Review: Welcome To Nowhere – Elizabeth Laird

In the winter of 2015, Elizabeth Laird travelled to Jordan to volunteer in two refugee camps where she was moved by the plight and the stories of the people she met –Welcome to Nowhere is the result of her experiences there.

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Illustrations by Lucy Eldridge

The book tells the story of twelve year old Omar and his family as they flee their home in the once beautiful city of Bosra. There are no heroes, no crusades, no grand plans being related here; despite his brother Musa’s clandestine political activities, Omar dryly observes that ‘being political was no part of my life plan’. Rather, this is a tale of a family cast upon the tides of civil war and simply reacting to it as best they can. It is a tale of everyday challenges, exasperations and privations as well as the instinctive acts of bravery, kindness and resilience that go hand in hand with them.welcome-to-nowhere

And my goodness what resilience is needed. I follow the news, I consider myself fairly well informed about what’s going on in the world, but reading Welcome To Nowhere has opened my eyes in a way that no news story could. This book has made me change the way I think. Elizabeth Laird’s writing is like opening a door into this world – she wraps the reader in the minutiae of daily life, and shows us the terrifying gradual slide into the most exceptional of circumstances.

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Illustrations by Lucy Eldridge

It is a tale told with integrity and incisiveness that, more than anything else I have read on the topic, succeeds in engendering empathy. A moving and extraordinary tale of bravery, resilience and families with an ending that feels like a stroke of genius. It feels especially important given the tone of global politics at the moment. Everyone should read this book.img_9020

Review: The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

The blurb:

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true? 


The Review:

Okay, I’m going to be totally honest here. Whilst I’m clearly not averse to using the occasion (and accompanying Twitter hashtag) to shamelessly try and get some views for this post, I am not a huge fan of Valentine’s Day in general. I really don’t like the idea of making grand romantic gestures on one particular day just because Clinton Cards says I should – if my husband gets a card at all it will be Card Factory all the way and the last grand romantic gesture I made was letting him watch a whole episode of Ancient Aliens without snorting sarcastically once…

But although I don’t like Valentine’s Day, I do think I’m a romantic at heart. And although I don’t agree that one particular day should hold so much romantic pressure, I do believe that any one day can hold a huge amount of romantic promise. I also believe that someone can come along one day and change everything you think you know about love. 

“Save me from the nice and sincere boys who feel things too deeply”

And that is why I loved The Sun Is Also A Star. One of the criticisms I’ve heard levelled at this book is that it’s all a bit too insta-love, but I loved the optimism and possibility and was completely swept along by Natasha and Daniel; helped on the way by the constant switch in POV and the deliciously glorious short chapters (hooray for short chapters!). 

Natasha and Daniel are intelligent, thoughtful and engaging main characters and I loved the way their narrative was interspersed with snippets from the other peripheral characters that they come into contact with as their own love story unfolds. It’s testament to Nicola Yoon’s writing that she made me care so much about a character (Irene) that only appears on a handful of pages in the book. And although the events of the novel take place over a period of only around twelve hours, it feels like Natasha and Daniel really get to know each other on a deeper level – they find out about each other’s backgrounds, likes and dislikes and what will frustrate as well as endear them to each other, and their love story feels progressive and genuine. There’s humour in there too and, as someone who often wonders ‘what if…’ I particularly liked the exploration of coincidence and the ripple effect that seemingly random, minor incidents can have upon people’s lives.

So there you have it. My name’s Emma and I’m a hopeless romantic. And The Sun Is Also A Star is my ideal Valentine’s date (sorry husband!)

Em

Illustrated Books: The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize

The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017 shortlists have been announced today. It’s no surprise, given recent global events, to see Francesca Sanna’s spectacular The Journey in the illustrated books category but I really liked the idea that a ‘guiding light of optimism’ could be found in the rest of the shortlisted books. This certainly chimes with the fact that two of my favourite feel good picture books of last year were also nominated, so for this ‘What We’re Reading Wednesday’ we’re looking at Meg McLaren’s downright lovely Life is Magic and Lizzy Stewart’s bountiful and imaginative There’s A Tiger In The Garden (Both Greenaway nominated I should add!)

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Life is Magic – Meg McLaren

Monsieur Lapin is on the hunt for a new assistant. Houdini the rabbit is the perfect choice: he loves magic and is a good sport. However, life in a magic show can bring with it its own surprises!

Naturally mayhem and backstage high jinks ensue. Though lively, the narrative is told with a simple economy which the bustle and pzazz of the illustrations expand upon deliciously. Shifting from full page spreads to frames and panels the illustrations are packed with detail and mischievous fun. The use of different typography and signage is a great hook to entice the younger reader and is truly showcased in the treasure trove of posters hidden beneath the dust jacket (A feature that’s thankfully been incorporated into the newly published paperback edition). The effect of McLaren’s muted palette is that of a big soft hug – you can’t help but share in the goodwill and bonhomie of Monsieur Lapin and his band of bunnies. It’s an utter pleasure to read with some strong messages of friendship and teamwork to boot.

I’m very much looking forward to reading Meg’s new book Pigeon PI (due 2nd March)

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There’s A Tiger In The Garden – Lizzy Stewart

Nora is bored, ‘There’s nothing to do here’ she matter-of-factly complains but even as she utters the words the reader’s eye is drawn to the distinctly jungle-y looking garden glinting with promise behind her. All it takes are some well-chosen words from Grandma and the reluctant Nora finds herself amidst toy eating plants, running with dragonflies as big as birds, chatting with a VERY grumpy polar bear and finally face to face with the eponymous Tiger (beautifully revealed one ear, a tail and a head at a time).

This is a bountiful tale of the joys of the imagination. It takes the sceptical Nora, face screwed up in a scowl, resolute in the belief that she is too old for silly games, and shows her transformation to a child rosy cheeked with wonder and ready to teach Grandma a thing or two herself about imagination! As with all good books it works on several levels – for the very young the colour and vibrancy of the illustrations will captivate whilst the theme of imagination (and perhaps that opening premise of boredom) will resonate for slightly older readers. Add to that the whole existential encounter with the Tiger to mull over and there’s something for everyone. A joy of a book!

 

Review: The One Memory of Flora Banks – Emily Barr

The Blurb:

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHO TO TRUST WHEN YOU CAN’T EVEN TRUST YOURSELF?

I look at my hands. One of them says FLORA BE BRAVE.

Flora has anterograde amnesia. She can’t remember anything day-to-day: the joke her friend made, the instructions her parents gave her, how old she is.

Then she kisses someone she shouldn’t, and the next day she remembers it. It’s the first time she’s remembered anything since she was ten.

But the boy is gone. She thinks he’s moved to the Arctic.

Will following him be the key to unlocking her memory? Who can she trust?

The Review:

It’s been more than 48 hours since I finished reading this book and I just can’t stop thinking about Flora Banks. In quiet moments I find myself drifting off, wondering what Flora is up to now – whereabouts in the world is she? What quest is she on and who is with her? I even dreamt in Flora the other night – I was still me but kept having to write down what I was doing in a notebook (in short but beautifully formed sentences a la Flora) because I knew I was going to forget all about it very soon.
That is the effect this book has had on me. Flora has really got under my skin – she’s bright, bold and brilliant; as well as being, thanks to her anterograde amnesia, possibly the most unreliable narrator I’ve ever come across.

The first person narration means the reader is entirely immersed in Flora’s head – when she forgets things, we are retold them just as she has to retell herself (through her trusty notebook and the writing on her arms); when Flora is confused we are confused; and when Flora really doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t we haven’t got a clue either. It’s disconcerting and uncomfortable in places but that is what makes this book so effective.

I was with Flora all the way – I felt her hurt and confusion and was swept away by her adventurous spirit and general adorableness. And, despite me calling her unreliable just a paragraph or so ago (which in many ways she is), Flora is actually one of the most honest characters in the book – provided you overlook the small matter of the text messages telling her parents (who have dashed off to be at her gravely ill brother’s bedside) that she’s fine with her friend in Penzance, when she’s actually on her own in Svalbard! But we’ve all been there right? Although Svalbard somewhat beats Yates’s Wine Lodge circa 2002 as a place worth lying to your parents about your whereabouts for…

Anyway…the fact is that this book is brilliant. It’s one of those books that is so good it makes me sad that I won’t ever be able to read it for the first time again. And I’m going to stop talking about it now so that you can go and reserve it from your local library / bookshop and get swept away by Flora too!
Em

The One Memory of Flora Banks is published by Penguin and is out now.

Review: The Hypnotist by Laurence Anholt

Best known for his books for younger children, The Hypnotist is Laurence Anholt’s debut novel for YA readers – not that you could guess. This is an assured and indeed ambitious piece of writing.hypnotist-final-cover-design-e1457618358586

 

Thirteen-year-old Pip is plucked out of an orphanage by the wonderfully characterised Zachary, a farmer, to help with his tender-hearted but bedbound wife Lilybelle. Pip’s expectations might be looking up but for the fact that this is the Deep South of the 1960s and Pip is black and the inhabitants of Dead River Farm are white.

 

Well-meaning but nevertheless entrenched in the endemic segregation of the time, Zachary and Lilybelle are harmless enough but their son, the unstable and menacing Erwin, is a different matter entirely. A constant note of discord in the household, Erwin (irreparably damaged by his experiences in Vietnam) looms large over the lives of all. Add to this melting pot Hannah, a mute Native American girl also employed on the farm and a newly arrived university professor skilled in hypnotism, and a powerful story of prejudice and danger emerges. The striking cover design will give the eagle eyed among you a clear indication which way this story is heading but I shan’t give too much away…

 

Clever narration is shared between Pip and the first person narrative of the eponymous hypnotist Jack Morrow, allowing the reader to see racial tensions from both the point of view of the oppressed and via the shock and horror of an outsider. Both voices are interwoven by the lyrical and enigmatic voice of Hannah, adding a dreamy otherworldly quality to the book. It all combines into a compelling and powerful look at a turbulent period of American history that will have readers weeping in frustration at the potential for injustice in the world. The inclusion of an afterword from Anholt and an endorsement from Amnesty International also makes this read a particularly timely warning from history.