July in Review: a month in books!

I started July off with a couple of children’s books but then devoured five non-fiction books followed by something totally unlike anything else I’d ever read…

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow is the charming debut children’s novel by Benjamin Dean, about Archie (the biracial boy on the cover) who is struggling because his parents have recently separated. He’s finding it hard to adjust to his dad not living at home anymore, and hates the tension on the occasions that his parents do have to spend time together (they have a blazing row during parents’ evening, for example, which mortifies Archie).

As the story develops Archie finally finds out why his parents have split up; his dad announces that he’s gay.

A rainbow covered leaflet falls out of his dad’s pocket, which Archie later reads. It’s an advert for London Pride. Archie and his two best friends decide to make the journey to London to see what this Pride event is all about, and to help them understand his dad better. The trouble is, they will have to make this journey in secret…

High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson is a children’s murder mystery story (yes, really).

We meet London twins, Nik and Norva, sisters who love nothing more than investigating crimes.

When they discover a dead body in their council estate tower block they set about tracking down the murderer.

This won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Younger Readers in 2020, and it’s easy to see why.

It has a diverse cast of characters, as you would expect from a London council estate, and is littered with slang and patterns of speech which make them jump out from the page. The whole thing feels so fresh, and is a million miles away from Enid Blyton’s mystery-loving Famous Five gang.

Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds is a non-fiction collection of essays in which Atwood analyses what “sci-fi” means to her. The fun here, however, is how she enriches this analysis with recollections from her formative years, when she devoured all kinds of books and stories during her childhood in the remote Canadian wilderness, and how this informed her work later on.

Thrillingly she dissects her own writing; there is much here about how and why she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, offering up enjoyable insight into her thought processes and providing fans with fascinating tidbits.

In Agent Zigzag Ben MacIntyre tells the incredible true story of Eddie Chapman, a London criminal who, through an almost unbelievable series of events, went on to play a major role in World War II as a spy.

Not just any old spy, though. He was first recruited as a spy by the Germans and then simultaneously by the British. He became buddies with top German officials while also working for MI5, and had a string of love affairs along the way.

This is the true story of a double agent who makes James Bond look like an amateur.

He made explosives, picked up languages easily, was an expert liar, leapt out of planes and spent the war traveling from London to Jersey, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Nantes, Berlin and Oslo all the while being used as a spy by Nazi Germany as well as by the British. He even volunteered to assassinate Hitler but his offer was firmly rejected.

This is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.

First published in 1946, Hiroshima by John Hersey tells the stories of six survivors; their everyday lives before the bomb and vivid accounts of what they experienced and witnessed in the aftermath of that terrible day.

Republished in 1986 with an extra chapter detailing their lives in the intervening forty years, this book became a powerful record of the long-lasting human costs of the atomic bomb.

I visited Hiroshima in 2002 when I was living in Japan. It is, of course, impossible to mention the name Hiroshima without immediately thinking of the bomb and the devastation it caused. People may be genuinely surprised to see that Hiroshima rose from the ashes to become a modern, vibrant city.

Indeed, I remember feeling somewhat disturbed to think that the modern streets and shopping areas that I was walking through had once been the site of so much suffering and devastation. The same rivers are still there, where thousands of people died when they went into the water in a futile attempt to sooth their burns.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is one of the most powerfully emotive places I have ever been, second only to the Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel.

This book is emotive in a similar way, presenting to the world these personal stories of six people who miraculously survived the horror of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Not an easy book to read, but essential.

A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime!

I devoured it in one sitting!

A brilliant piece of literary detective work!

So scream the review quotes on the cover, which could all be news headlines from Victorian newspapers. Murder By The Book by Claire Harman is indeed a brilliant piece of detective work.

The book investigates the murder of Lord William Russell, who was found dead in his bed on 6th May 1840 in Mayfair, London.

It sounds like the perfect murder mystery novel but everything here is true. We have the suspects (all three members of Lord Russell’s household: the valet, the cook and the maid) and we have transcripts, articles and letters from that time which really help set the tone and give amazing insight into what Victorian London was like.

There is even a fascinating literary twist to the whole tale: the prime suspect suggests that they only carried out the murder because they were inspired by a popular fiction book, which was all about the exploits of a criminal who went around merrily killing and looting.

Hence, Charles Dickens himself is drawn into the tale, as is William Makepeace Thackary.

The crux of the matter is this: could a novel really lead someone to kill?

The Bookseller of Kabul is by Asne Seierstad, an award-winning journalist from Norway who spent a few months in Afghanistan in 2001 reporting for Scandinavian newspapers. The following year she lived with an Afghan family for four months, which resulted in this book about their everyday lives in the tumultuous country under the fall of Taliban rule.

In many respects, this reportage reads like a real-life Handmaid’s Tale: the oppression of women which made it illegal for them to go to school or to have a job, marriages were arranged against their will, they could not leave the house without wearing a burka and were not allowed to go anywhere alone. Punishments were severe.

This book is an intimate portrait of a bookseller and his family: his wives, his children, their hopes and dreams, their daily rituals and habits, and the family dramas of navigating marriages, visiting relatives and simply living with each other under an oppressive religious regime.

In the book, Seierstad renamed her subjects in an attempt to provide some anonymity to the family. The head of the family, the titular bookseller, responded angrily to his portrayal, however, and attempted to sue Seierstad for damages.

Visit Scroll.in for an update on what the Bookseller is doing now. Currently, the family is split between Norway, Canada and Kabul and the Bookseller himself is planning to set up an Amazon-style online bookshop empire.

I tend to shy away from “international bestsellers” but this one really is as good as they say it is.

I ended July with this slim volume, Surfing The Gnarl Plus… by Rudy Rucker, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

This is a collection comprising of a non-fiction essay sandwiched between two short stories and finished off with an interview with the author.

In essence it’s sort of like a sampler, offering the reader a taster of what this writer is capable of, in the hope that you will be inspired enough to track down more of his work.

Rucker is a self-styled cyberpunk writer who created a new form of American science-fiction. His stories blend quantum physics with the yearnings of youth, mixes-up traditional Americana with apocalyptic Biblical battles and throws in aliens and spaceships for good measure.

The Men in the Back Room at the Country Club, the first short story here, combines the giddy excitement of teenagers finishing high school with the Good Old Boys drinking whiskey at the Country Club, who are definitely not what they seem as events lead up to a Biblical battle.

While the other short story, Rapture in Space, tells the tale of a horny couple who decide to film themselves having sex in space.

This short collection is most definitely worthy of your time.

What have you been reading this month? Feel free to comment below!

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

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