5 Book Reviews

Looking at the Stars
Author: Jo Cotterill
Published: 30th January 2014
ISBN13: 9781782300182
Goodreads Rating: 4.18 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill is a beautiful story targeted at older children and young adults. It handles serious themes that most readers would not have and hopefully will never face.

Amina is thirteen years old, living in a country where women have absolutely no power. She is prohibited from going to school, so she spends her days with her sister, Jenna, weaving baskets and rugs, which they sell to stall holders in the local market. The novel begins with the two girls witnessing the arrival of foreign soldiers. They are overjoyed, believing that all their troubles are over now that the liberation has begun. This, however, turns out to be a false hope.

Separated from their family, Amina and Jenna head to a refugee camp where they hope to find their younger sister, Vivie, and discover information about what has happened to their mother. To prevent them from succumbing to despair, both on the journey and living in the camp, Amina makes up stories about the stars in the sky – hence the novel’s title.

Amina and Jenna’s personalities are vastly different, meaning the reader should be able to identify with at least one of the girls and place themselves within the story. It makes us wonder how we would cope in these situations. Amina is the kind of person who asks questions. She wants to know why things happen and constantly asks, “what if?” Despite being a year younger than Jenna, she is the more confident of the two, and it is partly her determination that keeps them alive. Jenna is quiet, anxious, and always wants to do the right thing. Jenna “just wants everyone to be happy”. She is a realist, whereas Amina is a dreamer.

The storytelling aspect of this novel makes it unique from others in this genre. Many books deal with war, refugees and death, but Amina’s stories provide something extra. They are beautiful and bring hope and faith into such as bleak and dangerous setting.

Whilst this story is set in fictional towns in an unnamed country, it is not unlike recent civil wars in Syria and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of us can distance ourselves from these stories because, for us, they are just that: stories. They are not something we have to deal with every day. This novel, told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old girl, reveals what it is like for the thousands of innocents caught up in war. The way it is written helps children and young adults understand and learn more about what is happening in these countries.

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901
Author: Nancy E. Turner
Published: 3rd February 1998
ISBN13: 9780340717783
Goodreads Rating: 4.34 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2014

These is My Words is a magnificent historical novel by American author Nancy Turner, told through diary entries written by the protagonist Sarah Prine. For twenty years, Sarah wrote about her experiences, both good and bad, beginning when she was almost eighteen years old.

The first entry in 1881 reveals that Sarah and her family are travelling from Arizona to Texas, which proves disastrous, with her father and youngest brother dying along the way. Soon after they arrive, they decide they would be much better off back home and prepare to make the return trek through the “heathen land”. This time they join a train of travellers accompanied by soldiers to make them feel safer, although this by no means makes it any less dangerous. With constant attacks from Indians, many trekkers are killed or wounded, but thankfully Sarah’s family makes it through. Not long after settling back in Arizona, Sarah receives a marriage proposal from a childhood friend, which she gratefully accepts. Unfortunately, the marriage is not a happy one and ends with the untimely death of her husband, who probably never loved Sarah anyway. Later, a potentially fatal incident brings Sarah together with Captain Elliot, a soldier from the journey to Arizona, and her life takes a new direction.

Sarah is a very likeable character. Her innocence makes her a pleasant girl, but she is admired for her independence. Having grown up on a ranch with only brothers, she knows how to fight for herself and can fire a pistol better than any man. As the wording of the title suggests, Sarah has never been to school, and her grammar and spelling require improvement, which is witnessed throughout the progression of the novel. By being written this way, the reader gets a closer insight into Sarah as a person: the way she talks, the way she has been brought up, and her determination to learn and develop her reading and writing skills.

Initially, it is difficult to get into the storyline. The blurb suggests that the book is about the journey to Texas, but that is over in a matter of pages. Once they are on the return voyage, it is easier to understand, and there is a stronger connection with and appreciation of some of the characters. It is fast-paced, and most of the diary entries are short, only becoming considerably longer when something of significance is recorded. Towards the end, entries occur less frequently, resulting in the latter ten years flying by.

These is My Words is both humorous and heartbreaking. There is a romantic theme throughout the book from the very beginning, where it is clear that something is happening between Sarah and Captain Elliot, and the reader can only begin hoping that something will bring them together. This book can either make you laugh, make you cry or both – for a book to cause that amount of emotion, it must be good!

Unremembered
Author: Jessica Brody
Published: 28th February 2013
ISBN13: 9781250040022
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

Unremembered is the first book in a young adult science-fiction trilogy by American author, Jessica Brody. Set in current-day California, Unremembered is told from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl, Seraphina, who has no memory of anything before the first page of the book.

Whilst a first-person narrative by someone who does not know anything may hinder the telling of the story, it connects the audience with the main character. As readers, we also do not know what happened before the first page of the story. We learn everything as Seraphina does, the only difference being that we are aware of what certain items are – particularly technological ones – as well as being able to communicate and understand other people, not just through words but also with sarcasm and body language.

At the start, we learn there has been a plane crash into the Pacific Ocean with only one survivor, an unidentifiable girl with amnesia. Further on, it transpires that there was never any record of her being on the plane in the first place. This is where all the questions and mysteries begin. Temporarily given the name Violet, she is placed with a foster family, the Carson family, whose thirteen-year-old son Cody is intimidated by her flawless beauty. He begins to connect with her more after it emerges that she is a mathematical genius. So, another question arises, how can she remember how to solve complicated equations yet cannot even remember who she is?

There are also mysteries surrounding a peculiar tattoo on her wrist; a boy named Lyzender who keeps appearing, claiming to know who Violet, or should we say Sera, is; her uncanny ability to speak fluently in a range of languages; and the number 1609. What is the significance of this number? Not only is it the year Sera believes it is after recovering from the crash, but it is also engraved onto a locket she was wearing along with the initials “S + Z”.

Unremembered is a fast-paced novel with mysteries that get solved at the same time as more questions develop. It shows us how people with no experience of the modern world would struggle to understand the things we take for granted. It also poses the question of what truly makes us human.

A Song For Issy Bradley
Author: Carys Bray
Published: 19th June 2014
ISBN13: 9780091954376
Goodreads Rating: 3.7 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

A Song for Issy Bradley is the captivating debut novel of talented author Carys Bray. Set in modern-day Britain, this heart-breaking story shows a family’s struggle to overcome the loss of their youngest child whilst also adhering to the strict rules of their Mormon religion.

It begins with seven-year-old Jacob’s birthday, and Mum, Claire, is rushing around with last-minute party preparations whilst her husband, Bishop Ian, is off attending to his religious duties. Although Claire is aware that Issy is feeling poorly, she does not realize how serious it is until much later – too much later. After being rushed to the hospital with meningitis, Issy’s prognosis is not good. Despite Ian’s blessings and prayers, no miracles occur, and Issy passes away the following day.

The main storyline is about how the characters cope with this sudden loss. Claire hides away from everyone by remaining in bed for weeks and ignoring her duties and her family’s pleas. Ian, worried that Claire is not grieving in the proper Mormon way, throws himself even deeper into religion by focusing on what is expected of him as a Bishop rather than concentrating on his children’s needs.

Zipporah, the eldest, is expected to become the woman of the house until Claire returns to “normal”. As well as studying for her exams and doing the housework, Ian insists she attends all church events for people her age. Alone, she worries about love, marriage and falling into sin; she would really like to be able to talk to her Mum. Alma, on the other hand, is becoming more and more rebellious. Not only does he have a stupid name (Alma was named after a prophet in the Book of Mormon), his ambition to become a professional footballer is not conducive to living the gospel. Although he makes jokes and rude remarks about religious ideas, there is still a part of him that believes, and despite his attitude, it is clear he is deeply affected by Issy’s death.

Jacob’s reaction is the most heart wrenching of all. Being so young, he believes everything he is told, especially the Bible stories he hears at church. If Jesus can bring people back to life, perhaps Issy can live again? He puts his faith in God and waits in vain for his sister’s miraculous return.

The story is told through each of these five characters’ points of view, which allows the reader to see how each person’s actions affect the others and gives a greater insight into character development. It is gratifying to witness, albeit slowly, the family pick themselves up and begin to work together and carry on.

As to be expected with a story about Mormons, there are a large number of Bible quotations. Many are from the Book of Mormon, but there are numerous biblical references that Christians of all denominations will appreciate. The author was raised as a Mormon, so it can only be assumed that all the details are accurate. Non-believers should not be put off from reading this beautiful book: it is how people deal with loss that is important, and there is no preaching to the reader or attempts to convert.

The Atlas of Us
Author: Tracy Buchanan
Published: 31st July 2014
ISBN13: 9780007579358
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2014

It is hard to believe that almost a decade has passed since the Indian Ocean tsunami at Christmas 2004. Tracy Buchanan’s novel The Atlas of Us is set partly in Thailand during the aftermath of the natural disaster. Yet, this is not a story about the tsunami; it is a tale of love, relationships and motherhood, travel and mystery. Stay-at-home Mum of two, Louise, has flown out to Thailand in a desperate attempt to locate her missing mother. Although they did not have a close relationship, Louise is determined to find Nora and bring her home. An unidentified body was discovered with Nora’s bag containing her passport, but also a book titled The Atlas of Us and a necklace belonging to a woman named Claire Shreve. So who is the body? Is there a chance Nora survived? And just as importantly, how did Nora know Claire?

In between accounts of Louise’s frantic search is Claire’s story, starting from 1997 in Exmoor, where she meets Milo, the potential love of her life, and the rest of his family. But there seems to be more than meets the eye. After a disastrous event, Claire gives in to her wanderlust, and her story continues as she moves from country to country, including Serbia, Finland and Australia, where she writes award-winning travel articles. During this time, she slowly discovers the secrets that Milo has been harbouring that threaten to damage their relationship. This continues until she reaches her final destination: Thailand.

Buchanan creates a sense of foreboding as Claire travels and arrives in Thailand. The reader knows what disaster she will face there and that her chance of survival is slim; Claire, of course, is completely oblivious.

Louise’s first-person account gives an insight into the reaction of relatives of the missing as they take in the devastation left by the waves. Although she has not seen or heard from her mother for two years, there is a powerful need to find her. Louise also talks about her children and what it is like to be a mother, which helps her understand her own mother’s past behaviour and discover how much she loves her. By writing Claire’s section in the third person, Buchanan keeps the question of Claire and Nora’s possible survival unanswered until the very end. From Claire comes the perspective of someone who yearns to be a mother but is unable to conceive. She also explores the effects of the relationship with her father, the way she lives her life, and her passion for travel.

Despite the traumatic storyline, The Atlas of Us is a beautiful story with a lot of detail to keep the reader interested. One minute the focus is on relationships, and the next, a whole new world is opened up with descriptions of foreign places that could spark a desire for travel even in those usually content to stay at home. 


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3 thoughts on “5 Book Reviews

  1. I had the novel experience of listening on Spotify to the blog while reading it. Excellent way of enriching the article. It certainly makes you want to read all 5 books. First class and well worth a coffee for £3
    Thank you Hazel for sharing your considerable talents

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