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

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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.

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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: https://www.malala.org

 

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.

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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 – Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse

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My local bookshop, West End Lane Books in North West London, is wonderful at arranging events with some of the finest writers around and a couple of weeks ago we were treated to readings and discussion with two such authors. One of these was Lucie Whitehouse, who talked about her latest book Keep You Close and having just finished it, I can guarantee you are in for a thrilling read from the first page to the last.

Rowan Winter grew up in Oxford. Her mother died when she was young and her father travelled all the time, meaning she kept to herself – until she met Marianne Glass and soon, not only were the girls close friends, but Rowan became almost part of the Glass family. Ten years later, Marianne has been found dead, an apparent fall from her flat and although they hadn’t spoken in a decade, Rowan suspects there is more to Marianne’s death. She knows Marianne had severe vertigo and never went near the edge of the roof, so how could she fall?

Keep You Close is a brilliantly written book, in terms of plot, character and construction, as Lucie Whitehouse skilfully weaves the past and the present together, while always suggesting that there are still secrets the reader has yet to uncover. I find so many books, although great reads, give their endings away too obviously and it is wonderful that this novel doesn’t do that. There were moments that really did make me stop and go “Oh, now I see! How clever!” which is all down to Lucie Whitehouse’s cleverness in constructing her story.

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Author Lucie Whitehouse

A key to any novel is its characters and one of the strengths of Whitehouse’s novel for me was the fact I genuinely liked Rowan. She was flawed from the outset, but I couldn’t help but like her because she was so believable. As the book moved forward, I was desperate for her to discover the truth so that I would know too! Marianne was also a very real presence in the story despite her death at its start and I very much enjoyed the way her life, both when she knew Rowan and just before her death were weaved in to the story in order to build the mystery and anticipation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Keep You Close. With interesting characters, an intriguing mystery and a pace that builds the further through you go, it’s the perfect psychological thriller, which keeps some surprises up its sleeve until the end!

If you’re already a fan of Lucie Whitehouse or, like me, hadn’t read one of her novels before, but love a great thriller, then this won’t disappoint. I’ll certainly be reading more of her work and recommending this book to friends and family.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse is published by Bloomsbury and available from all the usual book stockists.

 

 

Book Review – Daisy In Chains by Sharon Bolton

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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).