The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker

witch of NapoliIn 1899 Spiritualist séance’s are sweeping through Europe. But men of science are ready to denounce every act as trickery and fraud. When skeptical, Jewish psychiatrist Camillo Lombardi sees a photo of Alessandra Poverelli levitating  a table in Naples he immediately goes to investigate.

But then she materializes the ghost of his dead mother. He can’t explain it, and as a man of science he refuses to dismiss it out of hand instead asking if she will be willingly investigated by him and on a tour of the Continent,where the scientific and academic elite of Europe will be invited to test Alessandra’s mysterious powers.

As disdainful as she is of his scepticism she agrees. After all his fee is very generous and will help her escape her sadistic husband.

I won’t tell you what happens, we BookEaters try not to do spoilers too often after all! But it was certainly captivating. Here is a writer who know how and when to add conflict but without stretching the bounds of believability. All the characters rang true – in fact the character and basic storyline is based on a real life Spiritualist sensation of the era – Eusapia Palladino and the author has drawn on writings about her from that time.

The tricks that many spiritualists used are detailed throughout and if you’re anything like me you might keep changing your mind about whether Alessandra is genuine or a con artist throughout the book.

As the author is an investigative journalist examining the paranormal, it’s not surprising that this book shows excellent research, what is surprising is how well-written it is. It’s a self-published book, but don’t let that put you off, this is a lot better than a lot of the books I’ve read lately.

4.5 Bites

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Invisible Crowd by Ellen Wiles

IMG_2631Two people were born on the 2nd March 1975, one in Eritrea one in London. Thirty years later Yonas has to leave Eritrea  and travels to England as a refugee, when he arrives he has to ‘work off his debt’ in a factory and so fails to register as a refugee.

His asylum case lands on Jude’s desk. Opening the file, she finds a patchwork of witness statements from those who met Yonas along his journey: a lifetime the same length of hers, reduced to a few scraps of paper.

Soon, Jude will stand up in court and tell Yonas’ story. His life depends on how she tells it.

I have to admit I wasn’t sure about this when I first opened it. It starts with Jude opening the file but it is told in second person and frankly that was a bit weird.

However, I soon got past that and as I started reading Yonas’ story I became fully absorbed in it and found myself reading it at every opportunity. Yonas’ journey is horrifically compelling, all the more so for the flashes of joy and hope he finds in the simplest things, and for knowing that people are going through the same things day in day out.

Once Yonas reaches England he develops a habit of keeping newspaper articles about refugees and immigrants. the author uses these at the start of every chapter. At first I felt it was a bit of a gimmick, but then the more you get to know Yonas, and the other people he meets in his situation, the more stark the comparison between the savage dehumanisation unleashed on these people by our media and their own gentle aspirations.

Four Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews.

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Dadland by Keggie Carew

1coverThe most extraordinary, exciting, moving, wonderful, enjoyable and unusual biographies I have ever read. Tom Carew served in the British army in WWll , like most others he never talked of his wartime activities, only to mention in passing that he parachuted behind enemy lines to help the resistance. When Tom was in his eighties and showing signs of dementia, his daughter Keggie decided to write the story of this charming and irrepressible man, before his memories were lost forever.
Born into impoverished Irish gentility Tom Carew had a madcap childhood in both Ireland and England. Enlisting in the army at the start of WWll Tom was bored and frustrated with his role as an anti-aircraft gunner in Gibralter and jumped at the chance to volunteer for dangerous missions behind enemy lines. These dangerous missions known as “Jedburghs” consisted of three man teams parachuted into enemy territory to arm and train the resistance and carry out acts of sabotage by cutting road, rail and telephone lines, destroying arms and fuel dumps. Tom Carew and his team were so successful that no sooner had the Germans been pushed out of France than he was sent to repeat his success, this time against the retreating Japanese in Burma.
The Jedburgh teams under Tom Carew fought alongside an army of Burmese resisters lead by Aung San (Father of the current Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi), who were fighting for Burmese independence. This rag tag army captured or killed over 17,000 Japanese as they tried to flee across the Chindwin River. Their own losses were minimal. However Tom himself not only had to fight the Japanese but also the insufferably arrogant British Colonial Administrators who were determined to thwart independence and resume their brutal rule in Burma.
After a spell in military intelligence in Finland and Trieste he returned to peacetime soldiering but quickly became bored and resigned to seek his fortune as a civilian. To his horror he found himself unemployable, ex-military types were two a penny and jobs were scarce. Tom decided to live off his wits and his considerable charm. but most of his ventures failed leaving him in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy.
Interweaving with Tom’s business failures were three marriages. First a wartime bride, the wife from hell. Second the lovely mother of his three children, whose mental health declined to the point where she was committed to a mental hospital. And number three, the evil step mother.
Writing this biography was a voyage of discovery and endless surprises for Tom’s daughter Keggie. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that Keggie is not a professional writer, she wrote about her Dad from her heart.
And I loved it.

Five Bites.

Jeff Short
I was born into a Forces family so naturally enjoyed Biggles as a child alongside Enid Blyton. I fell in love with the Librarian at RAF Akrotiri and read and read so that i could see her every day. The book that I read there that had the greatest impact on me was Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 - set on an American airbase on a small island in the Mediterranean, and filled with military incompetence with black humour. I could never take service life seriously again. I usually has three books on the go at any one time. Kindle, Audio and a proper book. My favourite genres are military memoirs and thrillers but being compulsive I'll read anything.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by JT LeRoy

This book and its author caused one of the great literary scandals. JT Leroy was a recluse at the start of their literary career, then they became a Warhol-esque celebrity and then they were discovered to be a fraud.

But why am I telling you all this instead of telling you about the book? Because actually knowing this makes this book even more extraordinary.

This book, supposedly biographical, is structured as interconnected stories, showing vignettes of the chaotic life JT Leroy. It starts when his teenage mother Sarah reclaims him from his foster parents and takes him along with her and her new boyfriend. Life is suddenly a world of motels and learning to love his new stepfather leads him into abuse and trying hard to be as pretty and womanly as his mother. He’s plucked out of that situation only to be exposed to a different kind of abuse from Sarah’s ultra-religious parents. Scalding hot baths, skin scrubbed into tatters and learning to hate himself and his desire to be loved even more.

I’m not going to lie – it’s too horrible and shocking to look away from. There’s a part of all of us that wants to gawp at other’s suffering and have our minds boggled by it and this book definitely feeds into that. But I think that feeling can be a force for good in the world, by seeing other people’s problems we can become more open and sensitive to them. And although, or maybe because, this is in fact a work of fiction it has that power.

The writing is extraordinary. To capture the voice of a child this young going through so much is incredible. Particularly as all the way through the innocence of that youth comes through.

It’s not easy reading – for goodness sake don’t read it when you are feeling like the world is too dark a place to live in. But when you’re feeling powerful and strong and ready to try and change the world, please do read it.

5 Bites

 

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

They Can’t Kill Us All The Story of Black Lives Matter by Wesley Lowery

cover101888-medium-1Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery was in Ferguson reporting on the murder of Michael Brown when he was arrested himself for charging his phone up in a local McDonalds. The McDonalds hadn’t complained by the way, the police just didn’t really like black reporters hanging around and doing their jobs it seems.

This is how Lowery came to be at the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the next year he travelled across the US to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today. He conducted hundreds of interviews with the families of victims of police brutality, as well as with local activists working to stop it.

But in this book he also looks back to the things that happened before Michael Brown’s murder and the riots in Ferguson. He’s diligent to give credit where it’s due. He also investigates the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with constant discrimination, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs. In other words he puts blame where it’s due too.

Reading that back makes it sound a bit dry but it’s really not, it’s more like you’re a rookie reporter getting to ride shotgun on the biggest story of the year. It brings home the very justified fear that most black americans have of the police. Imagine having to teach your child how to not be shot by those that are supposed to protect us.

I found this immensely readable despite the difficult and emotive topics, but more importantly for a book like this I learnt from it.

4 Bites – Highly recommended.

 NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Hyena by Jude Angelini

hyenaThe blurb did warn me that these biographical short stories were ude “uncompromising, brutally honest and shocking.” But it also promised that “underneath this series of deplorable autobiographical stories is an echo of heartbreak, loneliness, and the eternal poetry of a man struggling to be heard.”

The stories trace the descent of popular American Hip Hop DJ Jude Angeline into ever more debauched sexual and drug-fuelled exploits.

I am no prude, in years gone by I myself have indulged in a few debauched and occasionally even drug-fuelled exploits. But I couldn’t read this.

I think I got maybe four stories in before chucking it away, what I couldn’t stand was the total lack of liking or respect for pretty much anyone else in the stories. If the character was female it went beyond that and deep into misogyny. It sickened me.

Maybe the author is a lonely, heartbroken poet, maybe he’s just another selfish, repellent prat. Either way I wasn’t going to give him a minute more of my time. I just hope he is a kinder person now than he was.

1 Bite

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Birds Art Life Death A Field Guide to the Small and Significant by Kyo Maclear

cover95742-mediumI am a book lover and I’m growing to love art through my reading adventures – my beloved partner however is a bird-lover. So when I saw this, I thought maybe it was a book that could help me understand his passion a bit better.

This is the memoir of a writer struggling to find inspiration, her father is terminally ill and this sparks a desire in her for somethiing new in her life. A way to find space to process her turmoil. She sees some photographs from a local birder and something in them catches her imagination. She gets in touch with him and asks him to teach her where to find birds and how to identify them. He starts by taking her to rather urban, unnattractive areas that nevertheless are home for quite a variety of species. Then, as he sees her interest is growing he starts to take her to more rural places and introduce her to less common birds.

This is an interesting meditation on why we humans need passions and creativity. What we gain from them on a personal level and how they help us to contribute to the world in a positive manner. There is little in the way of conundrums or thrills in this book – seeing a rare bird isn’t ever going to save her father’s life or make her next book a best seller or even win her the lottery! It’s what I call a quiet read. But sometimes these quiet reads can have a significant impact. Her search for inspiration, beauty, and solace leads us to a deeper understanding of the nuance of life.

I haven’t been birdwatching with my partner since reading this, I’m not sure that it will ever become my hobby if I’m honest. But I do feel I understand it and respect it more.

4 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

My Tutu Went AWOL by Iestyn Edwards

IMG_2482An unusual book by an unusual publisher. I came across the publishers “Unbound.com” about a year ago. Unbound is a crowdfunding book publisher. Potential authors submit an outline of their book which Unbound.com then publicise. If sufficient sponsorship is found then the author writes or finishes writing the book and it is published. Funding a book in this manner means that the publisher knows in advance that the book will be a financial success. Sponsors receive a copy of the book and all books include a tribute list showing the names of the sponsors.
“My Tutu went AWOL” was my first sponsorship with unbound. The book appealed to me as it concerned the adventures and misadventures of a cross dressing ballerina entertaining the troops in far flung and downright dangerous places, namely Iraq and Afganistan. The unlikely hero Iestyn Edwards a classically trained singer and pianist who lives in Aldeburgh. Asked to perform on board HMS Victory, for the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar. Iestyn met The First Sea Lord, who suggested that Iestyn should audition for CSE. (Combined Services Entertainment). A wonderful organisation who are responsible for entertaining our troops overseas.
Thinking that his role would be, recitals of light classics for officers mess nights at The Hilton Park Lane. Iestyn went along to the audition, only to find that he had signed up to a tour in Iraq, as his alter ego, Madame Galina the ballerina.
Iestyns writing is is camp and chatty like listening to an old friend reminiscing with an after dinner glass or two of port. I do hope they bring out an Audio version of this, narrated by Alan Carr, it would make a brilliant listen.
What I loved about the book was the way the rough, tough, battle hardened marines. Took Madame Galina under their wing. Some of them, particularly his body guard “Stacks” becoming life-long friends. The book didn’t give a description of Madame Galina’s performance which meant the reader had to stretch their imagination. I overcame this by posting “Madame Galina” into youtube and watching her act, then imagining it transported to a bomb shelter in Basra.

The book contains a lot of military slang and technical jargon. Which may be difficult for civilian readers. There is very little mention of Iestyns fellow entertainers, among them Rhod Gilbert, who might have added some of their own memories. All in all a great light hearted read.
Its four bites from me.

Jeff Short
I was born into a Forces family so naturally enjoyed Biggles as a child alongside Enid Blyton. I fell in love with the Librarian at RAF Akrotiri and read and read so that i could see her every day. The book that I read there that had the greatest impact on me was Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 - set on an American airbase on a small island in the Mediterranean, and filled with military incompetence with black humour. I could never take service life seriously again. I usually has three books on the go at any one time. Kindle, Audio and a proper book. My favourite genres are military memoirs and thrillers but being compulsive I'll read anything.

The Raqqa Diaries Escape From Islamic State by Samer

cover105964-mediumMichael Palin called this book ‘A clarion call to all of us that we should not give up. Somewhere there is a voice in the wreckage.’ 

For anybody interested in the reality of life in Syria over the last few years The Raqqa Diaries is a must read. The fact that the information is even available is miraculous as since Raqqa has bean under the control of the so called Islamic State it has become one of the most isolated and fear ridden cities on earth. Internet use is monitored and blocked and no-one is allowed to speak to western journalists or leave Raqqa, without permission. If the diarist had been caught he would have been executed. Probably in front of his mother.

The diarist Samer (not his real name) risked his life to tell the world what is happening in his city. He was part of a small anti-IS activist group, the diaries were written, encrypted and sent to a third country before being translated.

He sees so much. His father is killed and mother badly injured during an air strike, he sees beheadings, his fiancé is sold off to be married to an IS commander, he sees a woman stoned to death, he himself is arrested at one time and. is sentenced to 40 lashes for speaking out against a beheading. Suddenly wearing your trousers too long if you’re a man or not covering every inch of skin if you’re a woman is dangerous.

They show how every aspect of life is impacted – from the spiralling costs of food to dictating the acceptable length of trousers.

This book is quick to read, getting the information out was difficult so there isn’t too much of it. But though it can be read quickly it won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

It’s numbing. There is so much horror in such a short book. And knowing it’s true makes it so much worse.

Syria is a complicated place at the moment, and this doesn’t give an in depth analysis of the situation. But it does show you what life is like there for people like you and me.

5 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

IMG_2406This is the story of Charles Strickland as told by a writer who at first is an acquaintance of his wife.

When we first meet him he is a conventional stockbroker, but then out of the blue he abandons his wife and children to move to Paris and become a painter. Our narrator is sent to plead his wife’s case but finds a selfish, determined man who cares nothing for what anyone may think of him. Even of the few that think he is a genius. After learning all he can in Paris, his lack of money drives him to Tahiti, a country full of inspiration.

Our narrator catches up with his story there – finding that the tropics did little to soften his selfishness but everything to inspire his art.

This book is actually inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, yeah the reference to Tahiti does rather give that away doesn’t it?! In some senses this does echo Gauguin’s life. He was a stockbroker for a time and did give it up to paint. But how close this is to the truth of Gauguin’s character I couldn’t say.

However the book does lampoon the automatic forgiveness of celebrity rudeness because genius’s can’t be expected to act like normal people! It does not close it’s satiric eye to the comedy of manners Edwardian society lived by either.

There is some sympathy in the book too, in Paris there is one person who recognises Stricklands genius and tries his best to support him, Stroeve. Although as a character he doesn’t escape mockery or misfortune, his generous nature shines through adding real warmth to this narrative.

It’s not an overly long book, a good one for taking on holiday overseas, read the London and Paris sections on the plane and enjoy the time in Tahiti on a beach somewhere!

3.5 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

imageAlbert wasn’t only Einstein that was quite bright. His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was a brilliant physicist and a strong mathematician and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

This book takes what is known about  her as it’s jumping off point. That she was considered unmarriageable because of her limp, that her father encouraged her to study, that in 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva was the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. That she met and fell in love with  charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein there, that he promised her a bohemian lifestyle with them as equals in love and science. How Albert’s star quickly eclipsed her own regardless of this promise.

It is a fictionalised account, but a well-imagined one particularly when it comes to describing the time and places they lived. I have to be honest, I wasn’t quite so keen on the characterisations, somehow I didn’t feel they were authentic, particularly Mileva’s. Her desperation for love is understandable and I know it makes lunatics out of us all. I went through an emotionally abusive marriage so I even understand how if the most confident of women in an age when sexual equality is at least in site can be flummoxed then it was even more likely before women even had the vote. But she becomes so nuts over Albert so quickly – and it really is all the book is about for far too long. I found myself missing the character I’d first been introduced to.

As their marriage and working partnership decays the Albert Einstein we meet is very different from the man I’d always imagined him to be too. And because this is a fictional account I had problems with this, partly because I didn’t know what was true and what was not. But after I did some of my own research into it I felt even more uncomfortable. The premise and Albert’s character within this book is entirely possible, but there isn’t an awful lot in the way of evidence, by the end it felt like a character assassination. As a feminist I felt doubly uncomfortable- I want to support Mileva but these aren’t her words and may not be her truth. If they’d even been a thorough afterword clarifying what was evidenced, what was extrapolated and what was imagined I would have closed the book with the sense of having learned something, as it was I felt I’d been hoodwinked into jury service.

3 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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Click to order from Waterstones

When Chiyo’s mother falls ill she is just a child. She doesn’t understand that her mother is dying and that  her father will not be able to take care of her and her older sister. Then she meets Mr Tanaka and he treats her kindly, she starts to fantasia that he will adopt them… but instead he sells them both. Her sister to become a prostitute, herself into a Geisha’s house. She can train to become a geisha or spend the rest of her life as a maid.

In the same house as her lives one of the most popular Geisha in Gyon. A spiteful girl who decides to make Chiyo’s life as hard as it can be and keep her a maid all her life. But she is befriended by the other girls enemies and slowly she is set on the path to becoming a famous Geisha herself. Many years later she tells her story, from her lowly birth, through the hardships bought by the war and the dazzling but exhausting life of Geisha in 20th Century Japan.

I first read this the year it came out and I fell in love with it – I remember I had to keep checking that it was in fact written by a man (and a western one at that) because the voice just sounded so authentically female. I’ve read it a couple of times since then and yet revisiting it again it still surprised me.

I knew the voice was exceptional, and the story was full of conflicts and passions. I knew the settings were vibrant and the characters varied and richly drawn. But I had forgotten the actual writing.

It is delicious. Full of simmering similes and magical metaphors. Chiyo’s voice is so good because of her turn of phrase. Here is one of the early paragraphs so you can see what I mean;- “In our little fishing village of Yoroido, I lived in what I called a ‘Tipsy House’. It stood near a cliff where the wind off the ocean was always blowing. As a child it seemed to me as if the ocean had caught a terrible cold, because it was always wheezing and there would be spells when it let out a huge sneeze – which is to say there was a burst of wind with a tremendous spray. I decided that our tiny house must have been offended by the ocean sneezing in its face from time to time, and took to leaning back because it wanted to get out of the way.”

But the greatest writing is nothing without a plot and characters you care about, I’ve already mentioned it has these. But it also has that little something extra, it opens a window to a different world and lets us see that regardless of our differences our human spirit is the same.

5 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Charlotte by David Foenkinos

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Click here to order from Waterstones

This is the story of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish artist born into a family stricken by suicide in Germany just before Hitler’s rise to power.

Being a female artist is still a struggle in these times, but being Jewish is worse, so although she holds tremendous promise she must keep a low profile. At least she has her great love to console her – even if that love is secret and snatched in small moments.

After her father is detained and tortured she escapes from Germany, but still she is not safe. The war pursues her to her bolt hole and the madness that has haunted her family is closing in on her too.

Charlotte Saloman was an artist I had not heard of before reading this book, but her story is one I think should be shared. Not just because of her artistic genius but also because it is a mirror to agonies that so many went through during the second world war and none of their stories should be forgotten.

This is an unusual book, the writing is style is not like any that I can recall having read before. David Foenkinos writes in short, sparing sentences. They are almost rhythmic, as if he’s written a thousand haiku’s then mixed the order of them up a bit. It works, but probably only in this book. The rest of the book is a little off kilter too, it veers from a biography to a novelisation to a memoir of the author’s own search for the artist. In many ways this really is high literature, yet it managed to retain its accessibility. It inspired me to search for examples of the artists work, and I know that if there were to be an exhibition near me at any time I would go because of having read this book.

I wish life had been better to Charlotte, but I am grateful that there is this memorial to her. I think she would have appreciated it’s honesty.

5 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews.

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

cover92853-mediumEverybody knows the story of Anna and the King of Siam – or at least they think they do. Way back in 1956 20th Century Fox released their musical based on this book and the world fell in love with Anna Leonowens and her almost love affair with the King of Siam – a man that seemed to respect her intelligence but remained would still happily have bedded the beautiful teache if she hadn’t been pining still for the memory of her husband.

I loved “The King and I”, and still do. I also loved the 1999 dramatisation of it “Anna and the King” which starred Jodie Foster and was more focussed on the social and political aspects rather than just the beautiful woman wearing beautiful dresses against a beautiful backdrop.

But neither come close to the book. First released in 1944, Margaret Landon used a memoir written by Anna Leonowens and fashioned them into a compelling narrative of her time in Siam. Anna Leonowens was used to life abroad, but in 1862  travelling into a country that was not part of the British Empire was incredibly risky. Still, as a widow she needed to earn money to support her children, young Lois who stays with her, and her daughter Avis, sent back home to a boarding school.

Leonowens considered herself a modern woman, a woman of science. As such she often found herself in opposition to the traditions of Imperial rule and Court life. She found slavery particularly abhorrent and wasn’t overly keen on how women were treated either. Throughout her career there she fought oppression at every turn, even when her household was attacked and her life and that of her young son endangered.

Throughout all of this though there is also a tremendous appeciation of Siam and a love for her friends there, including the King and many of his wives. A wisdom seeps through the pages and a resilience. She always knew she could never win every battle but she fights on anyway without getting too depressed or angered by those she loses. This grace is a trait which helped her and her causes enormously.

There are some moments when the narrative’s dramatic tension dips, and I have to admit I there are times when the constant attitude of the East learning from the West got on my nerves a little, I’d love to read Prince Chulalongkorn’s version of events. Was it Anna Leonowenss’ influence on the young prince that led him to abolish slavery in Siam and introduce democratic reform, or was it influence from somewhere else? Although having said that, even if he wasn’t as influenced by her and the West as is implied, Anna Leonowens is still a legendary feminist figure and I would encourage everyone to read it.

4 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

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Click here to order from Watersones

Mata Hari arrived in Paris penniless and leaving behind a baby daughter. Before long she was famous for her shocking dance recitals, reputation as a courtesan and her fashions.  But with the war came fear. Approached to become a spy she tries to use her position and fame to become a double agent. Then, in 1917 she is arrested.

From her cell she writes a letter to her daughter, telling her the true story of her life. A life lived as fully and sometimes as foolishly as possible.

Mata Hari has long been a person that others find deeply fascinating, who can resist the mix of sex and spying? Combine that with a well known author like Paulo Coelho and that’s best-seller material right there.

But is it worth the money?

Well, I found this a quick and fairly enjoyable read. Coelho has a knack of simplifying even the most complex topics so that this book could be read by someone who had never heard of Mata Hari and who knew nothing about World War One.

The book paints a vivid and colourful picture, it is full of warmth and all the flaws and follies of humanity.

However when I finished it I felt just a little dissatisfied. Maybe it was a little over simplified, maybe it was just the length, it just felt like a dimension was missing.

Worth it for paperback prices, but I couldn’t in all honesty suggest you pay hardback price for it.

3.5 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews.

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Black History by People Who Lived It

For this feature for Black History Month I wanted to read the most authentic stories I could, and so I researched into the most powerful arguments that had been made by former slaves for abolition so that I could hear their voices across the years and better understand what it was really like to suffer as they did. This post will review five of the most famous classic narratives.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

harriet-jacobsWritten in 1861, this is a memoir which tells of a house slave’s efforts to emancipate herself and move to the free states from North Carolina. Confusingly, the protagonist of this story is known as Linda (this was a pseudonym Jacobs used in the book to protect loved ones). The overwhelming obstacle Linda faced was a profoundly possessive master, Dr Flint who treated her cruelly but would not sell her at any price, to any bidder, under any conditions, even when she convinced white friends to attempt to buy her through intermediaries. Whilst she never tells the reader that he actually violated her, the spectre of it hangs over much of the early part of the book. The aspects of slavery that she condemns the most in the book are the ways in which it destroys the moral integrity of families through splitting up the black community as people are sold, and allowing slaveholders to freely compromise the trust in their own families through gratuitous and often unwanted sex with the black women who served them. Even as she suffered, Linda never became downtrodden, although she had to go into hiding for many long years before finally escaping. Dr Flint tried to squash this feisty single mother’s dreams of freedom in every possible way, and I rejoiced when he failed. Her happy ever after ending with her children by her side is one I won’t forget.

The History of Mary Prince

mary-princeOf all of the books I read, this 1831 account of slavery in the West Indies was the most horrifying. Some of the depraved torture experienced by Mary Prince and her fellow slaves really took a strong stomach to read, and the wounds she received due to the working conditions she was forced to submit to in Turks and Caicos were almost nauseating. This is a very short book that you can read in a day but it takes a long time to digest what it really means and how it makes you feel. The ultimate disgrace is the presence of a number of validating letters by white people which the publishers of Mary’s time felt it necessary to include alongside her own words. Even after her death this phenomenal woman was not being credited enough for her formidable strength and forbearance, even though she was nearly disabled through hard labour and the injuries she received when she reached England in the company of the family that owned her. I cried when she finally and fatefully walked out of her horrible mistress’s house and took herself to the Anti-Slavery Society offices in London.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

twelve-years-a-slave-9781476767345_hrFamously made into an award-winning movie, this was the book that I had looked forward to reading most. Northrup was a free black man tricked by duplicitous acquaintances into travelling from his home in New York State to the slave states. Once there he was kidnapped, whipped into submission and sold as ‘Platt’. He ended up in Louisiana working as a carpenter, picking cotton, and cutting sugar cane. He had many brushes with death. Northrup is very psychologically aware as a writer, and he dissects the angels and demons in the natures of the whites in the American South throughout this account with great skill. His description of Epps stands out as an exceptionally perceptive piece of observational writing. Master Epps was truly a monster, beating his slaves half to death to please his jealous wife, and then making them dance for him after he came home from a night of debauchery. He still had the gall to scold Northrup after his representatives from New York arrived with the papers proving he was always a free man. Towards the end, you have a clear sense of Northrup’s mission – he was writing for the ones who were left behind – for the voiceless, and those living in the shadow of whips and irons. Few plantation slaves were educated enough even to read so we are blessed to have his account which is a riveting read. As ever, the book is better than the film, even though it was written in 1853.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

frederick-douglassWhen Frederick Douglass published the story of his life in 1845 it went on to become the most famous slave narrative ever published, because after he escaped to the free states, Douglass became a campaigner well known for his oratorical genius. This is quite a polemical piece of writing, as you would expect. The creative ways he fought to claim his right to learn to read would shame many of today’s schoolchildren! Among other things, he hid reading materials, asked little boys on the street what words meant and copied the letters he saw on the timbers that were used in the shipbuilder’s yard where he worked. Through sheer grit and skill he also got the chance to earn his own money to fund his escape (the details of which, disappointingly for us, have been withheld in the interests of the safety of those involved). Sadly he ended his life still officially ‘a fugitive’ but to have bought something that should never be a commodity in the first place is something this thoroughly principled man should never have had to do anyway.

The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano

the-interesting-narrative-by-olaudah-equiano‘My life and fortune have been extremely chequered, and my adventures various’, Equiano says in the closing paragraph of his 1789 work. The interesting narrative is truly what he says it is: a totally fascinating account of an extraordinary life. Equiano was an international traveller, entrepreneur and jack of all trades, and one of the first literary celebrities. This narrative takes us through his capture in Nigeria and journey to traders on the coast. From there he sailed to the West Indies, the U.S. and then London, where his early loyalty to his sea captain master led him into a life as a travelling sailor, at first in bondage, and later as a free black man. He visited many countries in Europe, and even sailed north of Greenland on a nearly doomed expedition to try and find a passage to India. There are some incredible ups and downs in this story, as he won and lost people he trusted, coming across at every turn the prejudice of white people who betrayed, try to kill him and steal from him and kidnap him to be sold back into slavery. His account of survivor’s guilt and spiritual conversion take up a reasonable chunk of the end of the book but notwithstanding this, if you are looking for a white-knuckle experience, this is the book to go for.

Historically it was often the forcefulness of the unvarnished truth of those speaking of their own suffering, and their witnessing to others sufferings, that brought it home to average reader how great the evil and injustice of slavery was. These accounts analyse from experience the terrible human cost of a system of economic inequality that benefitted the privileged few at the expense of the pain and death of millions. Reading these books has been a really enlightening experience, not just because I have come to appreciate the bravery it took to write them in the face of great prejudice, but also because they have without fail gripped me until the very last page. Often these accounts finish with the final triumph of their authors achieving freedom through their own determination, courage, intelligence and resilience. That said, some writers discuss how it is a bittersweet moment for them too because they taste liberty whilst being aware that so many people who were just as worthy as them had never known and would never know what it was like to be in control of their own lives and fortunes.

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre. I've lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I've time to spare I'll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I'm not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

negrolandThis award-winning memoir published earlier in the year documents a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist’s early family life and later personal history. She shows how her inner conflicts were generated by the pressures she was placed under (and placed herself under) as a young talented black woman growing up in 50s and 60s Chicago within a wealthy family.

The book begins with an insightful analysis of the careers and written works of historical middle and upper class black figures, in order to anchor her book in that tradition. In the next part of the book she tells us about her family and their privileged social milieu, which she calls ‘Negroland’. She offers a clear-sighted analysis of the way her parent’s generation acted on their desire to assimilate in order to progress and win acceptance on merit regardless of the racism that was still widespread. They were part of a long line of African Americans throughout history who wanted to shrug off the low expectations that whites have always had of blacks.

She shows how conflicted her parents’ generation were, and how judgemental they were of themselves and their children, in order to maintain their foothold above less able or socially mobile blacks. She uses short passages to show us snapshots of her life, and analyses in detail the meaning to her of different interactions with peers of different ethnicities to help us understand the difficulties in real terms of going to a private school where she was one of a tiny minority of African Americans. She movingly demonstrates the personal cost in later life of growing up saddled with an almost crushing burden to fit into both black and white society.

Jefferson, her family and the other people in ‘Negroland’ were at the front line of a fight for equivalent ‘respectability’ to whites. They sometimes achieved it but paid the psychological price of eternal self-vigilance. They also bore the emotional scars of the subtly cruel forms of discrimination used by middle and upper class whites.

Jefferson shows throughout that race is not a ‘given’, especially when she talks about how light-skinned members of her family spent lonely portions of their life ‘passing’ as white – race is not in your blood, she argues, it is constructed in your own mind and the minds of others by daily awareness of unequal treatment and the reasons for it. Like many others, she felt liberated by the Black Power and feminist movements in the 1970s because they articulated a desire by a younger black generation to claim their right to be different. They finally became exhausted of living up to the impossible standards their parents felt they had to set them.

This book is written beautifully and quite experimentally (with footnotes, subheadings and lengthy pieces of text that are italicised). Jefferson often assumes the role of her own critic, commenting on her own writing throughout. I quite enjoyed this when I started to read the book, because it mirrors the painful self-consciousness she felt for years, but the device wears thin through overuse. She also writes with an almost relentless level of self-scrutiny and meta-self-scrutiny of her own and others’ motives. This turns her prose in on itself – in the end the analysis paralysis she writes herself into becomes tiring.

Despite these minor downsides, Negroland is an excellent book, which captures how historical moments in the evolution of black consciousness were experienced by individuals and their families, and it brings the struggles of blacks born in the twentieth century to centre stage in an original way. Jefferson writes like a details person, and being one myself, I appreciate how effective that approach can be.

Four bites.

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre. I've lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I've time to spare I'll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I'm not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

The Civil Rights Movement

During my years as a History teacher, the American Civil Rights Movement featured heavily- one of the coursework units was entirely focused on it. Consequently there was a lot of reading to be done on this subject. One of the things that I found surprising was that my students seemed to get the most out of the auto-biographies they read. They were certainly the most borrowed books from the school library on the subject.
I had an absolute gem of a group one year- super motivated, articulate, reflective and mature- and decided to ask them in the course review why they preferred the auto-biographies to the text books that were, generally speaking, much more accessible to their age group (15/16).

“It makes it more real- the people who fought for freedom weren’t made up, they weren’t a statistic, and they knew what they thought. I don’t want to know what someone thought MLK or Malcolm X really meant when they said something, I want to know what they actually thought. I want to see how inspiring these people can be without looking through the filter of history. I want to interpret the evidence myself not read the interpretations of people with their own bias to deal with. These freedom fighters can tell their own story, they don’t need anyone else”

Needless to say I was pretty impressed by this response (enough to keep a copy) and not just because they clearly understood my lessons on source reliability!

As it is Black History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you some of the voices that inspired my students so much.

malcolm-xMalcolm X: An Autobiography

One of the most famous figures in the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X has been celebrated and denigrated almost in equal measure for his passionate beliefs on the struggle of black people for equality and respect. His autobiography tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man who articulated the anger and the struggle of his time.

 

mlkThe Auto Biography of Martin Luther King

Comprised of a number of MLK’s speeches and writings, alongside some additional detail of his early life, this book gives an insight to the thoughts of one of the most influential and iconic figures in twentieth century history- a father, a husband, a man of faith, a leader, his words continue to resonate and inspire us all.

 

marcus-garveySelected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey courted controversy with his views, and although he died in 1940, he served as an inspiration to some of the later Civil Rights activists. Garvey was best known fro setting up UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) and advocating for African Americans to be proud of their heritage and to return to Africa. He campaigned unsuccessfully for black Americans to be given land concessions in Liberia. His views contrast with the more well-known activists.

web-du-boisThe Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T Washington are in some ways the fore runners to the ideological differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Du Bois’s largely autobiographical masterpiece of social criticism asserts his position that black people should enjoy equality of human rights because they are human beings and not because they are deemed to have ‘earned’ them by white people. This was a much more radical viewpoint that Washington’s and was hugely influential in the early part of the twentieth century.

 

booker-tUp From Slavery

A collection of writings and auto-biographical anecdotes, this gives a good insight into Booker T. Washington’s view that equality would be achieved through education and entrepreneurship rather than direct challenges to segregation and oppression. Born into slavery, Washington became a leading voice of former slaves and their descendants.

 

dorothy-heightOpen Wide the Freedom Gates

Dorothy Height’s reflection on a lifetime of service and leadership shows just how central she was to the Civil Rights Movement. She was president of the National Council for Negro Women for over 40 years and her views were sought by world leaders. The role of women in the Civil Rights Movement has been woefully overlooked and this memoir is an important record.

 

daisy-batesThe Long Shadow of Little Rock

Daisy Bates was the NAAACP official who led the 9 children central to the Little Rock School Crisis past the protestors and the National Guard into the school building- an event of extreme constitutional importance. Bates’ account of the event was banned for over twenty years and is still extremely difficult to get hold of (I’m not sure where we got ours from!) but again provides an important piece in the overall picture.

 

paul-stephensonMemoirs of a Black Englishman

This wasn’t actually one of the books my students read but I include it now as an example of the British Civil Rights movement. Paul Stephenson OBE took on the Bristol Bus Company  who refused to employ black bus drivers. This boycott was the first event in a long life of campaigning for Stephenson. His memoirs are fascinating and have taught me about events I didn’t even know had happened.

 

 

Rachel Brazil
Although well-known amongst my family for my habit of falling asleep with a book on my face, I’ve not let the constant face bruises deter me from indulging in my favourite pastime. There is no famine, only feast, in my house with every flavour of book available for consumption. I’m happy to sample almost anything from the smorgasbord of literature available but can always be tempted with a juicy murder mystery or sweet little romance.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

img_2271This book is flawed but heartfelt, and although I have to acknowledge those flaws I want to say straight away that I totally recommend Roxane Gay’s writing to you as it is full of humour and honesty. I have never felt so much warmth radiating through the words of an academic. Unlike some scholars she writes to communicate and engage with people, and not just to demonstrate how much she knows.

Bad Feminist is a collection of essays which handle a number of topics: her personal experience as an ethnic Haitian English professor, the meaning of feminism to her and the debates about it, and the way that Western culture handles issues of gender, sexuality and race. There is also some commentary on current affairs and the role of social media. Some essays deal with a number of these things, some with just one big issue.

I loved a number of her pieces – one of the memorable ones is ‘To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically’ about her experience of playing competitive scrabble. I laughed out loud as she described opponents trying to psych her out before a big match, and was fascinated by the minutiae of competition etiquette. I felt deeply moved by her openness in ‘What We Hunger For’ about the gang rape she experienced at the age of 11, which was instigated by someone she thought was her boyfriend. Words are often not enough to describe the horror of sexual violence, but she is a fearless and authoritative voice on this topic. There is a wonderful essay on friendship ‘How to be friends with another woman’ which I completely adored. It was light and sharp, written as a list of numbered instructions, highlighting that whilst global sisterhood might be an unachievable dream, our acts of kindness to each other are important and can be truly empowering.

I have deducted a couple of bites because the introduction and essays at the end feel like a bit of an afterthought as an attempt to bring cohesion to the book. I didn’t finish the book with a clear ‘take home message’. There is not enough discussion of the history of the feminist movement and different arguments within feminism for a book with ‘feminist’ in the title. I can’t help feeling that calling herself a ‘bad feminist’ is partly a strategy to get out of analysing these things more deeply, but equally, doing that might make the book a little less accessible.  A very minor point is that she has an irritating writing tic – her essays are littered with the two word sentence ‘And yet.’ I really noticed this, reading the book from beginning to end as I would a novel. It is also heavily oriented towards a U.S. readership in its references and content.

All of this being said, I cannot remember when I last enjoyed reading an essay collection as much as ‘Bad Feminist’. There is so much emotional power to it, and the rather plain cover doesn’t do any justice to how vibrant and strong the author’s voice is. She writes scathingly about the pressure women are under to be likeable, so I won’t talk too much about how I would like her to be my friend, but instead I will tell you that when she takes an uncompromising position on a difficult issue she wins my support and respect. Three bites

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre. I've lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I've time to spare I'll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I'm not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

Roots by Alex Haley

haley_rootsWhen I was a child Roots was a cultural phenomenon. It spent 22 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller List and was made into a TV series that EVERYBODY watched. It changed people.

But as I was only little I only got to hear about it and see snatches when I’d sneak downstairs for a drink, which would be a lot when it was on!

But it was published 40 years ago this year. Has it stood the test of time and does it still have something important to say?

It follows the story of Kunte Kinte from his birth in a small village in The Gambia through to his kidnapping and being taken as a slave to America. We stay right with him as he tries to understand the land he’s been taken to and as he attempts to escape. We continue to follow him as he slowly, begrudgingly settles into slave row and eventually finds love and even has a child of his own.  The book continues to trace the lives of his descendents for the next six generations.

Now this makes it sound like it’s a HUMUNGOUS book, I mean it’s got to be longer and more confusing than war and peace right? Wrong. It is long, coming in at just over 800 pages, admittedly with very tiny writing, but the story is very clear and totally absorbing. We stay with Kunte Kinte (and his family) for around half the book then spend a good couple of hundred pages with his grandson Chicken George (and family), before continuing down the family line.

This book is both incredbibly harrowing and very uplifting. It’s definitely still worth the time to read, I felt I’d learned quite a lot of truths about the facts and horrors of slavery after reading it. It reminded me that the slave trade and indeed racism in America today isn’t just an American problem, us Brits might have abolished slavery more than 30 years before they did but the people that bought the majority of the slaves to America and set up the practice were the English.  That being so it is encumbent on us to do more to help eradicate it, both in the U.S and here. If all you do to help is get a better understanding that’s still something and I would strongly recommend this book for that.

It also reminded me that the African’s that were stolen were not the savages that they were beclaimed to be then, in fact their civilisation was just as valid as our own, a large amount of them were muslim and although the society Kunte Kinte came from had a version of slavery it was nothing like the brutal slavery that was inflicted on them. There ‘slaves’ were better off and more respected than most English peasants in fact. Their society also held women and men in very different roles and would definitely be considered sexist by todays standards, however, when compared to the staatus of women in western society at the same time they certainly weren’t worse off.

Which brings me neatly to my only criticism of the book, which is that although the author clearly respects women immensely, they didn’t get much of the spotlight in this book. Kunte Kinte had female as well as male descendents but the men get a lot more ‘column inches’ than the women.

Overall though, not to be missed!

4 Bites

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

img_2257Coates is a New York correspondent for The Atlantic, and based on his personal and working experience he has written this award-winning book about the concept of race and its construction as the dark underside of the American Dream. ‘Between the World and Me’ is a work of non-fiction, but it is hard to say whether it is more truly a memoir or an essay, as it is written in the form of a dialogue with his son, and through publication, a generation of young African American men who will struggle to find a place in US society.

In the course of the book Coates writes from the heart about his upbringing, early brushes with danger on the streets in Baltimore where he grew up, and his struggle to reconcile himself to the logic of some of the aspects of black society, particularly the tough love of parents who were fearful about the world awaiting their children, and the retreat of earlier generations into self-policed conformity (being twice as good for half as much), faith (the desire to tell yourself that suffering is ok because oppressors will become the oppressed in the next life), and passivity (on the faces of non-violent protesters during the civil rights movement who sensed that they could not give the police even the slightest provocation).

This insecure sense of self brought about by the free-for-all of violence in housing projects of major US cities and the contrast between them and the picket fences and green lawns of the white suburbs has had a lasting impact on Coates’ psychology and he describes it with devastating honesty.

No book could be more relevant than this at present because the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign for civil rights has taken centre stage as a response to the deeply unjust police shootings of Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher among others. Coates has personal experience of the fatally powerful and appalling racism of the police in the U.S. Prince Carmen Jones, one of Coates’ friends from Howard University, was followed through several states without cause and eventually shot by a policeman on the pretext that Jones had tried to run him over in his jeep. The author’s investigation into Jones’s honourable life and how it ended, the implicit sanctioning of the perpetrator that followed and the recounting of how all this affected Jones’s family is genuinely heart-breaking. It is truly horrible to think that for black Americans any encounter with the police can cause paralysing fear.

This book is very dark at times, particularly where he describes how the economic might of white America and the American Dream was built on the labour of slaves, which propped up a self-perpetuating system of discrimination. I found this the hardest part to read because I know through my own background studying organizations that systems are slow to change. Towards the end the American Dream becomes a target for his pain and hostility, and I empathised with the fact he felt excluded from it, but thought that perhaps an inclusive dream could exist in the future, and perhaps the idea of ways to work towards it would have added a bit of hope into the book.

The moments of lightness are the points where he escapes fear through travel, and through finding professional recognition, a sense of community, discovering love and family life, and the pride he feels when he stops his fear from impacting directly upon how he behaves as a parent. The downside of this book is that it is not structured particularly clearly, with no chapters, just interspersed photographs, and it doesn’t talk much about concrete changes that can help America progress. Perhaps Coates is aware that the solutions are well known – equality before the law as it is enforced in practice, equality of opportunity, and a kinder white society which appreciates difference rather than seeking to suppress it, appropriate it or patronisingly assimilate it on its own terms. The book has flaws but it represents an impassioned call for justice. Three and a half bites.

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre. I've lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I've time to spare I'll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I'm not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

imageJulia Pastrana sometimes even wonders herself if she is actually human.  She speaks, thinks, sings and dances like a human, but the thick hair all over her body and the posters and news stories that proclaim her to be a ‘bear-woman’ or hybrid Orang-Utang take their toll.

Her unusual looks combined with a pleasant singing voice and a talant for dance do provide a career in the circuses and theatre’s of America. Soon she is the toast of the elite, but can her heart ever find similar adoration and acceptance?

The story mainly focuses on Julia and her parts are told in close third person from her point of view. As such we develop tremendous empathy for ‘The Ugliest Woman In The World’ as we hear her thoughts, fears, triumphs and hopes throughout.

However hers is not the only voice herad, later in the book when we meet the manager that will make her famous, his perspective is often shown too and the tale as a whole is shot through with small vignettes from the life of a modern young woman called  Rose. Quite the opposite of Julia – much desired but little travelled preffering to surround herself with lost treasures in her attic room in South London. Her stuff means more to her than her relationships with those around her.

This was an easy read, it’s skillfully written and although many of the characters are ‘freaks’ or ‘curiosities’ we get to see their humanity over and above anything else. In fact it wasn’t too long before I started hoping that Julia Pastrana had been a real person and decided to Google her – just not till I got to the end of the book as I didn’t want to spoil it!

The descriptions of the carnival, theatre’s and locations are terrific but they don’t take centre-stage at any time, they are always the perfect backdrop to the human action taking place.

Oddly the most bizarre character in this story is the one who appears physically to be the most ‘normal’ – a nice twist and one that drives home the point that it’s what’s on the inside that counts!

4 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

imageSylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a girl dealing with depression and attempting suicide.

I know, doesn’t sound too cheery does it?

But actually the first section of this book is all about a young woman (Esther Greenwood) coming into herself in New York just as America is starting to recognise that women should be allowed to have lives outside the domestic kitchen! It’s an exciting time to be alive, and although she has a natural caution, she’s really not having the worst time in the world at the start of the book!  In fact her slide into depression is so gradual, and her acceptance of it comes so much later than it happens, that she’s not far off recovery by the time you realise how messed up she is.

Although this was written more than 50 years ago it remains one of the most nuanced examinations of mental health issues. Her description of how she slowly stops sleeping, eating and washing is somehow ethereal. The examination of societies place in her depression is interesting and still relevant today.

I listened to this on audiobook, the reader was Maggie Gyllenhaal and her reading of it was absolutley laconic and sublime. I completely recommend that you listen to her reading of it rather than anything else.

Sylvia Plath’s suicide a month after it’s publication is still hard to relate to when you consider how much humour there is woven within these pages. It’s hard to say if this would have become a classic if she hadn’t, it was released at a time when women were begininng to examine their identities so it may have. Girl Interrupted did but although that was set at the same time it was released in the 90’s.  It’s sad to think of all the works she might have gone on to complete but at least this gem exists.

5 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

One of Us – The Story of a Massacre and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad

imageOn 22 July 2011, five years ago yesterday, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb in Oslo’s government buildings killing 8 people then massacred 69 teenagers attending a political summer camp.  This is the story of what led him to these actions, often told in his own words.

But it is also the story of those he murdered, from the lawyer out for a jog a couple of days before his first child was to be born, to the teenagers and those caring for them at the summer camp.

Based on extensive testimonies and interviews, One of Us is the definitive account of the life of Anders Breivik, the massacres and the subsequent trial. Woven between this is the stories of those lives he would tear apart. It reads almost like a book of short stories at first, but all the time you know the threads are being pulled tighter together and the result will be a shroud not a blanket.

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As there were so many tragedies born that day, only some of their stories could be told but at least  Åsne Seierstad does the best she can to make sure they are not forgotten or turned into nameless numbers.

It is described as ” a gripping, shattering and vital book … the story of a massacre and a study of evil. But it is also a story about community versus isolation, hope versus rejection, love versus bigotry – and a powerful memorial to those who lost their lives.”

It is indeed a powerful memorial to them, I wish the author had more time and room for them still, as it was she could only tell fragments of most of their stories. But this is not a criticism, it was good that she told as much as she did and it is clear she did so with the greatest respect and sensitivity. In truth I’m not sure I could have coped with much more, as it was I was sobbing.

It is also a thorough dissection of the socio-economic and political climate of Norway during Breivik’s life and it looks closely at the psychological factors that may have contributed to his actions. Seierstad does not offer any trite, neatly packaged solutions for this terrible act, nor does she ignore or belittle Breivik’s own arguments that he is a freedom fighter and that he committed his brutal acts to prevent a larger loss of life. Instead she showed the painfully human consequences of disenfranchisement.

5 bites, but all for the victims and their families-not a single one of them for the murderer.

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher

5199g2QmCJL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_It is 1889 and the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole, home to the mentally ill, has a new patient. A passionate artist with copper-red  hair but only half an ear.

The warden of the hospital has rules for his wife to keep her safe from the patients. She must never stray from their little white cottage next door into the grounds without him by her side. But tales of this man’s odd mixture of insanity and self-awareness are too intriguing for Jeanne Trabuc to resist. Especially when she has nothing else to occupy her, her children are grown and her only friend gone.

She climbs over the hospital wall, watches him while he paints in the heat of the day, and starts a relationship that will change her life.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is the perfect holiday read. It winds it way gently through the inner workings of Jeanne Trabuc’s life in Provence while letting you feel the heat on her skin, hear the buzz of the bees and taste the sweet honey that only such a verdant blanket of land can produce.

It lulls you to doze but gives you the wisest dreams. I was drawn back to this hypnotic read every spare second I had. To be completely frank this has very little action, if you like high octane thrillers or chilling ghost stories this probably wouldn’t do it for you. But if you want to really get to know what makes a character tick, and you want to feel like you are living in the country in the summer, then this is perfect!

It’s real message is how love and life can change over time, and Susan Fletcher writes this exquisitely.  5 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book from the publishers in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews.

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.