Review: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

An epic, romantic and mesmerising quest for (almost) mythical treasure, spanning more than 250 years, replete with curious characters, terrible evil and despair, incredible generosity and stunningly beautiful landscapes, this page-turner is not an all-consuming novel but a breathtaking, astonishing account by Sophy Roberts of her recent travels through Siberia.

A search for old pianos is the thread that joins stories of exile, empire and living on the edge, where music and the determination to nurture it in some of the most remote, and almost unimaginable places in the world speaks of a sense of hope, courage and defiant grace that stirs up optimism and faith in the human spirit.

This compelling book made me curious and excited about far off places and people I am unlikely to ever see or meet. As I reluctantly finished The Lost Pianos of Siberia I wanted time to slow down, grateful for the book’s bewitching, with the magic being all the more powerful for being true.

[Reviewed for FOLIO by Zoe]

Review: How to Disappear

A page turner that allows you to imagine a parallel life, who you might be and whether you could really cope in a new life without any links to the old, Gillian McAllister’s How to Disappear is escapism on every level. A book to submerge yourself into and leave the real world behind, a book about leaving the world you know behind, this is the tale of a family, the consequences of a horrible crime and the limits of witness protection. It’s about loyalty, identity, and how far you would to support and defend your children.

McAllister acknowledges how difficult it is to research witness protection and therefore to be confident of the authenticity of the experience she fictionalises but the world she has built is – for a reader who remembers the cases of the James Bulger, or more recently Ched Evans – compelling.

[Reviewed for FOLIO by Zoe]

Book Review: Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit For Less

This can be one of the most important non fiction novel for the modern time. Since the evolution of internet, we have seen an overload of information and opportunities. Today saying being busy makes you sound cool. But are we really being productive by being busy?

This book will help you detox your life from all the non essentials. The book flows down beautifully with description of Essentialism and why we need it, then it takes you on a journey to teach you how to find the non essentials in your life by helping you differentiate between what is important and what is not and then shows you how to eliminate those non essentials from your life.

The knowledge from this book is applicable from sorting your wardrobe to sorting your life and career. The author does a brilliant job of capturing the importance of essentialism to show us what’s behind the closed door of simple life. He does his best to help you to prioritise your life and get you detached from non essential work which you don’t feel like doing but you do just to make other people happy.

After reading this book Being Essentialist will be the new Mantra of your life rather than Being Busy.

Reviewed for FOLIO by Daksh

 

Review: The Midnight Library

Have you ever imagined how your life might have turned out if you had taken a different decision at some point? If you had taken a job you turned down? Said no to something you didn’t really want to do but still did? Or simply allowed yourself to follow your dreams?

Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is about exactly this scenario; Nora Seed decides to end her life but instead ends up in the Midnight Library where, thanks to a fairy-godmother-like librarian, she is given the option to try out all the other lives she could have had. In doing so she reflect on what her regrets are and whether life really is so miserable killing herself is still what Nora thinks is best.

Although the opening may unsettle some readers this novel could work really well as a book group read or an inspiration for a creative writing group. Sensitively handled it could also work in helping to discuss mental health issues and taboos around suicide. An easy and quick read, The Midnight Library isn’t as funny or insightful as some of Haig’s earlier books but it is one that could spark interesting conversations and personal reflections.

[Reviewed for FOLIO by Zoe]

Book review: Summerwater

A wonderfully atmospheric moody window into a brief moment of time, with glorious utterly, believable characterisation, Summerwater by Sarah Moss is like a film in slow motion, with a growing sense of trepidation as you move towards the final moments where the dreamlike quality will suddenly speed up leaving you as if woken in shock from an unnerving dream.

Set over just the few hours of the longest day of the year, in a Scottish holiday chalet park where the incessant rain means there is little to do but watch others who are also trying to survive another dreich day, Moss brilliantly gets under you skin with her seemingly effortless acute observations. Deliciously written and easily devoured in a single sitting.

[Reviewed for FOLIO by Zoe]

Book review: Humankind

2020 isn’t proving to be an easy time to remain optimistic. But if you’re looking for something that might help you feel hopeful, Humankind by Rutger Bregman, part philosophy book, part call to arms, is a stimulating and easy-to-read place to start.

To paraphrase Bregman, these might be the most challenging words you read this year:

“Most people, deep down, are pretty decent”.

With the Cummingses and Trumps of this world filling the headlines recently, it might be hard to believe that statement, but what Bregman’s book does is walk you through lots of stories and arguments to try convince you that yes, human beings are indeed fundamentally good. Not only that, if we were to wholesale start acting if we believed in our species’ essential goodness, the world could be transformed in a truly exciting, beneficial, enriching way.

Wide-ranging stories -from a real-life case echoing the Lord of the Flies basic plot line, to the puzzle of the statues on Easter Island, via gene research done on domesticating foxes and the infamous and terrifying psychological experiments carried out by Milgram and Zimbardo – form Bregman’s canvas for exploring the varied arguments in favour and against the claim that is widely made (including by many religions); that we’re born bad.

And it’s a challenging read.

“Belief in human kind’s sinful nature also provides a tidy explanation for the existence of evil. When confronted with hatred of selfishness you can tell yourself, ‘oh well, that’ just human nature’. But if you believe that people are essentially good, you have to question why evil exists at all. It implies that engagement and resistance are worthwhile, and it imposes an obligation to act.” (my emphasis)

To inspire us, Bregman then goes on to explore a number of ways around the world a different, more positive, constructive approach has been taken, whether that is the participatory democracy seen in the Venezuelan principality of Torres, the Norwegian prison system where inmates are treated as people not monsters, or the story of how South African avoided all out civil war in the months leading up to the inauguration of Mandela as the first President following the Apartheid era.

It’s an encouraging and exhilarating read.

I’ve a t-shirt which says “Read books: Complicate your point of view”. This is certainly a book to do that. Whilst much of what Bregman convincingly argues for is exciting and uplifting, at times things pop up that worry me. If you’re an introvert, Bregman’s argument that sociable people are smarter won’t sit well. If you believe changing human behaviour is a key plank to mitigating climate catastrophe, you’ll be frustrated by his rather glib faith in our ability to invent our way out of the environmental disaster we are facing. He also makes an argument for empathy being a bad thing…

You may believe that it’s unrealistic or idealistic to believe that people are fundamentally kind and good, but I for one, want to believe Bregman’s arguments. Bregman’s proposal that we fundamentally restructure how we act, either as individuals, groups, organisations or countries, so that at all stages we are informed by a belief in better, in goodness, and in hope is one to make you feel optimistic even in these hard times.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book review: Together

There are many things we use all the time without really paying attention to them. That’s normal and even helpful a lot of the time; life would slow down impossibly if we couldn’t move relatively seamlessly through certain tasks or activities.

And yet it can be refreshing to stop a while and see something familiar in new light, to reflect on what we take for granted or what we assume must always be done a certain way because we’ve simply never wondered if there’s a different way to do things.

During the Covid-19 lockdown many of us have had the opportunity to think again what it means to be together, what it means to be lonely, and what we can do whilst we’re alone (or living on top of one another?) to keep our sanity as we go through this period in history at the same time but apart.

Together by Vivek Murthy was conceived a long time before any of us had heard the word coronavirus, in a time when lockdown was a word normally associated with prisons rather than everyday, all day life for millions across the world. And yet, with his generous, engaging exploration of “Loneliness, health and what happens when we find connection” Murthy (Surgeon General of the United States under Obama) offers an pertinent, inspiring if also, at times, worrying read.

Insights from scientists about the causes of loneliness and how it physically and mentally impacts us form the first half of this book. Stories from people engaged in creative, thoughtful and kind ways to bring people together to reduce loneliness fill the remainder of the book, and whilst this is no self-help-how-to guide, so many different ideas are presented, so many different but effective ways of making a difference are shared, it’s an essential read for anyone who wants to make a difference, especially those who programme events and activities, whether in work, in clubs and community groups, or even at home.

Whether it is GPs making the most of social prescribing i.e. recommending “resources and activities in the community that can help patients forge health social connections”, the US mayor who decided to turn his city into a City of Kindness, the neighbour who started street potluck meals, the university student who created Space Gatherings where fellow students could leave social expectations about student life at the door, the (now) worldwide Men’s Shed movement, telephone helplines like Silver Line, or school projects which encourage anonymous acts of generosity, Together is packed with a rich buffet of examples that can inspire and give hope.

An exhilarating germane read. A must for anyone who wants to make a difference, especially as we move forward to life beyond lockdown, where – surely – the only way to rebuild will be together.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book Review: The Perfect Shelter

At a time when parents around the world are trying even harder than usual to create happy, safe spaces at home, and children are being faced with all sorts of difficult emotions including fear and anxiety, The Perfect Shelter written by Clare Helen Welsh and illustrated by Åsa Gilland is poignantly relevant and comforting.

Following the hopes and fears of a young family when a child becomes ill, The Perfect Shelter manages a graceful balance between exploring the the fear, anger and sadness anyone can feel in such circumstances, with the love, hope and kindness that such experiences can also nurture.

Unpatronising and gentle, the text is kind and honest. The illustrations, with lots of leaves, flowers and nature imagery, are just as refreshing and soothing. The story begs to be brought to life with the making of your own shelters and dens, whether with cushions and sheets, boxes and blankets or twigs and leaves. As well as being serious and sensitive, this is a playful and joyous book.

Whilst the story follows the arc of one (unnamed) illness , from the days before the family had any awareness of it, through to an optimistic ending, the parallels with the situation we are living in at the moment make this book especially moving, and will also perhaps give it a wider readership. Whereas before such a story might have been found on then “When a book might help” shelf in school or library, it can instead be read as a mirror to our times, and as such it will provide much comfort. Really, though it is disguised as a book, The Perfect Shelter is a hug for us all.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

An interview with author Donna David

Donna David is a West Midlands based children’s author who we spotted in the audience at our Bookfest earlier this year, and when we learned she had a new book out this month we were keen to help spread the word about it.

Oh No, Bobo! is the story of a little orangutan on the search for the perfect pillow to fall asleep on. He plucks a feather here and a tuft of hair there but this upsets his jungle friends. When Elsie the elephant enthusiastically strokes Bobo in an effort to cheer him up, it is now Bobo who gets very upset. He didn’t ask for a cuddle or want Elsie to get so close. With a little bit of help from Elsie’s Dad, Bobo and Elsie go on to learn about the importance of asking permission – even when just trying to be kind.

With its bold and appealing illustrations, Oh No, Bobo! is a sweet and gentle story about personal space and being considerate. It offers a quiet and sympathetic way to have an important (and topical) discussion with the youngest of children.

To learn a little more about the author of Oh No, Bobo! FOLIO asked Donna if she would share with us a selection of books that have been key in her life, books which helped her become a reader, and a writer. Here are the books she chose, along with her comments about them:

Stig of the Dump – Clive King (illustrated by Edward Ardizzone)
“This is one of the first books I ever remember reading at school. According to my mum, I read voraciously from a very young age but we didn’t own a huge amount of books. We were regulars at the library though and I feel incredibly lucky to have lived within walking distance of our local library.”

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
“I read Jane Eyre at GCSE and again for my English A Level. Then, when I got to university, I read it again as part of my degree. You’d think I’d be sick of it by now but I’m not at all. I must have read it over thirty times and I can still pluck a Jane Eyre quote out of thin air!”

Mucky Duck – Sally Grindley and Neal Layton
“My daughter had this book for her first birthday and we LOVED it. She called it ‘Muh Duh’ and would ask for it most days. It’s about a little boy called Oliver and his friend, Mucky Duck. I could relate so much to the poor parents who cleaned everything up, only for Oliver and Mucky Duck to create a mess almost instantly!”

Once – Morris Gleitzman
“All three of my children read this book in Year 6 and, despite being very different characters, they all adored it. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about so I read it myself. I couldn’t put it down! I was so affected by it. Morris Gleitzman doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of the Holocaust and I was blown away by how he could convey something so horrific but still make it suitable for his ten-year-old readers. Gleitzman’s skill is phenomenal and it made me want to write for children.”

Never Tickle a Tiger – Pamela Butchart and Marc Boutavant
“After realising I wanted to write for children, I threw myself into reading across the age groups, from picture books right up to Young Adult. When I read ‘Never Tickle a Tiger’, I knew that I wanted to write for 3-6 year olds. You can be incredibly playful with language and no idea is too bonkers!”

Julian Is a Mermaid – Jessica Love
“This is my favourite picture book of 2019. The illustrations are beautiful and the story telling goes much deeper than the words on the page. It tells the story of a little boy who wants to dress up as a mermaid, and the love and acceptance he gets from his grandma. ‘Julian is a Mermaid’ showed me that picture books can convey subtle and gentle (but important) messages to very young children. I wrote ‘Oh No, Bobo!’ in response to the #MeToo movement and ‘Julian is a Mermaid’ showed me that there was space for books like this.”

All these books are in the Birmingham Libraries catalogue, and you can borrow an eBook version of Jane Eyre via Libby, if you have a Birmingham Libraries membership card.

Find out more about Donna on her website https://www.donnadavidauthor.com/ or follow her on Twitter @donnamdavid.

Oh No, Bobo!‘s illustrator is Laura Watkins. You can find out more about her on Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/watkinsillustrations/ or her website https://watkinsprints.co.uk/about/

Thank you Donna!

Book Review: The Vanishing Trick

Magic and mystery abound in this delicious and exciting tale of deception and hope set in the Victorian era, perfect as a family read-aloud or for upper primary school aged children to enjoy.

Madame Pinchbeck, glamorous but evil, makes her money by persuading people she can communicate with the dead and summon up ghosts. Her seances are quite the theatrical spectacle, made all the more convincing by the orphan children she has kidnapped and trained, and over whom she has mysterious control.

But the children have had enough and want to escape, and in doing so expose Madame Pinchbeck for the fraud she is. Will they have the strength? Will they be able to break the magic? Will they overcome their differences to work together as a team?

The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler draws the reader in to a wonderfully imagined world, with a brilliant mix of beautiful descriptive detail balanced with great pace and a story arc full of momentum. There’s a character for every reader to love; I can already imagine lots of world book day costumes based on this lovely book which, with its intertwining of fairy tales, along with historical setting, gives lots of scope for extension activities.

My e-review copy didn’t have any illustrations, but I’m looking forward to seeing a published copy of this book as it has illustrations by Chris Mould – the ideal illustrator to pair with this spooky story.

A perfect mixture of thrills and triumph, ideal for fans of Abi Elphinstone or Peter Bunzl , this is a delightful tale reminding us it’s not necessarily blood that makes you family, its love.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Some links inspired by The Vanishing Trick
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/12824/12-weird-vintage-pictures-s%C3%A9ances

https://twistedsifter.com/2013/09/hidden-artworks-on-the-edges-of-books/