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

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out - Sep 17 reviewed by Gene Lopez, 29 January 2017

This book is an oral history of Bill Graham, the founder of modern the music concert scene. If you're a baby boomer and into the music of the 60s and 70s, you'll enjoy the "behind the scenes" stories in this book. The style makes for an easy read - a series of different episodes in Graham's life.

It starts out with Graham's interesting childhood. He was born a Jew in Nazi Germany, and fled on foot eventually arriving in the U.S. He grew up in New York, and finally landed in San Francisco in the early 60s.

For the music fan, the fun begins when Graham started the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Not only are Graham's experiences described, but those of some musicians and competing promoters, and the early days of the "flower child" movement. It follows Graham into larger venues as the live music scene grew nationally & internationally, like the Rolling Stones 1981 & 1982 tours.

As a baby-boomer music fan raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I found this book most enjoyable.

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini

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.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The novel starts by following the mischievious activities of ten-year-old Darling and her friends. The children steal guavas off the trees of the rich and play games of make-believe in which they live lives of luxury overseas.

Darling and her friends live in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. They have been forced out of their homes into tin shacks, and live in fear of the paramilitaries that represent a government determined to cling to power by any means. Violence and intimidation are a part of their lives.

Despite being a child, Darling is forced to deal with this complex world and the resulting social challenges such as trying to secure an abortion when her friend Chipo falls pregnant.

Darling escapes to her aunt in America, expecting a life of ease and wealth but her aunt's life, as an illegal immigrant, holding down two jobs, is hard. She has to adjust to the poor neighbourhood where she now lives, a new culture, and misconceptions about Africans, all the while keeping the illusion that money is abundant and life is easy in the US, alive for those back in Zimbabwe.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

The novel tells Matilda's story, a girl caught up in the brutal civil war on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville. While Matilda has the support of her strict mother and kind teacher, it is her relationship with Pip, the character from Great Expectations that maintains her desire to live.

When war breaks out, Mr Watts, married to Grace, a native of Bougainville, is the only white person who stays. With the school closed, he decides to teach the children, introducing them to the author Charles Dickens.

Dolores, Matilda's mother, determined not to let the white man pollute her daughter's mind, steals Watts' Great Expectations book. When soldiers find Pip's name carved into the sand, they are convinced that Pip is a rebel and without the book, Mr Watts cannot prove them wrong. The soldiers burn the village to the ground, kill Watts, and rape and kill Matilda's mother.

The novel blurs the boundary between fiction and reality. There is a lyrical quality to Jones' writing where people are "silly as bats" and "argue like roosters". It is an extraordinarily powerful book.

Rotten Row by Petina Gappah

Rotten Row is Gappah's third book, and her second short story collection. In 2009, her first collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Award to much critical acclaim.

Most of the stories are set in contemporary Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah's homeland, and depict a society of opposites, troubled but hopeful, confused but normal. Petina Gappah wrestles with a wide range of topics like class, race, crime, and gender, in modern Zimbabwe, a country like many of the characters, in great difficulty and pain. The tragedy and complications of the country are reflected in the stories,

Petina Gappah writes with compassion and humour, about her homeland exposing the hypocrisy and indifference of the country's leaders and the suffering of the ordinary man. Gappah directs her satire without selection whether black or white, male or female, charity volunteer or villian. No one escapes.

Read a full review of Rotten Row by Petina Gappah, as beautifully written as An Elegy for Easterly.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, Dicker Aug 17
reviewed by Jude Hanlon, 26 February 2017

The premise is that a well-known author who is struggling to create his second novel goes to spend time with his college tutor, Harry Quebert. While there, the "Affair" explodes around him - the body of a girl who went missing 33 years ago is dug up in Harry's garden, making him the chief suspect.

Our hero knows (in his heart) that Harry cannot have abducted and killed the girl, despite the mounting evidence. It starts to look like this should be the material for his difficult second novel. Indeed, the implication is that the book in your hands is this second novel (which I found to be quite clever).

The story doesn't move quickly, and there are quite a few threads to track. The writing conveys the characters' motivation really well, and the twists and turns of the story are well revealed when the time comes - it was rare that I felt "there's a twist coming". The ending was satisfying - too often when I finish a novel, I think "meh, is that it?" - not so this time.

Also, by the time I had read to the end of Joël Dicker's novel, I was surprised to be reminded that this was a translation as the language felt natural and well-constructed throughout.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith - Jul 17

It's 1982, and two brown girls are taking dance lessons, Tracey and the unamed narrator. Tracey is a talented dancer while the narrator is not. However, she has talents of her own being a person of big ideas from rhythm to freedom. They are drawn together into a complicated and turbulent friendship that continues into their early twenties.

The two girls grow up on neighbouring council estates in equally disfunctional households, but are separated by subtle class and racial differences. Tracey's black father is absent and her overweight, white mother's biggest aspiration is to qualify for disability benefits. By contrast, the narrator lives with her unhappy, ambitious Jamaican mother and brow-beaten father.

The novel follows the narrator from child to adult, as she distances herself from her parents, envies Tracey's life, and lets work take over her life. It takes her from North West London to West Africa and back to London again, as she negotiates the complexities of race, identity, friendship, and betrayal. Swing Time is about how we are faced with these things, and how we survive them.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Halberg - Jun 17
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 it was one of my 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 coup, this book refuses to be defined. It deserves to be huge!

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey - May 17

English civil servant George and his new french wife Sabine Harwood move to Trinidad from Harrow in England. George falls in love with his new home instantly. By contrast, Sabine spends much of her married life, looking forward to the day that her husband takes her back to Harrow.

Sabine feels isolated, hates the heat, dislikes the racial segregation on the island, and is anxious about the approach of independence. She takes comfort in an imagined conversation with Eric Williams, the charismatic leader of Trinidad's new national party. She pours out her heart to him, both her hopes and fears in letters, that she never is confident enough to send but keeps instead.

After decades of marriage, George discovers the hidden letters. He is moved by his wife's unhappiness and resolves to prove his love for her, with far-reaching tragic consequences. It is an unforgettable novel that explores the emotions and mechanics of a troubled marriage on the beautiful island of Trinidad.

Time And Time Again by Ben Elton - Apr 17
reviewed by Jude Hanlon, 12 March 2017

Unlike previous novels from Ben Elton, I found this to be well written, with an intriguing story that kept me turning the page. Compared to Elton's screen work, this feels more considered and intricate. It's not a new trope that going back in time to prevent bad things, may make things worse in the long run. I liked the alternative posed here.

The hero, ex-SAS widower Hugh Stanton is alone in the world and so is an ideal candidate for the "loop in time" that Newton left details of for Hugh's Oxford professor. He is trained, equipped, and sent back to prevent the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Although I guessed who a supposed "mystery figure" was at one point, the plot didn't feel predictable, and I was as un-nerved and taken aback by the ending as I think I was supposed to be. I liked that the baddies and goodies weren't necessarily fixed as either one or the other, but that most of the characters that are introduced have layers and depending on your point of view could be either good or bad. The book is well worth reading in my opinion.

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant - Mar 17

In the spring of 1946, Evelyn Sert leaves the East End of London for Palestine by lying her way onto a ship. Recently orphaned and only 20 years old, she finds herself caught up with the idea of a jewish homeland.

She joins a kibbutz but finds the life so hard that she leaves for the city of Tel Aviv with a young jewish man Johnny, who becomes her boyfriend.

In Tel Aviv, she finds herself a flat and learns that she is seen as more English than Israeli which is a problem, as the English are the enemy. She builds a fake persona, the english hairdresser Priscilla Jones, with an absent policeman husband. She struggles with the new language, the heat, the food, and the new way of life.

Evelyn is drawn into a world of uncertain identities, lies and secrets by her new life especially her enigmatic Zionist boyfriend Johnny. She never seems sure which side about who she is, and where she belongs.

Linda Grant writes with purpose of a herione wrestling with the complexity of a nation struggling to be born.

Adventures of a No Name Actor by M Perella - Feb 17
reviewed by Jude Hanlon, 23 January 2017

Marco, the no-name actor of the title of this book, is an actor who you will probably recognise, but be unable to name. He's been 'cop at roadblock' or 'baddie #2' in many films and TV shows - enough to earn the cash to qualify for the health insurance that comes through his Screen Actors Guild membership.

This series of entertaining anecdotes gives a witty, dry and unpretentious insight into the world of a man trying to make a living in a frankly ludicrous industry. We learn that a hard days work can consist of waiting most of the day in an un-air-conditioned 7-11 for your big scene which involves lying on the floor and growling threats at the Hollywood Star, or it can result in trying to pick leaves and twigs out of impossible places after spending 5 hours battling the forces of pretend nature in a simulated hurricane. Still, it's better than spending 8 hours a day at a desk. Allegedly.

Highly recommended for pure entertainment value, even if you have no dreams of the silver screen.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri - Jan 17

Brothers Subhash and Udayan are inseperable as children growing up in Calcutta. They are seperated for the first time when they go to university, and their relationship slowly unravels as they choose different paths.

Udayan, the popular outgoing brother, is drawn to politics because of the injustice he percieves in his society. He joins the Naxalite movement, fighting against the local government to eradicate inequity and poverty, and falling foul of the authorities who do not want him captured, but eliminated.

Udayan is is killed, leaving a young pregnant wife. Subhash is alone, and chooses to leave his family and India, taking Udayan's wife with him, as his own, and intending to raise the child as his child.

The family of three cannot escape the past by moving to America. Superficially, they are both successful and happy, but behind closed doors, the past shapes their relationships and the choices they make. Even though he is long dead, Udayan is ever present in many ways that shape each of their lives.

The Lowland is yet another accomplished novel by a talented author.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Dec 16

The novel explores the impact on the civilians in eastern Nigeria when it seceded to become the state of Biafra, from its joyous birth to the bloody war that lead to death of starvation among its citizens, and its demise.

The novel follows Odenigbo, a radical maths lecturer at Nsukka University, Ugwu - the uneducated houseboy, Odenigbo's lover - Olanna - the London-educated daughter of a 'nouveau riche' Lagos businessman, Olanna's twin sister Kainene, and Kainene's English boyfriend, Richard.

It is a novel of stark contrasts. For example, the book opens with scenes of abundunt drink and rich food like pepper soup and spicy jollof rice, accompanied by intense intellectual debate on Sharpeville, Algeria and the struggle for US civil rights then descends into silence, privation and hunger as war takes effect.

Disturbing images like "vaguely familar clothes on headless bodies" capture the atrocities of war. It is an an unforgettable and moving book from an exceptionally skilled author.

The Woman who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith - Nov 16

Mma Makutsi persuades a reluctant Mma Ramotswe to take her first-ever holiday because business is slow at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Just as Mma Ramotswe is about to leave for her holiday, a interesting, new client arrives at the agency and she almost cancels her trip.

Mma Makutsi is adamant that she and Charlie have the situation in hand, leaving Mma Ramotswe without an excuse to cancel her holiday that would not offend her prickly partner. Nonetheless, she has difficulty letting go and pretending to go on holiday, she secretly investigates the case leading to complications and misunderstandings that make the plot as intriguing and engaging as those of the rest of the series.

It is another delightful book in the series. Alexander McCall Smith handles his characters with such affection and respect that the reader can only follow. In addition, his plots are intriguing with their honest, gentle wisdom that the conclusion is always very satisfying.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩwa Thiong'o - Oct 16

A Grain of Wheat by Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩwa Thiong'o, weaves together several stories set during the state of emergency in Kenya's struggle for independence from colonial rule between 1952 and 1959.

When Kenyans rebelled openly against the British, they were defeated so had to choose to compromise their principles by giving up on the idea of an independent country, or they had to join the underground resistance Kenyans called "the Movement" and the British called Mau Mau.

The story focuses on the quiet Mugo, who, unbeknown to his peers, secretly chose compromise while his peers and neighbours believe him to be a hero of 'the Movement". This dark secret rules his thoughts, as he participates in his home village's preparations for Kenyan independence.

Mugo, is not alone. The struggle for independence leaves many with secret scars that make returning to a normal life, difficult and complex. The characters are portrayed with understanding as they struggle with their demons providing insight into the independence struggle from the Kenyan perspective.

'They had issues': Sally Wainwright and Tracy Chevalier discuss the Brontës

Sally Wainwright's new drama To Walk Invisible offers a radical new take on the Brontës. She talks to novelist Tracy Chevalier about the siblings' extraordinary lives.


The 10 Best Books of 2016

The year's best books, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. 1 December 2016.


Charlotte Brontë, the filthy bitch

Enough of the Brontë industry's veneration of coffins, bonnets and TB. It is time to exhume the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend.

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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