Book Review – We Are Displaced by Malala Yousafzai (& the incredible girls she’s met around the world)


In 2015, there was one film I had to see at that year’s London Film Festival and that was the documentary film, He Named Me Malala, which tells the incredible story of Malala Yousafzai and her family. It was a stunning film (read more on that here) and afterwards Malala herself joined us by live feed to talk about her life and her passionate campaigning for education for all girls. Hearing her speak was a privilege and I hoped one day that I’d have the chance to see her at an event in person.

Last night I had that opportunity, as Malala was to give a talk at London’s Barbican Centre to coincide with the release of her new book. I arrived an hour early and immediately started reading. By the time the conversation with Malala began, I’d already read half of it and by the time I went to bed last night, I’d finished all 212 pages and immediately felt the need to write about it.

Malala’s story is well known in 2019; her courageous campaigning for the education of girls, while still a child herself, when the Taliban declared it was un-Islamic for girls to go to school, the horrifying attack that left her fighting for her life and her recovery in Birmingham, England, the city she and her family have made their home since 2012. Yet, what makes Malala such an inspirational young woman is the fact that everything she has been through has only made her stronger and more determined to fight for the causes she passionately believes in and this book is only the latest contribution she has made to such important global issues.


We Are Displaced is a book about the realities of life as a refugee, or displaced girl, in the 21st century. As Malala explained at the talk last night, as of 2017, there are 68.5 million people who were forcibly displaced worldwide, 25.4 million of which are considered refugees (many are displaced within their own countries, rather than seeking refuge in another one) and that was why she choice this title; so that it encompasses all of these stories.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, co-founder of the Malala Fund and student at Oxford University, Malala is already busier than most 21 year-olds, so why did she write this book? She was quite clear – she found it impossible not to, in light of the realities of the world we are living in. We all may hear a lot about the numbers of refugees, whether those trying to cross in to the UK, or those at the Mexican border, Trump’s wall, or those fleeing war zones around the world, such as Syria. What we don’t hear enough about are their stories, that they are ordinary people. Where have they come from? What have they suffered? What are their hopes for their future? Through this book, Malala brings a handful of these stories in to our lives and our hearts.

The book is split in to two parts; in part one she sets out her own story, first of displacement within Pakistan, when her family had to flee the Swat Valley to other areas of their country to survive the fighting between the Taliban and the army. She talks powerfully about that experience, of having to leave so much behind, the fear of being killed and the sense of not belonging, as they moved from relative to relative during those few months. She then moves on to her family’s move to England following her attack and the conflicted emotions she has felt in the UK, talking about the relief and gratitude she feels towards her new city, but also the powerful sense of yearning for her home, for the place she never wanted to leave.

Malala Yousafzai talking about We Are Displaced last night in London

Through her incredible work, championing the importance of education for every girl in the world, Malala is a woman who people have heard of everywhere and by travelling to meet other girls displaced from their homes across the globe, she has been able to hear many other stories and in part two of We Are Displaced she shares some of those with us. Each story begins with an introduction from Malala about how she came to meet this particular girl and then the story itself is written by that girl (with the help of translators where necessary).

They are stories of girls from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, The Congo, Myanmar and South America, who have each endured traumas I can’t even comprehend. Yet, what shines through their words is a sense of their bravery and strength and a determination to secure a better life for themselves. What’s also clear is just how important education is to them. Those of us in countries where it’s a given that girls go to school, take it for granted, but these young women talk about finding a sense of freedom and a future through learning. The phrase knowledge is power has never seemed so appropriate.

It’s also the knowledge this book gives to the reader that is so important. Yes, these girls have needed to seek help from somewhere that is not their home, but they put all of the images and talk of immigration and refugees that we hear on the news and social media in to perspective, in a very real and human way. They are just like us and they deserve our compassion and our help.

You cannot fail to be moved by their stories as you read their words. You read about young sisters, Zaynab and Sabreen, separated and starting on different paths; of a young Syrian girl in a camp in Jordan, who went tent to tent to try and get girls to go to school; of Marie Claire, who after fleeing The Congo with her family, watched her mother be murdered in Zambia by those against refugees coming to their country, who now attends university in the USA and many more, including a glimpse in to what it’s actually like to cross the Mediterranean in a small boat, or to reach the Mexican border when trying to join relatives already in the USA.

In addition, to give other perspectives of what it’s like for refugees, Malala has included two stories from those involved in helping them. One is the CEO of the Malala Fund, Farah, who herself was a refugee, but was very young when her family moved to Canada from Uganda. She has a fascinating insight in to growing up in a country that feels like home, yet still having to deal with the perceptions of others around you. The other contributor is Jennifer, who helped settle Marie Claire and her family in America. Her perspective, as a Westerner, is incredibly powerful in reminding us how lucky we are and also emphasises the difference any help we can give makes to people trying to start a new life in unfamiliar surroundings.

Listening to Malala speak so eloquently, intelligently and passionately about these girls and her goal to see every girl complete 12 years of free, safe and quality education was a privilege and utterly inspiring. She makes you want to make a difference and reading this book is just one way we can all start to do that, by spreading a greater level of understanding about the realities of the lives of refugees and displaced persons, as well as contributing money to causes that are providing vital help (the proceeds of this book will be used to support Malala Fund’s work, so buying a copy really will help). I can’t emphasise enough how important this book is. Every world leader, politician and citizen should read it.

I’ll leave the last words to Malala:

“Do what you can. Know that empathy is key. And that acts of generosity both big and small make a difference and help the world heal from its wounds.”

We Are Displaced is published by Orion Books and is available now from all book stockists. For more information on Malala Fund, visit the website:


Review – Letters Live (Union Chapel, 15th July 2017)


IMG_6864On Saturday night, it was time for one of my favourite events in any year. It was another trip to Letters Live, which I first discovered after missing the very first event at the Tabernacle and since missing that, I’ve been determined to go to at least one night of any Letters Live run in London since. This weekend’s performances took place at Union Chapel in Islington, which is a wonderful venue and an ideal setting for Letters Live.

For those unfamiliar with Letters Live, it is an evening that celebrates the power and beauty of the written word, through the reading of letters from throughout history, whether from the 1800s or 2017. Some were incredibly funny and some were deeply poignant, delivered by another set of talented actors and writers. You never know what letters will be read and you can never be sure which celebrities will be reading on any given night. This all adds to the magic and excitement of the occasion and keeps the focus on the letters and not the people reading them.

Letters Live also supports some wonderful charities (you can learn more on the website) and encourages all of us to think about writing more, in a world where technology has taken away from the simple, yet powerful act of putting pen to paper.


Last night’s performers were: Amanda Abbington, John Simm, Rob Rinder, Zawe Ashton, Nick Moran, Lemn Sissay, Alan Carr, Ashley Walters and with musical interludes from the singer Izzie Yardley.

What were my favourites tonight? This is always a tough question, but Alan Carr read some particularly brilliant letters and was hilarious throughout the night. His letters included a complaint from a airline passenger on his dreadful seat (“Seat 29E”) (read it here), a letter from Kenneth Williams to a fan and the response to the Turkish Sultan from the Zaporozhian Cossacks. I also loved Harold Pinter’s brilliant response to a letter from a theatregoer concerning the play The Birthday Party (the initial letter read by Amanda Abbington and Pinter’s response by John Simm), a surreal letter from Jack Lemmon to Walter Matthau regarding investment in a cat farm (also read by Simm) and a college student’s rejection of his Harvard rejection letter (read by Ashley Walters) (read it here). Hunter S. Thompson’s letter of advice to his friend was also a thought-provoking letter, particularly towards the end (read by Simm, you can read it here).

The wonderful venue that is Union Chapel

On the other end of the emotional spectrum was Rob Rinder’s reading of “Sleep Well My Love,” a letter by an American WWII veteran Brian Keith to Dave, a fellow soldier he met and fell in love with in 1943 in North Africa. It was written on the anniversary of their first meeting. Sadly Dave never made it home. It was a particularly moving reading from Rinder, as Saturday night also marked the four year anniversary of his marriage to his husband.

There was also Zawe Ashton’s powerful reading of MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to Richard Mourdock following his comments on rape being an act of God, which affected many of us in the room. You can hear Melissa read her letter yourself here:

Letters Live also always chooses wonderful musical acts (previous nights have included Tom Odell and it was at Letters Live last year where I discovered Rag N Bone Man) and last night’s act Izzie Yardley was another performer whose music I will be looking out for following this event. I particularly loved her opening song, By Your Side (check it out on Sound Cloud here).

As I have done with previous Letters Live nights, below is a full list of last night’s letters and music. I would add that last night there was no screen showing us the details of the letters and so I have compiled this list based on the notes I made from the introduction to each letter and some follow up research on the internet to ensure that I have all the names set out correctly! I’ve also included links to some of the letters throughout this article if I have been able to find them (some from the Letters Live website itself).

In fact, my only criticism of Letters Live is that they don’t give out a list of the letters read. I’m all for the surprise of the night, but they could still hand something out as everyone is leaving (we were given something at the Southbank Centre event a few years ago). Until then, my pen and paper will have to do!

List of Letters & Music (Saturday 15th July 2017)

  • “By Your Side” performed by Izzie Yardley (song)
  • 2013 – Letter by Carrie Fisher to Princess Leia (read by Amanda Abbington)
  • 1880 – Letter from American poet, musician and author Sidney Lanier to his eldest son, on the birth of his youngest son (read by John Simm)
  • 1851 – Letter from poet Alfred Tennyson to his friend Robert Monteith, following the loss of his son, who was stillborn (read by Rob Rinder)
  • 1785 – Letter from Fanny Burney (who became Madame D’Arblay) to her sister after she became Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte (read by Zawe Ashton)
  • 1997 – Letter from Buzz Aldrin to a professor regarding his time as an astronaut (read by Nick Moran)
  • 2001 – Letter from Astronaut Frank Culbertson, following 9/11, while he was aboard the International Space Station (read by Lemn Sissay)
  • 1972 – Letter by Kenneth Williams (from the Carry On films) to a fan from New Jersey Andrew Hathaway (read by Alan Carr)
  • 1967 – Letter from a theatregoer to Harold Pinter & his response (read by Amanda Abbington and John Simm)
  • 1960 – Letter from U.S Air Force WWII pilot Claude Eatherly (one of the pilots who bombed Hiroshima) to Reverend N. (read by Ashley Walters)
  • 1897 – “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” – a response from the editor of the now defunct New York paper The Sun to 8 year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who had asked if there was no Santa (read by Rob Rinder)
  • 1967 – “Janis Joplin Lives!” – Letter from Janis Joplin to her parents (read by Zawe Ashton)
  • 1896 – “He has nothing left but his poker” – Complaint letter to the Atlantic City Railroad, New Jersey from an unhappy local named A.T Harris, regarding his bull (read by Nick Moran)
  • 1963 – Letter from Jackie Kennedy to the Soviet leader Chairman Khrushchev, following the death of JFK (read by Amanda Abbington)
  • 1958 – “A man has to be something; He has to matter” – Letter from Hunter S. Thompson to his friend Hume Logan in response to a request for life advice (read by John Simm)
  • 2004 – “Seat 29E” – Complaint letter to Continental Airlines, regarding seat 29E! (read by Alan Carr)
  • 1919 – Violet Trefusis to English author Vita Sackville-West (read by Amanda Abbington)
  • 1969 – Letter from Charles Perkowski to publisher John Martin (read by Nick Moran)
  • 2012 – Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to Richard Mourdock, regarding his terrible comments on rape (read by Zawe Ashton)
  • 1981 – publishing of Paul Devlin’s rejection letter to Harvard, rejecting the rejection letter! (read by Ashley Walters)
  • 1943 – “Sleep Well My Love” – Letter by American WWII veteran Brian Keith to Dave, a fellow soldier who he fell in love with in North Africa, who never made it home (read by Rob Rinder)
  • 1927 – Letter by Edith Sitwell to Cecil Beaton (read by Amanda Abbington)
  • 2017 – Letter to the Telegraph’s letters page (regarding the outcomes of inaccurate predictive text) (read by Alan Carr)
  • 1996 – Letter from Saul Bellow to Kingsley Amis’s son Martin, following Kingsley’s death (read by Nick Moran)
  • 1988 – Letter from Jack Lemmon to his friend Walter Matthau, regarding investment in a cat farm (read by John Simm)
  • 1675 – “You Baylonian Scullion” – Letter from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to the Zaporozhian Cossacks, demanding their surrender and their colourful response back to him! (read by rob Rinder and Alan Carr)
  • 1995 – “Bruce is Great” – Joe Strummer’s contribution to a MoJo article on Bruce Springsteen (read by Nick Moran)
  • 1914 – “Brown is as pretty as white” – Letter from W.E.B Du Bois (the first African American to earn a Ph.D at Harvard) to his 14 year-old daughter, Yolande, who had left home to study in England (read by Lemn Sissay)
  • “So Easy” preformed by Izzie Yardley (song)

So that’s all from Letters Live for now. At least it’s clear that these events will always return. Their popularity only seems to grow and I look forward to lots more evenings like this one to come.

For news and information visit Letters Live’s website, or for more lovely letters visit the Letters of Note website. The brilliant books that have inspired these events: Letters of Note, More Letters of Note and To The Letter are available through the usual stockists.

Book Review – Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips: a gripping debut thriller

Fierce Kingdom is Gin Phillips’s debut thriller and its powerful story of a mother’s determination to protect her child when faced with unimaginable circumstances will certainly stay with me for quite some time.

Set somewhere in the United States, the book revolves around Joan and her four year-old son Lincoln. He loves the zoo, but on this day they find themselves caught up in a terrifying nightmare scenario, when young men armed with guns open fire just before closing time. Aware both their lives are in extreme danger, Joan knows she must use all of her instincts and courage to keep them alive.

Phillips has written a tremendously gripping book. However, unlike some people I couldn’t read it in one sitting, as I found it much too tense to do that. Although such shootings are almost unheard of here in the UK, you cannot fail to put yourself in to Joan’s shoes, or indeed some of the other characters she encounters and at a time in a world where we are much more aware of our safety being threatened, it’s a story that packs a powerful, emotional punch.


As a reader, I connected with the character of Joan immediately. She has such a strength about her that you find yourself almost holding your breath as she fights to stay one step ahead of the young men roaming the zoo. I also liked how we learnt more about her and her life as time moved along, seeing a glimpse in to the person she is outside of the world of the book and I may not be a mother, but you cannot fail to be moved by her bond with her son and how that loves fuels her determination to keep them both safe and like Joan, I took comfort in his innocence during such a frightening ordeal.

It’s also a great structural choice to keep all of the story within the walls of the zoo, rather than jump away to those on the outside, for example Joan’s husband or the police. Some writers may have chosen to do this to broaden out the story, but by keeping us as readers inside that small space with Joan and Lincoln, Gin Phillips heightens our connection to them and draws us in much more. Her decision to bring in the point of view of one of the gunmen is also interesting and creeps up on you in a clever way and through those pages we are given an insight in to what may cause someone to cause such harm and whether there is anything that will bring them back from such a dark path.

I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving anything crucial away about the book, but if you are someone who enjoys a strong thriller, that will grip you from the first chapter and hold your attention until you put it down, then I recommend that you add this book to your reading list.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips is published in the UK on 15th June 2017 by Doubleday and is available from all the usual book stockists.

Book Review – Daisy In Chains by Sharon Bolton


I was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy of the upcoming ninth novel by acclaimed crime writer Sharon Bolton. I confess I hadn’t read any of her previous books and was excited to add a new author to my reading list.

The novel centres on the crimes of Hamish Wolfe, a handsome, successful surgeon who had the perfect life – until he was found guilty of the abduction and murder of three women (with a fourth unable to be proven) and sent to prison. He still maintains his innocence and has found the perfect lawyer to take his case to appeal. The only problem for him is that she isn’t interested…at first….

That person is Maggie Rose, a successful barrister and true-crime writer. She keeps a low profile and a rather quiet and private life. She also only takes on cases she is certain she can win. So formidable is her reputation that when the detective who helped catch Hamish hears she is even considering taking his case, he tries to dissuade her further. Ultimately curiosity gets the better of her and she agrees to one meeting with him, but this only proves the start of their intriguing relationship. Hamish has a number of female admirers who believe in his innocence and have fallen for his charms, even from a distance. Surely Maggie Rose won’t be as naive?

Author Sharon Bolton

This was genuinely one of the best thrillers I have read in a long long time and I flew through it. In fact, were it not for my recent holiday this review would have been posted weeks ago. It’s a novel that you cannot stop reading. It becomes addictive.

Crucially for me, the main characters are well-rounded and interesting. Hamish is an enigma of a man. Is he innocent? He seems charming and likeable, but is that all an elaborate act? As his relationship with his lawyer moves forward you see different sides to his personality and find yourself starting to like him, while feeling bad for doing so! However the biggest mystery of this book is Maggie Rose – she is a truly intriguing and brilliant character – you never quite know her story. Why did she choose this career? Who does she talk to in her house when you don’t think anyone is there? Does she believe Hamish? Does she even care either way? A woman who seems strongly independent and yet vulnerable, you are never quite sure of her agenda and that makes reading the novel all the more thrilling.

Bolton has chosen a structure which is a little different from other novels I’ve read, with some chapters taking the form of newspaper articles, letters to or from Hamish, or draft chapters of Maggie’s own book about his case, which prove an effective way of giving its reader a lot of background and additional insight in to the minds of the two main characters in a short space of time. The novel is also extremely well paced and has enough twists and turns to keep its audience engaged and intrigued from the beginning to its conclusion. Even if you guess one part of its mystery (or think you have), there’s almost certainly going to be another piece of the puzzle that will take you completely by surprise. Not all thriller writers are able to achieve this and it’s always exciting to discover a new author whose writing captures your imagination. I dare not say too much more for fear of giving anything away!

Daisy In Chains is an excellent novel and one I will be recommending to friends and family. I’ll also be adding Sharon Bolton to my list of must-read authors from now on (including her eight previous novels)!

Daisy In Chains will be published by Bantam Press in the UK on 2nd June 2016. For more information visit the author’s website here. Many thanks to Alison Barrow from Transworld Books for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review. 


Book Review – The Widow by Fiona Barton


Although I read a variety of genres, I tend to enjoy thrillers the most and after recently seeing the Twitter buzz about Fiona Barton’s debut novel, I finally picked up a copy last week. The Widow is billed as one for those who enjoyed The Girl On The Train, a description I’ve been seeing used to describe quite a few books recently and one which is perhaps a bit too simplistic. I enjoyed Paula Hawkins’ novel (review here), but equally found there were others in this genre in 2015 that I enjoyed more (special mention for Disclaimer by Renee Knight) and so I was curious to see how The Widow would compare.

The book certainly has an interesting premise, as it focuses on someone perhaps often left on the sidelines of events – the partner of the prime suspect. Here, the protagonist is Jean Taylor, a woman in her mid to late thirties, who has been recently widowed after her husband Glen was hit by a bus. However, the Taylors weren’t an ordinary couple, as a few years before his death Glen had been accused of being involved in the disappearance of a toddler, who vanished from her garden while her mother’s back was turned.

Fiona Barton’s story comfortably moves from the present day, to the time of little Bella’s abduction and the ensuing investigation and public scrutiny, bringing the events unfolding from the perspectives of key individuals rather than simply Jean’s. This works well as the reader becomes more involved in the story of what happened and who is responsible through seeing the events through the eyes of Jean, the lead detective on the case Sparkes, a reporter keen to get the story for her paper and sometimes even the mother of little Bella as well.

Author Fiona Barton

However, ultimately this is Jean’s story. We learn how she coped with her husband’s arrest and its effect on both their lives. We also see the truth of her marriage, one that had become distant and less satisfying than it perhaps had been in the beginning and it is fascinating to see Jean start to question how well she really knows her husband and what he is perhaps capable of.

One of the aspects of The Widow that I enjoyed most was its unpredictability, especially early on. I’ve seen some reviews state that they always thought Glen was guilty. I however didn’t find that to be the case and enjoyed following the strands of the plot to see where they would finally end. Interestingly, we know from the start that Glen is dead and so, for me, it became of question of was he guilty of the crime and if so, what did Jean know and at what point. She is written as a multi-layered character. You are always wondering what she will reveal and as the book moves forward, your perception of her does start to shift. You feel sorry for her, but then you start to question what really did happen and what (if anything) she contributed to events. It’s a brilliant way of keeping the reader engaged with the story and I found it hard to put the book down once I’d started it.

Fiona Barton’s writing is well paced and contains enough little puzzle pieces that you can start to formulate your own theories as you go along. I think my biggest issue with The Widow was the approach to the ending, as it felt a little rushed for my liking. However, that aside, I found this to be an engaging and original thriller and I will certainly look out for Barton’s next novel in the future.

The Widow by Fiona Barton is published in the UK by Bantam Press and is available from all the usual retailers.

Review – Letters Live, Freemason’s Hall (Tuesday 15th March 2016)


After such an enjoyable night on Sunday (review here), tonight saw me back at the Freemason’s Hall for the final show of this run of Letters Live. It was certainly a brilliant night, with so many more varied letters. Some were incredibly funny and some were deeply poignant, each delivered by another set of talented actors and writers, together with two more musicians/singers who I’d not come across before.

Tonight’s performers were: Benedict Cumberbatch, his father Timothy Carlton, Jude Law, Matt Berry, Rory Bremner, Nick Moran, Edna O’Brian, Tuppence Middleton, Mariella Frostrup, Juliet Stevenson and Hassan (a Syrian refugee), with musical interludes from the brilliant singer Rag N Bone Man and Mercury Prize 2015 winner, singer/pianist Benjamin Clementine.

What were my favourites tonight? It’s hard actually as there were quite a few to choose from. Timothy Carlton covered all aspects of the emotional spectrum through his readings of a letter between producers of Monty Python’s Holy Grail containing some colourful language and then a deeply powerful letter written by the Argentine poet Juan Gelman in a newspaper to his grandchild, who he had never met and was trying to find (they met 5 years later). Timothy himself seemed moved by it too. Then there was the powerful letter to the people of Europe from a refugee, read out by an English teacher and fellow Syrian refugee, which certainly seemed to move the audience this evening.

Tonight’s view for Letters Live

Jude Law was fantastic , particularly his reading of the letter from the American NASA astronaut in space during 9/11, in which he conveyed his feelings about the world and what was happening as he looked down from above the Earth. Tuppence Middleton read a letter from Lili Elbe, which after recently watching The Danish Girl resonated with me. More laughs came via Juliet Stevenson’s reading of a letter from a 97 year-old lady in a nursing home and Matt Berry and Benedict Cumberbatch took on the Mehmed IV exchange with the Zaparozhian Cossacks, with Matt clearly enjoying the insults he got to read out. Then there was Benedict’s superb delivery of Sol Lewitt’s 1965 letter to Eva Hesse “DO” which required him to read a breathless list of fast paced thoughts, which he did with incredible depth and character. The writer seemed to come alive and leap from the page. Indeed, on pausing for breath after the first part he deservedly received a round of applause! Top marks to both Benedict and Jude Law too who made a conscious effort to address every side of the room, including those sitting behind them.

I was also impressed with tonight’s singers Rag N Bone Man and Benjamin Clementine, the latter also playing the piano. I was particularly drawn to the incredible voice of Rag N Bone Man and will certainly be looking in to his music. It’s wonderful that Letters Live has perhaps brought lesser known artists to a wider audience through these shows.

As I did before, below is a full list of tonight’s letters and music.

List of Letters & Music (Tuesday 15th March 2016)

  • “In My Time of Dying” performed by Rag N Bone Man (song)
  • “Five accidents in two minutes” – Fred Allen to the State of New York Insurance Department in 1932 (read by Jude Law)
  • “He is not a forgiving cat” – John Cheever to Josie Herbst in 1963 (read by Rory Bremner
  • “Don’t expect me to be sane anymore” – Henry Miller to Anais Nin in 1932 (read by Nick Moran
  • “Like a tree in full bearing” – Charlotte Bronte to her publisher W.S Williams following her sister Emily’s death (read by Edna O’Brian)
  • “I found your wallet” – Anonymous to Reilly Flaherty in 2016 (read by Matt Berry)
  • “This wretched comedy as a man” – Lili Elevens (Lili Elbe) to “Christian” (read by Tuppence Middleton)
  • “I would like to retain Fart in your general direction” – Mark Formatter to Michael White in 1974 (read by Timothy Carlton)
  • “In the event of Moon Disaster” – William Safire to H.R. Haldeman in 1969 (read by Rory Bremner)
  • “Tears don’t flow the same in space” – Frank Culbertson to Earth in September 2001 (read by Jude Law)
  • “The Matchbox” – Sylvia Townsend Warner to Alyse Gregory in 1946 (read by Mariella Frostrup)
  • “Dear People of Europe” – from a refugee today (read by fellow refugee Hassan)
  • “[Bothering Heights]” performed by Benjamin Clementine (song / piano) – I am not sure of the title of this song but am hoping someone can confirm it for me. It was something along these lines anyway!
  • “1st of July” by Rag N Bone Man (song)
  • “Your type is dime a dozen” – Hunter S Thompson to Anthony Burgess in 1973 (read by Nick Moran)
  • “I’ve got a hunch” – Thomas Wolfe to Maxwell Perkins in 1938 (read by Jude Law)
  • “Fortunately I had my new radio” – Edna Johnson to Ontario School in 1982 (read by Juliet Stevenson)
  • “I would like to give you your own history” – Juan Gelman to his grandchild in 1995 (read by Timothy Carlton)
  • “Look for me in the sunset” – Emmie to Sumner (on a grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts (read by Mariella Frostrup)
  • “You Babylonian Scullion” – Mehmed IV to the Zaparozhian Cossacks and response in 1675 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Berry)
  • “Dear One” – Rachel Carson to Dorothy Freeman in 1962 (read by Edna O’Brian)
  • “I see no beauty in lopsided true love” – Elisabeth Smart to George Barker in 1946 (read by Tuppence Middleton)
  • “To All Reporters” – A Newspaper Editor to his staff (read by Matt Berry)
  • “I see him in the stars” – Emily Dickenson to sister-in-law Susan Dickenson in 1883 (read by Juliet Stevenson)
  • “DO” – Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse in 1965 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Gone” preformed by Benjamin Clementine (song/piano)

So that’s all from Letters Live for now. At least it’s clear that these events will always return. Their popularity only seems to grow and I look forward to lots more evenings like this one to come.

For news and information visit Letters Live’s website, or for more lovely letters visit the Letters of Note website. The brilliant books that have inspired these events: Letters of Note, More Letters of Note, To The Letter and My Dear Bessie are available through the usual stockists.

Letters Live – Freemason’s Hall (Sunday 13th March)


Almost a year since my last visit I was back at the Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden tonight for another wonderful evening at Letters Live.

It’s brilliant how successful this idea has become since it started and it’s such a simple, yet beautiful concept. Hearing letters, conveying such a range of emotions read aloud never fails to make me want to put pen to paper and send some thoughts out to the people in my life. This year at Letters Live, the campaign to encourage more of us to connect via a letter has been stepped up. Rhodia, a notebook company, was on hand giving out free notebooks and postcards. Their promise – write a postcard and post it in the box and they will cover the postage, no matter how far it’s going. Then there’s the Letters Live programme itself, which as well as containing some lovely letters, includes a pull out letter/envelope for you to write to your hero.

I’ve already booked to go again on Tuesday, but I thought I’d do as I did last year and talk a bit about each night and set out a full list of readers and their letters (seeing as this is still not contained within the programme, although is tweeted by @letterslive).

In my seat ready for Sunday’s show

Tonight’s show included a mix of poignant and humorous letters, giving us an insight in to the lives of their writers across the decades. A few hours before the show it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch (who has been involved with Letters Live since its beginning) would be taking part tonight, which was an added bonus! Taking the stage alongside Benedict tonight was: Louise Brealey, Sophie Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Jeremy Paxman, Geoffrey Palmer, Sarah Snook, Simon McBurney, Hanif Kureishi and David Nicholls, with musical interludes by Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini.

There are always letters that touch me a little more than others at each Letters Live and tonight those I found most special included Oscar Isaac’s moving reading of Richard Feynman’s love letter to his late wife, Benedict’s final reading of Robert Falcon Scott’s letter to his wife as he neared death in 1912 following his team’s successful journey to the South Pole, from which he would never return and Helen Keller’s letter to the NY Symphony Orchestra. Being blind and deaf, her ability to feel the vibrations of their Beethoven concert was wonderfully read by Sophie Hunter. Then there was the letter from the Connell family in Lockerbie to the family of Frank Cialla, a victim of the plane disaster, who they found in their garden.

The latest addition to the book series – More Letters of Note

There was of course humour and laughter tonight too. Oscar Isaac was the perfect choice to read Alec Guinness’s letter in which he criticises Star Wars and moans about the young actors treating him as if he were 106! Geoffrey Palmer (as he did last year) read Evelyn Waugh’s wonderfully funny letter to his wife about an exploding tree, as well as Dalton Trumbo’s scathing complaint to a hospital. Then of course there was the wonderful pairing of Louise Brealey & Benedict reading more from Chris & Bessie (who have become a signature for Letters Live in my view).

I hadn’t heard of either of tonight’s musical performers but both Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini added an extra element to the show. All in all it was a fantastic evening. I still cannot recommend these events enough. There is something for everyone and you will be transported through history and emotion as you listen to words that were written so long ago, but meant so much to both writer and receiver. As Canongate CEO said at the start of the night, the words in such letters show us our shared humanity. In years to come I hope there will still be letters such as these for future generations to cherish.

So – if there is someone you’ve been meaning to get in touch with – delete that short text or tweet and pick up a pen and a piece of paper. Write to them. You never know it might just make their day.

Tonight’s List of Letters & Music – Sunday 13th March 2016

  • Tides by Nitin Sawhney (piano)
  • “What great births you have witnessed” – Mark Twain to Walt Whitman (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Dear Friend” – Hermione Gingold to A. Friend in 1950 (read by Louise Brealey & Sophie Hunter)
  • “Nothing is ours except time” – Lucius Anmaeus Seneca to Lucilius Junior (read by Simon McBurney)
  • “My Dungeon Shook” – James Baldwin to his nephew in 1963 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
  • “The most astonishing thing” – Madame de Sevigne to Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges in 1670 (read by Sarah Snook)
  • “Stupidity is a crime” – Dalton Trumbo to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in 1960 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
  • “Reputed Bantling” – F.Scott Fitzgerald to Andrew Turnbull in 1932 (read by David Nicholls)
  • “To All Reporters” – Newspaper editor to his staff (read by Jeremy Paxman)
  • “I love my wife. My wife is dead.” – Richard Feynman to his late wife Arline (read by Oscar Isaac)
  • “My dear little Grandfather” – Marcel Proust to his grandfather (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Autumn Sun” by Emiliana Torrini (song)
  • “Prophecy” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar)
  • “My Dear Bessie” – Chris Barker and Bessie Moore! (read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey)
  • “Your type is dime a dozen” – Hunter S. Thompson to Anthony Burgess in 1973 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
  • “The appalling horror” – Florence Nightingale to Dr. William Bowman in 1854 (read by Louise Brealey)
  • “This is quite true” – Evelyn Waugh to his wife Laura in 1942 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
  • “New Rubbish Dialogue” – Alec Guinness to Anna Kaufman in 1976 (read by Oscar Isaac)
  • “My heart almost stood still” – Helen Keller to the NY Symphony Orchestra in 1924 (read by Sophie Hunter)
  • “We all feel like that now and then” – Sir Archibald Clark Kerr to Lord Reginald Pembroke in 1943 (read by Jeremy Paxman)
  • “Our Frank” – The Connell Family to the Cialla Family (read by Simon McBurney)
  • “I embrace you with all my heart” – Albert Camus to his old teacher Louis Germain in 1957 (read by David Nicholls)
  • “Ought women not to be abolished” – Clementine Churchill to The Times in 1912 (read by Sarah Snook)
  • “To My Widow” – Robert Falcon Scott to his wife in 1912 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Sunny Road” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar) & Emiliana Torrini (vocal)

Letters Live has two performances left on Monday and Tuesday. For ticket availability see the website here. The wonderful books, To The Letter, Letters of Note, More Letters of Note and My Dear Bessie are available through the usual stockists.

Book Review – The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker


I seem to be on a role in 2015, reading one fantastic book after another and Joel Dicker’s novel will certainly be one of the book highlights of this year for me. Winner of the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, the novel sold more than 2 million copies in one year amid great fanfare in the France and has since been translated into 32 languages.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair introduces us to 28 year-old Marcus Goldman, a man struggling to find inspiration for his second novel. The pressure is indeed on, in order to follow the success of his debut and his publisher and agent are losing patience. Growing ever more frustrated and defeated he visits his old college English professor and literary success story Harry Quebert, at his coastal New Hampshire house Goose Cove, who is perhaps his only true friend. During that trip he discovers Harry’s deepest secret – that in 1975, at 34, he fell in love with a local girl Nola Kellergen, who was only fifteen at the time, only for her to mysteriously disappear without a trace.

Only months later this secret will be revealed to the world on the discovery of Nola’s body in the garden of Harry’s house thirty three years after she vanished. It seems impossible to Marcus that his friend could be guilty, despite the evidence against him, including the fact Nola’s body is found buried with the manuscript of Harry’s hugely celebrated novel. With nothing in his own life, Marcus arrives in the town of Somerset to conduct his own investigation and clear his friend’s name, which could also prove to be the perfect plot for his new book.

Author Joel Dicker

This isn’t simply a murder mystery, but one that has so many twists and turns and branches to it that I was jealous that the writer had been able to come up with it! To say it’s a long book (600 pages), I flew through it. Once you are caught up in the mysteries of this small coastal town and its residents, you simply won’t be able to stop reading until you know the truth.

I loved the book’s structure, as events and moments from the past are woven in to the present to create a multi-layered plot with more questions than simply “who killed Nola?” We are transported in to the 1970s during Nola’s last summer, as well as in to the early time of Marcus’ own friendship with Harry. Joel Dicker keeps building on the numerous questions the story poses, adding detail and background through Marcus’ investigation, which frequently has you changing your own theory. I did however get one aspect of the story right!

Marcus is a great central character. He isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s clear he is a good man determined to do the right thing for his friend. The more you read, the more you also understand his bond with Quebert, who has helped him so much throughout his life and made him a better person as a result. Quebert himself is somewhat an enigma, giving the reader the sense he is never quite revealing everything to Marcus, a device which continues to hold your attention and interest. Overall though I did like him and found his fatherly bond with Marcus quite touching.

One of the strengths of the book is also the vivid mix of other characters, many of whom are multi-layered and believable. Police Sergeant Gahalowood was a favourite of mine, as I enjoyed his grudging growing respect for Marcus and even Marcus’s mother’s fleeting scenes are amusing. As Marcus wades deeper, the circle of characters (and indeed suspects) widens, as ever more residents of the area become possibly linked to Nola’s disappearance and murder. Then there is Nola herself, at the heart of the mystery and a character with as many secrets as the truth of what ultimately happened to her.

For me, the novel had all the key elements for a successful thriller – an intriguing story, excellently paced (highlighting the great translation work by Sam Taylor), three dimensional characters and twists and turns to keep you guessing. Not all thrillers have captured my attention the way Joel Dicker’s book did. I see that Warner Brothers acquired the film rights last year, at which point Ron Howard was on board to direct. There seems to have been no further updates, so we’ll have to see if a film does become a reality. I could certainly imagine the story on the screen, although a television seres may be almost more appealing in order to let every twist and turn play out to the full.

This is certainly a brilliantly engaging thriller, which I would recommend to any fan of the genre and is one  book I’ll be passing on to friends and family this summer.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker is published in the UK by MacLehose Press and is available from all the usual book stockists.

Book review – The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett


Have you ever thought about how your life may have been different if you’d made another decision about something? What if you’d never gone on that holiday? What if you’d never moved to the City? What if you’d never met that person so important to you now? The possibilities for each of us are endless and it is this thought-provoking and emotional topic that Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, brings to life so beautifully.

Without wanting to take any of the magic from this book by saying too much, it tells the story of two people, Jim Harper and Eva Edelstein from their first encounter at Cambridge in 1958 where they are both young students. Over the course of the novel we see the path of their lives as they move through all the stages of life, from youth to old age. This is one of the book’s most powerful aspects (and for me, something which makes it resonate much more than, for example, Sliding Doors, which I have seen referred to in some reviews). You genuinely grow to have a true sense of who these people are and how their experiences shape their lives over so long. I certainly became quite attached to Jim and Eva after spending so many decades with them and it certainly gives you perspective on your own life, whatever stage you have reached, whether 18 or 80.

The other beautiful and clever aspect of Laura’s story is her decision to not just tell their story, but to tell three possible versions of it, within which the lives and destinies of Jim and Eva (and, as a result, of those around them) take different turns, some only slightly altered, others much more drastically so. Through these three paths of the book, the reader has the opportunity to walk through 60 years with Jim and Eva, down three different routes and the effect is an incredibly moving one, especially the further through the story you go.

Author Laura Barnett

It may sound confusing, but it really isn’t, which is a testament to Laura’s skill as a writer. The honest telling of the journey of ordinary people’s lives is something each of us can connect with and due to Laura’s ability to create such grounded characters (not just Eva and Jim, but those around them, who all feel very believable and well realised), The Versions of Us so quickly draws you in and captivates you to the end.

Although all three versions are split out throughout the novel, the events in one may still happen in the next and rather than repeat them, they instead build on each other, to lay the stepping stones we travel on through this couple’s life. So as well as reading effectively three versions, as a reader you still have a very real sense of an overarching journey.

I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Laura, at my wonderful local bookshop last week, West End Lane Books in North West London (always worth a visit for browsing or for one of their author events) and I was surprised to hear that she actually wrote the book as it is, jumping between the three versions, after waking up one morning with the idea fully formed in her head. I had wondered if she had written each one separately and then split them up and was impressed to hear that wasn’t the case and her description of plaiting the versions together is a brilliant way of describing the experience of reading it. Apparently some people choose to read each one as a whole, but I’d certainly recommend reading the novel as you find it, as part of its magic is the fluid movement from one path to the next and back again. I did ask her which version was the hardest to write and she said that was Version Two, which varies more from the others and she said trying to keep Eva and Jim apart was difficult, as they were like magnets wanting to come together.

I’m sure everyone will have a different response to the book, but personally, I took from the story that there are always different choices that could be made in life, with differing consequences, but that some things in our lives are always going to endure in some form. No matter the deviations along the way, the important people and events will hopefully remain. It’s this sentiment that I felt on reaching the end of the novel, as I said goodbye to Eva and Jim myself and as a result, found this to be a very moving and quite an emotional read. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough!

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and available in all the usual book stockists. It will be published in the USA in May 2016 (but I’d urge American readers to get a copy another way so as not to have so long to wait)! The website for the wonderful West End Lane Books (with details of the upcoming author events is here or follow @WELBooks).

Book Review – The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer


I came across this novel through my local bookshop (the wonderful West End Lane Books in North West London), which regularly hosts evenings with authors, giving us a chance to hear an extract of their latest book and ask questions directly to them. One such event recently welcomed Paula Hawkins (author of The Girl on The Train – read my review here) and Kate Hamer, author of this new debut novel. I intend to write up that event (watch this space), but Kate was lovely to chat to (like me, she still prefers to read a book rather than one on a Kindle) and after hearing more about her book, it sparked my curiosity and I bought a copy. On finishing it, I can say that it is quite an emotional experience, which at times I found quite difficult to read.

The girl of the title is eight year-old Carmel, a young girl who seems wiser than her years, with a love of books, her red coat and who is curious about the world around her. Her mother, Beth, recently divorced and struggling to move on with her life, senses that her daughter isn’t quite like other children and has a fear she’ll lose her, which never goes away. Tragically that’s exactly what happens when, on a trip to a literature festival, they are separated. I imagine this is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Through the story, Kate Hamer takes us through their separate lives, as Carmel, abducted by a religious preacher / spiritualist, adjusts to a whole new existence in America, replacing the tents of the literature festival from which she is taken, with those of the faith healing circuit. As she moves from place to place, she soon understands that Gramps (as she calls him, believing him to be the grandfather she has never met) is planning to have her perform faith healing, so certain is he that she has a special gift. At the same time, Beth tries to cope with the devastating loss of her daughter, whose disappearance is marked at the start of each of her chapters by the number of days, months and years since she was taken.

Kate Hamer
Author Kate Hamer

It is an incredibly moving story, but I admit that I did find it very difficult to read at times. It became a book I had to finish, desperate to know whether there was a happy ending, rather than one I looked forward to picking up. This has nothing to do with the writing. The book is very well written, as Kate Hamer creates two incredibly realistic characters in Carmel and Beth and the worlds they inhabit feel believable. It just made me so upset that I almost couldn’t continue reading. The thought of a child so young being taken, told her mother has died and removed from all she knows was heartbreaking to me and I admit to feeling very angry at the old couple in the story, who seem to think a religion would approve of such awful actions. I did skim some of the early Carmel chapters as I couldn’t bare to read what was happening, as it seemed all too possible that a young child could be deceived in such a way.

I think some people may assume this is a thriller, but I don’t agree with that description of the novel. It is a book that doesn’t sit perfectly within any genre. Instead it is a story about loss and how we cope with it in our lives, no matter our age. It is also a story highlighting the bond between mother and daughter. Carmel has to process the loss of her mother and her old life, while Beth is forced to try and survive, in the hope that one day Carmel will come home. Their bond is always there, as each continues to take strength and courage from thinking of the other.

Reading Carmel’s chapters, I tended to forget how young she was, as she thinks very maturely. Hearing her determination to maintain her sense of self in her own words was very moving and as a reader you are hoping for a miracle that will help her get home. I did however prefer Beth’s chapters, perhaps because I found it easier to imagine how I would feel in her place. As time goes on we see her grow stronger – Carmel is never forgotten (a scene in a shoe shop brought tears to my eyes), but she realises that she has to rebuild her life in order to keep going and I found myself feeling incredibly proud of how much she begins to achieve.

I’m not sure I would say this book would appeal to thriller fans. Instead, if you enjoy a character-based story, which focuses on relationships and our connections with each other, then this is certainly a book you should read. Although it wasn’t the easiest novel to read personally, it was deeply moving and is a very impressive debut by Kate Hamer. I’ll definitely make sure I keep an eye out for whatever she writes next.

The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer is published by Faber & Faber and is available from all the usual book stockists.