Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Pearl That Broke It's Shell - Nadia Hashimi - Guest Book Review

Published by William Morrow

Guest book review by Sue Knight

I enjoyed reading this story so much I find it difficult to believe it’s a debut novel, and really hope that Nadia Hashimi has more ‘in her’.

This is a story of two generations of the same Afghan family Rahima, the story teller and her great great grandmother Shekiba whose stories are a reflection of each other a century apart.

At first I found all the names, some of which are so similar, confusing, but I soon settled into the rhythm of the changing stories (which are clearly indicated in each chapter) and got to know the characters within each story.

The story is gripping and insightful, the prose very descriptive and the subject matter engrossing, educational, emotional, and at times, painful.  I’m not sure I could stand to watch a film adaptation if it were true to the book.  There are many stories within the story but the writing is so good that you absorb these almost without realising as you get to understand the differing relationships.

I’m sure that most of us have some understanding of the male/female hierarchy in the Muslim world but I’m sure that this book will reveal more to most readers – the custom of bacha posh for instance, which allows a young girl to be dressed and treated as a boy until she is of marriageable age (this is no spoiler as it is on the back cover!)

I like a book that makes me want to go off and look something up – this book did that – I had not previously heard of Queen Soraya and now know she is considered the most eminent and revolutionary woman in Afghan and Oriental history.  Sadly although she no doubt changed some things, not enough to avoid the fate of Rahima and her sisters.

As the book covers says this is reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini and others, but I would recommend that you read this book even if you have not read and/or enjoyed these authors as this is a story that deserves to be heard – if only to remind all of us in the ‘western world’ how lucky we are.  When things are getting you down I suggest you recall Shekiba’s words “I have no reason to complain, though.  I am married to a man with a respectable position ……… he keeps us fed and clothed in an esteemed neighbourhood …. He provides for his children and does not beat me.  What more could I have asked of Allah?"

All in all I give this book 10/10 and very much look forward to reading more from Ms Hashimi.

Many thanks to Sue for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library!

Inceptio - Alison Morton - Guest Book Review

Published by SilverWood Books

Guest review by Wendy Rowley

Alternative history novels are quite commonplace now but they mostly "turn" on fairly recent events such as a different outcome to WW2 or how things might have been different if Kennedy had survived. In Inceptio the premise starts further back, what if the Roman Empire hadn't completely fallen, and what if that empire was run by women.

So with this as the basis we have a female narrator in her early 20s, living in the Eastern United States who discovers she is the heir to a powerful dynasty in Roma Nova. There's a threat to her life and she has to flee to Roma Nova to survive. This all sounds like the basis of a good story. However I found the narrator to be annoyingly conceited - every time she gets into a scrape she has to come out on top and brag to the reader about it. I also found it very sexist against men. Obviously with the women of the empire having all the power this is likely to happen but it made me think of the James Bond books in reverse, which of course didn't do women any favours but were set in the 1960s and true to society of the time. 

Inceptio is set in the 2010s and I would expect a less sexist attitude. With this in mind it's hard to see who the target audience is meant to be. In some ways it is a lot like The Hunger Games books but I am not sure it would appeal to teens in the same way. Overall it was entertaining but predictable. I would mark it 7/10.

Many thanks to Wendy for reading and reviewing Inceptio for The Little Reader Library!

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd - Guest Book Review

Published by Headline

Guest book review by Susan Maclean

You may have come new to this author, or you may have read The Secret Life of Bees or The Mermaid Chair already.  Or you may have noticed a blurb from either inside or outside the cover of this novel which says “A powerful, sweeping novel inspired by real events, and set in the American Deep South in the nineteenth century”.  However Sue Monk Kidd crossed your radar, you will pick a winner if you read this. 

A fictional account of  the real lives of two sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke of Charleston, South Carolina; it contains a devastating portrayal of slavery in the Southern States of America, and it also brings to our attention the story of these two sisters who fought for the abolition of slavery and more.  And only fictional in that it is told as a story, rather than as a block of information.  It’s well written, and it had me just wanting “another chapter” before I laid the book down. 

It’s told in alternate chapters by Sarah Grimke and by Hetty Handful,  the slave who is given to Sarah on the morning of her eleventh birthday as her handmaid.  Racked with guilt about the way slaves are treated, Sarah wishes this gift be taken back; she does not want her – only to be laughed at by her family.  Sarah would like to be a lawyer, like her father, but as “just a girl” this dream will never come to fruition either.  In both cases, her wishes are ignored,  so Hetty becomes her companion, who she teaches, secretly, to read and write (against the law).  For Sarah, there is a great and devastating punishment for this crime; she is never allowed to read a book from her father’s library again – so this means no more reading, ever.  She must therefore forgo any dream of entering a man’s profession, since women of her class should marry well and run a good home.  As she grows to adulthood, and is shown off in society to seek a husband, something happens that will change her life.

The book is divided easily into chunks headed either Sarah or Hetty, so that you know immediately whose  voice you are listening to.  It’s  fascinating to note how these two different women view the same occurrences and how neither are free in the way we would understand freedom now.

The Invention of Wings covers a period prior to the American Civil War, from 1803 to 1938, and will, perhaps, open your eyes to how it was for house slaves then, the ill-treatment doled out to them as a matter of course, and, interestingly the real thoughts of those slaves, whilst bobbing the knee and repeating “yes’m”.  The abject cruelty towards fellow humans rather takes the breath away until we remember that slavery is not yet dead, and goes on all over the world.  You can read this either as a ripping novel, or as an account of the truth.  Either way, I think you may enjoy the journey.

When you think of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women, the name Grimke does not spring to mind;  and yet, for what they did, Grimke should be a household name in the world biography of women.  Please don’t forget to read the author’s note at the end of the book – how she found out about the Grimkes, how she decided to write about their lives, and how a young slave called Hetty became the other voice of this book.

Many thanks to Susan for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library! Susan blogs at Mac-Adventures (with Books!), do visit her fab blog too!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Black Chalk - Albert Alla - Guest Book Review

Published by Garnet Publishing

Guest review by Janice Lazell-Wood

This is the unsettling story of how Nate Dillingham’s life changed one afternoon, when his classmate, Eric Knight, walked into their physics class and started shooting. 

Nate is the sole survivor and only witness. While he is recuperating in hospital from a stomach wound he received that day, journalists and police are at him wanting to know the truth. Trying desperately to repress unwanted memories, and dealing with crippling guilt, Nate feels the only way he can cope is to run away, and, on his 18th birthday, he does just that.

After eight years of travelling and trying to hide from the truth, he finally returns to face his demons to find he’s not the only one who’s been affected by the traumatic events of that day, those that he loves have been through hell as well. 

When he meets Leona, a grounded 19 year old, who fascinates him, Nate is smitten and they begin a passionate relationship. However, when the realisation dawns as to just who she is, all the memories, pain and guilt he has tried to quash are brought to the forefront once more. He finally opens up to her (and the reader), and we get the whole shocking story of that day. 

Told by Nate himself, this is a gripping and affecting story.  I wanted to know the reasons behind the shooting, what Nate saw, and how things were going to work out for him and Lorna.  When the end comes, I was left wanting more.  An excellent debut novel, and one which comes recommended. 

My thanks goes to Lindsay for giving me the chance to review this novel.

Many thanks to Janice for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Men Of Letters - Duncan Barrett - Author Q&A

Today I am very pleased to welcome author Duncan Barrett to the blog! 

His new book Men of Letters is out now. (AA Publishing, £8.99, softback)

Hi Duncan, please could you tell us a bit about your new book Men of Letters?

Men of Letters tells the true stories of some of the thousands of Post Office workers who went off to fight in the trenches during the First World War, in particular those who served with the organisation's own battalion the Post Office Rifles. Based on their trench diaries and the letters they wrote home from the western front, it looks at every aspect of their experiences of war, from the rituals of daily life in the trenches (in particular the importance for morale of regular mail and food packages from home) to the terrible slaughter of the Somme and Passchendaele, when men saw former post office colleagues suddenly killed alongside them. These very ordinary men living through extraordinary times give us a glimpse of the war as the average tommy experienced it. 

What drew you to this topic - I understand that there is a personal link in your family to the Post Office Rifles? 

Actually, the only personal link to the POR story is that my great-great-uncle fought alongside them in the battle for High Wood in September 1916, and like many of the PORs he was killed there. But I didn’t actually realise the connection until I began researching their stories. I visited High Wood as part of my research for the book, hoping to see the land where they fought and he died. Sadly, though, the only people allowed inside these days are those who come to shoot game birds in the wood. 

Do you enjoy researching the books that you write, and how easy/difficult was it to find out about this topic in order to put your book together?

I was very lucky that there is a wealth of material on the Post Office Rifles held at the Imperial War Museum, and also at the British Postal Museum and Archive. Many of the PORs shared their own stories with each other before they died, and some of these were printed in the POR Association newsletters. I also had access to lots of the original letters they wrote to their loved ones from the front lines, which helped me to get to know them on a personal level. I found the research fascinating – although occasionally I did find it frustrating that all the people I was writing about were no longer alive. With my previous books, The Sugar Girls and GI Brides, which are both based on interviewees with living subjects, I’ve always been able to pick up the phone if I realised something was confusing me. 

Do you find the writing process addictive - is it hard to stop once you get going?

To be honest, I find that I’m always on such a tight deadline that I don’t have time to stop even if I wanted to! But certainly, you do get into the flow of writing once you’ve been doing it for a while. The first few weeks on a new book are always the hardest, trying to get back into that daily rhythm again. Then after a while it begins to get more enjoyable!

I really enjoyed your book about The Sugar Girls. How do you decide what you want to write about next? 

Generally, I find that working on one book I start to have ideas about the next one. When my partner Nuala and I were researching The Sugar Girls, we spent a lot of time interviewing old ladies in the East End, and Nuala started to think, ‘I’m getting to know all these other people’s grandmothers, but I’ve never really interviewed my own grandmother.’ When The Sugar Girls was out of the way, she spent several days talking to her grandmother Margaret, and hearing about her experiences as a GI Bride in WW2 – and that inspired us to write our next book about the GI Brides. One of the women we wrote about in that book was in the ATS during the war, and we were so fascinated by that aspect of her war experience that we decided our third book would be about women in the forces – we’re working on that now, and it should be in shops March 2015. Men of Letters was a little bit different in that the publisher approached me about writing something to do with the First World War, to tie in with the Centenary this year. I wanted it to be a story that focused on ordinary men on the front lines, and if possible using some of their own words – we eventually agreed on a book about the Post Office Rifles (a battalion of ordinary postmen and telegram boys) incorporating the letters they wrote home. 

Thank you for answering my questions Duncan!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Another Way to Fall - Amanda Brooke - Guest Book Review

Published by Harper

Guest review by Joan Hill

Emma has been very ill, fighting a comprehensive and aggressive battle against a brain tumour that has already destroyed her dreams of rising to the top in a glittering career, travelling all over the world. Her family, mother Meg and younger sister Louise have supported her throughout but, as our story begins, Emma, at twenty nine years old, is once again visiting her consultant Mr Spelling, hoping against all hope for those eagerly awaited words that will give her the ‘All Clear’. Sadly it is not to be and his words only confirm her greatest nightmare. Her fight so far has been pointless and there is nothing more that can be done to ward off her cancer’s virulent and relentless progress. She is going to die.

Regardless of this prognosis her mother Meg is unable to give up. She is determined to fight on, hoping to find a cure in a research programme or to join a trial of some new wonder drug. But Emma knows that if she is to realise her dreams and achieve the goals she had desired so fiercely she must find another way, a way to fit everything in she most desired in her life. She decides to write a book of what she hoped her life would be. She secretly taps it all out on her laptop and as she makes progress with her story, amazingly some of her dreams actually start to come true. With a new love in her life she imagines what she would want in their life together, their holidays and high days, the family they would rear and so the story develops, encapsulating her dreams with a heart-warming clarity. And then it starts to happen; dreams seamlessly merge with reality. She feels the story could be true as she dreams it so vividly.  Could it possibly all come true, right through a lifetime of togetherness? Could she be actually achieving an alternative future?

The ‘story within the story’ is an extremely effective method of moving on Emma’s story to its completion. The characters are strong and empathetic, all with Emma’s best interests and comfort in their hearts. The story is incredibly moving and I particularly loved Beth, the loving mother who would do literally anything for her sick daughter. Amanda Brooke put all of herself and her own experiences and attitudes into building this wonderful portrait of mother-love. She lost her young son to cancer and it must have been so hard to write some aspects of Emma’s story from Beth’s point of view. But she totally nailed it. I also loved the characterisation of her boyfriend Ben. He shone a bright light in her life and enabled her to complete her novel, helping her both emotionally and with the practicalities of writing a novel whilst weakening physically. I really enjoyed this novel and thank Lindsay most sincerely for inviting me to be a guest reviewer.

Many thanks to Joan for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Agent Dmitri - Emil Draitser - Guest Book Review

Published by Duckworth

Guest review by Mandy Jenkinson

Dmitri Bystrolyotov was one of the Great Illegals, a group of Soviet spies operating in the West between the two world wars. He was recruited in the 1920s and went on to lead a quite extraordinary life. He was a larger-than-life figure, courageous, charismatic, a master of seduction (he invented the modern “honey trap”), handsome, resourceful, and above all a committed Communist, dedicated to the service of his motherland.

Much of the trajectory of his life as a spy seems stranger than fiction, and that, for me, was one of the problems of this book. Emil Draitser has done an impressive amount of painstaking research, but still relies in part on Bystrolotov’s own memoirs, and Bystrolyotov is an unreliable narrator par excellence. He contacted the author back in the 1970s shortly before Draitser’s emigration hoping he would take on the task of writing his biography. Thirty years later and with increased access to the archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, Draitser set about the task. He admits to not being able to verify some of the events, but too often allows himself the luxury of speculating. Reconstructed conversations (which always sound false and stilted), cod psychological explanations of Bystrolyotov’s motives and actions, too much reliance on the memoirs, all made me distrustful.

Reading the tagline “The Secret History of Russia’s Most Daring Spy”, I expected the book to be more thrilling and exciting than it actually is. I was soon bored by the accounts of one incredible exploit after another. I found the book more interesting after Bystrolyotov’s ill-advised return to the Soviet Union, where instead of being feted for all he had done for his country, he fell foul of Stalin’s paranoia and was arrested and sent to the Gulag. His ordeal in the far North makes for some gripping reading. But essentially I just couldn’t engage with this man. He never truly came alive for me. Perhaps that’s inevitable with someone who spent much of his life pretending to be someone he wasn’t, and just as it’s impossible to really enter the heart and mind of many another super-spy, such as Kim Philby, perhaps such a biography is always doomed to partial failure. I would have liked to see more illustrations, but perhaps theses weren’t available.

Nevertheless, in spite of my reservations, this is an intriguing look into the world of high-level espionage, and a glimpse, at least, into the secretive world of Soviet intelligence. A pity about the lurid cover, though, one hardly appropriate for a serious biography.

Many thanks to Mandy for reading and reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library. Mandy is an omnivorous reader who enjoys reviewing, for newbooks magazine as well as elsewhere, and enjoys discovering new authors.