Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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Booker shortlist book review #2 – “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo

This year’s joint winner of the Booker Prize has won almost universal praise by readers and critics alike. In addition to winning the Booker it was named by the Washington Post as one of the top ten books of this year and British-Nigerian writer Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writing in the New Statesman, described it as capturing modern-day Britain.

Girl Woman Other imgWhat I liked about it, however, was less this grander aspect, but rather the quality of its story-telling. I must admit that 50 or so pages in, I was not overwhelmed! There are twelve characters in the book, all women bar one (who is trans), all black or mixed race. They are broken down into four groups of three, and each threesome is strongly connected in some way (eg mother/daughter). Each group is also connected with the others, even if only in a tenuous way (eg teacher and former pupil) and almost all are in some way connected to Amma, the first character we meet. Amma has written a play which is having its debut performance at the National and this provides the framework of the novel. Many of the characters are present at the penultimate chapter of the book, the after-party, where the differences between them and their lives are laid bare. This is interesting because the author is not only trying to draw out the similarities between the characters and their life experiences, suggested by their common characteristic of being mixed race and female, but she is also, I think, railing against the notion of such women/people being homogeneous; they are all far more than just their race or gender.

The first chapter is about Amma, her daughter Yazz , and her friend Dominique. Amma and Dominique were radical feminists in their youth and started the Bush Women Theatre Company, to give voice to black and Asian women, particularly those with (then) non-mainstream sexualities. Amma’s daughter Yazz is the product of an “arrangement” between Amma and her friend Roland, a gay writer and academic. In chapter two we learn about her life, now at university (seems as if it’s Cambridge), her issues with her parents, her diverse group of friends – all bright, high achieving young women.

I did not warm to Amma and Yazz – they felt far too ‘urban elite’ when I thought I was supposed to be getting the whole of ‘modern day Britain’, plus I did not think Amma was particularly likeable and Yazz was quite obnoxious! It started to get much more interesting with Dominique, in whom we meet a character with far more depth and vulnerability, whose story seemed to have more texture.

In chapter two, we meet Carole, a woman from a poor inner-city background whose life appeared to be heading in one bleak direction until she was taken under the wing of a teacher who saw something special in her. Carole is now a high-flying banker. The other characters in this chapter are Carole’s mother Bummi, a traditional Nigerian woman who has brought Carole up alone, and LaTisha, Carole’s school friend whose life followed a more socially predictable path, but who, in her thirties and with three children, determines she will turn things around in her retail career where she excels.

There are two more chapters each with its own group of three women and the stories get ever more diverse and interesting. These women who come later are more ‘ordinary’ than the slightly smug Amma, Yazz and Carole, but for me their stories were the more interesting ones. Some are elderly women and we go back many years to learn about their past lives.

There were times when I would have liked a bit of a ‘family tree’ or a map to show all the connections, as it can get a little confusing with so many characters, but overall it is an artfully constructed book. This book is very much a mirror, multiple stories rather than one, but still the author manages to build a plot around the performance of Amma’s play and the after-party. There is also a brilliant plot twist at the end that I did not see coming at all, and really makes you reflect on all your assumptions about race, class and identity.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, my second from the Booker shortlist, and a worthy winner. I would like to read it again to see if, second time around, knowing what I do, I feel differently about the characters and their stories.

Highly recommended.

Did you agree with the judges that this book should have been joint winner?

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#KeepKidsReading week – Building your children’s library #2

It was back in the summer that I published my first post in what was intended as an occasional series on building a library of books for your children. Last time I focussed on the 2-5 age group, mainly picture books and mainly classics. This time I am moving on a little to the 4-7 age group, ie Key Stage 1. This is the age when children are just learning to read, but they still value and need to be read to – the phonics and early reading books are much better than they used to be (I loved reading the Oxford Reading Tree Biff, Chip and Kipper books that my kids brought home from school), but they are designed to expose your children to vocabulary, word order and sentence construction – they are tools designed specifically to aid learning; good children’s literature, on the other hand, fosters joy, builds a bond between child and reader and should inspire.

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Image by saralcassidy from Pixabay

There are some good chapter books now for six and seven year olds: precocious readers who benefit from the challenge of something more complex, but still need age-appropriate themes and subject-matter. I would argue, however, that at this age pictures are still vitally important. Pictures help to build vocabulary organically, they give the child something to look at and focus on whilst listening, as they may not be able to read all of the words themselves, and they help the child develop their imaginative skills as they look at the visions created for them by authors and illustrators. For this age group, the quality of the illustration is just as important as the text; can you imagine AA without EH, or Julia without Axel?

So, for those of you looking to build a library for the child or children in your lives, here are my top ten suggestions. The list is (absolutely!) not exhaustive of course, but these ten will provide the foundation for something wonderful. Nearly all of the books below are just one in a series or the same authors have written similar titles that you can add to the collection.

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  1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (plus the other 22 books in her classic collection!)
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne
  4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  5. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  6. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  7. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  8. Look Inside – Things That Go by Rob Lloyd Jones and Stefano Tognetti
  9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  10. The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I would love to hear your suggestions of books for this age group, particularly any that you have enjoyed sharing with the little people in your life.

I would love to hear your suggestions of indispensable titles for 4-7 year olds.

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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Book review: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K Le Guin

Science fiction has never really been my thing but, ever keen to push my reading boundaries, I included it as a theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge in October. It’s a genre I know little about, so picking an author or title might have been tricky, but I had in fact known for some time who I would select, having become aware of Le Guin after she died in January last year at the age of 88. The obituaries talked about how she had for years been under-rated, the inference being that as a woman she was overlooked in this male-dominated genre, but that she had a devoted critical following and has been cited as an influence by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks.

She was prolific, producing nineteen novels, as well as short story collections, poetry and non-fiction during a writing career that spanned six decades. (I note that her first full-length novel was published when she was 37, which gives me some hope!) Many of her novels form part of her Earthsea series, so I chose The Lathe of Heaven as it is a stand-alone novel.

the lathe of heaven imgThe Lathe of Heaven was written in 1971, but was set in ‘the future’ – Portland Oregon in 2002. This future world is one in which the global population is out of control, climate change has wrought irreparable damage and war in the Middle East threatens geopolitical stability. The most alarming (and engaging) thing about the book, for me, was how prophetic it was; in 1971 did readers think this was some dystopian world? Worryingly, many of the problems envisaged by Le Guin are recognisable features of our environment in 2019.

The main character is George Orr who has an unusual affliction – he is able to change reality through his dreams. It is a difficult concept to get hold of, but when he dreams a new situation, all history is also altered to facilitate the revised present and no-one but he is able to recall how it was before. For example, in 1998, a nuclear war virtually destroyed life on earth, but George ‘dreamed it back’ and in the new iteration the nuclear war never happened.

George is disturbed by these dreams and turns to prescription drug abuse to stop himself from entering deep sleep when these ‘effective dreams’ happen. He has to break the law to get sufficient supplies, however, and when he is caught he is forced to see a psychiatrist, Dr William Haber, to help him wean off the drugs. When George explains his problems to Haber, the ambitious but under-achieving doctor quickly sees the potential for using hypnosis to ‘suggest’ dreams to George which will organise the world the way Haber wants it. Haber’s intentions are not entirely malign; he wants world peace and widespread good health, for example, though he is careful also to ensure he benefits financially and in terms of academic status as a side-consequence. The problem is, Haber’s suggestions are not always interpreted by George’s brain in the way Haber intended. So, when Haber suggests a dream for the elimination of racism, the result is not, as Haber thought, that people become universally open-minded and accepting, rather everyone’s skin colour changes to grey, ie there is no longer any visible indicator of race.

Events become ever more bizarre and George, desperate and realising that Haber is using him for his own ends, which George is worried will have devastating consequences, ultimately, turns to a lawyer to try and get out of the therapy and stop Haber. The lawyer, Heather, becomes George’s ally and partner and he ultimately falls in love with her. But as realities keep changing, she is at times, farther and farther away from him.

It is a fascinating story and I enjoyed the philosophical journey, the question of the extent to which we are in control of our destiny, as well as the very relevant themes of global warming and the locus of power in society. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the ending lost me a little – at that point it felt more ‘of its time’, though I can also see where Le Guin was coming from. Don’t forget this was published not long after the moon landing so the concept of outer space, whether there was anyone else out there, were, I imagine seen somewhat differently than they are today.

Recommended, if you’d like to try something a little different.

If you are a fan of science fiction, what other authors would you recommend?

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Book review: “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

This has been on my TBR list for years – it was a sensation when it was first published in 2001, went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and was adapted for film in 2012, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Ang Lee (though critical reception of the film was mixed). However, my life at that time was rather dominated by small children – these were what I call my ‘lean years’ of reading, of adult books anyway! I determined to read Life of Pi this summer because my elder daughter thought it was brilliant and has been harassing me to read it for months. I will put my cards on the table straight away – I thought it was extraordinary. The best thing I have read since The Overstory by Richard Powers, which I finished in January.

The Life of Pi imgThe story is well-known: a young Indian boy, Piscine “Pi” Patel (a name he adopts to get back at the school bullies who taunt him with the nickname ‘Pissing’) grows up in the territory of Pondicherry where his parents own a zoo. The first part of the story gives us a detailed account of the family’s life there, including enormous detail about life for the animals in a zoo setting (I was fascinated by this and it changed my perspective on zoos). We learn in particular about the fierce Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, who is the zoo’s prized possession. I love the use of ‘naming’ in this book – the story of how Richard Parker came to be given this name is brilliant and a sign of the author’s ingenuity and creativity. The other important feature of this part of the novel is that we learn of Pi’s deeply philosophical nature, his decision to adopt three religions (Hinduism, in which he has been brought up, Islam and Christianity), much to his family’s dismay, because he can see benefits in all of them.

Difficult political events in India lead his parents to make a decision to move to Canada, taking their most precious animals with them, in order that they can start a new zoo. Shortly after leaving port, however, the Japanese freighter in which the family is travelling sinks. All souls are lost, except Pi, who escapes in a lifeboat, with, as he will soon discover, four animals – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. The first part of the journey is gruesome and terrible; the zebra has broken its leg in the fall and is soon brutally and graphically finished off by the ravenous hyena. The hyena then attacks, kills and eats the orangutan. This is not for the squeamish! Pi believes he is going to be next on the hyena’s list until he discovers they are sharing the lifeboat with the tiger, who has been hiding under a tarpaulin for days, suffering with severe seasickness! When he does emerge, the hyena is no match for Richard Parker, who summarily kills him. This undoubtedly saves Pi’s life but it is out of the frying pan and into the fire as he wonders if he will be Richard Parker’s next meal.

What we are treated to next is many months of a precarious symbiotic existence on the lifeboat – boy and tiger trying to survive. It is a quite extraordinary feat that the author can make 227 days on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean such edge of the seat reading. First we have Pi’s incredible ingenuity, the powerful survival instinct which enables him to stretch the meagre rations in the lifeboat’s emergency pack, and utilise all the supplies available. Second, there is the way he manages Richard Parker to ensure that he, Pi, becomes the alpha animal – he uses all his zoo knowledge, plus his exceptional courage, to teach the tiger submissiveness and this enables them both to survive. Third, there is the incredible storytelling, the highs and lows of shipwreck (at one point they land on a lush island, only to discover that it is dominated by deadly carnivorous plants) plus Pi’s account of his own mental health.

We know that Pi will survive – the novel begins with the author meeting the older Pi in Canada, and Pi promising to tell him his story – but this makes the account no less tense, so close to peril do the pair exist. There is a brilliant twist at the end, which I will not disclose, but it kind of leaves you breathless. Untethered!

I found this a profoundly fascinating book that you can read on so many levels. It is a philosophical tract about the nature of the divine. It is a book about the triumph of the human spirit when faced with adversity. It is a book about the relationship between man and beast. It is also, quite simply, a brilliant yarn about that most traditional of stories, the shipwreck and the survivor.

Absolutely brilliant, loved every second of it, highly recommend it, can’t believe it took me so long to get around to it!

I’d love to hear about a book on your TBR list that you loved once you finally got around to reading it.

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Facebook reading challenge – catching up and November’s book

Recent events in my life, which I have posted about here, have played havoc with my reading – if I haven’t been driving up, down and across the country I’ve been dealing with my mother’s funeral and handling all the necessary administration (it has been enormously time-consuming even though my mother had a fairly straightforward situation. It has made me realise I need to get my own affairs well and truly in order!)

I’ve listened to a couple of audiobooks (historical thriller The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as I wanted to refresh my memory before reading her Booker Prize-winning follow-up The Testaments), but sit-down reading has suffered. As some of you will know, I have been running a Facebook Reading Challenge for a couple of years now, choosing a book with a different theme each month. September’s theme was a memoir and I selected Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals inspired by my summer holiday in Jersey and visit to the Durrell Zoo there. October’s theme was a science fiction novel, a genre I have only dabbled in, and I selected Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I have only just finished both books (the Le Guin at 11pm last night!) but enjoyed both. My thoughts on My Family and Other Animals follow and look out for my review of Le Guin soon.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgSo now it is time top get back on track and announce the book for November. Our theme is a children’s book; we are winding down towards the end of the year, but I am not going to make it too easy, because this book is a challenging one – John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped PyjamasI have been meaning to read this ever since it was published to great acclaim in 2006. My elder daughter read it recently and has been nagging me to follow suit. She found it very moving so I am looking forward to it.

Why not join the conversation by hopping over to the Facebook group.

 

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

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The secondhand bookshop at the Durrell Zoo, Jersey

Our visit to the Durrell Conservation Trust (better known as Jersey Zoo) this summer was  wonderful and inspiring. 2019 is also the 60th anniversary of the founding of the zoo so it was a fortuitous time to be there. I have always been ambivalent about zoos (although reading The Life of Pi altered my perspective somewhat) but there aren’t actually that many animals at the Durrell Zoo (considering its size) and mostly the focus there is on protecting vulnerable species, and involvement in breeding programmes, particularly for some lesser-known and perhaps less glamorous creatures, such as the endangered Livingstone’s fruit bat and the Sumatran orangutan. I was fully won-over when I discovered that the Zoo has an on-site secondhand bookshop! All contributions to the Trust.

So, when the memoir theme came up for September in the reading challenge My Family and Other Animals seemed an obvious choice. It is one of those books that I was sure I had read, but once I got into it, I realised I probably hadn’t, but it seemed to be part of my consciousness. I did watch, and enjoy, the television series The Durrells when it came out a couple of years ago. The TV series followed the book very closely – perhaps that is because it is hard to improve on. It’s not particularly challenging and tells the story of how young Gerald and his family (widowed mother, and three older siblings) move from England to Corfu at the behest of Gerald’s eldest brother, by then in his twenties, the writer Lawrence Durrell. This is the first volume of Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy, and tells of how young Gerald’s love of nature was inspired and nurtured on the Greek island. The book is an entertaining mix of family mishaps (the characters are all brilliantly drawn and leap off the page), a child’s-eye observation about life and culture on the island, plus accounts of the friends the family makes, the animals in the menagerie that Gerald creates and the various adventures they all have, which invariably end in slapstick catastrophe.

There were times when I felt the book was of its time and of its ‘class’ and I was uncomfortable with the slightly patronising portrayal of some of the locals, who were overly caricatured for a 21st century taste. But I can excuse the book these minor faults because it was light, it was entertaining and it lifted my slightly gloomy spirits.

So, recommended, especially as we find the nights drawing in and the temperatures dropping.

Would you like to join us this month for the Facebook Reading Challenge?

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