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

Book of the Month for December 2017

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 29 January 2017

The book is set in the multi-cultural 80s and 90s, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, from the latter days of Rhodesia to the early years of Zimbabwe.

Lindiwe Bishop's neighbour, Mrs McKenzie, is burned alive in her house. Her stepson, Ian McKenzie, is convicted for the crime and imprisoned. Surprisingly, he is released after only two years.

When Ian returns home, Lindiwe Bishop, who is mixed-race, is entranced by her white neighbour, and they strike up a complex relationship that grows steadily with many challenges along the way.

Ian is brash and has a temper while Lindiwe is calm and gentle. The relationship is tested again and again by their different natures and the changes taking place in Zimbabwe.

The story is as much about a complicated relationship between two very different people, and the issues of the newly independent Zimbabwe including race, corruption, and violence still relevant to today.

Classic Suggestion for December 2017

War and Peace By Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's powerful novel does not have a hero or herione but a cast of many characters that it follows in the shadow of the the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia.

The novel starts in St. Petersburg in 1805 at a society hostess's party where many of the characters are introduced including Pierre Bezukhov, the likeable illegitimate son of a rich count, and Andrew Bolkonski, the ambitious son of a retired military commander. We also meet the sneaky and shallow Kuragin family, including the wily father Vasili, the fortune-hunter son Anatole, and the ravishing daughter Helene. We are introduced to the Rostovs, a noble Moscow family, including the lively daughter Natasha, the quiet cousin Sonya, and the impetuous son Nicholas, who has just joined the army led by the old General Kutuzov.

The novel intertwines the lives of private and public individuals as balls and soirees alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and generals. It explores love, marriage, disappointment, fears, in fact, all the emotions people experience as they negotiate the events of their lives in detail.

Teen Book Idea for December 2017

A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd

A Swift Pure Cry is set in a small town called Coolbar in Ireland. It takes place in the mid 1980s before Ireland's economy took off.

At the heart of the story is Michele, nicknamed Shell, a young girl who at a crucial and confusing time in her life loses her mother and is left with a drunk father. Shell is left to parent her two siblings, getting them to school, feeding them, clothing them, and protecting them from their drunken father.

In grieving for her mother and trying to understand herself, she turns to two people - Declan Ronan, the altar boy, who is eager to engage in a sexual relationship, and Father Ross, the new priest, himself barely an adult, who pushes the boundaries in trying to help her.

Then a baby is born and dies. Is Shell a baby-killer? Who was the father? Was it that young Father Ross, with whom she was once seen alone in his car? Was it Declan? Or was Shell the victim of incest?

While the plot makes the book sound bleak, it is actually a story of a girl surviving against the odds, not without difficulty but in a way that makes her strong and able. It is a thought provoking and excellent read.

Children's Book Recommendation for December 2017

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

Starting in Syria and featuring a refugee family, this book is highly topical.

Twelve-year-old Omar lives in Syria and dreams of being a successful entrepreneur. He has two jobs which he prefers to school. He has a brother and a sister around his age, plus a couple of younger siblings.

His brother, Musa, is very smart but not treated accordingly because he has cerebral palsy: people judge him by his speech difficulties. His sister, Eman, is equally smart, and plans to become a teacher when an adult. His father works for the government, his mother worries far too much, and his grandmother is extremely critical.

Then civil war breaks out, soldiers are everywhere, tanks are in the streets and societies turns against themselves. Things get so bad that Omar and his family are forced to leave their home becoming refugees.

The book explores the impact of the civil war in Syria on the families, both adults and children. It is thought-provoking and raises challenging questions.

Author Suggestion for December 2017

Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi, British playwright, screenwriter, novelist and film-maker of Pakistani and English descent, was born in Kent in 1954 and read philosophy at King's College, London. Kurieshi has written novels, short stories, plays, film scripts, and non-fiction.

In 1981, his play Outskirts won the George Devine Award, and in 1982, he became writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre, London. In 1984, his screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette was nominated for an Oscar, and in 1990, his semi-autobiographical novel, The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel. In 1998, his short story 'My Son the Fanatic' was adapted as a film to critical aclaim, and in 2001, the film of Intimacy won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film festival.

Hanif Kureishi has proved himself to be a skilled author able to deal with a wide range of difficult topics from the Muslim community in Britain to drug use in the media industry, in a range of formats. He writes with intensity and insight reflecting a deep understanding of the human condition, and an ability to portray complex and interesting characters with empathy and honesty.

Prize of the month for December 2017

The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2016

The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award won by Max Porter for his debut novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers. The novel has already won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and at the Books Are My Bag Readers Award 2016 in the fiction category.

The prize of £5,000, is awarded annually by the judges to a work that is considered to be of exceptional literary merit to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a young British or Irish author aged between 18 and 35. This year the award was judged by BBC books editor James Naughtie, historian Stella Tillyard and The Sunday Times's literary editor Andrew Holgate.

Poem of the month for December 2017

Piano by D H Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

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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