Shtum – Jem Lester

In 2016 I seemed to read a lot of books about aging, death and grief. Not by design but these were the books that caught my eye and, to be fair, by the end of the year they seemed fairly appropriate and zeitgeisty. Hopefully this year’s books will be more varied (although I have got Alison Weir’s novel about Anne Boleyn to read and I’m fairly certain that won’t end happily…) – which doesn’t mean I’m only looking for ‘head in the sand’ happy stories. Which is just as well because Shtum, the story of a man trying to find the best life possible for his severely autistic son, is really quite dauntingly realistic.

shtumJonah lives with his parents, Ben and Emma Jewell, in London and goes to a local primary school. Like almost every parent in the country the Jewells are very concerned about which secondary school their son will move to when the time comes: of course, their concern is far more centred on the fact that Jonah is severely autistic, mute and in need of far more help than his exhausted parents can give. Emma, a lawyer, persuades her husband that their appeal to get Jonah into a residential school will be better received if they are separated and so Ben and his son find themselves living with Ben’s elderly father Georg.

This book is quite brutally realistic in its depiction of what life can be like caring for a child with such severe autism. This isn’t anything like Rainman or even the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – there is no special skill, unless you count some very creative ways with, not to put too fine a point on it, poo. Emma is, frankly, at the end of her tether and Ben is a (barely) functioning alcoholic and the local education authority seems far more interested in value for money than in Jonah’s best interests. And yet, somehow, this is a book with an enormous amount of warmth and far more laughs than I expected. Jem Lester writes from deeply personal experience and I think it shows. This is the kind of black humour that probably kept him from collecting his child’s used diapers for a month and then delivering them to the LEA as supporting evidence for his case…Ben can’t communicate in any realistic way but, just sometimes, he is able to show affection and it is these moments which sustain Ben. Because he is forced by his wife to face up to his child’s needs he learns, the hard way, that every child deserves love, security and dignity.

So many books about families and children are written from the point of view of mothers and, sometimes, grandmothers. This one shows the relationships which develop between three generations of males and it is truly moving. I was brought to tears at some points and roaring with laughter at others. And then I was very angry that any parent should have to jump through such hoops just to get their child a decent quality of life…






Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

I’m assuming everyone knows about publication dates? The dates set by publishers for the release of new books, usually on a Thursday (or sometimes Tuesdays just to keep us on our toes) and occasionally combined with strict embargoes. My main quandary is not to do with embargoes (which I have to restrain myself from calling ‘umbongoes’ because I’m 51 not 15…) but the dates themselves. I looked at my spreadsheet (because, as I say, I’m 51 and this is the only way I can remember what I’m reading/reviewing) and realised I had 5 or 6 titles down for publication on 12th January. I then have the problem of spacing out the reviews because I can’t do them all on the 12th and then have nothing for two weeks. I feel bad for the book which is reviewed 10 days after publication and sometimes I don’t fit them all in before the next batch hits. I’ve even ended up missing a couple of books from the 12th because, blimey, when I got to books coming out on 26th January there are 6 again. Luckily, none of the books are embargoed so I can slip a few in on the previous week, but I did have some deciding to do before working out which book was going to get their review on the actual Thursday they are released. It was nearly going to be David Barnett (because I know him), or Christian O’Connell (because I listen to his radio show most days and feel like I know him) but I then plumped for Sarah Pinborough (because, this week of all weeks, it is all about girl-power…And also I’ve yet to read anything by her which failed to impress).

behindhereyesBehind Her Eyes has been heavily pre-promoted with the strapline ‘Don’t Trust This Book. Don’t Trust These People. Don’t Trust Yourself. And whatever you do, DON’T give away that ending’. Which makes telling you anything about the story quite tricky. I mean, it is possible to tell you about the basic outline, or how the book starts, without giving too much away but Pinborough has created such a dense and convoluted story (in a really, really good way) that I’m loath to try. Let’s just say it is a love triangle designed by Escher, where every angle is acute enough to be positively needle sharp. And I thought I had the hang of it near the end but then found I was fooled. It is very definitely correct to describe it (rather breathlessly) as ‘that ending’.

This will be a great book for those who couldn’t get enough of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. Everyone in the book is so unreliable they are probably currently being considered for political office in the States. The plot is complex and the ending, as previously mentioned, is arresting. Even better, this should be the book which makes Pinborough a household name (even though I’ve enjoyed being ahead of the curve on this one for a while…).




Keeper of Lost Things – Ruth Hogan

Here’s a confession. Most of my skills as a bookseller are down to having a good memory. I remember where I last saw a particular book in the store or odd little facts about authors and so on and I can retrieve these otherwise useless facts from my brain when needed to help customers. Although, interestingly, this doesn’t seem to apply to pieces of paper and stuff written on them. If I’m ever famous and do one of those ’60-second’ interviews my answer to the question ‘what phrase do you use most often’ will be ‘where did I put that bit of paper?’ Funny, isn’t it, how the we use the word ‘memory’ both for recalling things from our past and for remembering to do things at some point in the future? Anyway, I digress (which is my other option for the most used phrase question…).

keeperlostthingsRuth Hogan’s book is about memory, in a way. Author Anthony Peardew tragically mislaid a relatively  cheap memento given to him by his fiancée – the tragedy being that he lost it on the day she died in an accident. In memory of Therese, his fiancée, Anthony goes out of his way to pick up items lost by others. His original intent is to restore them to their owners but, since he is an author of short stories, he instead he creates little vignettes of items and their imagined owners. He also seems to collect slightly lost people – a gardener, a young neighbour and Laura, a young woman brought low by a difficult marriage and subsequent divorce, who becomes his assistant. Laura is starting to rebuild her life when Anthony dies, leaving her his home and a mission to restore all the lost things to their rightful places (and people). She is reluctant to put much effort into this until she realises there is some kind of spirit in the house which will not let her rest with the job undone.

This is a lovely book – it has characters I cared about (but with flaws and foibles), a slightly quirky plot and, as a bonus, lots of the stories Anthony wrote about the Lost Things are included. We often remember people via objects which we connect with them and, just as often, we recall our own pasts in the same way. We are just not always so good at remembering where these objects are – it gave me a warm feeling to read about Laura, and the friends she makes through her connection to Anthony and his collection of lost objects, helping others to regain those mementoes and those memories.



A Girl Called Owl – A.J. Wilson

When I’m asked for recommendations for children’s books at work things seem to go one of two ways. If I’m talking to an adult then we have to go through the whole ‘how old?’, ‘boy or girl?’ and ‘do they like David Walliams/Jacqueline Wilson/Harry Potter/Horrid Henry?’ routine. Which I quite like as it can often lead to a good natter with the adult about what kids books we remember enjoying back in the day but it is a bit, well, removed from the person who will actually be reading the book. So when the child is asking for themself (even when they are being gently prodded into asking by a parent/guardian/teacher) we can go directly to what matters. My questions then are usually simpler (but would probably be harder for an adult to answer) – ‘do you like books which are funny/scary/magical/about animals etc?’ I find youngsters generally know what kind of thing they like and yet they don’t mind if their genres get all mixed up. Funny magical stories, scary animal tales, silly scary sad books about families – they’ve all got their fans…

9781509832460a-girl-called-owlMy latest read in the 9-12 age range could best be described as a scary, sad story about families and belonging with more than a hint of magic.  A young girl, saddled with the name Owl by her hippyish mother, has always wondered who her missing father was. Apart from that she only seemed to have fairly normal problems – school, friends and, as she gets older, boys – until the moment she starts to realise that she’s possibly not totally normal. (My own theory on teenagers is that they are totally torn between wanting to be a unique individual and hoping they are completely normal – the pain is real…) Strange patterns appear on her skin when she is stressed or upset – like frost on her skin – and she thinks she has managed to hide them from everyone except maybe the new kid at school, a boy with the equally odd name of Alberic. She finds that the fabulous stories which her mother told her about a strange and magical world are not only true but they involve and endanger her, her best friend Mallory and the mysterious Alberic.

This is a great story for children of 9+ who enjoy stories with magic and a bit of peril. Which could mean lots of Harry Potter fans…It has hints of Narnia in its glittering wintry landscape and the perilous world of the fae reminded me enormously of Alan Garner’s books. Owl is a recognizably modern child who is having to deal with mysterious dangers (and still has to get her homework in on time). All she really wants is to find out who her father is – but discovering that he is Jack Frost leads to all kinds of trouble.


Calling Major Tom – David M Barnett

I think there are a few secret rules that authors are taught at author school – how to pose for the photos on the back of the book, how to sign books so that their name is almost (but not quite) illegible and, most importantly, when to include an M in their name. Iain Banks did it to delineate the difference between his literary and his sci-fi novels and now David Barnett (author of the Gideon Smith novels) has added an M to his name for his latest book – which is definitely a departure from his previous steampunk works. And I can see why it would be useful to make this clear since this book has very little to do with airships, mechanical girls or heroes of the British Empire. Well, hardly anything…

29547280This book is the story of Thomas Major who, after the total failure of his marriage, manages to inveigle his way onto a one-way, one-man, mission to Mars. Mission control assume he will then set up and  wait for the next ship to arrive with more intrepid astronauts but he knows he is just looking for the ultimate seclusion in which to die. All in all he’s a miserable beggar. The story swerves, however, into much sweeter territory when he tries to ring his ex-wife and ends up chatting to Gladys, a grandmother from Wigan who is meant to be caring for her motherless grandchildren but is having trouble remembering what day of the week it is. As Thomas moves further away from Earth he becomes more involved with Gladys and her family than he has been with anyone for a long time.

I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this book – I knew it was going to be very different from the author’s previous work – but I really loved it. The story is a bit quirky (and we’ve established I love quirky), there is humour and also some genuinely moving moments. The main character is delightfully grumpy (there is a running gag about his name and he spends most of his time telling people that he should be called Thomas, not Tom, and that he’s not a major…) and Gladys and her grandchildren, Ellie and James, are wonderful. It is not all laughs, of course. Ellie is having to work three jobs as well as going to school and she daren’t ask for help in case the authorities take them into care when they discover that Gladys has dementia and James, like so many children, is keeping quiet about being bullied.

It is a bit of a cliché to say that I laughed and cried while reading this. But it can’t be a cliche if its true, can it?



The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters – Nadiya Hussain (& Ayisha Malik)

Let’s just start off by saying that I have a bit of prejudice going on here. Every time I hear the words ‘Nadiya Hussain’ I think of cake – and I blooming love cake… Yes, this is a novel written by the wonderful NadiyafromBakeOff* (ably assisted by Ayisha Malik) and I was thinking of cake and pies all the way through. It was not, however, a book about baking, cooking or food at all but about family. It looks at the life of one Muslim family, of Bangladeshi heritage, living in a very English village and ends up telling a story which just about anyone can relate to. Honestly – don’t think about religion or race here, this felt as universal as the lives of the Bennet or March sisters!

51xnhpytuvlWe meet the four sisters one by one as they take it in turns to narrate chapters of the story. Fatima, the eldest, lacks confidence and would feel safest hiding in her room eating squeezy cheese from the tube and not having to think about passing her driving test. Farah is happily married but longs for a child – she just oozes the need to nurture – unlike her twin, Bubblee. Bubblee lives in London and is trying to make her name as an artist: she wants a bigger life than the sleepy village of Wyvernage can offer and can’t understand how her twin can be happy there with a man who isn’t worthy of her. Mae, the youngest by 12 years, gets told to be quiet and keep out of the way – instead she records every key moment of her family’s life (complete with a sass-filled commentary). The family is completed by an absent brother, Jay, who still manages to have everything revolve around him and some rather charming parents. Dad, always ready to support his girls with a hug, a wise word or a bit of cash, and Mum, who worries about everything (where her son is, why he doesn’t call,  why Bubblee is so hard to find a husband for and whether her husband is looking at the nudist next door neighbours…).

As the title suggests secrets are revealed about each sister – with some relating to their brother and parents too – and as the family faces up to some of the bigger problems they find out lots about each other. Things, however, don’t really change until each of them is able to face up to their own problems, their own fears and their own secrets. I’m not going to say what any of these problems, fears or secrets are (spoilers, obvs…) but I will suggest that, in the end, some of them are (partly) solved by cake. Which was nice.

This is a lovely, light read. Perfect for those who prefer their fiction not to involve sex or violence. But, even though I am not averse to either of these things, I found the characters charming enough to hold my interest. In fact, by the end, I was quite pleased to see that there were still a few loose ends to tie up – I call sequel…


*That’s her full name. I’m almost sure…



Welcome to Nowhere – Elizabeth Laird

In my fairly limited experience of having to explain difficult concepts to children ( just don’t ask what I told my young niece, at my stepmother’s funeral, when she asked where Granny was…) I would imagine talking about war is right up there with the hardest. This isn’t just a case of being naughty, or risking a broken limb or even making mum, dad or Aunt Jane sad – this is trying to explain politics, greed, mindless violence or killing in the name of a ’cause’. On the one hand I can understand wanting to protect children from even the knowledge of such things but, on the other, I’m sure any parent wouldn’t want their child to learn about such huge issues without them being at least present.

welcomeElizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere seemed to me to be a good way for older children (9/10+?) to explore issues raised by war in general and the war in Syria in particular. It is the story of Omar, a young boy who dislikes school and wants to be a rich businessman when he grows up. So far, so much like kids all over the world (including any who have ever seen The Apprentice…) but Omar and his family live in Bosra, a city in Southern Syria with a rich history. The city is popular with tourists until it becomes caught up in the conflict in 2012 and Omar’s displacement begins. At first they move cities and then to the country as their new home also becomes unsafe. Omar isn’t interested in politics, although his brother Musa (who has cerebral palsy) does become involved, but it is very hard for anyone, even children, to avoid fighting and religious conflict in Syria. Eventually the family has to leave the country altogether and they make their way to a refugee camp in Jordan.

I liked the characters in this book. They seem very much like real children (even if they are in situations you would hope that no child could ever be in) and all the politics and dangers are seen through their eyes. I didn’t feel that these dangers were glossed over but, because our main storytellers are children and therefore, perhaps, a bit more adaptable to change they are moved on from quite swiftly. I would imagine that this book could help youngsters (and adults) to understand what it could be like to experience war first hand yet from a civilian viewpoint.