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.

Dark, Tense and Passionate: A review of The Rebirth of Henry Whittle by Gertrude T. Kitty

Phoenix Whittle is an orphan on the brink of adulthood. Mercilessly bullied at school, and belonging nowhere, she is trapped in a half miserable life, her only happiness coming from her two friends.  But news of a long lost uncle who wants her to live with him, gives her new hope. She dares to believe she will now have a true home, somewhere she is wanted and nurtured, somewhere she is safe. Yet when she meets her Uncle Henry she is left cold, for he seems, at best, uninterested and, at worst, actively hateful. Phoenix is now locked in a battle of wills with an uncle that clearly doesn’t care for her. With a nightmarish home life and a hellish school life, Phoenix struggles to keep it together. Her stress is multiplied when a serial killer appears to be targeting people all known to Phoenix – all known to her as her assailants.

The Rebirth of Henry Whittle is Gertrude T. Kitty’s utterly thrilling second book. From the first page, I knew I was in for a treat. The book speeds along in Kitty’s capable hands, and the reader is swept away and very quickly consumed in a dark story of fear and murder. The darkness, though, is lifted by the vibrant young characters, particularly Phoenix and her friend Luke. The conversations between the two friends provide some laugh out loud moments, and the depiction of the fun side of adolescence is captured perfectly: it’s not all doom and gloom for Phoenix.The narrative conveys a freshness so characteristic of Kitty’s work. Consistently told in the first person and present tense, it’s modern and current with references to contemporary culture. It’s the here and now, and this adds to the pacy rhythm of the book. Phoenix is a feisty girl with bags of resilience, a great sense of justice and always drawn to helping others. Her kindness and determined nature and ultimately positive spirit, spurs her on to fight for the life she deserves. And this makes her such a great protagonist and young heroine for all those YA readers out there.

The novel also focuses on Phoenix’s sexual awakening. As it is aimed at the YA readership, prepare to be titillated! I think back to Forever by Judy Blume – borrowed from the library and kept hidden in my bedside cabinet so my mum wouldn’t discover that I was reading a ‘naughty’ book! The novel encourages us to be in allegiance with Phoenix all the way and it feels like we are one of her best friends, privy to her inner thoughts and internal conversations, and always wanting the best for her. The themes of the book could be quite sensitive to some readers, so it carries a trigger warning of physical abuse especially, and is recommended for the older YA reader.

Kitty always makes use of the multi perspective narrative, and she does it in a unique way. I found this with her debut novel, Random Attachment. It struck me as very distinctive, and I was glad to find the same structure in Henry Whittle. Some of the characters’ narratives are very short, so there may be pages with as many as four points of view. This notably quickens the pace of the novel while also adding to the tension. And it works brilliantly.

The book’s geographical setting needs a special mention, as the London boroughs of Hillingdon and Harrow take me joyously back a few years to some of my old haunts. It’s thrilling reading about places you’ve lived in or been to in a novel, and Kitty always gets this spot on with me. I love books that make me conjure up vivid pictures in my mind and The Rebirth of Henry Whittle did this so well. I was able to picture places and scenes clearly, and even though I hadn’t been to all the locations, knowing of the areas referred to was a great advantage for my mind’s eye. I absolutely love it when this happens while reading a book!  As I have seen some other reviewers mention, the story would be superb as a film or TV series. It is begging to be adapted for the screen – it’s fresh, it’s British, it’s dark, it’s edgy, and it’s sexy. Who wouldn’t watch that?

If you are looking for a one or two sittings contemporary, quick paced, exciting and passionate thriller, The Rebirth of Henry Whittle will satisfy all your reading needs. A fabulous novel.

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.


Hyped About Harry: A review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

I’m not one for hype, and this is the reason why I have not delved into the Harry Potter books before now. I prefer to be passionate about my own thing in my own time, and turn to things admired only by a few. We all have to have something that makes us feel distinct, and my thing is not to follow the trend of the moment. However, the time had come for me to judge for myself if all the hoo-har about Harry and the pandemonium about Potter is justified. Having read only the first book, I’m still on that journey of discovery, yet something tells me it only gets better…

For, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is good – very good. A magical themed book for children is not a new thing, and there is a huge reason for this: it works. Children want magic and fantasy and worlds where anything is possible, because this is their world. Didn’t you believe in fairies when you were younger? Didn’t you believe in Father Christmas? Didn’t you believe your dolls came to life at night? I did. And it works for us adults too. We don’t have those beliefs anymore, but we certainly have the memory of those beliefs. And nostalgia is a great pull. We want to escape to memories of a more open, more innocent time for us; we want to escape to that magical world we once believed in; and we want to escape to all those possibilities that at one time, could have come true. 

The Philosopher’s Stone is appealing in all its magical-ness, but also all its truthfulness too. The bond of friendship is a strong theme, along with the reality of loss and loneliness. Harry, now eleven, has been raised in a family that do not want him. He is unloved and neglected. His aunt and uncle, along with his cousin, couldn’t care less for him, and actively make his life woeful. Harry is banished to the cupboard under the stairs, he is given the bare minimum of the bare minimum, he is left out of family celebrations and trips, and he is subjected to bullying and ridicule. However, things are destined to change, as, unbeknownst to Harry, he is a wizard, whose loving wizard parents were killed at the hands of an evil wizard lord. He is a very special boy who will rediscover the world he came from by attending the great wizard school of Hogwarts. And so begins a new life for Harry. A life of enchantment and adventure. 

J K Rowling writes with expertise and confidence, adding humour from the very first page. Humour within a story – almost any story – indicates to me that the author knows exactly what they are doing and is comfortable in their role as storyteller. In turn, the reader feels comfortable going on the journey with the storyteller. There is no danger of the reader giving up on the book, for they know they are with an author that has meticulously planned where they are taking us and what we will see on the way. This is what I ask from every book I read; I need to feel that I am in safe hands – safe and talented hands. The last thing I want is to finish a book and think ‘Well, I probably could have done better than that myself…’ Rowling does not let me down.

This is a story that is loved and treasured by my generation and by the children of my generation. It will, no doubt, go on this way as long as the story continues to be published. Forget the hype and the baggage and make it all about the books, for they are there to simply be enjoyed…alone on a park bench, at night before sleep, in a cupboard under the stairs, on a train to Hogwarts… Now is the time to read Harry Potter . 

Watching You from a Distance: A review of Random Attachment by Gertrude T. Kitty

Mia Dent is an ordinary girl, living a very lonely life in an inner city tower block housing estate where menace and violence is part of the everyday. She is very well adjusted considering she has a spiteful, unloving mother, and faces aggression and assault on a daily basis. She is living in an understated hell – a place where millions of Britons live – a neglected, ignored, inescapable hole of the unrepresented underclass. But Mia is a resilient and resourceful teen, and her undefeated spirit spurs her on to strengthen herself both mentally and physically. She aims to study hard and get a good education, while making her body ready for defence against the threat of daily attack. She is working on her confidence by building up her brain and her body. Mia is a wonderful character, and she makes rooting for her easy, even when she is misguidedly and embarrassingly stalking a man she spots on the tube one day.

This is Mia’s achilles heel. She is so busy obsessing over someone she has never met, that she has no inkling she’s being stalked herself and is the target of a serial rapist and killer. 

Random Attachment by Gertrude T. Kitty is a terrific book. I enjoyed reading it immensely. It is reminiscent of a gritty British police drama, and I could imagine it being a two or three part TV adaptation. The dialogue is superb and very up to the minute, although I found myself questioning the realism of Mia’s monologues to the detectives on a few occasions – yet this does serve to move the narrative along effectively – and belief can be suspended. I loved the references to parts of London, and, if you are somewhat familiar with the city, it greatly adds to the enjoyment of the book – in fact it’s quite a delight in this respect. It’s gripping and keeps you hooked and guessing. I was suspicious of all the characters at certain points, and I appreciated the way in which the narrative led me to do this. It’s a very modern and current piece of writing, portraying the here and now truthfully  and brilliantly.

Random Attachment is currently under the YA genre, however, as a humble reader, I would re-categorise it. Although I have little literary knowledge and no publishing knowledge, I would consider the crime fiction category to be more befitting. This fabulous read deserves to be nurtured by a recognised publisher and repackaged to reflect its magnificence. 

Essentially, I found Random Attachment to be a love story too. The author weaves romance into the story well, and, as a result,  I found myself harking back to those fresh, romantic days of my youth. Mia is easy to fall in love with as a reader: she is tremendously recognisable (for me, anyway!), and lacks any of the unpleasantness so often associated with fictional teens. She is a wonderful underdog, and is, undoubtedly, one of the excellent reasons to read Random Attachment. My love for RA is simple: it is a hugely entertaining book with a superb protagonist.