Book Review: The Umbrella Men by Keith Carter

When I received this book from Neem Tree Press, I must admit I was a little dubious. I’m not (too) ashamed to say that numbers and finances are not necessarily my strong point and being presented with 450 pages based on the financial crisis from the late 2000s, I did wonder if this book was really for me. However, like several other reviewers over on goodreads, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it. 

The book follows three main groups of characters and while there are a lot of names to follow, they generally crop up together in their groups, so it wasn’t particularly hard to keep track of them all. There’s also useful character list to help keeps tabs on everyone. There is the group of investment bankers, headed up by American Jay Andersen; the business partners of rare metal mining company Rareterre, with a particular focus on CEO Peter Mount and his family based in London; and finally, Amy Tate who has recently exchanged the rat race for a life in rural Oregon. Upon arrival at her beautiful new home, she is horrified when her peace and tranquility is disturbed when large trucks from the local mine begin driving up and down the road several times a day, leading her to join a local group of environmental activists.

When Amy and her new friends decide to try and stop the mining company from digging up the land nearby (each individual with their own motivation for doing so), it has unexpected repercussions around the world, with a particular impact on the financial markets. Author Keith Carter looks at the crisis from the perspective of individuals and smaller companies as well as from the big investment bankers at the top of the food chain. He looks not only at the financial losses but also the personal cost involved in the aftermath of the crash. The writing and character development leaves you really rooting for some characters, empathising with others and yet when others get their just desserts, you despise them alongside the other characters in the book.

Author Kevin Carter, himself a former banker who lost his job as the CEO of a smaller company as a result of the crisis, wrote a interesting piece about the book and his motivations for writing it for the Big Issue. While I will admit some of the financial discussions went over my head a little (there is a glossary of financial terms at the back), that didn’t detract from my pleasure of reading the book or stop me from really getting caught up in the story.

So if you’re looking for a book to really get your teeth into, look no further than The Umbrella Men.

Lockdown reading recommendations

At the beginning of lockdown, like many people I have spoken to, I really struggled to concentrate on reading. For someone who always has her nose in a book, this has been somewhat disconcerting. Over the last couple weeks however I seem to have regained my ability to concentrate, perhaps partly aided by some really good books. What with having my kids at home full time now, time to write is really at a premium, so rather than individual book reviews, I thought I’d give you a bit of a summary of what I’ve been reading over the last few weeks, most of which has consisted of some amazing young adult and children’s books.

The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff, translated from the Finnish by Annie Prime (Pushkin Press)

Having read books ones and two, Naondel and Maresi, I was really excited to read the third book in the Red Abbey Chronicles: Maresi Red Mantle. This is the book that ended my reading drought and it won the 2020 Global Lit in Libraries Initiative Translated YA Book Prize. This young adult fantasy trilogy tells the story of the Red Abbey. While the books together form a series, they also work well as standalone books.

Naondel tells of the Abbey’s founding mothers (check out the World Kid Lit blog for a great in-depth review on this one) and is a tale of the brutality of the male-dominated world the women inhabit. Together the women combine their strength and, leaving their old worlds behind them, they embark on a journey and find a place where they can live together in safety. On an island, they found the Red Abbey.

The second book Maresi jumps forward many years to a later time when the Red Abbey is well established as a place of learning for girls and women and the founding mothers of the first book are revered in books and legend. This book follows the arrival of Maresi, a girl who has had to leave her family because of a famine in their region. Over the course of the book, we see her grow and the women of the Abbey must come together with the spirits of their predecessors to overcome the threats from outside. At the end of this book, Maresi leaves the Abbey to return to her homeland, setting the scene nicely for book three.

Maresi Red Mantle follows Maresi’s voyage back home with the intention of setting up a school to educate her fellow countryfolk. Facing resistance from the local community, Maresi realises that while this is her home, her upbringing at the Abbey has left its mark on her and she is singled out as being different. To gain acceptance within her community, she must overcome barriers and, when their whole region is under threat, she must gather all her knowledge and her strength and call upon the spirits of the region’s ancestors to save it. 

Lampie by Annet Schaap, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson (Pushkin Press)

There has been quite a buzz around this book since it was shortlisted for the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal, the first translated book to do so. Lampie, or Emilia to give her her Sunday name, lives in a lighthouse with her father and every night she is responsible for lighting the lamp. However, one evening she goes to light the lamp and realises that she has forgotten to buy matches. A storm is rolling in and she has to fight against the elements to buy some matches.

This all takes place during the opening chapter which I found absolutely breath-taking. The imagery of the storm, the little girl soaked to her skin, pushing herself to the limits; it had me hooked from the beginning. The lamp does not get lit that night and in the darkness a ship crashes into the rocks. As punishment she is sent away from the lighthouse to work as a maid in a large creepy house which is rumoured to have a monster living there. This isanother fantasy story, weaving together fairy tales and reality to create a story ultimately highlighting the importance and power of kindness.

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius translated by Peter Graves (Pushkin Press)

The Murderer’s Ape is another book I had heard good things about and I was not disappointed. Sally Jones is a gorilla who can read and write. She can’t speak but she can play chess, tinker with engines, fix accordions and this is her self-typed testimony of her adventures. Together with the Chief, she has sailed around the world but when the Chief is falsely imprisoned in Lisbon for a murder he did not commit, Sally Jones sets out to clear his name. In doing so, she uncovers something much darker and more sinister than she could have imagined. Her journey sees her working as an instrument maker’s apprentice, setting sail aboard a ship to India, working as a spy and flying aeroplanes with a Maharajah. While the book in all is quite long, each adventure feels almost like a separate mini book within a bigger one. Great imagination with the plot twisting and turning while Sally Jones’ steadfast loyalty to her friend never wavers.

Akissi Tales of Mischief by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Mathieu Sapin, translated by Judith Taboy and Marie Bédrune (Flying Eye Books).

Hailing from Côte d’Ivoire, Akissi was recommended to me by a good friend when we were in a book shop and I must say I am glad I took the recommendation. Akissi is a mischievous, gutsy little girl who is far from the cutesy, “girly” image that society sometimes portrays our girls to be. Akissi climbs trees, she makes friends with animals (mice, rabbits and tapeworms!!) and she loves to get her older brother Fofana into trouble. This graphic novel is just such good fun. Each little mini adventure lasts 4 or 5 double pages meaning you can dip in and out of the book. The illustrations are bright and colourful and Akissi’s exploits just make you want to laugh out loud. My six-year-old daughter has particularly enjoyed this book, often demanding I sit and read it with her. One of her favourite stories is where Akissi decides that she going to have a pet, one of the mice that live in her house. The speech bubbles for the mice simply say “squeak”, with an asterisk directing you to the “translation”. Great fun!

For more reading ideas, as well as a list of independent publishers of children’s books who are delivering books to your door, check out the World Kid Lit Blog.

ITI Virtual Coffee Morning

On Friday morning, I was privileged to be asked to participate in the ITI’s inaugural Virtual Coffee Morning. The idea had been put forward by Professional Development Officer Ann Brooks. In these strange times that we are living in, the idea was to provide support and light entertainment to ITI members, rotating around the different networks and regional groups each week to form a panel.

Waving the flag for the East Midlands Regional Group alongside my good friend Ellen Worrell, I was ready to talk about the benefits of joining your local group as well as discussing the World Kid Lit blog. We also shared our recommendations for books and films to enjoy, that also help towards your annual CPD target of 30 hours. We also had to play the game of “Who’s mug is this?”

The bit I was dreading was the quiz. Teamed up with my fellow EMRGer Ellen, we were up against the ITI Office team. Sadly, despite our best efforts, we lost 3 questions to 4. But it was good fun and all in the spirit of bringing people together and connecting in these times of social distancing and isolation. With an attendance over over 250 participants, it’s fair to say it seems to have gone down well.

The next one is this coming Friday at 11am with the ITI Welsh Regional Group helping to form the panel. A great initiative and a pleasure to have been involved.

Kid Lit Book review: What is a refugee? by Elise Gravel

This World Book Day I am championing a book by award-winning Canadian author-illustrator Elise GravelWhat is a refugee? (Puffin)

It feels particularly poignant to be highlighting this book in a week where our news feeds are once again filled with the heart-breaking images of people fleeing war-torn countries, hoping for safe-passage to a different country, only to be caught at the borders of countries unwilling to allow them through.

A refugee is a person, just like you and me.

Elise Gravel

One of the things I love about Elise Gravel’s picture book is the emphasis on the fact that refugees are people, “just like us”. With clear, concise sentences, Gravel takes us through the sort of situations that refugees might be fleeing, one idea to a double spread page. The accompanying illustrations are bright and bold. From here, she goes on to depict people at a closed border, in a refugee camp and she discusses simply what refugees are hoping for – a school, a job, a safe place to live.

At the back of the book, Gravel includes snippets from discussions with refugee children. Again, the emphasis here is on how we are the same – football, hobbies, even playing Fortnite gets a mention. The very last page is all about famous refugees – Einstein, Freddie Mercury and Malala – a celebration of the positive contributions of refugees to our societies.

This week in school, my kids (6 & 9) are talking about the Shared Writing Project 2018, Small City, Big Heart – Stories from Derby’s Inner City. This is a writing project that culminated in the publication of a book including short stories and poems written by school pupils from across the globe who have settled here in Derby. On Monday after school, my six-year-old asked whether she could take in What is a refugee? because they were talking about refugees and she wanted to share with it her classmates. She showed the book to her teacher who thought the book was a great introduction to the topic, “pitched at the perfect level” for primary school-aged children to understand.

While I think the book is fabulous, as a regular volunteer at local charity Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity, I was also interested to see what refugees and asylum seekers themselves thought about it, so I took the book along to one of our sessions. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with Zak saying it is “tremendous” and that for him, the pictures really convey the message, even if your English skills are limited. He says: “it is a really important book for children to understand what refugees are.”

Julie James, volunteer coordinator at DRS, also had this to say: “Everything I’ve learned by listening to, working alongside and reading about refugees and asylum seekers condensed into one simple, moving and beautiful book.”

Elsie Gravel has taken a sensitive topic and created a stunning book that promotes and encourages understanding in children of why people leave their countries to seek safety.

For more book recommendations on the topic of refugees and migration, please take a look at this page.

Take a look at the World Kid Lit blog for more book reviews, articles and interviews all about global literature for children.

Book Review: Children of War by Ahmet Yorulmaz, tr. Paula Darwish (Neem Tree Press)

While I am aware of the division between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriots on the island of Cyprus, I had not before come across the period of history concerning the island of Crete. Children of War is by Ahmet Yorulmaz and translated by Paula Darwish from Turkish (Neem Tree Press). It is due for publication in March 2020.

The book opens in Crete where Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims have lived peacefully alongside each other for generations. Weaving a story of fiction in amongst a backdrop of real-life occurrences and drawn from the diary of a refugee family, Yorulmez tells of a population displaced from their homeland and the suffering they experience in the process.

Narrated in the first person, in the first chapter we are introduced to a young Turkish Cretan, Hassan, who gives us a brief run-down of the history of the Turks’ arrival on the island of Crete, tracing their heritage back to 1600. We learn that his family live in a small village called Kamish by the Turks, or Kalami by the Greeks. Despite the mix of Greeks and Turks, the villagers were “respectful and sincere people” and there is an “instinctive collectivism”. But all this begins to change and amidst the turbulent atmosphere, Hassan and his family leave before they are forced to flee.

From their village they travel south-west to Kandanos where the Turks are cornered, blockaded and shelled by the Greeks with nowhere to run. Death and fear surround them and “the hours turned to days, days turned to months”. A really poignant moment comes where Hassan says: “something happened to me, Uncle. I know I’m sad, but I don’t feel much right now”. At this, my thoughts turn to our current political situation and the impact on the children caught up in wars currently raging in our world.

After being under siege for 46 days, the French and Italians come to their aid and the Turks are moved on again. Under a protective escort, they are taken to the city of Kisamos and so begins a period of relative stability for Hassan and his family. During this time, Hassan uses his wits and good nature, darting around the city selling his mother’s homemade snacks. While out and about selling, Hassan comes to know the locals and steadily improves his fortune. But there are still rising tensions between the Greek and the Turks…

One character particularly stood out to me: Kiri Vladimiros. He is the owner of a print house and comes to act as a father figure for Hassan. Throughout Hassan’s time in Kisamos, he remains the voice of reason as he speaks of peace and humanity, making no distinction between “Greekness and Tukishness”.

There is a scene where Hassan takes Vladimiros to a bar with his friends. While there, they bump into an old friend of Hassan’s who has been actively fighting for the Turkish cause against the Greeks. While unsure of how this meeting will unfold, Hassan unites these people around a table and they talk. With his goodness and humanity, Vladimiros wins the respect of those around him, regardless of who they are. Despite having been written over twenty years ago, these are lessons that can be drawn on today. Yes, we may have differences but we are all people.  

It is shortly after Hassan’s departure for Turkey that the book ends. I must admit I was surprised. I was expecting and hoping to hear more about his arrival in Turkey. We are told in the book that his mother tongue is Greek and that he only learns Turkish once he arrives in Varusi, using Greek letters to help his pronunciation. Right at the beginning of the book, it is made clear to us that while the Muslim Cretans identify as Turks, their whole lives have been built in Crete. Archna Sharma, publisher at Neem Tree Press, however, assures me that there is a sequel to this book (in fact, it’s part of a trilogy!) and I am fascinated to learn what happens to Hassan once he arrives in Turkey.

With maps, a historical timeline, footnotes and a translator’s note, I found Children of War to be far more than just a story; it has readdressed my own ignorance about a time and a place of which I had little knowledge.

Many thanks to Neem Tree Press for the advanced review copy.

World Kid Lit Review: A History of the World with the Women Put Back In by Kerstin Lücker and Ute Daenschel, tr. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Jessica West

Today I’m reviewing a non-fiction book called A history of the world with the women put back in by Kerstin Lücker and Ute Daenschel, translated from German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Jessica West (The History Press).

I had heard interesting things about this book before my daughter (aged 6) received the book as a gift for Christmas. Now, I must admit, it is far too advanced for a six-year-old to sit and read – there are no pictures or images (other than in the first few pages) and it’s a good 400+ pages long – but as the authors point out in the introduction, they have also received quite a bit of attention from adults readers too. According to translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, “it’s aimed at 11+ in terms of the content and length of chapters. The book is marketed in the UK as adult history (& also appears in the Feminism section I think in our local @cheltwaters) but in its original #German edition it was pitched as #YA/teen read”.

That saying, my daughter did ask me to read a few bits out to her, cue an interesting conversation with her teacher about why she might be talking about or drawing pictures of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake!!

Written from a base line of assuming the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject, it is a run through world history starting with the beginning of human history leading right up to modern day. The language is straight forward and where historical terms and periods are referred to, they are neatly explained so everyone can keep up. The authors in their introduction highlight that while sexuality and violence are two massive topics to discuss within this subject area, they have purposefully chosen not to focus on them. In that way, reading about Joan of Arc with my six-year-old was relatively safe, with no fear of hugely graphic details.

The authors do not claim to be able to cover every single detail of world history in their book, and for me, there are areas I would have liked to have read more about (South America before the arrival of the Spanish, for example); however, don’t let that detract from what is covered. I really enjoyed finding out more about some areas of the world or some periods of history that I hadn’t previously known much about. The book doesn’t necessarily take these events into any great detail, but it is a great starting point to then go and dig deeper about a particular subject. I can also see that as my children come home with their homework on the Greeks or the Romans, for example, this will be a real go-to volume.

It is entitled A history of the world with the women put back in so a certain emphasis on women throughout history is to be expected, but this is not an exclusive focus. It does not concentrate on women at the expense of excluding men; rather it is trying to redraw the balance and highlight how women were involved at key moments throughout history. I welcome this – we are not trying to exclude men but rather be equal with them. As I imagine my kids doing their homework, I look forward to turning to these pages and enlightening them on important women who are perhaps not covered in the school curriculum.

The run through world history also raised interesting thoughts on religion: how the main world religions began, how they have changed, who has changed them and for what purposes. It also raises questions about motives for actions and how religion has been used as justification for atrocities across the globe. It discusses power struggles and entire populations being turned upside down thanks to the agreements and treaties of the wealthy and powerful.

There were times where I was overawed thinking about time scales of history. That things happen over hundreds of years, far beyond my own expected life span. It got me thinking about the changes, power shifts and motivations at play today. With the more recent history section, I was struck by how relatively recent the formation of nation states actually is and makes me reflect on our own society.

I also appreciate the fact that this book is translated and therefore offers a viewpoint from the German authors’ perspective, in particular the often (rightly) unfavourable view of British history as seen from the outside, rather than reading about our history written and told by us. While we have been involved in pursuing progress, we must also acknowledge the cost of suffering that we have inflicted on others in that pursuit.

While this book is, of course, too advanced for my six-year-old, I truly hope this is a book she will turn to over the years and enjoy a more balanced outlook on our world history.

For more reviews, articles and resources on world literature for children, head over to the World Kid Lit Blog.

World Kid Lit Review: The Acrobat Family by Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud tr. Kevin St John

As perhaps you start to think about buying Christmas gifts for the children in your family, this is definitely one to put on their list. The blurb on the back describes this “a sensational show brought to you by the renowned pop-up artists Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud” and it really is a joy to behold.

The premise of the book is a family of acrobats who are putting on a show. The language here really conjures up the image of a circus tent. The Acrobat Family is going to build a human tower. As you turn each page, more pop-up family members join the tower until the cat, Ginger the Red climbs onto the very top. Disaster strikes and they all come toppling down. But they form the tower again, this time with Ginger at the bottom holding everyone up.

It is just such a glorious book. The bold colours on a dark blue background are really striking. On each page, you find family members popping their heads around the curtain, preparing to fly or swing onto the page. My six-year-old daughter, Emma, was absolutely delighted and insisted on taking this to school to show her teachers and her friends. I love seeing the joy on the faces of her and her friends as each page turns. Emma’s favourite bit: where they all come toppling down.

Highly recommended!

For more reviews, interviews and interesting articles all about World Kid Lit, head over to the World Kid Lit Website.