Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen: excellent YA historical fiction

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What it’s all about…

Orphan Monster Spy is the story of 15-year-old Sarah, who lives with her mentally unwell mum in Germany at the time of Hitler and the National Socialists. Sarah is a Jew and experiences the racism and isolation that this involves. An attempt to flee Germany ends in her mother being shot and killed at a checkpoint but Sarah’s Arian appearance – blond hair, blue eyes – enables her to escape. On the run, she encounters a mysterious man, the Captain and together they realise that working together could be their way forward in this dangerous world they find themselves in. The Captain sends Sarah on a mission to a National Socialist elite school for girls, where she is to befriend the daughter of a scientist, who has the potential to destroy Germany’s enemies. It’s a story of survival, of deep-rooted inner strength in adverse circumstances, of flawed human beings and the complex dangers of power.Untitled design (4)

Plot wise…

It is a satisfying, page-turning spy thriller with that boarding school element, which is always a great setting for narratives of intrigue and mystery.  I was totally gripped throughout. However, there is so much more to Orphan Monster Spy than its plot alone.

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I loved…

Matt Killen really captures the German setting, the National Socialist period in history, in an accessible and engaging way. I like a book that fully and authentically draws you into a place in time and this book certainly does that!  With my German family background, a German Studies degree and a whole lot of reading about World War 2 behind me, both fiction and non-fiction, it takes a lot to win me over and Killeen definitely did.

The relationship between  Sarah and the Captain is brilliantly written – there’s a real spark there, a genuine raw and equally complex connection as well as a passion to change the horrific world they live in.

The elitist fascist school for girls is a really interesting concept and isn’t something I have really given much thought to before, nor have I come across much about these schools until now. Such schools did exist, though there were only a few girls’ schools due to the juxtaposition of an academic education with the Nazi belief that women were destined to be wives and mothers and should therefore be given an education to reflect these roles. I’m really interested to find out more  – I love a bit of research!

The exploration of loyalty and betrayal is a powerful theme running throughout the narrative. I especially liked that Sarah’s response to her life in Germany is complex. Although she is a victim of Nazi ideology and experiences horrific things, she also considers herself German first and foremost and wants to be loyal to her country. She thinks long and hard about the consequences of her actions, whether her work with the Allies is for the greater good.

The appeal of belonging is equally well explored, Killeen shows that life is not black and white, that powerful regimes play on the human need to belong and that it can be an immense struggle to stay true to your beliefs in the face of what is offered: Sarah recognises how easy it would be to give in, to belong to the German Youth Movement due to her looks, how appealing the choreography of the Nazis movement is and especially for young people who are still trying to figure out their place in the world.

A real-life scientist of the time called Lise Meitner makes a significant appearance in the story based on her contribution to the discovery of fission and again, I learned something new. I hold up my hands and admit I know little about science throughout history and I certainly hadn’t come across this fascinating woman, who was part of changing the world forever but who was denied a Nobel Prize for Chemistry as she was forced to flee Germany and also  because she was a woman in a man’s world.

I really appreciated  Killen’s author note at the end where he explains his own experiences and motivation behind writing this book. He writes of summers spent with his mum’s German best friend and family, who he describes as gracious, loving and intensely pacifist and the challenges of getting older,  learning about the Holocaust and wondering, “Exactly how could these gentle people allow this to happen?” The message that human beings are incredibly complex and that history also depends on who’s telling the story, comes across with passion.

In the same end note, Killeen tells the reader of the amount and depth of research involved in writing Orphan Monster Spy and the quality of this is evident throughout the book. Yes, Sarah’s story is fiction but its fiction with a lot of sensitivity and a sound factual structure.

There is an abuse story line and I tend to disconnect with such content because of personal reasons, plus I also find that they are generally rarely written well/with meaning. In his note, Killeen talks about how Sarah’s world lives on today in insidious ways, how children and vulnerable people are still abused, how it is still so often concealed and even dismissed. I can see why Killeen has included this subplot (he has handled it well) and I stress that I think it’s an important topic to tackle, to create awareness of.

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And finally…

I love that there is so much yet to be explained and discovered and I can’t wait for the next in the series: Devil Darling Spy, published January 2020.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Tin Man by Sarah Winman was all over booktube last year and was loved by so many of the wonderful people that I subscribe to. Of course, I bought it there and then and couldn’t wait to immerse myself in a book promising stunning writing, deeply engaging characters and emotions that left some reviewers with a tear in their eye.  However, when it came to opening the book, I felt an odd sense of resistance – it somehow didn’t feel right. This may sound strange, but I felt like I had heard too much about it; I needed to almost forget some of what I had heard in order to have my own reading experience.  So, a year on, I finally read Tin Man and oh my goodness, it lived up to my expectations and went far beyond; what an intensely emotional, personal read!

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Tin Man is the story of two friends, Ellis and Michael. It is the story of their intense friendship and their first emotional and sexual feelings for each other. It is also the story of how complicated things become when we become adults. How loss, insecurities and how we deal with society’s expectations can consume us. How vital it is to truly know ourselves, and how true human connection is what matters most in the end.

Tin Man is just under 200 pages and I really don’t want to give any of the storyline away, so I’ll try and talk as generally as I can!

I loved…

Van Gough’s Sunflowers: I’ve always loved Van Gough for his story as well as his work and his sunflowers are a beautiful leitmotif throughout this book, weaving in and out of the narratives and bringing them all together. I now understand why the book is yellow too😉It all begins when Ellis’ mum Dora falls in love with a print of the sunflowers, having won it in a raffle. I love it when she tells a young Ellis and Michael,

“I like to imagine how it would have been for him, stepping out of the train station at Arles into such an intense yellow light. It changed him. How could it not? How could it not change anyone?!”

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Ellis and Michael: The vulnerability and tenderness of these characters, the contrast of their personalities, who, in the end, just want to belong. How I loved their quirks, their inner worlds, their passions and their dreams but also their darker edges and their failures.

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The beauty and tenderness of Winman’s writing style: I loved how Winman catches moods and scenes in so few words. Here is just one example where I was instantly drawn in:

“We mapped out a future away from everything we knew. When the walls of the map were breached, we gave one another courage to build them again. And we imagined our home an old stone barn filled with junk and wine and paintings, surrounded by fields of wildflowers and bees.”

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The sensitive, spot on portrayal of grief, lost opportunities and loneliness.

That sense of holding on to the past, of living there because it means so much that you can’t live in the present, whilst everyone else seems to be moving on. This spoke directly to my heart.

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Dead Poets Society references: It is my favourite film of all time and the fact that there are references to it in Tin Man is the icing on the cake for me. If you haven’t seen it – YOU NEED THIS FILM IN YOUR LIFE. O captain my captain. Sigh.

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The impact that small acts of kindness have: I am becoming more and more partial to books that are life affirming in their own way. Why? I need to believe in human connection, to believe that good is out there in everyday life – this world we live in often overwhelms me.

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The ending: get the tissues ready for the beauty, hope, sadness and truth (just thinking about this has me on the verge of tears- all the feels. In the margins ( I love to annotate the books I read) I wrote:

This is love.

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Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

I came across Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik when the Walter Scott Prize longlist for 2018 was announced (it made the shortlist too). Without even opening the book, I knew it would be just my cup of tea – it has so many elements that I love: a World War II backdrop and the British countryside; intriguing female lead characters; a character driven story line as well as an exploration of friendship and hidden lives.

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The story is of Rene Hargreaves, who, one day in 1940, walks out on her husband and children to join the Land Army and is billeted to the remote Starlight Farm where she then meets its owner, Elsie Boston. The two are strangers from totally different worlds and weary of one another but they soon come to depend on and care for each other immensely. They are forced to leave Starlight and become itinerant farm workers, travelling the country together, always sticking to isolated farms where questions won’t be asked. After the war, they then settle in a Cornish cottage where their life together is shaken to its foundations when someone from Rene’s past intrudes. Everything is threatened, and the resulting choices and actions have far reaching consequences.

My thoughts…

The wonderfully crafted characters:

Elsie. Oh, how I identified with this socially awkward soul with an exceptional ability to care for animals and plants, who likes nothing better than being settled in a place she knows and loves with her radio to keep her company and routines to guide her days. Though she is the gentler of the two characters, there is a core strength within in her, a fierce determination to live her own life and not be constrained by others.

Rene. Based on Malik’s research of her own grandmother’s past, Rene challenges society head on and is a character of many layers (there is a wonderful article on Malik’s discoveries on the Penguin website). She breaches gender rules; walks away from being a wife and mother even though the consequences for her family and for herself are heart-breaking. But she knows herself well enough to know how her life needs to evolve and she makes it happen. Even in the hardest times. However, whilst Elsie craves isolation, Rene also enjoys the company of other people and being a part of the outside world and is often torn between these two worlds – I loved this contrast.text dividers-12 2The development of the relationship between Rene and Elsie is intricately and incredibly beautifully written in all its depth, complexity and human connection. I loved that their relationship as a same sex couple was not once explicitly mentioned yet all the nuances and small details spoke volumes. I especially enjoyed the way the characters spoke to each other, which gave a real sense of what they were like as people at the same time: Elsie’s more formal, slightly awkward constructions with such an underlying need for belonging; Rene’s more extrovert, direct and warmer ways, a voice that protects and nurtures on its own terms. This is not to say that life is perfect, unspoken words and underlying tensions run alongside; it is a hard existence for them and their contrasting personalities cause some heart-wrenching moments of distance between them too.text dividers-12 2I absolutely loved all the tiny details of home life for Elsie and Rene: playing patience, reading to each other, listening to the radio of an evening. I was transported back in time, picturing everything so clearly. The way Malik describes how every new dwelling is made into a home, despite an immense lack of financial resources, is also beautiful in its detail: every piece of furniture is hard won, every dark corner made the best of, hours and hours of hard graft to turn dismal surroundings into somewhere that they can belong.text dividers-12 2The descriptions of the landscape and how the two women are bonded with the land are gorgeous; starting at Elsie’s Starlight Farm then moving on to the places they travel as itinerant workers during the war and beyond. There is a wonderful description of them riding their bikes on a whim one evening to celebrate Rene’s birthday, their destination being an ancient white horse carved into the hillside, the outline of which has been covered with turf to prevent German planes using it for orientation purposes. Tipsy on a found half bottle of brandy and the exhilaration of spending time with each other, they uncover the horse just long enough for Rene to see it as a whole.text dividers-12 2There is a darker side to the story, which involves a trial in the last section of the book, when a visitor from Rene’s past intrudes and turns the women’s secluded life into a living nightmare. It is based on the newspaper article Malik found during her research. Elsie and Rene’s life, always so carefully kept out of the spotlight, is now under public scrutiny and, without giving more away, the way it was written really broke my heart. A brilliant contrast.text dividers-12 2In a Walter Scott Prize interview, Malik considers what history means to us today and talks of how perceptions of history are ever evolving as different aspects become important to us as a society. It is this kind of history that I love; the stories that haven’t yet been told, an emerging focus on women’s history and female perspectives, social history that allows you to have a real sense of connection with the past. Malik’s book does all this and much much more.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is one of the most beautiful, gentle, uplifting yet also tragic books I’ve read in quite some time. An amazing character piece of two women who refuse to fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has for them.

See What I Have Done: pushing my reading boundaries

I enjoy a good horror film, the darker and more psychological the better, however, when it comes to books I am more of a scaredy-cat. Weird but true. I think it is because I process things more intensely when I read and because I have a well-developed imagination, so the words conjure up more powerful images than a film might. Over the last year and a half, I’ve made a conscious commitment to expanding my reading horizons and a part of that is pushing myself to read books that challenge me in some shape or form.

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I don’t do things by half, so I chose See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, which reimagines the story of Lizzie Borden (an alleged murderess, said to have viciously killed her stepmother and her father with an axe, and whose murder trial at the beginning of the 20th century, became the sensation of the time). It is told from the viewpoint of four main characters, each potential suspect with their own axe to grind (yes, I know, I had to go there): Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a young man hired by Lizzie’s creepy uncle John to threaten her father, Andrew Borden.

My main thoughts on reading See What I Have Done:

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The harsh, vivid and minute details: Sarah Schmidt can write! The description is gory, intimate, shocking and stomach turning. The writing style certainly had a powerful impact on me. Though it made me feel uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of not wanting to read more, it fully immersed me in the narrative at the same time so that I simply had to read on.flourishes

The claustrophobic atmosphere and setting, which feel wrong from the very beginning: At times I had to put the book down to have a breather, to put some distance between me and the intensity. As I read, I felt I was there in that hot, airless house; the darkness and tension wrapping themselves around me.

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The warped, twisted relationships: These were crafted wonderfully, Schmidt really gets into the headspace of her characters and thoroughly explores the dynamics at play in the Borden House. I really got a strong sense of the toxic mixture of resentment, confusion, jealousy, authority and abandonment.

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Lizzie herself: Above all, what stayed with me was Lizzie’s complex character; her mental instability, the sense that though the family may have tried to protect this erratic, confused, often wild, sometimes childlike and equally sinister woman, they couldn’t meet her needs. Lizzie’s narrative jumps from childlike language to sinister to needy in a heartbeat, you never quite know where you stand or what you should believe- very cleverly written and utterly disturbing.

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In an afterword, Sarah Schmidt explains how she came to write about Lizzie, or rather how Lizzie found her! For me, this added another delicious layer to the narrative and I loved hearing about Schmidt’s experiences at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum. Yes, you can actually stay in the Borden house where the interiors are modelled on the original crime scene photos!

This is a book that gets under your skin and which continues to play with your mind long after you’ve finished reading it. It hooked me completely and produced strong emotions within. I can’t say I loved it or that I will read it again, yet I can with certainty say that it is an original, superbly written book.

P.S.  If you fancy exploring further on the web (as I felt compelled to) then I can recommend: http://lizzieandrewborden.com/

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; how small acts of kindness can be life – changing

Every now and again a book comes into your life that has such a profound effect, that reaches deep into your soul and changes you for the better. Eleanor Oliphant is such a book. I’m actually finding it difficult to find adequate words for my thoughts and emotions about this debut novel, so bear with me.

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Eleanor is a woman in her thirties, she has crafted a carefully ordered life for herself without genuine human connection. She is a survivor of severe childhood trauma, which we learn more about as the story develops; this trauma has locked so many doors in Eleanor’s emotional and mental development. She is an outsider and doesn’t understand society’s rules; she is one of the loneliest characters I have ever come across. This all sounds very bleak and parts of the story are so very sad but, at the same time, this is the story of how Eleanor learns to open herself up to the world, to find meaning in her life and to allow love in. It is a story of so much courage as she tries to navigate a world, which feels alien to her and tries to come to terms with the dark experiences of her past.

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I’ve seen Eleanor Oliphant marketed as a ‘funny book full of humour’. I agree that there are many such brilliant moments as Eleanor’s perspective is so honest, her observations delightfully plain speaking and often childlike in honesty. There is a wonderful section where she is on a quest to look more socially acceptable, to look like the other women she sees as being normal. Her bewildered observations when she has her nails done and when she wants to buy trendy clothes in a department store, really did make me laugh, largely because I can totally identify with the bewilderment! When having makeup applied, the beautician asks her whether she likes a smoky eye look, Eleanor replies that she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. When asked whether she likes the finished effect, she say in all seriousness,

“I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon. It’s charming!”heart hands

However, selling it primarily as a comedy doesn’t sit right with me. I went into reading this book not knowing a lot about it but having the expectation of a Bridget Jones style narrative – this doesn’t begin to do Honeyman’s writing justice. Eleanor drinks two bottles of vodka at the weekend to make time pass quickly as there is nothing and nobody to fill the days when she is not working. Her mind becomes so dark at one point that she doesn’t know if life is worth living. This darkness is so well written, her mental health incredibly sensitively explored. I cried. Lots.

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Another thing I absolutely loved, is how Eleanor has moments of deep understanding, precisely because she doesn’t conform to what society expects; she doesn’t play by the social rules. For example, there is a scene in a café, where she is waiting for the rather wonderful Raymond, her first real friend. She attempts general conversation with a member of café staff and finds out he is leaving his job as his wife is terminally ill. Instead of shying away, finding a polite response, she tells him that she understands he would rather spend the short time left with his dying wife rather than serving random strangers.

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The friendships Eleanor develops are just so very lovely in their honesty and acceptance. This book shouts from the rooftops that there are good people out there and I love it for that. I shan’t say much more as they are for you to discover (but I hope you love Raymond as much as I do!) I will mention the cat that comes into her life though – because, you know, me and cats! Eleanor takes in this traumatised, scrappy little cat and allows her to become the centre of her long empty life. There is a special, tender moment when they first meet, remarkably, Eleanor has so much love to give:

‘I held her like a baby, close against my chest, and felt, rather than heard, her deep, sonorous purring. Oh, the warm weight of her! I buried my faced in what remained of her fur and felt her gently turn her head towards me as she gently sniffed my hairline.’heart hands

I read Eleanor Oliphant just before reading Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie (see my review here) and these two books together have played a huge part in restoring my hope in humanity. They have both reminded me how those small acts of everyday kindness can change someone’s world and that we humans are capable of so much compassion, care and indeed love, if we only put our minds to it.

 

 

Home Fire

Man Booker Prize 2017

This year’s Man Booker longlist has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise for me. I think this is partly because I am more involved in the bookish world than ever before, meaning I am aware of many more books outside my usual reading range. As well as this, I think that many of the books on the list are very accessible in terms of language and content. For the first time, I have a little pile of Man Booker nominated books on my bedside table. I was very lucky to have my wish for Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, granted by the publisher Bloomsbury on NetGalley. Grab a cup of tea for this review, it is a longer one but I need that length to do Home Fire justice.

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The story is of three British Muslim siblings living in the UK, 19-year-old twins, Parvais and Aneeka, and an older sister, Isma, who is also a mother figure as both parents are dead. Their father was a Jihadi fighter, who died on the way to Guantanamo. His legacy is that that his children are intensely aware of their relationship with Islam and of what life is like being a Muslim in a country increasingly suspicious and fearful of anything ‘other’.  Isma’s response is to hold on to her faith and to explore human behaviour as the centre of her post graduate studies. Aneeka searches for her answers and acceptance in studying law and being part of a western culture. Parvais is the lost boy, drifting without purpose and desperate for belonging. He is groomed into becoming a fighter like his father before him and the rest of the book then focuses on his journey and the consequences of his actions for his family as well as the political response by the UK government. Intertwined with this is the story of the Home Secretary, who has turned away from his Muslim roots and is determined to be seen as a secular, accepted Muslim – assimilation means everything to him.

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Shamsie doesn’t hold back in her commentary on being a Muslim in the UK (She grew up in Karachi and has divided her time between there, America and the UK, gaining British citizenship in 2014) and I love her for it. In one of the interviews (I have listed the interviews I read at the bottom of this article) she was asked if she would have written such a book before her citizenship. The answer is no. And it isn’t any wonder. There is a comment early on about one of the characters GWM (googling whilst Muslim), how there is always that fear of being monitored, not being able to research or be able to show any interest online. Shamsie said that as she was researching online, even she, who is a known writer and Guardian journalist, felt very aware of the sites she was visiting. There is also a brilliant comment about the use of the term British, how even in language, Muslims are distanced from ‘true Britishness’:

‘Even when the word ‘’British’ was used it was always “British of Pakistani descent’ or “British Muslim” or, my favourite, “British passport-holders”, always something interposed…’

A very perceptive and personal observation I feel. As a non-UK passport holder, but having lived in the UK for most of my life, this really struck a chord with me, this ever so slight but very clear separation. Just in case.

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The political situation in the UK is indeed tackled head on, the Home Secretary aims to strip any person of British citizenship, who goes against what it is to be ‘British.’ He gives a speech to Muslim teenagers on the importance of fitting in, of not setting yourself apart. Parvais’ groomer asks him how he can live in a country where democracy and freedom are only a mirage. In an interview, Shamsie talks about how important she feels it is for writers to address right wing conservatism and religious fundamentalism prevalent in politics in so many countries. Home Fire isn’t only a political novel, it is very much about what it is to be human and about human relationships. But the political angle certainly packs a punch.

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Shamsie is just as clear in her addressing the Islamic State, the appeal of it as well as the terror. In Parvais, she shows how vulnerability is manipulated. Parvais is desperate to find belonging, to be seen and heard and loved. And there are so many young people who feel this way- I know I certainly did. Parvais can’t own his love for his father in the UK nor does he fit in. He is already disillusioned with society at the age of 19. So, the words of his groomer speak straight to his heart;

‘Not so long ago. When it was understood that a welfare state was something you built up instead of tearing down, when it saw migrants as people to be welcomed, not turned away. Imagine what it would be like to live in such a nation.’

At no point is Parvais painted as purely a victim, he remains responsible for his actions and this I thought was very well done. I read that Shamsie’s intention was to show this core sense of belonging alongside the violence, as Islamic fundamentalism is not only the physical terror we tend to focus on. The brutality is stark and its matter of fact portrayal is powerful. There is a scene describing the planning of an execution where the camera angles are worked out for maximum impact. She highlights the age-old justification of terror only being used as an interim measure, to teach and warn, to rid society of those who cannot agree. It really made me think of Communist regimes of the past, of dictatorships around the world and rather frighteningly, of the right-wing movements so prevalent in our world today.

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The severe view of women is explored within this fundamentalism, in a community where women are owned and cannot show any part of themselves in public. What it is to be a Muslim and a woman is indeed a theme throughout, and the portrayal is sensitive, perceptive and brave. And I am very aware that I write that from a non-Muslim, female perspective. Not only do we have the women of ISIS but also the paths that Isma and Aneeka take. Three very different perspectives.

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As I’ve already mentioned, Home Fire also goes beyond the political. Shamsie explores whether redemption is possible, whether love can be enough to change a person, how involved you have to be to be morally guilty. Furthermore, it is about the impact that parents have on their children and the lengths a human being will go to help those they love. She also asks if it is possible and indeed right, to turn away from your family inheritance, from faith but also from culture. At no point did I feel like I was being led to a particular viewpoint; my head was full of questions instead and that is what I think makes a great writer.Books 1

There is a haunting description of grief in this book, which will certainly stay with me in its despair and its beauty. Human loss is human loss, no matter who you are, where you live or what you believe in.

‘Grief was the deal God struck with the Angel of Death, who wanted an unpassable river to separate the living from the dead; grief the bridge that would allow the dead to flit among the living, their footsteps overheard, their laughter around the corner, their posture in the bodies of strangers you would follow down the street willing them never to turn around.’

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My last observation is how brilliantly Shamsie portrays the media. How words can have such influence, how sensationalism escalates incredibly quickly, how judgemental media can be and just how naïve society can be. The story of the individuals involved, is lost in a sea of generalisation, stereotyping, judgement and righteousness. I am very aware that there is genuine, investigative journalism out there, I read it and actively search for it (and I am so thankful for it) but I do feel this picture is sadly accurate in many ways – and it happens because society lets it.

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I strongly urge you to read this book. Shamsie is a vibrant, intelligent, perceptive writer with a genuine interest in human behaviour.

Articles I read:

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/27/kamila-shamsie-home-fire-man-booker-longlisted-author-interview

Vogue: http://www.vogue.com/article/kamila-shamsie-home-fire

Omnivoracious:http://www.omnivoracious.com/2017/08/kamila-shamsie-talks-to-the-amazon-book-review-about-her-new-novel-home-fire-1.html

The Gustav Sonata

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain has been on my book radar for a while now, with so many of the lovely bookish people online that I admire giving glowing reviews. I too was mesmerised by this incredibly beautiful, often melancholic, sometimes hopeful story of the relationship between two young boys (and later, middle-aged men) set against the backdrop of post-World War II Switzerland.

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The book is split into three parts, the first part being the story of little Gustav, who lives alone with his mother, his father having died in unknown circumstances during the war. The portrayal of his childhood is so well written and rather heart wrenching at times – Tremain really invites the reader into the thoughts and emotions of this lonely, imaginative child, who would give anything for his mother to show him love. And then Gustav meets Anton at Kindergarten and his world is transformed in so many ways. The exhilaration of this first experience of love, the joy of connecting with the world around him, the highs and lows of seeking refuge in another human being; all these things are beautifully explored. Later on, the first kiss under the guise of imaginative play as teenagers is so tender, so genuinely portrayed. There is a sense of healing, of boundaries being removed for that split second in time, which made me shed a tear or two.

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The second part focuses on the backstory of Gustav’s parents, Emilie and Erich and here lies the darker heart of the story. Emilie is a troubled, complex character, not able to love, becoming more and more disconnected during her marriage. I was torn between feeling great empathy with her as I learned more of her bleak story and the motivation behind her actions, and a feeling of frustration that she just couldn’t or wouldn’t turn things around for the sake of her child. Erich is portrayed as the polar opposite, a man led by both passion and compassion- both of which lead to his downfall. He too fails Gustav. The decline of this marriage of polar opposites is tragic, showing both the incredible anger, sadness and bitterness as these two souls are unable to find each other. Thrown into the mix, is the role Switzerland played in terms of accepting and then rejecting Jewish refugees during the Nazi period. Erich, in his role as policeman, allows Jews to enter Switzerland past the cut-off date. This thread is understated but at the same time very powerful and it certainly encouraged me to research. I think that certainly in the British history books I have come across, the roles of the ‘neutral’ countries are often only mentioned in passing. Yet how countries such as Switzerland and Sweden responded to Jews, had a huge impact on chances of survival. Immigration, with its associated prejudice and fear, is a timeless problem that we humans just don’t seem to be able to handle.Books 4

Part three then follows Gustav and Anton in their middle-aged years and concludes with scenario that creates both hope and doubt in equal measures for me. Personally speaking, I really connected with Gustav as he continues to seek refuge and warmth in his adult life. He is certainly one of the most genuine, lovely characters I have come across in some time. Anton however- well I’m not so sure. Is he a self-absorbed, hurtful man with little consideration of the impact he has on those who love him, or does he have mental health issues of his own that prevent him from forming meaningful relationships and finding what truly matters in life? I just don’t know. I’d love to know what you think.