Book Reviews: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Flowers for Algernon and Toby’s Room

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Stu Brief HistoryTo begin, a couple of notes on the title. This book cannot accurately be described in any way, shape or form as being “brief”; it clocks in at nearly seven hundred pages of tiny print, and even for it a super-speedy reader like me it takes some getting through. Secondly, although the title refers to seven killings, there are an awful lot more than that contained herein. If I said the body count was closer to triple figures it would sound like an exaggeration, but it’s probably actually not far off the mark. This is a brutal, nasty affair in places, packed with the kind of cinematic violence you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, with gallons of claret flowing throughout.
What you’re really dealing with here is a history of Jamaica in the second half of the twentieth century – centering on the savage political violence that split the country in half after its independence from Great Britain in 1962 – told through the distinct voices of innumerable characters, from gangsters and slum-dwellers to CIA operatives and American journalists. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, with each chapter and episode being narrated by a different protagonist with a distinct narrative voice, from Jamaican patois to American hipster slang. It’s epic in scope, taking in the slums of Kingston, the keys of Miami and the desolate urban sprawl of 70s New York, and it works on so many different levels that it almost defies belief. It’s a literary page-turner, a pulp-fiction thriller, an investigation of the shooting of Bob Marley (referred to as “The Singer” throughout) two days before the Smile Jamaica peace concert in 1976. It contains flavours of Southern gothic and film noir, and the whole thing is shot through with a rich vein of super-dark humour which can’t help but raise a smile, despite the bleak nature of the subject matter. The characters are beautifully drawn and their individual voices are superbly rendered – this really is writing of the highest order. According to the blurb on the cover it made it onto 23 ‘book of the year’ lists when it was published. All the plaudits are richly deserved. I absolutely caned my way through this, desperate to see how it would finish, and yet was disappointed when it finally ended as I felt like I wanted to read more. A genuinely challenging, stimulating and thoroughly entertaining read, and how many Booker Prize winners can you say that about? Absolutely brilliant.

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Stu FlowersI’ve long been familiar with the plot and general themes of this vintage sci-fi novel, but it’s only recently that I’ve finally got around to reading it. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who works a menial job sweeping the floor in a baker owned by a friend of his uncle, who secured him the job to prevent him being sent to a mental institution. Charlie is selected by scientists to take part in a trial for a new surgical procedure which can increase intelligence, a technique which has previously been tested on laboratory mice, one of which is the Algernon referred to in the title. The surgery is a success, and Charlie’s IQ triples, but the effects are not quite as anticipated.

He realises that his ‘friends’ at the bakery aren’t his friends at all; they like having him to be around to make fun of and make them feel better about themselves, and they’ve coined a phrase – “pulling a Charlie Gordon” – to describe someone doing something to unintentionally make a fool of themselves. They feel threatened by his new intelligence, turn against him and he ultimately ends up losing his job. Despite being blessed with a genius level IQ, Charlie still has the emotional intelligence of a child, and struggles in social situations; he speaks to scientists and professors, but finds their conversation limited and dull; he seeks the love of a woman, but his intellect is such that he can’t engage with the opposite sex on any kind of basic level, and he’s lonelier than he ever was before the operation.

I don’t want to give the ending away so won’t say any more about the plot, but this is a great take on the Frankenstein fable about scientists playing God and the terrible consequences that it can bring. For those who don’t consider themselves fans of Sci-fi, don’t let the label put you off. The premise may be sci-fi, but this is set in a very recognisable universe, features very real, believable characters and shows some uncanny psychological insight throughout. Be warned though – it’s not a happy read and the ending is a real tear-jerker. It’s a startlingly original bit of writing which has become a stone cold classic since its first publication in novel form in 1966, and deservedly so. Well worth checking out if you fancy a left-field, thought-provoking read.

Toby’s room by Pat Barker

Stu Toby's RoomThis novel sees Pat Barker return to the subject of the First World War, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The story starts in 1912. Elinor and Toby Brooke have a relationship far closer than any brother and sister ever should, and one that they never dare acknowledge. Fast forward to 1917 – Toby is gone, missing presumed killed in the carnage of Flanders. Elinor is trying to find her feet as a professional artist, and is struggling to come to terms with what happened to her brother. Only one man – Kit Neville – an old friend from art school who was one of his stretcher bearers knows what happened to Toby, but he is suffering too, struck down by a hideously disfiguring facial wound. Only their mutual friend, commissioned war artist Paul Tarrant, can find out the truth, but will it be too much for Elinor to bear?
One of the great strengths of this novel is Barker’s incredibly perceptive understanding of her characters and their motivations, and her depiction of the complex relationships between them is first class. Her descriptions of the chaos of war and the effects it has on the men fighting it are startlingly real, and the climactic scene in which Neville describes the real events that lead up to Toby’s death while a winter storm rages outside is staggeringly emotional.
Technically it’s superb – practically flawless, actually. The descriptive prose is brilliant, the dialogue pitch-perfect, the scenes of war cataclysmic and the bits about the facial injuries suffered by many – as painted by Henry Tonks, who appears as a character in this novel – stomach-churningly graphic. Barker sets the plot in motion immediately, and right from the first couple of pages I was absolutely hooked on this. It’s a great story, beautifully written and told by an artist with an absolute mastery of her craft. Superb stuff.

Reviews from Stu, a Community Librarian based in the east of Leeds

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A Fantastically Great Children’s Book

kate-fantastic-womenIt was a warm Friday evening as I ventured down to the Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley, for the book launch of ‘Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World’ by Kate Pankhurst. As I entered the trendy industrial space of the Gallery there was an immediate buzz in the room of people exploring, drawing, reading, meeting, eating and drinking. There were as many children as there were adults. Kate came over to say hello and introduced me to her adorable new baby Otto. A book launch and a baby, Kate is a super women! Everyone was given a badge which had the illustrations out of the book on. Mine featured Emmeline Pankhurst the suffragette descendant of Kates; of course I immediately pinned it to my top. I had a wander round the mill to see all the fun bits and bobs Kate had set up; from a drawing table where you could draw a woman who is fantastically great to you, to a dressing up trunk filled with props that related to the great women that featured in the book. There was a table filled with tasty treats, the most incredible cakes and of course fizzy, after all this really was a celebration.

kates-book-launchI eventually made it to the table which had piles of the book in both paper back and hard back. I picked up the hard back and had a flick through, that’s when I knew how special this book was. It’s an education, it’s inspirational, every page has a splash of humour, it’s filled with Kate’s gorgeous bright illustrations, and it’s a celebration of women. It’s brimming with fascinating facts and it’s very accessible for different ages and abilities to enjoy, even the grown-ups. The diverse range of women covered in this book is incredible, from Rosa Parks to Frida Kahlo to Jane Austen, and each one of their stories is fascinating. I absolutely love the layout of the pages; each woman get a double page spread as it takes you on a journey through their extraordinary life. We have to thank Kate for her talents in creating such an important children’s book and then do our bit to introduce it to as many children (boys and girls), parents, carers and teachers as possible.

kates-book-launch-2After buying my copy I joined the queue to have it signed and addressed to my little girl. She’s a bit young at the minute to understand the context but that’s why I got the hardback because I want this book to be a staple on her bookshelf at home. Copies will be arriving into Leeds Libraries very soon, reserve it in to your local branch to borrow for free, I know you’ll enjoy reading and exploring it as much as I am.

Blog by Rachel Ingle-Teare, Children’s Librarian

Read Kate Pankhurst’s blog about the event here:-

http://www.katepankhurst.com/2016/09/the-fantastically-great-women-are-go/

 

 

 

Summer Reading – new fiction this week

The sun is shining! Maybe you are just like me, and at the first sight of a sunbeam it means cold drinks and something good to read in the garden. Last night it was a glass of elderflower cordial and Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff that I am currently reading for my book group.

If you need a few suggestions here are some new fiction titles that have arrived in our libraries this week. There should be something there to tickly your fancy – maybe you need to match your book to your garden tipple?

blood and inkBlood and Ink by Adam Christopher

The CFO of a secretive NYC hedge fund is found murdered – stabbed through the eye with an expensive fountain pen. Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson discover a link between the victim and a charismatic touring management guru with a doubtful past. But is the solution so clear-cut or is the guru being framed? As secrets are revealed and another victim is found murdered in the same grisly fashion, Holmes and Watson begin to uncover a murky world of money and deceit.

the french lessonThe French Lesson by Hallie Rubenhold

Paris, 1792: Henrietta – an Englishwoman alone amidst the French Revolution. Grace – former mistress to the highest rulers in France. Agnes – the current mistress, who will stop at nothing to keep her place in the palace. Together, the three women will engage in a deadly triangle of rivalry and power play. Who will win, who will lose and who will keep their head?

 

Eden GardensEden Gardens by Louise Brown

Calcutta, the 1940s. In a ramshackle house, streets away from the grand colonial mansions of the British, live Maisy, her Mam and their ayah, Pushpa. Whiskey-fuelled and poverty-stricken, Mam entertains officers in the night – a disgrace to British India. All hopes are on beautiful Maisy to restore their good fortune. But Maisy’s more at home in the city’s forbidden alleyways, eating bazaar food and speaking Bengali with Pushpa, than dancing in glittering ballrooms with potential husbands. Then one day Maisy’s tutor falls ill and his son stands in. Poetic, handsome and ambitious for an independent India, Sunil Banerjee promises Maisy the world. So begins a love affair that will cast her future, for better and for worse.

when she was badWhen she was bad by Tammy Cohen

Colleague, co-worker, killer – you see the people you work with every day. But what can’t you see? Who secretly hates you? Who is tortured by their past? Who is capable of murder?

The infiltratorsThe Infiltrators by Matt Helm

Beautiful, intelligent, fresh out of prison – Madeleine Ellershaw is Matt Helm’s latest case. She may have been imprisoned as a spy, but Helm soon realizes that Madeleine’s story isn’t so simple. He’s got to figure out why she took the rap for her husband nine years ago, what secrets are hiding in her past, and, most difficult of all: keep her alive.

different classDifferent Class by Joanne Harris

After 34 years at St Oswald’s Grammar in North Yorkshire, Latin master Roy Straitley has seen all kinds of boys come and go. Each class has its clowns, its rebels, its underdogs, its ‘Brodie’ boys who, whilst of course he doesn’t have favourites, hold a special place in an old teacher’s heart. But every so often there’s a boy who doesn’t fit the mould. A troublemaker. A boy with hidden shadows inside. With insolvency and academic failure looming, a new broom has arrived at the venerable school, bringing PowerPoint, sharp suits and even sixth form girls to the dusty corridors. But while Straitley does his sardonic best to resist this march to the future, a shadow from his past is stirring. A boy who even 20 years on haunts his teacher’s dreams. A boy capable of bad things.

TenacityTenacity by J.S. Law

A sailor hangs himself on board a naval submarine. Although ruled a suicide Lieutenant Danielle Lewis, the Navy’s finest Special Branch investigator, knows the sailor’s wife was found brutally murdered only days before. Now Dan must enter the cramped confines of HMS Tenacity to interrogate the tight-knit, male crew and determine if there’s a link. Standing alone in the face of extreme hostility and with a possible killer on board, Dan soon realises that she may have to choose between the truth and her own survival. The pressure is rising and Dan’s time is running out!

HawkwoodHawkwood by Jack Ludlow

The Hundred Year’s War is over and newly-knighted Sir John Hawkswood is headed for France to make his fortune as a freebooter. Violence and extortion are rife, and the freebooters will stop at nothing to capture the Papal City of Avignon. But this is only the beginning: Italy beckons, and with it, yet more battles against rival mercenaries, powerful cities and the Papal State.

Pretty isPretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Lois and Carly-May were just twelve when they were abducted by a stranger and imprisoned in a cabin in the woods for two months. That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they formed a bond that would never be broken. Decades later, both women have new lives and identities. But the events of that summer are about to come back with a vengeance. Lois and Carly-May must face the truth about their secret, shared past. What really happened in the woods that summer?

Himmlers CookHimmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert

Aged 105, Rose has endured more than her fair share of hardships – the Armenian genocide, the Nazi regime, and the delirium of Maoism. Yet somehow, despite all the suffering, Rose never loses her joie de vivre. Quirky and eccentric, ‘Himmler’s Cook’ is a hilarious picaresque tale of survival, as Giesbert depicts Rose’s unique life experiences – cook for Himmler, confidante to Hitler, and friend of Simone de Beauvoir. The novel tells the epic tale of an inspiring, resilient Marseillaise chef who embodies the sentiment of what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

 

 

 

Bronte Events at Leeds Libraries

We are coming up to the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth and we couldn’t let that go by without doing something to celebrate. Charlottes birthday on the 21st April kick starts five years of celebrations by the Bronte Society that also celebrates the 200th anniversary of the births of Patrick, Anne and Emily. Charlotte’s best known novel is Jane Eyre, of course adapted many times for both TV and film. Her other novels are The Professor, Villette and Shirley. I love Jane Eyre but have to admit that I haven’t read any of the others – I shall try and rectify that in this anniversary year. All of the books can be borrowed from the library.

Please come along to one or both of our events:-

A curator at the Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits displays the miniature manuscript dated 1830 written by Charlotte Bronte, in Paris

A curator at the Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits (Letters and Manuscripts Museum) displays the miniature manuscript dated 1830 written by Charlotte Bronte at the museum in Paris January 30, 2012. The museum bought the second issue of Young Men’s Magazine, which contains over 4,000 words on 19 pages, written when Bronte was 14 years old, for £690,850 (826,287 euros) at auction in December. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE – Tags: SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Write like the Brontes in an afternoon -Create your own miniature Books

Friday 15 April, 1.30 – 3.30pm, Central Library, Art Library, First Floor.

The Brontë sisters wrote amazingly tiny books all about a secret imaginary world. To celebrate the Brontë bicentenary, award-winning writer Char March will run this fun and fast-paced writing workshop. She’ll show you why the Brontë sisters wrote their tiny books in miniature writing, and will give you masses of inspiration for writing your very own little book of secrets which you can take away.

Adults, and children (age 9 and up), are welcome – come on, you’re all dying to write in really, really tiny writing!

Free event

The_Brontë_Sisters_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restoredThe Brontes with Juliet Barker

Monday 18th April, 5.45 – 6.45pm, Leeds Central Library, Third Floor Meeting Room

Juliet will be talking to us about her book about the sisters, originally published in 2010, that provided startling new information about the Bronte family, as well as her new title, ‘The Brontes, a life in Letters’.

Tickets £3.00

To book a place at either event visit www.ticketsource.co.uk/leedslibraryevents

 

 

 

 

Librarian Top 10 – Girl Power

An occasional series featuring Top 10 book recommendations from our librarians. This first list comes from Kat, an Assistant Community Librarian based at Chapeltown, Oakwood and Chapel Allerton Libraries.

Am I normal yetHolly Bourne – Am I normal yet?

A story of friendship, feminism and mental health – there was nothing didn’t LOVE about this book. The way Evie’s illness affects her friendships, choices and family was really enlightening – I particularly found the way it does and yet doesn’t inform her relationship with her younger sister. Maybe because eleven years later my lifestyle is still that of a 16 year old girl, but I just felt that this book was describing my life, and I just didn’t want it to end. Also has the most accurate description of a hangover ever! I wish there had been books like this when I was a teenager.

not that kind of girlLena Dunham – Not that kind of girl

I love Lena’s tv show ‘Girls’, but some bits make me feel a little uncomfortable, and that is exactly how I felt about this book. I love the things she writes about, but some of it just made me sad. Not about Lena, but about society.

 

Elizabeth is missingEmma Healey – Elizabeth is missing

I think I only read this because it was getting a lot of attention and was nominated for the Booker Prize, but I am so glad I did. A woman with Alzheimer’s is trying to find her friend Elizabeth, but keeps losing track of what she is doing and feels like no-one is helping her. She is also reminded about the last time someone went missing, her sister during the war, a how that impacted her life. This was so frustrating at times as everything kept starting over again, but that is because Healey so accurately captures the illlness in her writing.

Opposite of lonelinessMarina Keegan – The opposite of loneliness

This is a book of essays and short stories which was compiled by Marina’s family and Yale writing professor; Marina died in a car crash just after graduating. She wrote about college life, family, friends and boys. Her writing is most often described as ‘promising’, and knowing what happened to her and that she won’t be able to continue to grow as a writer (and a person) makes me feel the same way I felt when I read ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank.

It was me all alongAndie Mitchell – It was me all along : a memoir

(I’m starting to see a theme here – the American college experience. Also all female authors – Girl Power!)

This is essentially a story of growing up overweight, being unhappy about it and the vicious cycle of comfort eating. But eventually Andie loses 135lbs (almost 10 stone!) through healthy eating, exercise and changing the way she thinks about food. I found all of this really inspiring (I was trying to do the same thing as I read it) but what stands out to me is the heart-breaking relationship she had with her father, and how she dealt with his death, so very emotional!

Spare BridesAdele Parks – Spare Brides

I see rows of Adele Parks all the time in libraries but never thought I’d be interested; I came across this book whilst putting together a suffragettes display and I was curious. It is Parks’ first historical novel, set in the 1920s, and is about a group of women who grew up expecting life to turn out a certain way and then find themselves a few years and a war later with drastically different lives and options than they ever expected. It was kind of Sex & the City meets Downton Abbey, and of course I loved that.

Eleanor and ParkRainbow Rowell – Eleanor & Park

This starts off as a teenage love story but as the story develops so do the underlying issues of both Eleanor & Park. I loved the mix tapes they listen to on the school bus, and the books that Eleanor borrows from Park and has to read in secret at home. I just thought that this was a great little love story, but it is sad that a teenage story has to be set in the 1980s to not be dominated by technology and social media. It must be the soundtrack, but it makes me think of 500 Days of Summer. Actually, this book is the teenage version of that film, set in the 1980s.

Opal PlumsteadJacqueline Wilson – Opal Plumstead

This was actually what inspired me to do the suffragettes display. I love Jacqueline Wilson. She is probably one of the reasons I love reading, and she nearly always writes really strong female characters (both the children and adults). One of my favourite things about working in a library is getting to talk to children who love reading her as much as I did. Of course when I saw she had a book about suffragettes I knew I had to read it, and it didn’t disappoint. The only downside was that Opal works in a sweet factory, and it made me want sweets every time I read it. Or do I just want sweets all the time anyway?

Mrs HemingwayNaomi Woods – Mrs Hemingway

I read this on the train to Paris; it was just the perfect book to take on that trip. The book is in four sections, each from the perspective of a different Mrs Ernest Hemingway toward the end of their marriage. To be reading this and then walk down the same streets, across bridges and into Shakespeare & Co bookshop was just dreamy. Although now I have thought about him from his wives perspectives, I don’t think I can like Mr Hemingway anymore (sorry, dad!), but if you go Paris you should read A Moveable Feast.

Deliciously EllaElla Woodward – Deliciously Ella

If you have read this far you have probably worked out that I quite like food. I take out pretty much every recipe book we ever get in, but this has be my favourite of the year (sorry, Nigella – I still love you!). In fact I know it is, because after taking it out of the library I actually bought a copy. It is all about healthy, wholesome food and isn’t drastically different from the other healthy eating books that have appeared lately (there is porridge, granola, hummus, avocado on toast, sprialised vegetables, ridiculously expensive ingredient filled desserts aka all my favourite things) it just happened to be the first one I came across. I have only made a few recipes from the book but they have all worked and all being delicious; Creamy Coconut Porridge, Raw Brownies, Roasted Red Pepper Hummus, and a bonus – Warming Winter Curry from her blog is also delicious and ridiculously easy, and i’ve been eating it all year (but without the beans, I draw the health food line at any bean!).

deliciouslyella.com/warming-winter-curry

 

Read Regional Author Events

PrintWe are very pleased to be taking part in the Read Regional campaign again this year. Now in its seventh year, Read Regional is a unique campaign run by New Writing North that partners with libraries and publishers to give readers the chance to meet authors in their local libraries. As well as the author events, all of the Read Regional titles are stocked in 19 library authorities across the region, creating a wealth of northern literature available to borrow. To find out more about all the authors featured in this years campaign visit the Read Regional Website.

Last-King-of-Lydia1We are hosting 3 events over the next few weeks. Next Wednesday 29th April Tim Leach will be visiting Chapel Allerton Library to talk about his latest book, The Last King of Lydia. This is the story of Croesus. Croesus was the wealthiest man of the ancient world, whose name is proverbally associated with magnificent riches – ‘rich as Croesus’, as it is sometimes said. Yet the thing that seemed to concern him the most in his life was not wealth or power, but happiness. Come along at 5.45pm to hear why Tim chose Croesus to write about and the research he carried out to do so.

Quick-The-copy1On Monday 11th May at 5.45pm Rothwell Library are hosting an event with Lauren Owen. Lauren will be talking about her debut novel, The Quick. This is a Victorian gothic tale set in Yorkshire. To discover the secrets of ‘The Quick’ you must first travel to Victorian England, and there, in the wilds of Yorkshire, meet a brother and sister alone in the world, a pair bound by tragedy. You will in time, enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of the richest, most powerful men in England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide.

TookeyMissel-childCVR6mmLater in May we will be hosting a Poetry morning at Oakwood Library. This is on the 21st May and starts at 11.00am with a poetry workshop where you can read and discuss a selection of poetry.  Following that Read Regional poet Helen Tookey will read from her latest collection of poems.

The Fiction Hotlist for March 4

The silent boyWhat’s in the new fiction this week? Don’t miss well established authors like James Patterson and Jeffery Archer but do take a look at the full list for your favourites, we recommend –

Bestseller ‘The Dandelion Years’ by Erica James – a story of wartime love or for something a bit harder edged, try ‘Too Close to Home’ by Susan Lewis, another Sunday Times bestseller about a family making a fresh start in Wales but it unravelling into a nightmare. ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ by Kate Hamer has been acclaimed – again it’s the story of a child’s disappearance.

The girl in the red coatStill for crime fans there’s ‘Terminal City’ by Linda Fairstein, New York Times bestselling author who delivers another breakneck thriller that captures the essence of New York City – its glamour, possibilities and  endless capacity for darkness  and Veronica Heley’s ‘Murder in Time’ about complicated relationships –it’s the fifteenth dark and sinister  Ellie Quicke mystery.

If you like some history dished up with your murder mystery try C J Samsom-ish ‘The Invention of Fire’ by Bruce Holsinger set in London, 1386. Young King Richard II faces the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst his barons – and now there’s evil afoot in the City. Sixteen corpses have been discovered in a sewer….. Stay up with me

Historical crime novel of the year ‘The Silent Boy’ by Andrew Taylor is out in paperback. Paris, 1792.  A mute boy has witnessed horrors beyond his years, but what terrible secret haunts him so deeply that he is unable to utter a word?

‘Winter Pilgrims’ by Toby Clements is set in February, 1460 –  a young nun is caught outside her priory walls by a corrupt knight, rescued by a young monk with far reaching consequences.

Or enjoy these more darkly humourous stories of confounded expectations in ‘Stay Up with Me’ by Tom Barbash