Friday, 29 January 2021

World Book Night 2021: Book Seven


Sunshine and Sweet Peas in Nightingale Square by Heidi Swain (Simon & Schuster)

Borrowed from the library eBook catalogue

I wasn't sure that I was in the mood for a light and fluffy read when the notification from the library came in saying it was my turn to download this book, and I almost delayed the delivery date for a few weeks.

I'm really glad that I didn't for although the plot was reasonably light and I did guess a lot of the twists before they happened this book was an unashamed delight from (virtual) cover to cover.

There's nothing new at all in the story but it was just so well written that I felt I lived in Nightingale Square and that these were my neighbours. Being set in Norwich was also nice, and it is obvious that Swain is familiar with the city. Nightingale Square might be fictitious but all of the other local nods were spot on  - another reason to see this book as a warm hug of a read.

I'm not going to read any more of Swain's books immediately but I do now have a go to author when I want something comforting, romantic and easy to read. I'd never have read this without my challenge and once more I am delighted to have found something new.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Holocaust Memorial Day 2021


After the War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)

Borrowed as a physical copy from Norfolk Libraries

The regular reader (hi Upstartwren!) will remember that this book made it in to my top reads of last year, however due to the topic of the book I thought I'd save my review for January, and Holocaust Memorial Day.

This fiction book retells a true story about the Holocaust that until recently wasn't well known in the UK:

Summer 1945. The Second World War is finally over and Yossi, Leo and Mordecai are among three hundred children who arrive in the English Lake District. Having survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, they’ve finally reached a place of safety and peace, where they can hopefully begin to recover.

But Yossi is haunted by thoughts of his missing father and disturbed by terrible nightmares. As he waits desperately for news from home, he fears that Mordecai and Leo – the closest thing to family he has left – will move on without him. Will life by the beautiful Lake Windermere be enough to bring hope back into all their lives?

What is so special about this book (beyond the incredible true story) is the way that Palmer has written it, Barrington Stoke produce books that are designed to be accessible to reluctant or dyslexic readers and to fit into this brief I think Palmer has pulled off an incredible feat.

The story doesn't soft soap the war, the Holocaust or the aftermath of the war in anyway, but the way that it is written means that it isn't overwhelming. The chapters are short and broken up with the incredible illustrations of Violet Tobacco and this had a bigger far impact on me (as neither dyslexic nor reluctant) than many of the other books on the topic I've read.

The story isn't couched in allegory, these are real boys who've experienced one of the worst events of the 20th Century and we learn all about this without euphemism or needing to know the history to understand what has happened to them. For me the starkest illustration of this is when Yossi is describing his family's arrival at Auschwitz. It is not left with Yossi and his father being separated from the rest of the family and never seeing them again. Palmer explains what happens, and how parents made the decisions they had to, there's no way that it can be misread or made 'nicer' by obscuring the events in vague language or with a need for prior knowledge. 

(As an aside the book that really left me confused as a young reader was The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang (trans. Crampton) which ended in a communal shower after a train journey across Europe. I know that the first time I read this I didn't understand why they were so happy/surprised when water came out of the shower heads.)

While the book is written in an accessible way, the subject is so well handled that a reluctant high school reader wouldn't feel like they were being given a book for a younger age group, and for the younger readers the length and style makes it a good story to back up other learning.

My first MA dissertation was about the Holocaust as portrayed in children's book and I wish that this book had been around at that time as it would have made a great contrast to some of the books I looked at.

Tom Palmer has a great website full of resources to support this book, including information about the real children who arrived in the Lake District from the concentration camps during the summer of 1945.

(Conversations I've had with Tom Palmer on Twitter have let me know that his next book is going to be set on HMS Belfast during WW2 - a book that I will have a special interest in as my paternal grandfather served on her, sadly not during the period Tom is writing about but I still can't wait to read more about life on the ship)

Saturday, 23 January 2021

World Book Night 2021: Book Six


Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwayke & Ore Ogunbiyi (Random House)


This made a great next read after I Will Not Be Erased even though this came about accidentally.

It is another collection of essays and memories by women and non-binary people of colour but this time all about their experiences at university.

It is more academic than the other books I've read so far for World Book Night but was still highly readable. Again there were aspects of the experiences recounted in the book that I recognised, simply from being female and having gone to university but this was truly eye opening.

After a summer reading and learning more about racism in the UK as the Black Lives Matters campaigns grew I was none the less horrified at just how much institutionalised racism exists, and also just how easy it is to put everyone into the BAME category and assume everyone wants the same things.

Not an easy read in either style or subject but if you've enjoyed novels like Girl, Woman, Other or The Vanishing Half or Why I am no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge then I definitely recommend this.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

World Book Night 2021: Book Five

 "I will not be erased" Edited by gal-dem (Walker Books)

Borrowed from the library eBook catalogue

A book that I really doesn't see me as the target reader but one that I loved never the less.

This is another essay collection but this time written by women and non binary authors of colour. Most start with the authors writing to their younger selves about an incident from their childhood.

The essays cover all types of topics, some are universal to many of our adolescent memories and others are far more specific to being non-white in our society. Some are funny, some shocking and some incredibly moving but there wasn't one that I wanted to skip over which is pretty incredible.

I really don't think that I've come across a book that I think should be handed to every high school student - regardless of gender or colour - for a long time.

The message of the book really is that it will get better, you are perfect as you are and no, your school days really aren't necessarily the best time of your life.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

World Book Night 2021: Book Four


Faking Friends by Jane Fallon (Penguin)

Borrowed from the library eBook catologue

The colder weather and lockdown rules are helping me to power through my personal World Book Night challenge and my 4th read was a more traditional novel.

This was a read that would definitely sit quite happily under the chick-lit banner but this is to do it a little bit of a disservice. While the characters are just fit into the end of Gen X age wise much of the plot revolves around problems experienced by Millennials which could mean a wide appeal or a book that falls through the cracks.

For me the plot was fun and definitely a new take on the revenge comedy and for once a book where the peripheral cast was as well written as the main protagonists. That's not to say I liked them all, even the ones I was supposed to, but I did believe in them completely.

The book felt a little overlong, the start was fast paced and a real page turner and then the final third returned to this style so I am glad that I didn't abandon the book. The middle however felt a little too slow and explain-y (for want of a better word), it gave lots of back story but for me I found it dull and not really necessary to the main story.

Unless I am reading for review purposes this is the sort of book I usually treat myself to when I am on holiday and I think that if I'd been on a sun lounger somewhere warm I might feel more warmly towards this one but in the depths of a miserable winter it didn't quite give me the escapism I wanted.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

World Book Night 2021: Book Three


Common People ed. Kit de Waal (Unbound)

Borrowed from the library's eBook collection

Another genre of books I've been increasingly keen to see in promotions such as World Book Night / Quick Reads is one that includes anthologies of short stories or essays. A book that you can dip in and out of, a genre that leaves you feeling accomplished as you can read a whole story easily or in limited time.

I enjoyed a lot of the pieces in this book, but like most anthologies not every entry was for more but by the end well over three quarters of the entries appealed which is a pretty good hit rate.

I'm still not 100% sure if the entries are autobiographical, observations or short stories but this didn't matter as they are all well written and 'lived' as I read them. I'm not sure I'd have found this book with out WBN21 and my challenge but I am very glad that I did.

Friday, 8 January 2021

World Book Night 2021:Book Two


Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Penguin)

Borrowed from the library eBook collection

This was a fun teen read that is all about acceptance and coming to terms with who you are. There are some great one liners in the book and without being didactic or pushy Albertalli makes a lot of good points about equality.

It was a quick read but I am wondering how memorable it is (the library catalogue reminded me that I'd borrowed and read the book in 2017 - pre brain haemorrhage) but I couldn't remember a thing about it).

My other minor gripe is that it is American - I know that there are some great British writers out there covering similar topics and I'd love for them to have been highlighted by WBN. It also means that some of the issues and themes of the book have less links to the UK and thus their message can be diluted or dismissed more easily (but incorrectly) as being 'not something that would happen here.'

Oh dear - I'm only two books in to this challenge and both books have been disappointing in one way or another!

Sunday, 3 January 2021

World Book Night 2021: Book One


The Kindness Method by Shahroo Izadi (Pan Macmillan)

Borrowed from the library

I'm not saying I am a sucker for marketing but it did seem right to start this challenge with a book that would fit into the traditional "New Year, New You' book promotions.

I have to say that this one really wasn't for me, I do occasionally borrow books like this from the library looking for hints or tips on how to make alterations in my life (and usually forget them pretty much instantly) but in this book I didn't find anything that resonated with me at all. Possibly because it is a book you need to work through slowly and annotate as you go and that isn't something you can do in a library book!

As I've long been vocal in saying that schemes like World Book Night and Quick Reads need more non-fiction options I do feel bad in finding this one so disappointing but not every book can be for everyone so on to the next book...

Friday, 1 January 2021

2020 - Best of the Books


A year in books

Well what a year 2020 ended up being. It started so well with some great plays (and accompanying days out in London) and then we just managed to have our whole holiday before flights were cancelled and travel banned. Our holiday seems such a distant thing now that I have to pinch myself hard to remember that it was only 10 months ago...

We came back from holiday and instantly started working from home, due to having returned from (at that time) a higher risk area. I'm not sure I'd have believed you if you'd said that this would continue for the rest of the year, and then well into 2021. It has been 44 weeks since I was 'in the office' but as I am lucky enough to still have a job, and one that I can do from home I am not complaining about this.

Not being furloughed (and indeed working my hours over 5 days not 3), plus spending more time outside means that I didn't really increase the amount of time I spent reading. Oh and like a lot of people my concentration span has been as variable as the tiering system!

Not many books stuck out for me this year as being ones I had to shout about to all and sundry (except Leonard and Hungry Paul) and I did have to go through my reading journal a couple of times to get this list, but for what it is worth...

Top Fiction (in no specific order)

  • The Cat and The City by Nick Bradley (Atlantic Books)
  • The Autumn of the Ace by Louis de Bernieres (Vintage)
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin)
  • The Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue by Anna Fargher (Macmillan Children's Books)
  • Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hessian (Bluemoose Books)
  • The Readers' Room by Anotoine Laurain, trans. Aitkins, Boyce & Mackintosh (Gallic Books)
  • A Burning by Megha Majumdar (Scribner Books)
  • After the War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)
  • The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, trans. Philip Gabriel (Transworld)
  • The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina, trans. Lucy Rand (Manilla Press)

Fracture by Andres Neuman, trans. Caistor & Garcia (Granta) just missed the cut too.

From this list I can see that fiction set in Japan was a common thread to my reading with 4 of these 11 set wholly or partially there. I'm also pleased to see that translated fiction features so much (4) along with independently published titles (5) and that two children's books made the list.

Non fiction (in no specific order)

  • Rewild Yourself by Simon Barnes (Simon and Schuster)
  • One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake (Harper Collins)
  • Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury)
  • Limitless by Tim Peake (Cornerstone)
  • Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink (Pan Macmillan)

The Biscuit by Lizzie Collingwood just missed out on the top 5 here.

My best re-read of the year was Victoria Hislop's The Island and the novella One August Night was  in my top 20 fiction reads.

The book that I read that I can't wait to talk about more is Winter in Tabriz by Sheila Llewellyn and I think that the book I am most eagerly awaiting is The Swallows' Flight by Hilary McKay.

Overall not a bad year for books, and here's hoping that 2021 is a good reading year - it has started well as I've begun the highly acclaimed The Missing Half  and have Where the Crawdads Sing up after that.

I haven't really set myself any specific reading goals as I so rarely manage to reach them but I will continue to name the translator and the publisher in reviews as well as looking to continue reading more independently published books as these two targets really do expand my reading incredibly.