an international bestseller and nominated for a Quill award, as well as The Winter Guest, The Diplomat's Wife, The Ambassadors Daughter, Almost Home, A Hidden Affair and The Things We Cherished. She also authored a short story in the anthology Grand Central: Original Postwar Stories of Love and Reunion. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

(from the authors website