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The Book Gnome, a site for book reviews and reading ideas for teenagers

Book of the Month for June 2017

City on Fire by Garth Risk Halberg
reviewed by Theresa Sainsbury, 25 April 2017

City on Fire is not only a huge book in the physical sense, it is also huge in terms of courage and ideas. Not every single angle worked for me, but there was enough to make it one of the most impressive reads of the past few years.

There is no single protagonist, rather we follow the antics of a cast of characters, richly drawn from the worlds of art, music and finance, with the two most memorable being icy, repressed Regan, who contrasts sharply with her wildly creative, anarchistic brother William.

Different worlds collide, cultures clash and at the heart of it all is the wonderful city of New York, shabby and broke, but still managing to cast its spell.

It is the beauty of the prose that really elevates this novel. I fell in love with so many lines; "the flaming letters fly down through his fingers to scorch the paper" and " for a second the city seems to lean forward and make contact with a future self".

Part thriller, part detective novel, part literary masterpiece, this book refuses to be defined. It deserves to be huge!

Classic Suggestion for June 2017

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

In 1937, Ernest Hemingway travelled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. Three years later, he completed For Whom the Bell Tolls, the story of Robert Jordan, fighting in Spain as a republican guerrilla.

Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades, joins a small guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, led by a Spaniard called Pablo. The republican leadership set Robert the task of blowing up a bridge but not all the guerillas agree with the plan including Pablo. As a result, Pablo treats Robert with hostility, and Robert suspects that Pablo will sabotage the operation. Their relationship becomes so fraught with mistrust and animosity that Robert considers killing Pablo at one point.

Also living with the guerillas, is Maria, a beautiful young girl whom they are sheltering. Robert and Maria quickly become lovera, declaring their love for each other and talking of a future together in Madrid.

For Whom the Bells Tolls is a story that weaves together loyalty and courage with conflict and suspicion. It also addresses love and defeat along with a deep commitment to ideals in the face of a harsh war and interpersonal conflict. The story is moving, beautiful and brutal all at the same time, demonstrating Hemingway's exceptional skills as an author.

Teen Book Idea for June 2017

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

While her friends are enjoying their summer holiday socialising and going out, Carolina (everyone calls her Carol) accompanies her parents to the New Mexico desert to help them move her grandfather from his deserted ranch to a care home for dementia sufferers. The encounter presents Carol with new challenges both because she has never met her grandfather before or had to deal with mental illness.

Carol struggles with the suffocating heat and at the fantastical stories told by mentally ill grandpa Serge, who she starts out trying to avoid. In addition, bees seem to be following her around although the drought makes this impossible. She concludes that she must be imagining things.

With time, Carol becomes intrigued by her grandfather's stories - a healing tree, a green-glass lake, and bees that will bring back the rain and end a hundred years of drought - and sees something special in them. They trigger a journey on which she examines and revises what she thinks of her family and her background.

Lindsay Eagar's debut novel is a wonderful coming-of-age story that follows 12-year-old Carol as she tries to understand herself and her world. It is skilfully written dealing sensitively with mental illness. It is a wonderful introduction to a complex topic for readers of 11 and over.

Children's Book Recommendation for June 2017

Beetle Boy by MG Leonard (7 to 10)

Dr Bartholomew Cuttle, the director of science at the Natural History Museum, vanishes from the locked beetle vaults in mysterious circumstances. His only son Darkus vows to find him.

Darkus is forced to move in with his eccentric archaeologist uncle Max who leaves him to his own devices. He is thus able to search for his father undisturbed by concerns over things like school and homework. He is has helped by two school friends, brave Virginia and timid Bertolt.

However, the real hero is Baxter, a rhinoceros beetle, who Darkus Baxter from the unpleasant cousins Pickering and Humphrey, who live next door in a house filled with junk and infested with beetles. While Baxter does not speak, he is brave, kind and loyal, and somehow able to communicate with Darkus.

When wealthy insect collector and fashion designer, Lucretia Cutter, becomes interested in the beetles, links emerge connecting her to the disappearance of Dr Cuttle. As Darkus as his friends discover the links to her, she becomes more and more unpleasant.

There are fireflies, jewel beetles, blister beetles, a Goliath beetle and some dung beetles who aid Darkus in solving the crime. The books is funny, informative, orignal, and captivating, right from the outset.

Author Suggestion for June 2017

David Sedaris

David Sedaris is an American best-selling humorist and radio contributor. He has written plays, short stories and essays, with humour frequently at his own expense from his upbringing in North Carolina with his five siblings to his life in France, London, and the English South Downs with his partner, the painter Hugh Hamrick.

Through his satirical tone, he examines human experiences and feelings in an honest and unreserved way blending sharp wit with empathy. His work has universal appeal with themes like work, education, and family, delivered in a gentle conversational style. He has read many of his stories on radio and at public performances.

Sedaris made his comic début on National Public Radio's Morning Edition on 23 December 1992, reading SantaLand Diaries. In this story he recounted his strange but true experience working as an elf clad in green tights at Macy's department store during Christmas in New York. His story was a success and launched his career as a humourist in print and on radio.

His first collection, Barrel Fever, was published in 1994, followed by Naked in 1997, Holidays on Ice in 1997, Me Talk Pretty One Day in 2000, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in 2004, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames in 2008. He has contributed over 40 essays to The New Yorker, and has sold over 7 million copies of his books each of which has become New York Times Best Sellers.

Prize of the month for June 2017

Pulitzer Prize 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2017, having already won the National Book Award for fiction for the same novel on 16 November.

So many books have been written about slavery that it is not unreasonable to hesitate when yet another hits the shelves, wondering if there is anything new that can be said on this dark episode of US history.

The Underground Railroad not only tackles the subject of slavery with sensitivity, but provides fresh insights by looking at the experiences of an outcast slave attempting to escape the injustice of slavery while dealing with the rejection of those that should be on her side and fighting the additional complications of being female in a male dominated world. It is extraordinarily well written, demonstrating an author of exceptional talent.

The central character, Cora, a female slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, is beautifully portrayed. It is hard for the reader not to feel her pain and fear as she struggles to find a place in a society that regards her as inferior for being female, black, and a slave. It is a superb book.

Poem of the month for June 2017

A Refusal To Mourn The Death, By Fire, Of A Child In London by Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Gene Lopez

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and came of age during the turbulent 1960s. Very early on, I became interested in environmental and social issues, which continue to this day to shape my world view.

I enjoy fiction, music biographies, and political & military history, like (1) All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a worthy winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize; and (2) All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a masterpiece on the impact of wars begun by distant leaders on the people they purport to represent.

I recently set up Original Gravity Tours, a specialty travel company turning my love of travel and beer into a business. The aim is to provide a high quality travel experience emphasising the history and methods of brewing, combined with local history and select cultural sites.

Visit Gene for book reviews that I have written.

Jude Hanlon

I am a software development manager working and living in the North West of England.

My hobbies are diverse including reading, writing, knitting, skating, gardening, cooking, and watching films and TV (not necessarily in that order). My diverse taste is reflected in the books I read, anything from chick-lit to sci-fi. As my children are now of an age where they watch and read independently, I am enjoying exploring grown-up culture again, and really like a good twist in the tale.

I am a trustee of the charity Porridge and Rice which supports education in the slums of Nairobi, home to many of the poorest people of the world. I have visited Nairobi twice to work in the schools supported by the charity, and plan to be a regular visitor.

Visit Jude for book reviews that I have written.

Ken Surridge

I have been an avid reader all my life. I cannot imagine not having a book on the go and several more lined up to read. I already I own more books than I can possibly read, and the pile is still growing as a result of recommendations and reviews.

When I am not reading, I can be found earning my living tutoring as KS Learning, pottering around planting, weeding, or pruning in my gardening, or doing something for the small animals I keep, collectively known as the Farm at 64.

I chair a charity known as Porridge and Rice which supports schools for children living in the Nairobi slums, some of the poorest children in the world. I spend 4 to 8 weeks each year in Kenya overseeing the work of the charity and supervising volunteers.

Visit Ken for book reviews that I have written.

Kuljit Dhami

I am an English Language and Culture student in Groningen (NL) which means, more often than not, I can be found with my nose in a book. Or gallivanting around the country trying my hand at street photography, whilst successfully avoiding my responsibilities.

While my taste in literature ranges from political satire to psychological thrillers, I definitely have a penchant for postcolonial literature. The amalgamation of unfamiliar settings, politics, and foreign cultures always make for distinctive and poignant tales.

I am also a trustee of Porridge and Rice, a charity working to end extreme poverty in the Nairobi slums through education. As a result, Kenya and its people have found a very special place in my heart and I am constantly looking forward to the next time I can visit.

Visit Kujit for book reviews that I have written.

Theresa Sainsbury

I read to escape and I read to learn, but most of all, reading is my hobby. When I was young, there was little else to do when you weren't at school. There were only three TV channels, no Netflix, no play stations, and parents tended to leave children to their own devices, so I either listened to the radio and learnt song lyrics or read books. I started with Enid Blyton and never looked back

I recently developed a soft spot for American writers, like the beauty of Steinbeck's rural landscapes and the grittiness of Yanagihara's urban New York in A Little Life in Equal Measures. I'm currently reading the biography of Frank Auerbach, a modern artist whose painting I don't particularly like, but whose approach to life and art is fascinating.

I'm a part time English tutor, part time mum and part time taxi driver for my two teenage sons. Visit Theresa for book reviews that I have written.

Original Gravity Tours

Original Gravity Tours is a specialty travel company focused on providing excellent tours of the "Beer Capitals" of Europe like Munich & Bamberg. The aim is to provide a high quality travel experience emphasising the history and methods of brewing, combined with local history and select cultural sites.

According to Gene Lopez, the founder of Original Gravity Tours, "... after 30+ years in the high-tech industry, it was time to focus on what I love, international travel and well-crafted beer", and Original Gravity Tours was born.

The Farm at 64

I don't really have a farm. I don't even have a small holding. I just keep a number of small animals as pets.

I live in Whitton in the UK about ten minutes from Heathrow between Hounlsow and Twickenham in Greater London. I live with my wife, three children, one dog, two rabbits, seven Pekin ducks, a flock of Pekin bantam chickens, four chinchillas, just over 20 guinea pigs, a group of African Pygmy hedgehogs, and numerous birds like a number of budgies, various finches, Diamond doves, Zebra doves, and Chinese painted quails (button quails).

Understanding Drugs

Drugs are a fact of life. Furthermore, drugs are readily available at all schools, plus temptation and peer pressure is huge.

Every parent, teacher, guardian, or person who has contact and/or responsibility for a child or young person should therefore know about drugs in order to be able to respond quickly and effectively should a young person or child be tempted.

UK National Drugs helpline: 0300 123 6600

The Secular Atheist

I describe myself as a secular atheist, hence the name of the site. I am also a committed humanist.

As an atheist, I actively oppose religious privilege especially when religion tries to force its values on civil society like the denial of equality for LGBQT people and limiting women's reproductive rights.

As a humanist, I am an avid supporter of human rights as defined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and in my own small way, promote them through the charity that I chair Porridge and Rice and my work teaching through KS Learning.

Porridge and Rice

Porridge and Rice is an education charity that supports children living in the Nairobi slums, home to some of the poorest children in the world.

The goal is to ensure that these children receive a sound education to enable them to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation.

At present, the charity supports 2000 pupils in 5 schools through its 7 programmes which do everything from providing sanitary pads to girls that have reached puberty and delivering text books for core subjects like Maths and English.

When Porridge and Rice partners with a school, it begins by implementing a feeding programme providing breakfast and lunch, hence the name of the charity.

Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë to assist with A level English Literature revision, essays and coursework.

Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to assist with A level English Literature revision, essays and coursework.

Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote to help with A level English Literature revision.

Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on A Streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams for A level English Literature.

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