Monday, 23 January 2017

The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa

It is 1947, and Beit Daras, a rural Palestinian village, is home to the Baraka family - oldest daughter Nazmiyeh, brother Mamdouh, dreamy Mariam and their widowed mother. When Israeli forces descend, sending the village up in flames, the family must take the long road to Gaza, in a walk that will test them to their limit.

Sixty years later, in America, Mamdouh's granddaughter, Nur falls in love with a doctor. Following him to Gaza, she meets Alwan, who will help Nur discover the ties of kinship that transcend distance - and even death.

Told with a raw humanity, this book is a lyrical, devastatingly beautiful story of a family's relocation, separation, survival  and love.

It has taken me a few days to process this novel before beginning my review as it is very thought provoking and at times painful to read.

Although longlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize it clearly demonstrates the Palestinian view of the conflict and allows the reader to observe the effects that this has on four generations of one family. The characters are wonderfully observed and focus on the strength displayed by the women in this novel. perhaps in a society where the women are seen to play a lesser role. However, in this novel Ms Abulhawa takes her female characters and places them right in the spotlight of this novel and permits the reader to see that it is the women who are the glue that bind a family together.

What this novel does exceptionally well is combine the culture and experiences of the characters alongside a magical realism which adhere perfectly well together. The language is beautiful and on several occasions I slowed my reading just so I could take in the artistry of the prose.

This is an outstanding novel and no matter what the religious or political view of the reader there is much to think about in this novel. There are always victims on both sides of any conflict and this book allows us to see the consequences that conflict has on ordinary people. Without question, this is an exquisitely crafted novel which deals with issues of love, family, fear and ultimately hope.

ISBN:  978 1408865125

Publisher: Bloomsbury

About the Author:

Susan Abulhawa was born to Palestinian refugees of the 1967 war. She is a human right activist and frequent political commentator. In 2000, she founded Playgrounds for Palestine, an organisation dedicated to upholding Palestinian children's Right to Play. Her first novel, Mornings in Jenin, was an international bestseller, with rights sold in twenty-six languages. She lives in Pennsylvania with her daughter.

The website for the Playgrounds for Palestine organisation can be found at:

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

Amaterasu Takahashi has spent her life grieving for her daughter Yuko and grandson Hideo, who were victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

Now a widow living in America, she believes that one man was responsible for her loss: a local doctor who caused an irreparable rift between mother and daughter.

When a man claiming to be Hideo arrives on her doorstep, she is forced to revisit the past; the hurt and humiliation of her early life, the intoxication of a first romance and the realisation that if she had loved her daughter in a different way, she might still be alive today.

Call me fickle but I was first attracted to this book by it's beautiful cover. We all know that we should not make a judgement of a book on this basis but on this occasion I was correct to jump to this conclusion.

Set in Japan in 1945 the author allowed us glimpses of a time of peace as well as the destruction of Nagasaki and it's people following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Ms. Copleton, who lived in Nagasaki, demonstrates this experience of her time there by immersing the reader in the culture of Japan. This is enhanced by definitions of a Japanese word at the beginning of each chapter.

This is an affecting story of the horrors of war, the devastating effect it has on families and the way in which they deal with those circumstances. An excellent work of historical fiction imposed upon a time and place in history that Japan and the world will never forget.

Longlisted for the Bailey's Prize for Fiction, this is Ms. Copelton's first full length novel and suggests that she is an author to watch. I would gladly read further novels that she writes. This book will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction and those interested in the interaction of human relationships.

ISBN:  978099592471

Publisher: Windmill Books

About the Author:

Jackie Copleton lived in Nagasaki and Sapporo for three years, where she taught English, before returning to Scotland and becoming a journalist. This is her first novel and featured in the Simon Mayo Book Club on BBC Radio 2. She has also contributed to collections of short stories.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Dead Man by Nora Gold

The Dead Man is a compelling novel about a woman who is obsessed.

Eve, a composer of sacred music and a music therapist, is well aware of the saying, "Physician, heal thyself," but she just can't seem to do this. For some unknown reason, she -- a sensible, intelligent professional -- can't recover from a brief relationship she had five years ago with a world-famous music critic named Jake. This obsession with Jake is a mystery to Eve's friends, and also to her.

In an attempt to solve this mystery, she "returns to the scene of the crime", Israel, where Jake still lives, and where they first fell in love. There she revisits all their old haunts and struggles to complete the song cycle she started composing five years ago about Jake but hasn't been able to finish. Gradually the dark mystery behind their complex relationship begins to unravel.

Eve discovers the forgotten childhood memories, losses, and desires that are encapsulated in her connection to Jake. And then, inspired by all the music she hears around her (including the singing of birds, the crying of babies, and the honking of cars), she succeeds in finally completing her song cycle and setting her obsession to rest.

I was enthralled by this book and read it in a couple of days.  Written with an intensity worthy of the obsession and introspection that the protagonist exhibits. Dr. Gold has created a book filled with love, longing and loss.

Set in Israel, the descriptions are rich in atmosphere and give a real sense of being there. Dr. Gold has used music as a means of demonstrating Eve's intensity and emotional depth as well as an understanding of the significance that Israel itself has upon her.

Initially, I was confused by the title but eventually it made sense and sums up everything that the novel is about. I felt very satisfied by the end of the book. I don't want to say more and thus give the ending away but ultimately I felt uplifted and sanguine by this book.

I think that this book will remain with me for a long time. It is impossible to read a book so laced with emotional pain and not feel affected. However, the path of self discovery throughout the book is sensitively portrayed and made me consider how there are times in the lives of us all when we are able to find an inner strength when we think we have none.

This is the first time I have read any of Dr. Gold's writing and am delighted to find a 'new to me' author who writes with such intelligence, sensitivity and passion. I am very much looking forward to reading more of her work.

Sadly, this book does not seem to be available here in the UK but is available in USA and Canada.

ISBN:  978-1771332613

About the Author:

Nora Gold is a prize winning author and the editor of the prestigious online literary journal, Jewish Her novel Fields of Exile won the 2015 Canadian Jewish Literary Award and received widespread acclaim, including from Cynthia Ozick. Gold's first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award (1999) and the title story was praised by Alice Munro. Dr. Gold lives in Toronto, where she is the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women's Studies in Education, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Raoul Wallenberg: The Biography by Ingrid Carlberg

Raoul Wallenberg is one of the Second World War's greatest heroes. His courageous actions in Budapest at the height of the Holocaust saved countless lives, and ultimately cost him his own.

In the spring of 1944, during a seven-week period, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to certain death, most of them to Auschwitz. Up to 250,000 Jews remained in Budapest, threatened with the same fate. Wallenberg - descendant of a Swedish banking dynasty and Sweden's Special Envoy - displayed astonishing bravery and ingenuity in trying to save them, not least in the dark and bloody final months of 1944. He created a system of protective passports and sheltered thousands of Jews in special houses in the international ghetto. Working with a cohort of equally remarkable collaborators, he used a combination of guile, force and breathtaking chutzpah to fend off the depredation of the Germany and Hungarian Nazis.

As the war drew to a close, Wallenberg voluntarily went to meet with Russian troops in the city to discuss its regeneration. Arrested as a spy, he disappeared into the depths of the Soviet system, never to be see again.

Though he was made an Honorary Citizen of the USA, and designated one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government, his achievements remain little known. In this  magisterial biography, Ingrid Carlberg draws on revelatory research to narrate the story of a heroic life, and to navigate with wisdom and sensitivity the truth about his mysterious death.

If truth be told, I am not a big reader of non-fiction. Every year I promise myself that I will read more biographies, memoirs etc. but rarely do so. I am hoping that I will be more resolute in this endeavor in 2017.

This comprehensive biography of Raoul Wallenberg has certainly got me off to a good start. The author has extensively researched and put together an excellent biography of Raoul Wallenberg, a man I had never heard of before I read this. I am actually rather ashamed to say this as his bravery and heroism deserves worldwide recognition.

It is a lengthy read and I did at times find the writing a little dry. However, I think that may be more due to my lack of concentration than any fault with the writing. With hindsight, reading a book such as this over the festivities when there were many other things vying for my attention was probably a mistake.

Overall, I found this an interesting and informative read. I have been thinking alot about this book since I finished and I think that the courage that Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated was inspirational and I am sure that this book will alert readers to appreciate and respect him for his actions.

Well done, Ms Carlberg, for this erudite biography and which I hope many people will read.

ISBN:  978 0857053282

Publisher: Maclehose Press

About the Author:

Ingrid Carlberg is a Swedish author and journalist. Her book about the life and fate of Raoul Wallenberg was awarded the prestigious August Prize for non-fiction, and also the Swedish Academy's Axel Hirsch Prize for a "biography of considerable artistic and cultural merit". Carlberg worked at the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter from 1990 to 2010, as an investigative and features journalist. She has an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University, awarded for her book The Pill: A Tale of Doctors and Depression, Freud and Researchers, People and Markets about the history of antidepressants. The Pill won four awards, including the Guldspaden for the best work of investigative journalism, and was nominated for the August Prize.

She has translated works from Swedish by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Kjell Westo and Henning  Mankell. She is Director of Communications in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St Louis.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My Top 10 Books of 2016

I can hardly believe that another year is almost behind us. For me, it's a time of reflection on the joys and sorrows that 2016 has brought. It's also a time to reflect on my reading for the year and to try to whittle down the 64 books that I read this year to a mere ten - not an easy task as I read some exceptional books this year.

So, in no particular order, here are my top 10 (click on the book title to go straight to my review.)

Nemesis by Philip Roth - My first foray into reading Roth and he is certain to figure in my reading for 2017.

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths - This could have been any of the Ruth Galloway series which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this year.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray - a debut novel who writes with insight and compassion.

The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood - very different to anything else I have read this year and which I enjoyed enormously

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah - this was my introduction to Kristin Hannah and a fantastic book.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer - A very touching and powerful read.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakmi - I love Murakami's writing and this did not disappoint.

This Secret We're Keeping by Rebecca Done - A novel concerning a taboo affair and very thought provoking.

After the Last Dance by Sarra Manning - A most enjoyable story of life in the London blitz with a slightly different take on other books set during WWII.

The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi - I have really enjoyed reading the Greek Detective books this year and am anticipating reading more of them in 2017.

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane - A little publicised tragedy from WWII London.

Did you spot that there are 11 books? Sorry, but there was one I just could not leave out.

Thank you so much for following my blog throughout 2016. It means alot to me to know that you are sharing in my reading experience. Happy New Year and I wish you all peace and happiness in 2017.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Great Christmas Knit Off by Alexandra Brown

Heartbroken after being jilted, Sybil has been saved from despair by her knitting obsession. But after perpetrating the cock-up of the century at work just weeks before Christmas, Sybil decides to make a hasty exit to the picturesque village of Tindledale.

There, Sybil discovers Hettie’s House of Haberdashery, an emporium dedicated to the world of knitting and needlecraft. But Hettie, the owner, is struggling to cope and now the shop is due for closure. But when Hettie decides that Sybil’s wacky Christmas jumpers are just the thing to add a bit of excitement to her window display, something miraculous starts to happen.

This was the perfect seasonal read for me as it combined two of my main interests in life – reading and knitting. It is a wonderfully heart warming story with lovely characters and a beautiful setting.

Ms Brown creates a snowy winter in an English village so perfectly that it made me want to up sticks and move there (with bag of knitting in tow obviously) and demonstrates that the author is extremely skilled in describing her picturesque setting.

I was captivated by this story and sat and read the book more or less in one sitting as it was so engaging.  I was completely caught up in Sybil’s story and raced through this book.

On a personal note I completely identified with Sybil’s love of knitwear. I, too, tend to notice whether a person garment is wearing a hand knitted item almost before I notice anything else about them. I wonder if this is a trait common among knitters?

This book also contains the knitting pattern for Sybil’s Lovely Little Christmas Pudding which I suspect I will be trying out at some point.

I am also very excited that this is the first in a series of books to be set in the fictional village of Tinderdale and I am certainly intending to read the second book, The Great Village Show.  I do not read many books of this genre but this novel has whetted my appetite for more. Does anyone have any suggestions?

ISBN:  978 0007597363

Publisher:  Harper

About the Author:

Alexandra Brown began her writing career as the City Girl columnist for The London Paper  - a satirical diary account of her time working in the corporate world of London. Alex wrote the weekly column for two years before giving it up to concentrate on writing novels. The Great Christmas Knit Off is Alex’s fourth book and is the first of a new series set in the fictional village of Tindledale, following the lives of all the characters there.

Alex lives in a real village near the south coast of England, with her husband, daughter and a very shiny black Labrador.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Nemesis by Philip Roth

It's the sweltering summer of 1944, and Newark is in the grip of a terrifying epidemic, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming paralysis, life-long disability, even death.

Decent, athletic, twenty-three year old playground director Bucky Cantor is devoted to his charges and ashamed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. As polio begins to ravage Bucky's playground - child by helpless child - Roth leads us through every emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering and the pain.

This is an exceptionally good book and Roth's invention of Bucky Cantor is one of the best characters I have had the pleasure of reading.

For decades I have claimed that my favourite book is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as the characters of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout left a lasting impression on me since I first read it at school when I was just thirteen. I have also re-read it on numerous occasions during the intervening decades. However, this book comes very close to knocking it off the pedestal from which I have held it for so long.

This is a very powerful book and contrasts the war raging across Europe to that of a localised war taking place in Newark as a polio epidemic sweeps through, claiming many lives in the process. The pace of the book is fairly slow but echoes the events taking place within the plot perfectly and at no point did I want things to hurry along.

Atmospherically, Roth creates a sense of being there. I could feel the heat being experienced that summer as I read this book through the tangible descriptions the author creates. He is succinct with his words and thus packs his writing with meaningful narrative.

Written with a gritty realism whilst at the same time demonstrating sensitivity, Roth has written an intelligent and powerful novel which will remain with me for a very long time.

ISBN:  978-0099542261

Publisher:  Vintage

About the Author:

Philip Milton Roth is an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960's National Book Award), cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint, and has continued to write critically-acclaimed works, many of which feature his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The Zuckerman novels began with The Ghost Writer in 1979, and include American Pastoral (1997) (winner of the Pulitzer Prize). In May 2011, he won the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction.