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.