It has been really wintry over here and we have taken a break from school and everything really and we have been reading our way through piles of books…
So here we go: The Latest and Greatest Reads from Penguin Random House South Africa…
Let’s Begin With Adult Books
The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz: A True Story… by Jeremy Dronfield:
This is the first book I have read about the Holocaust that doesn’t read like a tale of forgotten history, most Holocaust books read as if this was an horrific period of history, let’s move along now. This book, the true story of the Kleinmann Family, reads like an horrific novel… just when things couldn’t get worse, the author warns us that they will very definitely get worse, and a lot worse. The Kleinmann family is a Jewish family living in Austria, Gustav and Tini and their four children Fritz, Edith, Hereto and Kurt. There life becomes more and more uncomfortable as Europe rushes into World War II. Hitler’s army, and their non-jewish neighbours are leaving no-one in their wake.
After several near scrapes and lucky escapes you know it is only a matter of time before the inevitable happens, and Gustav is arrested for no apparent crime. A series of events means that Felix and Gustav are sent to Buchenwald. Gustav keeps a secret diary, describing the details of their miserable life, the constant fear, abuse and torment… all the while the knew nothing of the happenings in their family, presumably back home – yet the author has the gift of hindsight and can tell us what went on, who survived and how… Eventually Gustav was given his death warrant and transferred to Auschwitz, Fritz demands to go with him… Conditions are horrific, more horrific than you can imagine, possibly more horrific than you have read before… and yet through a series of miraculous events, the two of them somehow survive… their lives are shattered forever and their family more so. The details have been carefully researched, this book is full of previously undocumented events and written from the perspective of survivors, which makes it really quite unique. This book is riveting, and you will fly through it, but the theme will leave you gasping.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins:
This is historical fiction and a debut novel of incredible depth, and touted as a gothic novel. It is a look at the life of a Jamaican slave, written through her own eyes and it is heavy. Be warned, this is not a “happily ever after tale” where slavery is glossed over as something that happened while the rich folk were living their best lives. Frannie Langton is accused of murder, a murder she may or may not have committed. You are, through the court case, very cleverly told what the upper crust, the aristocracy, the “white folk,” think about Frannie and her plight as an accused slave. Frannie finds herself mute, shocked by the crime into silence. That doesn’t stop the voices in her head though, and the story wanders in and out of time as she narrates her life to you along with how she feels about her own slavery. I think this perspective is somewhat unique… in that most slave stories are written from the perspective of the “apparently” better educated players in the equation. It turns out Frannie Langton is highly educated and a writer, and who better to narrate her own story.
Frannie has grown up in a world of the a wealthy and depraved society and yet she is not one of them, always looking at things from the outside. This is a portrayal of a dark time in history, and if you aren’t up to it, don’t dive in… that being said… if you are not one to tackle a topic lightly and you want to read more about the shocking truth about the roots of racism and the slave trade, not just the horrific abuse, but the knowledge that a slave was somehow not good enough to be considered a human. Overlying this narration is the rich and wealthy world of the slave owners, where slaves can be passed from one owner to another like chattels, and while everything looks beautiful on the surface, just a slight scratch of the surface reveals a really ugly undercurrent. Underlying the mystery of the murder story, and the fact that the protagonist looks really guilty… are so many other issues like drug addiction, obsessive relationships, and actually many more. Though it has been very well researched, it wasn’t the book I expected… I felt it didn’t have to have every single issue and it shows a very dark and depraved side of the human condition, if you are up to that then read away… the author covers a lot of depth in a relatively short space of time.
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad: Another beautiful cover, another historical novel… This is an epic and I definitely need to read something a little lighter after this. BUT, can I just say… historical, multi-cultural, multi-generational, unrequited love… tragedy. This book has it all. And if you are looking for a book to get lost in… then this is the one. Firstly it is a story, based on a difficult era, and instead of focusing on the era, it tells the story of Midhat Kamal, a young man from Palestine, who sets out to seek his fortune as a medical student in Paris… the book opens the day after leaves home, on his sea voyage in 1914. His French is “not a lot” and his adventurous spirit is somewhat cautious. And so the journey of his life begins… he discovers the world of academia, a world where you study for the sake of studying, and his mind and imagination are set alight… and yet as he wanders through life and returns home to start a family and do all the things that his father expected of him. You can’t help wishing that whenever a decision had to be made, that he wouldn’t choose the more mundane one. And yet, his somewhat ordinary life, the one that he appeared to choose, was the right life for him… until close to the end, but not too close to the end, there is a terrible twist. And you realise that “matters of the heart” are all that matter in the grand scheme of things. This book is solid, sprawling, slow and steady and just beautiful. Because it is about the human condition, it is somewhat unpredictable… and the slow twists and turns leave you a little bereft when it is all over. The quotable quote:
I needed a day or two of recovery after reading this one. It’s lovely, and I am glad I have read it… but expect it to take a while. 550 pages worth, this debut author is not going to just give you the story… snippets to keep you wondering, the story is slowly teased out, and never quite unravels. It took a while to get into, and it was a slow read, but I am thrilled that I persevered to the end of this beautiful book. Put it on your list of epics that you really should read.
A Rose Petal Summer by Katie Fforde: And now for something a little lighter… I love Katie Fforde, her books are always as good as a weekend away for me. This one is about Caro, who follows a wanted ad for a minder for an elderly gentleman living in the Scottish Highlands. Of course there is no such think as a simply being the “minder” of an elderly gentleman in the Scottish Highlands, because the old gentleman is related to so many people and the ins and outs of a multigenerational family trying to make ends meet and keep their farmland working for them, means that she very quickly becomes way more important to the family than just the “minder.” She very quickly realises that she met the son, Alex, of the Landlord many years ago, on a Greek island, where they parted ways without sharing their contact details. Life goes on, and Caro and Alex become firm friends. He never quite remembers where he knows her from, or does he? Add in a movie star, trips to France, shopping in London, perfume making and family feuding… and you have a great read. You know that a Katie Fforde is going to have some unrequited love, you know there is going to be some light conflict and a few complications along the way, and you know it is going to end happily forever after. Great weekend or holiday reading, every single time.
Kids Reads Galore
When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn: This is definitely on my list of Best Books of the Year. It is an excellent, excellent read and I don’t say that lightly. This is a book that is very close to the reality of life for many kids in Southern Africa. This is a story of racism, written in the local context, not strictly Black vs. White at all… but shades of culture, shades of colour… how children perceive themselves and where they fit into the scheme of our social structure. The book is set at a boarding school in Swaziland, where the most important children in the school live with both their parents and pay their school fees… these kids get the best of everything, the best dormitories, first dibs at the morning shower and very importantly, more food, than the children whose parents are perhaps migrant labourers, or who can’t pay their fees. The main protagonist in the book is Adele, she lives with her mother and brother, and they are the “secret second family” of a relatively wealthy businessman in Johannesburg. Adele’s father pays her school fees and visits her occasionally and is an important part of her life… her fees are paid and with that comes a certain amount of status… but his lack of presence means that she is shunned by the “in crowd” and forced to share her room with one of the poorest of poor students.
Adele believes they will never be friends, and she desperately tries to cling onto her status… keeping her food box hidden and safe under her bed. But the room mates are drawn together, not just by circumstances but also surprisingly, by Jane Eyre. Adele’s dad sent her a copy of the book as a gift and the two girls start reading it together… circumstances at the school are troubling, difficult and actually horrendous. But somehow these two struggle through… and become heroes despite desperate and many attempts from the in-crowd to knock them down a peg-or-two. Loads of life lessons in this book, but definitely not in a preachy way… Firstly, Adele’s dad loves her and he is proud of her; Secondly friends count more than status, always; Thirdly, don’t assume things about people and help them when they need help; and not only that, but chances are you lead a very privileged life… and this book is a bit of an eye opener to that. This is essential high-school reading. Popping it on my kids’ list of books that they need to read before they leave home.
Artemis Fowl and the Last Atlantis Complex and Artemis Fowl And the Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer. Eoin Colfer, is the author of the Artemis Fowl Series and they are a firm favourite in our family… we have reviewed them before!!! And we most likely will again… they have been republished with new covers, new trends, new maps… and code looking ciphers as page margins. And the same fantastic stories. (And if your kids, like some of mine are overwhelmed by chapter books, then the graphic novel versions might be just what you are looking for).
The two books we were given for review are the last two books in the series… but let’s talk about the series as a whole: These are gripping adventures… of the fantastical kind. Artemis Fowl is an illusive criminal, who calls himself a genius, a mastermind, in fact. He thought he would outwit and outsmart the fairy kingdom, only to discover that he had met his match…
These are talented fairies and they have technology at their fingertips that most of us, in our world have only dreamed of. There is a level of fast and furious action, teamed with clever outwitting on every level… and terrific technology, which is essential to every spy thriller… in the real world or the world of fairies. Great on every level… this series is a childhood must read, and Hood 8 is powering his way through them at alarming speed.
Middle Grade Books
The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Woods by Samuel J. Halpin and illustrated by Hannah Peck: This is just a great magical read and Hood 7 will love and adore this book, it is a sort gentle mixture between reality and well… not reality, slightly creepy in places… but that is part of the fairy tale… so you have to read on. Poppy is visiting her granny, who lives in a town called Suds. Yes, Suds, like water from washing your dishes. Suds is a town where strange things happen and stranger tales are told about the strange things… but who knows the truth? Every so often a child will turn grey and then vanish… but not often enough for people to walk around terrified, its a bit more… “Did that really happen?”
Poppy’s visit to town was supposed to be a short one, but then her Dad can’t return to her and suddenly she is visiting for a while and starting a new school and all the associated problems with that. She makes a friend, Erasmus… who is a little bit weird, but not too weird… and her granny takes a turn health wise and she is left to fend for herself. Her granny has some very strict house rules: never dust the windowsills; never clear the spider webs; don’t eat the sugar… I tell you after reading this I felt I have full permission to never dust a spider web or wipe a window sill again. This book feels like the start of an adventurous series… I really hope we will meet up with Poppy and Erasmus, and solve another mystery in the heart of the Riddling Woods again.
A Wishing Chair Adventure: The Royal Birthday Party and Off on a Holiday Adventure by Enid Blyton: Several of Enid Blyton’s series have been adapted for emerging readers… so richly illustrated and short short chapters… my kids love these: Famous Five, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and now The Wishing Chair. The story is about a family, with two children called Mollie and Peter…and they have a magical wishing chair that can take them to all sorts of incredible and magical places. In the Royal Birthday Party, Molly and Peter fly off to the Land of wishes… where you can wish for anything at all… a grand and golden castle, a snow balling party, and after all their wishes come true they start to realise that they just wish they could be at home with everything as usual.
They do get home of course, but in the magical world of Enid Blyton, nothing is quite normal. The other Wishing Chair Adventure we read, Off on a Holiday Adventure, Mollie and Peter fly off to the land of “The Land of Goodness Knows Where.” They were hoping for ice-cream on such a hot day, but ended up in the land of the Slipperies… and another adventurous adventure follows. Perfect, totally not at all boring beginner reader type books at all, real chapter book looking books for the beginner reader. Good fun, loads of colour and imagination, my youngest kids highly recommend these.
Actual Factual Books
Space Race: The Story of Space Exploration to the Moon and Beyond by Ben Hubbard: This is more than a book, it has on the cover “With Augmented Reality” and my nine year old immediately knew what that meant and couldn’t get into this book fast enough. Highly fitting that we post a review of it, at the time of the celebrations for the Fifty Years since the Moon Landings…
This is a history book with a modern twist. For children that love technology and short factoids and snippets to read, this book is an absolute winner. Six chapters from Rockets to Space Stations, Humans in Space and What about the Future? This book is absolutely packed with facts, amazing and incredible facts… things that you would not find in your regular history book.
Not to mention page after page of photographic illustrations, boxes packed with facts… some of the boxes are linked to videos that you can watch on the app… (that’s the augmented reality part of the book!), as well as 3D models to view. This is history in action and scientific fun, that kids of today will really want to engage with.
Exciting Activity Books
Roald Dahl’s: Matilda’s How to be a Genius – Brilliant Tricks to Bamboozle Grown-Ups… and illustrated by Quentin Blake. If you love Roald Dahl, and you love Matilda… then you will absolutely love this action packed book, filled with masses of things to do… that are actually do-able!!! The book is split into five chapters:
- Magical Mind Maths: quick tips and astonishing tricks… for the child that wants to fiendishly outwit an uncle, or the one that just wants to do some quick addition in their head… there is something tricksy here for everyone.
- Puzzling Paper:Matilda has phenomenal powers and Miss Honey is going to help her demonstrate them in this chapter… how to make paper flowers blossom, and test the super power strength of paper…
- Simply Supernatural Science: The science chapter in this kind of book always draws my kids’ attention… in this chapter you can make newts float, put miss Trunchbull into a cage, and turn the Wormwoods upside down… it’s all in the science.
- Fantastic Food: There are all sorts of exceptional tricks in this section, including making an unbreakable egg and a solar cooker for your own personal marshmallow melting. But the most incredible and phenomenal trick is the exploding chocolate cake… and yes their may well be mints and cola involved and we will definitely have to do this for a celebration later on this year.
- Mischievous Messages: The last chapter is for those of us, who have so much to say, that having to sit quietly for even the shortest time is impossible… techniques for sending secret messages to friends and fo abound… code wheels, flying scrolls, lovely limericks and ridiculous riddles… pure fun.
This book is good solid fun from start to finish… packed with wild and wacky things to do and perfect for young boys and girls that don’t love reading, who only want to read short snippets at a time. This book will keep them busy for hours and is highly, highly liftable.
Barack Obama of Thee I Sing A Letter to My Daughters and illustrated by Loren Long: This is an absolutely beautiful picture book and there is no surprise why this book arrived with such acclaim. The illustrations are fabulous, you feel as if you could easily climb into them and meet the people portrayed on the pages.
This is a letter, written in prose… and each double page spread introduces you to a famous American and highlights their greatest achievements. He tells his daughters they are creative like Georgia O’Keeffe, brave like Jackie Robinson; kind like Jane Addams, inspiring like Cesar Chavez and many more.
This book is a picture book triumph and is definitely one to pop onto your Wishlist… a sweet way for young children to learn that they can be brave and strong and courageous, at the same time learning about heroes of American history. This book is extremely giftable, for children of all ages.
Angry Owl Finds a Hobby written and illustrated by Kerryn Ponter: Angry Owl is one of our local favourites, he is a slightly grumpy fellow with very high expectations… in this story he tries and tries a number of hobbies… each time thinking that he is going to be the greatest musician, the greatest rugby player, the greatest cook, the greatest knitter… really just the greatest!!!
Only he he is never as skilled as he hopes to be… in fact he is pretty disastrous at everything he tries. And then a friend asks him how long he has practiced for, and that is his epiphany moment. He takes his guitar and practices and practices, until he gets it right. All’s well that ends well.
André the Aardvark’s Adventure by Robyn Williams: This is a sweet story for little people. André is a very nervous little Aardvark, he is scared of his shadow… but as the story unfolds and his curiosity grows, so does the number of friends he has.
And finally when fear overcomes him, and he dashes home for safety sake, his friends come to the rescue… he is safe and happy and free to dash off onto his next adventure with his new found friends. This book is written in rhyme, it is very sweet and little animal lovers will really enjoy it.
Roald Dahl’s ABC, illustrated by Quentin Blake: This team of creators keeps bringing more stunning, colourful, funky books to us. The critical ingredient for any kind of board book is that it has to be just as entertaining for the adult reading it, as for the child engaging in it. And this team manages to capture that.
From A is for Anteater to Z for zzzzzz, and all the letters in between… this is bright, colourful and fun for everyone.
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