When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

If you are a fan of Michael Morpurgo’s historical fiction books or the classic ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ by Michelle Magorian then you will one hundred percent be a fan of ‘When the Sky Falls’ by Phil Earle. I have read this as part of my challenge to read the Carnegie Book Prize shortlist (I did read this before the winner was announced) and I am glad I was introduced to this book.

Just like ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, I felt this was an excellent story of two generations coming together in the most difficult of circumstances – and, in fact, becoming exacly what each other need. And, well throw a silverback gorilla into the mix and how can you not enjoy the story; after all, Adonis does become the thing that truly brings them together.

This is a slightly different story, as this is about life in the city during 1941, rather than those young people who are evacuated to the countryside. So, it brings to life the experiences for those who are dealing with the blitz and the dangers that were faced every day, but also the secrets that were often kept from people in order to save face in the community. Sometimes, all someone needs is a friend, even if that friendship is found in the most unexpected of places.

I do not want to reveal the real challenge that is faced in this book, as that may be considered a spoiler, but it is safe to say that I could not put this book down. And it even left me with a list of a few things that I want to research as a result, because a book that sparks your curiosity is always a winner in my eyes.

Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle

This year, I seem to be really enjoying a shortlist challenge and, this time, it is the Yoto Carnegie Medal Shortlist.

Miss W sent me a copy of ‘Cane Warriors’, so I knew it had to be the first book that I chose to read from the shortlist. And, of course, with the day job being all about history, I guess it was an obvious place to start.

I absolutely devoured this book and hope that so many young adults will read it. There are so many lessons amongst its pages – and not just the history lessons.

Moa is fourteen years old, and all he has ever known is life on the plantation; a life that has consumed him, his mother, his father, his friends and, soon, his younger sister, too. However, he understands that this is not the only way that life has to be and, maybe, there is a way to fight for their freedom and their rights. This leads to Moa becoming a Cane Warrior, fighting for the freedom of the enslaved people on the island of Jamaica – however difficult the challenges he will face will be.

This novel follows the true story of Tacky’s War in Jamaica in 1760, and really brings the events to life for the reader. Especially from the point of view of a young adult character.

This is a book that I really hope so many people will pick up and read, because it’s a really significant story for all readers, and will certainly leave you with a desire to find out more about such significant events.

Dear Mrs Bird by A.J Pearce

What an absolute joy of a book – a cosy historical read set during the events of World War Two in London. This book was like a hug in a book and is full of characters who you feel like you are ready to make friends with as they come to life on the page.

I was lucky enough to meet A.J Pearce and hear her talk about her book, ‘Dear Mrs Bird’, and her new book, ‘Yours Faithfully’, and I think that led to me to loving this story even more. However, one thing that she told us was that she uses photos to help her visualise her characters and, for me, this came as no surprise, as they are so vividly created for you on the page. I absolutely adored every character – even the ‘baddies’ had something appealing about them, in the way that they do in a cosy read.

So, Emmeline Lake dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and, when she lands a job with a magazine, she believes her dreams may well come true. But having not quite read the job description carefully, she actually becomes the typist for Mrs Bird – an agony aunt – and finds herself with the desire to help the women who are writing in for the answers to their burning questions as they deal with life in 1940s Britain. Of course, as you expect, Emmy’s helping leads to events and adventures that she had not quite expected. There are moments in this story that will make you laugh, and moments that may well make you cry but, overall, you will be left with that warm, cosy feeling of a great, uplifting read. (And you have to make sure you appreciate Clarence when he makes his appearences.)

I really recommend this book for any time you are looking for a book that will give you a little pick-me-up and help you escape from the real world. Just wonderful.

Katharine Parr by Alison Weir

I was lucky enough to be gifted the ‘Six Tudor Queens’ collection as part of the readalong from Tandem Collective UK. The final book of the collection, ‘Katharine Parr’, was the subject of the readalong – and what a wonderful read it was.

Now, I am always very cautious about historical fiction – it is a great genre but sometimes not everyone remembers the ‘fiction’ part, and history is easily rewritten. However, it is clear that Alison Weir takes the reasearch seriously, as shown with the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end.

Katharine Parr is often known simply as the last of ‘The Six’, but this book shows she is much more than that. And maybe she, in fact, deserves a little more space in the history books.

This book takes you from Katharine’s childhood, through her first two marriages (and the religious unrest), her meeting Henry VIII, becoming his last queen, and her life once he dies It is amazing how much Katharine lived through and the interest she had in the world, and in religious reform in England. But, also, how seriously she took her role as stepmother to the future monarchs of England. I would love to have known what she would have thought of the life each of them went on to have.

This book has inspired me to ensure that I find out more about Katharine Parr, because I do not feel that she has the fame she truly deserves for the life she led.

Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu

I was lucky enough to get a place on Tandem Collective’s readalong for ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ by Melissa Fu. Now, this is probably a book I would not normally have read. In fact, as it is historical fiction, I would possibly have avoided it, as it is my least-favourite genre. However, this would have meant I would have missed out on one of my favourite reads of 2021 (especially as it is not even let out into the world yet).

Inspired by Melissa Fu’s own family story, this book takes us on a journey with Meilin and her son, Renshu. They are forced from their home during the second Sino-Japanese war and, from that moment, the are forced to move from place to place until they can find a place to settle and call home. Along the way, they encounter tragedy, friendship and the desire to survive – with Meilin doing all she can to protect her son and ensure he has the future opportunities she believes her deserves. And – then we explore the lasting impact these experiences have on all generations of the family.

It is an absolutely beautiful book. A true page-turner, and one that will leave you with a desire to find out more about China’s history, to bring the narrative to life even more.

And any bookworm will fall in love with the important role that stories play throughout the book – after all they can often bring us hope in the toughest times.

So, when ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ is released in 2022, please pick up a copy and find yourself in the company of Meilin and Renshu.

The Duchess by Wendy Holden

I was lucky enough to be selected to take part in ‘The Duchess Readalong’ with Tandem Collective UK, and they kindly gifted me a copy of the book by Wendy Holden too.

I am always a little cautious of historical fiction, as I have known people to read it and take it as fact. However, ‘The Duchess’ had me hooked, especially as I do have quite a fascination with Wallis Simpson and her impact on the royal family.

This is a beautifully written book. Totally absorbing. And fascinating as this is really about Mrs Simpson before she became ‘the woman who stole our king’. If she ever actually was – the story will certainly have you questioning that popular culture view of her. This novel presents a very sympathetic view of Wallis Simpson, and I think that is what keeps you reading as you realise what a complex character she actually was.

You can also not read this book without falling down a ‘royal rabbit hole’. I was keen to find out more about so many of the figures of this book. And, as I was doing this, it was convincing me that Wendy Holden had certainly done her research to write this book – and the narrative throughout this novel also supports this, as this is not written to over-dramatise any of the events.

I reallt enjoyed this book and feel very lucky to have had the chance to read it. I am certainly keen now to read ‘The Governess’, as – let’s be honest – the British royal family is an institution that is full of stories.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When my lovely book buddy Charline suggested we had a buddy read of ‘The Underground Railroad’, I was up for it. We had both loved ‘The Nickel Boys‘, so agreed this needed reading.

‘The Underground Railroad’ is an absolutely stunning book. A powerful and emotional read from page one – and an education. Cora is enslaved in the American south – and then she meets Caesar, who encourgaes her to run away, telling her that the whispered-about underground railroad will take them to their ‘freedom’. Will Cora ever be free? There are Slave hunters, prejudice and ‘Manifest Destiny’ to tackled…

Colson Whitehead writes beautifully though-provoking books and starts conversations. This book has made me immediately want to be better educated about the experiences of different cultures in America. And really consider the dominance of white culture in a land that they took control of.

I hope that everyon will take time to read the works of Colson Whitehead, because he has so many important stories to tell.

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne Du Maurier

This was my pick for April for ‘The Unread Shelf Project 2021’. I have read ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Jamaica Inn’ as I am sure many of you have; however, ‘The Glass-Blowers’ was a book I was not familiar with.

This is actually a really fascinating read, as Daphne Du Maurier based it on her own family history. Based in France at the time of the French Revolution, this tells the story of a family of glass-blowers, the path the siblings take, and the choices they make based on their beliefs and ideals – creating divides and secrets in the family, some with tragic consequences.

At times, the story is truly heart-breaking as Sophie is at points torn between each of her siblings despite loving each of them dearly. Unfortunately Robert is quite a disagreeable character. Ideas above his station, and poor life choices, lead to him leaving quite a trail of destruction in his wake. Although, that is all part of the story, as many of the characters are also not his biggest fans.

This is a book that has reignited my interest in the events of the French Revolution. And, as you would expect from any work from the pen of Daphne Du Maurier, it is beautifully written and engaging. I really enjoyed this piece of historical fiction and, for me, it cements Daphne Du Maurier as a truly great novelist of many genres.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Finally I have dipped my toe into the world of Greek myth retellings. Thanks to two lovely bookstagram buddies, I picked up ‘The Song of Achilles’ for a buddy read.

I really enjoyed this book, so, again I am left pondering why it has been left so long on my to-be-read pile and maybe the others in this genre should be picked up sooner rather than later. (I realise you can all hold me to that when I am still to pick them up – so many books, so little time.)

‘The Song of Achilles’ is a retelling of the story of Achilles from the point of view of his loyal lover Patroclus. From their first meeting until their inevitable separation, we follow them as Achilles can not avoid living to fulfil the prophecy, evern if it leads to a heartbreaking conclusion. With much of this tale set during the war with Troy.

This is possibly one of the most beautiful love stories ever told. However infuriating Achilles can be at times, with his arrogance, the love he and Patroclus share is true. It worried me that some of Patroclus’ actions are due to him being blinded by love. However, it is clear that they are meant to be.

This book is a nice way in to an interest in the Greek tales. I am now interested to find out more. I have an awareness of a lot of the famous figures and tales, but this has certainly given me a desire to find out more – it is certainly complex. Although, I do have some issues with the treatment of women, one of the strongest characters in this book is Briseis. Despite starting as a prize from warm she becomes a loyal friend to Patroclus, even falling in love with him. She is certainly a balance, and a very strong woman.

This is a beautifully written book which engages the reader from the start. And the final two lines of the book are some of the most moving I have ever read.

A Cellist Soldier by Robert J Fanshawe

This is a book that I have been lucky enough to read as part of a blog tour. Historical fiction is not my genre of choice, but I am always trying to improve this,s and this was an excellent opportunity. Like so many of us, World War One is a time of our history that I have always been interested in and in my day job as a history teacher is is one of the topics that I think is essential to teach.

So, as I picked this book up, I was not sure to expect – or how I would find it to read (subjects I find emotional I often put off reading). However, Fanshawe’s book is a very good read. Although a slow paced tale in parts this, for me, adds to the narrative as you almost feel like you are reading it in real time. You are experiencing what ‘Cello’ is experiencing as it happens. This also makes this books quite an emotional read as you go.

I do not like to reveal spoilers or too much of the tale when I write about a book. All I want to say is that this book, set during 1917 and the battle of Arras, is about one soldier’s (‘Cello’) personal convictions and struggle between what he believes is right versus the expectation of the establishment. Also, the impact that goes on to have, not just on him but also his friend, Ben.

You are left really thinking about the idea of justice, the value of the life, and personal convictions, as well as the impact that war has on so many – not just those present in the moment.

For a thought-provoking read, I would highly recommend this book as one to pick up.