All that I have and all I have lost: A review of Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari

‘You come from war?’ The old woman reached out and patted Aisha on the knee, and this time she did not pull away or jump in fear. ‘Seeking refuge? That’s all right.’ She beckoned to Aisha. ‘Come and shelter in old Elder’s wood. Aisha stay here with my wartime spirits.’

I have read many beautiful books; some of them beautiful and powerful; some beautiful and wondrous. While thinking about what makes a beautiful book for me, I conclude, yes, the beauty of the words used, the words together, the types of words. But probably over and above this, it’s the reality of the words. The deep seated human connection it has with its reader, I think, is very important. It’s the core of it all. Anything can be said with pretty words, but it’s the meaning that makes it beautiful.

Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari shines for me. The truth in its pages is dazzling. Books like these reach out and touch the heart of the reader. There is something recognisable or familiar, either an experience or an opinion or a set of values – whatever it is, it clicks it all into place for you. This wonderful YA novel covers the themes of homelessness and seeking refuge after tragedy whether in your own country or another. It is an epic subject, a subject which is often swirling around somewhere among my thoughts. Because isn’t this the ultimate fear? Having something awful happen in your life that separates you from your family and your home and everything that you know? Losing your children, parents, or siblings? Losing all your security and being thrust into the darkness of life?

Aisha is one such child who had everything taken away from her after witnessing the most horrific acts. Everything including her childhood and peace was snatched from her and thrown away. Children should never see what she saw and experience what she had lived. Aisha’s world was destroyed. Coming to the U.K. and finding some sanctuary with her loving foster mother, Liliana, goes a long way in settling her into a stable happy life, but when she is faced with the prospect of having to leave another home and all that she has made familiar, Aisha makes the decision to run away. She finds herself hiding in the ancient city wood not far from her neighbourhood. There, she meets Zak, a boy struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce and Iona, a homeless girl, whose own family life was shattered long ago. Unexpectedly, they find solace in each other and their natural world surroundings, and together with Elder, an old, somewhat mystical, homeless woman, they each try to make sense of their pasts and find a way to make a brighter future for themselves.

This poetic story connects past and present with heartbreaking scenarios; the casualties of war, war orphaned children, parent-child separation, broken homes and homelessness. The loss of something – often everything – precious; and the continuous coping and building, and the searching for equilibrium, even happiness. It is harrowing yet uplifting in its themes and message. The essence of the human spirit, the resilience, the strength as life goes on, despite the horrors some people witness. It is very much a story told from a young person’s viewpoint, and in this way it is a tremendous book for children and teenagers as it seemingly effortlessly encourages compassion and tolerance. It highlights the inequality and discrimination of refugees, and inspires an empathetic response.   

Red Leaves is a book to be read as a youngster and as an adult. I cannot recommend it enough if you are touched by this subject. It is not just a book with a beautiful cover; it is a book with a beautiful spirit and a beautiful core. It encompasses so much of the bare bones of life; what we need and what we, sometimes unknowingly, have to have in order to feel human. It strips it all back. 

How could you have a past like Aisha’s and still want to sing?

An unquestionable 5 stars.

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Have a Malteser: A review of Just Ask for Diamond by Anthony Horowitz

There’s a corner of Charing Cross, just behind the station, that comes straight out of the nineteenth century. As the road slopes down towards the river, you leave the traffic and the bright lights behind you and suddenly the night seems to creep up on you and grab you by the collar. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the Thames water gurgling in the distance and as you squint into the shadows you’ll see figures shuffling slowly past like zombies. For this is down-and-out territory. Old tramps and winos wander down and pass out underneath the arches at the bottom, wrapped in filthy raincoats and the day’s headlines. 

This fabulous book is one I read years ago, picked up in the school library. Just Ask for Diamond or The Falcon’s Malteser – as it was originally called before it was made into a film – is a comedic children’s book by the multi talented writer, Anthony Horowitz. It’s a spoof of The Maltese Falcon – a 1930s detective novel – and introduces us to the Diamond Brothers, Nick and Herbert Simple. It’s the first in a series of books featuring them, of which I have read the original three (but I believe there are more). The second is Public Enemy Number Two and the third is South By South East. 

I decided to reread it this month, a good twenty five years later. And, to my jumping-for-joy-delight, I rediscovered and re-lived an absolutely wonderful reading adventure. Horowitz’s writing is superb. So much YA and middle grade fiction is unsophisticated in its structure and language, but Horowitz shows his skills and expertise, bringing his unique and witty style to the forefront, resulting in a rip roaring read that is sure to delight children and adults alike.

I’d charge her for a taxi but I took the tube to Hampstead and then walked. Hampstead, in case you don’t know it, is in the north of London, in the green belt. For ‘green’ read ‘money’. You don’t have to be rich to live in Hampstead. You have to be loaded. It seemed to me that every other car I passed was a Rolls Royce and even the dustbins had burglar alarms. 

In the story, Herbert Simple changes his name to Tim Diamond when he decides to set himself up as a private eye, but as he is totally abysmal at it, his much younger brother, Nick, is forced to step in. Firmly set in late eighties London in the run up to Christmas Day, it contains lots of puns, pop culture references, and nods to hard boiled and noir fiction. Its sense of place and time is superb and one of its great attractions. Thatcher’s Britain is clearly painted throughout, and the descriptions of London nooks and crannies are a joy. The characters are extravagant and the plot is gripping and a tad gruesome – in fact, on reading it a second time, I was surprised at the high body count in a book aimed at children. If, like me, you are a fan of stories where characters find themselves in absurd and silly scenarios, be sure to pick up this book. I love capers and comedies of errors, and this was laugh out loud stuff for me both in the early nineties and now. The story was an absolute pleasure to revisit.  The film adaptation is close to my heart as well – it’s a much-watch at Christmas for me.

A hundred years ago, Lafone Street would have been bustling with noise and colour and life. Now it was dying on its feet. Twisted coke cans, broken slates and yards of multi-coloured cables spilled out of the deserted buildings like entrails. The street was pitted with puddles that seemed to be eating their way into the carcass. Another sign caught my eye, bright red letters on white: McAlpine. It was a death warrant in one word for Lafone Street. There’s nothing more destructive than a construction company. They’d gut the warehouses and build fancy apartments in the shell. Each one would have a river view, a quarry-tiled garage and a five-figure price tag. That’s the trouble with London. The rich have inherited its history.


Love is the Answer: A review of Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

On the next floor, Ephraim unlatched an old looking door.

‘This is where you’ll sleep,’ Ephraim said, pushing it open.

‘Gosh!’ I gasped. ‘I mean…wow!’

It was perhaps the nicest room I’d ever seen. For one thing, there was so much light. I counted at least six windows – little ones, arched at the top and set deep into the walls. Everything was painted white, even the floor. On either side of the room two beds hugged the curved lighthouse walls. Above each was a shelf of books from which hung beautiful, sea-blue lanterns.”

Firstly, I have to say that novels featuring lighthouses on the cover are irresistible to me. I love lighthouses, I love pictures of lighthouses and I love books about lighthouses. And Letters from the Lighthouse has an especially scrumptious one. I purchased this lovely little book purely based on…can you guess? – the lighthouse on the front. 

And now for the story…

The year is 1941 and young teenager Olive and her little brother Cliff know all about the devastation of war. They’ve already lost their dad, and now it looks like they’ve lost their sister Suki. Yet, Olive is convinced there is more to Suki’s disappearance than is believed. So when they are evacuated to the Devon coast, Olive makes it her mission to solve the mystery and find her sister.

I have a guilty enjoyment for Second World War stories in all formats – books, tv, films. It’s not the war that I am fond of, but the seemingly cosy era portrayed. Was it cosy? No of course not – there was a war on! – but people like to look back with nostalgia, and – I like to think – focus on moments of light in the dark. However, Letters from the Lighthouse doesn’t shy away from the grimness of the time, and a really strong theme of the book is the plight of refugees. I was surprised, but delighted, by this as I think it is an extremely important subject; one which is so close to my heart.  This is a book aimed at eight to twelve year olds, yet its message of empathy and acceptance is a great one for all ages (of course), and particularly appropriate in today’s abismal political climate. The young characters rally ‘round to ‘save the day’, and Olive, in particular, is a superb heroine for school-age readers. She is portrayed with innocence but also is shown to possess a strong sense of justice, and her strength and level-headedness gets her through some very tough times.

Emma Carroll writes simply but charmingly and with sophistication, creating a world you would want your children to share. So much thought has gone into the execution of this story and the message it sends. It is a joy to read and I will most definitely be reading more of her books in the near future. So, come on over and spend some time in her lighthouse.

‘That’s for what you’re doing to our boys.’ Mrs Wilcox spat at him. The other woman prodded him with her foot. The pilot pleaded, using words I didn’t know.  But he was sobbing – that I did understand. 

‘Don’t!’ I burst out. ‘He’s injured!’ 

Someone told me to be quiet.

Surprisingly, Mr Barrowman stuck up for me: ‘Olive’s right. We should do things properly and follow international law. Hand him over – ‘

‘Oh belt up, Mr Barrowman!’ snapped the fishermen who’d argued with Queenie yesterday. ‘The chap’s a German. When’ve they ever done anything properly, eh?’

Shouts of ‘Call the police!’ and ‘Give Jerry what for!’ rippled through the crowd. Yet still no one knew what to do. It infuriated me how Mr Spratt did nothing. He’d been so particular with Ephraim about the lighthouse, checking and double-checking the logbook,  yet now he very conveniently chose to look the other way.

I only hope that when Dad’s plane came down someone kind had found him, to hold his hand when he was hurting and tell him not to be scared. Better still if it’d been so quick he’d died before his plane hit the ground.

No, I wouldn’t keep quiet. I had a voice, and it was time to make some noise with it.

Luscious letters and luscious lighthouses