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

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother's death, she resumes a dream long deferred - studying in America. But she can't stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London. Or their brother, Parvaiz, who's disappeared in pursuit of his own dream - to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters' lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from  theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to - or defy. The fates of these two families are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles' Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide - confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.

Hidden between the monotone covers of the UK edition of this book lies a real gem. It is an original, thought-provoking and memorable story which deals with the contemporary issue of radicalisation.

Ms. Shamsie has created characters that are utterly believable. Five distinct character voices are woven together to produce a rich tapestry of atmospheric detail that a lesser novelist would not have attained. I have previously read novels where this multi narration merely makes for a disjointed telling of a story. However, with this book the method enhances the reading experience as each character adds a different dimension to the story.

Added to that a twist in the story at the very end and which contributes to a fine novel that I am certain means that this book will remain at the top of the bestseller list for a goodly while.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 this is an outstanding example of writing at its best and has elevated the author to one of my favourites. I have every intention of reading more by the very talented Ms. Shamsie.

ISBN: 9781408886779

Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus

About the Author:

Kamila Shamsie is the author of six novels: In the City by the Sea (shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize): Salt and Saffron: Kartography (also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize): Broken Verses: Burnt Shadows (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction): and most recently, A God in Every Stone, which was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Three of her novels have received awards from Pakistan's Academy of Letters. Kamila Shamsie is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was named a Granta Best of Young British Novelist in 2013. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Dr Eitan Green is a good man. He saves lives. Then, speeding along a deserted moonlit road in his SUV, he hits someone. Seeing that the man, an African migrant, is beyond help, he flees the scene. It is a decision that changes everything. 

Because the dead man’s wife knows what happened. When she knocks at Eitan’s door the next day, tall and beautiful, he discovers that her price is not money. It is something else entirely, something that will shatter Eitan’s safe existence and take him into a world of secrets and lies.

Waking Lions is a gripping, suspenseful and morally devastating drama of guilt and survival, shame and desire.

This beautifully written book is one that will stay with me for a long time. It is slow paced and packed with detail and deserved to be savoured rather than read at speed.

The book deals with some serious issues; identity, betrayal and morality. It closely explores the theme of self identity through the main character, Eitan, and through his pre-conceived ideas of how he would react in any given situation and which leads the reader to the same state of self-examination. This is a book that is about self-awakening to the problems of others outside of our own comfortable existence and the author sensitively examines both larger issues and the minutiae of the lives of her characters.

I thought this was a fantastic book and I am not surprised that it won The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize 2017. I highly recommend it and I will certainly be reading more by this author.

ISBN: 978-1782272984

Publisher: Pushkin Press

About the Author:

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Hebrew: איילת גונדר-גושן) was born in Israel in 1982 and holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from Tel Aviv University. Her film scripts have won prizes at international festivals, including the Berlin Today Award and the New York City Short Film Festival Award. Her debut novel, One Night, Markovitch, won the Sapir Prize in 2013 for best debut and is being translated into five languages.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes

Biographies will give you all the facts of their subjects' lives, but what they can't do is explain what it was like to be them - to fight for breath against the constriction of a whalebone corset, or attempt to eat with decorum despite the encroachments of a particularly bushy beard.

Nowhere is this more true than Britain in the nineteenth century. For while we like to think of the Victorians as prudishly detached from their unruly bodies, the fact is that they were just as subject to the tyrannies of their flesh as we are today. Now, in Victorians Undone, the major award winning historian and biographer Kathryn Hughes reveals what it was physically like to be a nineteenth century man or woman through a close examination of five famous, controversial or curious Victorian body parts.

Through her eyes we encounter Lady Flora Hastings's swelling belly, which sparks a scandal that almost brings young Queen Victoria's reign crashing down. We run our fingers through Charles Darwin's beard in an attempt to understand just what made men start sprouting whiskers in the 1850's. The novelist George Eliot, meanwhile, is proud that her right hand is bigger than her left, so why is her family so desperate to suppress this information? We learn how the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti takes his art in a revolutionary new direction, thanks to the bee stung lips of his secret mistress, Fanny Cornforth, Finally, we meet Fanny Adams, an eight year old from Hampshire whose tragic physical dissolution has come down to us in the phrase 'Sweet Fanny Adams'.

Based on a treasure trove of new archive material, groundbreaking in its methods and frequently very funny, Victorians Undone is a wholly original approach to life writing. You will never think of biography - or Victorians - in quite the same way again.

I do not read much in the way of non-fiction but I was tempted by this book when I saw that it dealt with often overlooked aspects of Victorian attitudes.

Clearly well researched through a variety of sources Ms Hughes presents anatomical references relating to well known people of the Victorian era in a way that is both intelligent and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the section on Fanny Adams and how her name came to be part of everyday language both then and now.

Although Kathryn Hughes is an academic this book does not read as an academic text. It is a very easy and engaging read which I recommend to anyone interested in history.

ISBN:  978 0 00 754836 1

Publisher: 4th Estate

About the Author:

Kathryn Hughes is the author of award winning biographies of Mrs. Beeton and George Eliot, both of which were filmed for the BBC. For the past fifteen years she has been a literary critic and columnist for the Guardian. Educated at Oxford University and with a PhD in Victorian Studies, she is currently Professor of Life Writing at the University of East Anglia and Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Set in Yeongdo, Korea in 1911 in a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man  marries a fifteen year old girl.

The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza the family faces ruin until Isak, a young Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country where she has no friends and no home, Sunja's salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Spanning eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Things have been fairly quiet on the blog recently. I have done lots of reading, the weather has been wonderful and somehow, I have been lacking in opportunity to write reviews. However, this book has stirred me from my summer slumber and I want to share my thoughts on it with you all.

I have read few novels set in either Korea or Japan (the exception to the latter being Haruki Murakami whose work I adore) and I have honestly never considered how difficult life was for those who made Japan their home. Racial prejudice is the overriding theme of this book and as such, makes this a very relevant read as the experience of the characters could be transposed to anywhere in the world where racism exists today.

The characters are wonderfully evoked in this novel and the author has a very acute sense of detail in her descriptions of them. Their history and cultural background were vital to my understanding of them as individuals and I was completely engrossed by the four generations of this family.

My one minor criticism is that the ending felt rather hurried and I wanted to know more about some of the characters. For a book that was so character focused I felt that the previous level of detail fell away. However, this did not distract from my enjoyment of this superb novel.

Despite serious themes this book was an easy read with beautiful prose and I am glad to have read a book which taught me something new. Anyone who enjoys historical fictions will love this book and I highly recommend it.

About the Author:

Min Jin Lee is a Korean-American author and journalist. Her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was one of the 'Top 10 Novels of the Year' for The Times, NPR's Fresh Air and USA Today. She has written for the New York Times, Conde Nast, The Times, Vogue and the Wall Street Journal amongst others, She wrote Pachinko whilst living in Tokyo, and now lives in New York with her family.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

For seventy years, Josef Weber has been hiding in plain sight.
He is a pillar of his local community.
He is also a murderer.
When Josef decides to confess, it is to Sage Singer, a young woman who trusts him as her friend. What she hears shatters everything she thought she knew and believed.
As Sage uncovers the truth from the darkest horrors of war, she must follow a twisting trail between terror and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness, love - and revenge.

Throughout this book there is a story within a story coupled with the different voices of the main characters. This is seamlessly done and all comes together perfectly.

At times it was harrowing to read as all books dealing with the holocaust are. However, Ms Picoult treats her characters and subject matter with an intelligent sensitivity which made me want to read on in this excellent novel. In fact, I slowed my reading at times, partly in order to allow myself to process some of the shocking scenes in this book and also because the characters were easy to engage with and I wanted to spend the time getting to know them.

Well researched and written with great care, Ms. Picoult has created a novel which is heartbreaking yet redemptive and deals with difficult issues. Thought provoking and meticulously considered, this book has the capacity to stay with me for a long time after reading it.
ISBN:  9781444766660
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks

About the Author:

Jodi Picoult is the author of twenty-three novels, including the number 1 New York Times bestsellers Leaving Time, The Storyteller, Lone Wolf, Between the Lines, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, and My Sister’s Keeper

She studied creative writing with Mary Morris at Princeton, and had two short stories published in Seventeen magazine while still a student. Realism - and a profound desire to be able to pay the rent - led her to a series of different jobs following her graduation: as a technical writer for a Wall Street brokerage firm, as a copywriter at an ad agency, as an editor at a textbook publisher, and as an 8th grade English teacher - before entering Harvard to pursue a master’s in education. She married Tim Van Leer, whom she had known at Princeton, and it was while she was pregnant with her first child that she wrote her first novel. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae.

A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country's finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence.

Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows.

Graeme Macrae Burnet tells an irresistible and original story about the provisional nature of truth, even when the facts seem clear. His Bloody Project is a mesmerising literary thriller set in an unforgiving landscape where the exercise of power is arbitrary.

I thoroughly enjoyed this unusual thriller and am excited by this author. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and won the Saltaire Fiction Book of the year for 2016 and deservedly so.

Written entirely through the documents presented for the case we are able to view the events from multiple viewpoints which I felt added an enormous amount to this story. I do not recall reading any other book presented in this format and the originality of it gave it an unexpected authenticity.

I was completely gripped by this book and did not want to put it down. Well researched and beautifully written it brings a fascinating period of history into sharp view and enables the reader to understand the wider social and political society in which the novel is set.

All through this I had to remind myself that it is a novel as the realism is startling. The atmosphere is so cleverly evoked which, bearing in mind, the book reads as a series of legal documents is extremely clever.

I can't praise this novel highly enough as I loved every word. I think anyone with an interest in history or crime thrillers would really enjoy this book. Do give it a try and let me know your thoughts.

ISBN:  9781910192146

Publisher: Contraband

About the Author:

Grahaeme Macrae Burnet was born in Kilmarnock in Scotland and now lives in Glasgow. Previously he lived and worked in Prague, Porto, Bordeaux and London. He has an MA in English Literature/Film Studies from Glasgow University and an M.Litt in International Security Studies from St Andrews.

He likes; Georges Simenon, George Orwell, Crime and Punishment, Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Edna O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, Sparklehorse, Violent Femmes, Starships by Nicki Minaj, Johnny Cash, bars, Taxi DriverCabaret, donkeys, slow-cooked pork belly, the Applecross Inn, the smell of low tide, existentialism, karaoke, the word ‘buzzard’.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Effia and Esi: two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery and one a slave trader's wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow. Taking us from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem, spanning three continents and seven generations.

Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel - the intimate, gripping story of a brilliantly vivid cast of characters and through their lives the very story of America itself.

Each chapter alternates between the lives of the two sisters and their decedents, with each new chapter being devoted to the following generation and alternating between Ghana and America. It was an interesting way to present the lives of seven generations of family and suggested more a series of vignettes than a cohesive story. However, this is greatly aided by the family tree at the beginning of the book which enabled me to keep track of the different characters and I would have been a little lost without it.

Although, this fast progression through the generations took a little adaptation on my part as the reader, I ultimately enjoyed seeing the characters overlap. For example, where we may have been following a character in their early life she/he then reappears in subsequent chapters through the story of her/his child or grandchild; a technique which gave the novel cohesion and continuity.

It would not surprise me if this book becomes a staple of the school curriculum in years to come. Not only does it tell the story of the horrors of slavery but it is beautifully written and has much to teach us all.  For a debut novel this is a fantastic achievement and I am sure that Ms. Gyasi is a rising star in the literary world.

ISBN: 978-0241242728

Publisher: Viking

 About the Author:

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in African American Review and Callaloo. Homegoing is her debut novel.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in 'neutral' Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But  Gustav's father has mysteriously died and his adored mother, Emilie, is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav's childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav's life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav's are entwined.

Despite the melancholic tone that this book has it was a very enjoyable read. It moves along at a very sedate pace and is much enhanced for it.

The sense of Gustav's loneliness, from boyhood to man, is apparent on every page and I was completely engaged with his character throughout. In many ways the story is about Gustav learning to accept himself for who he really is and it takes him a lifetime to do it.

However, there is also a strong undercurrent throughout about how the past influences our present and our future and is never entirely left behind. The character of Emilie is completely defined by her past and we see the impact that that has on Gustav throughout his whole life.

And like the characters in this book, I do not think that I will ever leave my reading of this book completely behind. It has a haunting quality that gets right under the skin of a reader and provides much food for thought. I highly recommend this book and I am not in the least surprised that it has been nominated for so many awards.

ISBN:  978 1784700201

Publisher: Vintage

About the Author:

Rose Tremain's bestselling novels have been published in thirty countries and have won many awards, including the Orange Prize (The Road Home), the Whitbread Novel of the Year (Music and Silence) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Sacred Country); Restoration was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Rose Tremain was made a CBE in 2007 and was appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia in 2013. She lives in Norfolk and London with the biographer, Richard Holmes.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Us by David Nicholls

Douglas and Connie, scientist and artist and for more than twenty years, husband and wife until suddenly, their marriage seems to be over.

But Douglas is going to win back the love of his wife and the respect of Albie, their teenage son, by organising the holiday of a lifetime.

He has booked the hotels, bought the train tickets, planned and printed the itinerary for a 'ground tour' of the great art galleries of Europe.

What could possibly go wrong?

The narrator of this book is Douglas and with whom I connected with from the very beginning. The whole book is narrated by him and therefore, we see only his perception of events but I honestly felt like Douglas was a friend by the time I finished the book as he is a wonderfully imperfect character as so many of us are in real life. The author did a fantastic job of creating a character who I laughed and cried with along the way. 

The other characters are equally well drawn although we only see them through Douglas's eyes but they equally stirred a reaction in me.

The story moves between past and present to enable the reader to understand the backstory of the relationship between the past and present relationship of Douglas and Connie. These transitions are seamless and add much to the story.

I loved the dry humour  and social observations that run throughout this book and which made it very readable. It is not a work of literature and was never intended to be but a great book to sit back and read and relax with. 

I have read and enjoyed most of David Nicholls books and this one did not disappoint in any way. Well worth reading and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

ISBN:  978 0340897010

Publisher: Hodder

About the Author:

David Nicholls is a British author, screenwriter, and actor. A student of Toynbee Comprehensive school and Barton Peveril Sixth Form College, he Graduated from the University of Bristol having studied English Literature and Drama.

After graduation, he won a scholarship to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, before returning to London in 1991 and finally earning an Equity card. He worked sporadically as an actor for the next eight years, eventually earning a three year stint at the Royal National Theatre, followed by a job at BBC Radio Drama as a script reader/researcher. This led to script-editing jobs at London Weekend Television and Tiger Aspect Productions.

During this period, he began to write, developing an adaptation of Sam Shepard’s stage-play Simpatico with the director Matthew Warchus, an old friend from University. He also wrote his first original script, a situation comedy about frustrated waiters, Waiting, which was later optioned by the BBC.

Simpatico was turned into a feature film in 1999, and this allowed David to start writing full-time. He has been twice nominated for BAFTA awards and his first novel, Starter for Ten was featured on the first Richard and Judy Book Club.

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.