Book Reviews

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff

It was over a week after I finished this book that I felt felt able to put fingers to keys and write about it, such was the strength of feeling I had at its end.

Billed as ‘as perhaps the definitive account of [the] day’ (Hampton Sides) the subject matter was never going to be easy but the author’s pedigree as a journalist that covered the breaking news that day places Zuckoff as an authoritative voice from the start.

The author takes us on the journey of several people, some in key roles in the military or the emergency services, some ordinary workaday civilians caught up in events. As a consequence, by the end of the book I felt I knew 30 or 40 people intimately, not just their stories –  I felt I knew them personally. I wanted all their outcomes to be good ones and, and when they weren’t, I cried. Like the story of Ruth Clifford McCourt and her daughter, Juliana, who were on board United Airlines flight 175 which hit the South Tower and Juliana’s godmother Paige Farley-Hackel who was on American flight 11 which hit the North Tower. Ruth’s brother Clifford was at the World Trade Center Plaza and helped victim, Jennieann Maffeo, who had burns to over 90% of her body and who, when she died 41 days later, who was the last person to lose their life as a direct result of the attacks.

There was also some powerful new information, for example, the possibility there may have been a 5th plane which was grounded after the initial strikes, it’s five Middle Eastern first-class passengers melting away when everyone left the plane.

There is only one element of the book I didn’t like, and it disappeared before the first 150 pages were out, and that was the author’s tendency to use unnecessarily embellished language to describe events. Passengers flying ‘to their fiery deaths’ particularly stands out for me as gratuitous and diminishing of the retelling. The narrative voice loses this sensationalist vibe as it grows closer to the victims and their journeys that day.

At the back of the book is an alphabetical list of everyone that died. Two columns of names cover 35 pages, a powerful visual reminder of the extent of the atrocity. That every time a name was mentioned in the text I had to check whether they’d survived  interrupted the flow of the book but I couldn’t help myself. Besides, there were plenty that made it whose voices are prominently featured and whose heroism and bravery are documented to make sure we, and future generations, never forget.

Like Wild Swans or The Tattooist of Auschwitz, every bookshelf should have a copy of Fall and Rise, to honour those who went before and to make sure journalists like Zuckoff can keep bringing us work like this.


The Year of the Runaways by Sanjeev Sahota

It’s not the story that lingered long after the final page so much as how the story made me feel. Not that it wasn’t a good story but, like the best of stories, Runaways is all about the emotion stirred up in the reader and, for me, the utter belief that these characters were real. Because even if they were made up names and scenarios there are people out there living similar lives right now.

The story follows the struggles of three young Indian Sikhs who, for different reasons and through different methods, come to England. Randeep marries Narinder but they don’t live as husband and wife; they must stay married for a year for him to have leave to stay in the UK. Avtar comes over on a student visa but despite his best efforts doesn’t get to study, instead working for appalling wages and living in an overcrowded house. And then there’s Tochi, low caste, family dead, who is totally illegal and lives in fear of discovery every day.

We are led through back story, hopes for future and the bitter reality of living in this land of milk and honey where the milk is on the top shelf out of reach and the honey is not available for the likes of them. We also learn why Narinder was prepared to go against her family and marry someone purely to get them a visa. Although I found her the least believable character I’d still like to believe there are people like her out there.

About two-thirds of the way through the book it hit me; this was real. Not biographically real but there are people living in this country in the same conditions with no hope of betterment, trapped in a system which holds them down. Then I felt like the worst kind of voyeur gaining pleasure from other’s misfortune.

What a good job the author had done in tricking my brain into a total belief in his characters.

They were characters, weren’t they?

To find out if you’re likely to  be drawn in too click here.


The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

I’m a big Isabel Allende fan and was anticipating something special.

The story weaves (Allende always ‘weaves’) the lives of Alma and Irina. Alma is a feisty rich widow who has chosen to live in sheltered accommodation, Irina the poor Moldovan immigrant who works at Lark House.

They strike up a friendship and when Alma’s grandson, Seth, falls for Irina the pair piece together the story of Alma’s life.

The book is fairly pedestrian for the first half – as pedestrian as Allende gets with her detailed sketches of character and intricate biographies; but the second half really picked up for me and by the end I was enthralled.

For me, no other writer draws her characters quite so well, and without judgment; flaws and traits are written about with the same even-handed this-is-just-the-way-it-is approach. Stylistically perfect for me.

Other Allende books have affected me more – Paula, undoubtedly, and House of Spirits – but The Japanese Lover more than earns its place on my shelf.


Opening Heaven’s Door by Patricia Pearson

Patricia Pearson’s own experience of unexplained happenings within her family sparked her interest in researching this fascinating area.

When her sister was suffering from cancer, their father died suddenly in the night, appearing as a feeling of light and joy to his ailing daughter for two hours, before anyone even knew that he had passed. Her sister was not someone given to fanciful notions and the book has example after example of rational, mentally-stable beings who have had similar experiences.

The book covers Near-Death Awareness, Near-Death Experiences, Sensed Presences and Uncanny Experiences at the moment of Death. What struck me were the similarities across cultural and religious boundaries that are difficult to account for.

Pearson also includes a healthy amount of research and the outcomes of scientific studies to back up her own findings.

Pearson comes across as a sane individual looking for answers to spiritual questions without the narrow focus of the tenets of organised religion. It is shocking how many people with similar experiences conceal them from even their closest family and friends and I would like to think this book could spark broader debate amongst and greater acceptance of people who would like to speak up.

To read this book, click here


The Creakers by Tom Fletcher

Having loved The Christmasaurus so much, hopes were high for this one but do you remember the disappointment of Speed 2 Cruise Control or the second Jaws movie (I’m still not getting in the water but the fake shark didn’t have quite the same bite)? I know this isn’t a sequel but I was expecting the same joy and happiness we found in Tom’s first book. However…

I was reading to a balanced 10 year old girl and a wildly imaginative 7 year old boy. The first few lines go…

“What silently waits in the shadows at night?”  Okay, pretty terrifying. Even I don’t like to think about that one.

“What’s under your bed, keeping just out of sight?” 7 year old has a mid-sleeper bed with plenty of room for things to lurk…

“What’s patiently waiting while you’re counting sheep?” You can almost hear the breathing.

“What never comes out unless you’re fast asleep?” I was ready to stop reading at this point – I could see the concern crinkling the 7 year old’s forehead – but when I suggested it I was shouted down.

So I carried on, doing my ‘mum-editing’ as I read – this involves skipping ahead to read the next sentence/paragraph whilst actually reading  the previous one aloud, making a decision whether the next sentence was okay, and so on throughout the whole book. Stressful!

With so much love and positivity in the first book, why the author would choose the subject matter of ‘creatures lurking under the beds who steal all the mums and dads’ is beyond me. “Oh, kids love to be scared,” I can hear people say, but the clue’s in the word; scared, it means fearful, frightened. I had to field nightly questions of, “Is Lucy going to be okay?” “Will her mum be okay?” “What’s happened to her dad?” (Subtext: “Something under my bed is not going to come out at night and take you away, is it?”)

The Creakers didn’t even turn out to be lovable creatures.

Okay for some, but a miss for us, I’m afraid.

To make your own mind up click here