Friday, December 11, 2009

Saint Peter’s Fair (The Cadfael Chronicles IV): Ellis Peters

Good stuff! I’m a big Ellis Peters and Brother Cadfael fan. The books are much better than the ITV series (although Derek Jacobi is excellent) because Peters is such a great writer, paying attention to historical detail, character development, and plot. This Brother Cadfael mystery is set in midsummer in 1139, during a large annual fair that brought merchants (and spies) from far and wide. The battle between King Stephen and Empress Maude for the English crown is gearing up; the Empress, with her half-brother Earl Robert of Gloucester, is in Normandy working to enlist allies in the west of England; different members of the nobility are declaring themselves on the side of one or the other. On the eve of St Peter’s fair in Shrewsbury an important merchant is killed, presumably in connection with a dispute between the town and the abbey. But after his barge is searched and his niece, Emma, appears unconcerned about the loss of some of her belongings, Cadfael becomes suspicious. Two young men, one from the town and one outsider, are also strongly attracted to the beautiful young Emma. Before long a second merchant is found murdered; Cadfael becomes concerned for Emma’s own safety, and it’s clear that this is about more than a mere dispute between merchants. The plot builds to an exciting climax with an audacious rescue amid flames; true love wins the day. Two months after the fair the Empress Maude and Robert of Gloucester land near Arundel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Big Chief Elizabeth – How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World: Giles Milton

I’m so glad that the writing of history has improved over the years, and a good history book can be just as exciting to read as any novel. Details linking past and present add colour and interest to what is already a fascinating topic – how Sir Walter Raleigh set out on the task of settling English men and women in the New World. Covering the period from 1582 until 1616 by which time the colony of Jamestown had become self-sufficient, the tremendous challenges facing the would-be colonists are described in detail.

The first few attempts at colonization ran into tremendous difficulties for a variety of reasons: incredibly poor planning, horrendously bad leadership, extreme bad luck in terms of the weather (hurricanes did enormous damage to the ships), and time after time the failure to choose the right people to send: the failure to send women, the failure to send anyone who knew how to cultivate crops, the failure to send people who knew anything about basic survival under tough conditions, and so on. It seems that city men in Elizabethan times were just as (or possibly more than) addicted to gluttony and the easy life as men today - it was the women who did all the work and who finally enabled a colony to survive, once someone had the foresight to send them along.

Here you will find details of the relationship between Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth, the true story of Pocahontas (not the Disney version), and the prescience of King James who wrote that tobacco made “a kitchin of the inward parts of man, soiling and infecting them with an unctuous and oily kinde of soote”. Upon his succession to the throne he quickly imposed heavy taxes on the importation of tobacco. But it was the growing of tobacco that made the colony of Virginia (named after the Virgin Queen) a viable enterprise.

I am forced to admit a terrible ignorance of American history, having always imagined that the “Pilgrim Fathers” were the founders of the English colony. Fortunately Milton has corrected my misperceptions, and I now know that the Pilgrims were only the second colony, founded almost twenty years after Jamestown. An excellent read, and I look forward to correcting misperceptions on other matters of historical interest thanks to Milton.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Shield and the Sword: Ernle Bradford

This is the history of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, from its origins as a hospice for pilgrims established in Jerusalem around 1080 up to the present day – the book was published in 1972, but the order is still in existence and operates around the world today. It is, indeed, the oldest international NGO (non-government organisation) in existence; present day descendants include the St Johns Ambulance Brigade in the UK and Malteser International (, a German NGO providing emergency medical assistance in places like DR Congo, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar.

The Knights of St John was always an international organisation with members from across Europe. It soon developed from the provision of hospice and hospital services to pilgrims to their protection on the journey to the Holy Land. The early history of the Knights is also the history of the Crusades – the attempts by western Europeans to take over and control the Holy Land, Syria and the Levant. The first crusade began in 1097, and the Christians were finally driven out of the Holy Land in 1291, although Pope Eugenius IV preached a new crusade as late as 1440, but by that time his call was barely heeded. The story of the Crusades is a sorry one, and Bradford does not hesitate to delineate the atrocities and mistakes made by the ruthless and poorly led Europeans.

After their expulsion from the Holy Land, the Knights took over the island of Rhodes and remained there until defeated by the Turks, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1522. After a period of homelessness, the Knights moved on to Malta, which many found a poor substitute for Rhodes. It was in Malta that the famous Great Siege of 1565 took place, again against the Turks. This time, however, the Knights and the people of Malta held out against the Turks – though only just. Over time the role of the Knights changed and by the time Napoleon laid claim to Malta the Knights proved indecisive and unable to mount an adequate defence. But the Maltese themselves soon got rid of the French, liking them even less than the Knights, and asked the British to take control of the island. Malta gained independence in 1964.

Their expulsion from Malta could well have been the end of the Order, however it miraculously survived, and the final chapter of the book explains how the Order reinvented itself and continues its existence up until today. This book will be of immense delight to anyone interested in the history of the Crusades, of Rhodes and of Malta. The author provides plenty of fascinating detail while maintaining the reader’s interest throughout – the book is a compact and readable 227 pages long. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ode to a Banker: Lindsey Davis

I thoroughly enjoy all the Falco mysteries by Davis, and this one is the twelfth in the series. She writes with a wonderful sense of humour and a great eye for detail. Even though the story is set in Rome AD74 it’s as if she had recently visited and learned the daily habits of people – what they ate, what they wore, how they decorated their homes, how fires were put out, how the subtle relationships between men and women were handled, and much more.

Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer who has somehow managed to marry well above his station in life, which keeps him on his toes and provides a constant source of mystery and amusement for the reader trying to figure out the relationship between husband and wife. In this particular story the exact nature of the relationships between a wealthy banker and his first and second wives also contributes to the mystery. The banker is also an arts patron and publisher, and there is much insight into the world of publishing before the days of printing and paper. And even though this book was published in 2000, her insights and parallels between the world of banking in ancient Rome and the scams and hedge funds leading to the banking meltdown of 2008 are quite eerie. The banker is murdered, and Falco has to figure out if this was the result of a banking deal gone wrong, or an angry writer feeling cheated, or a wife becoming overly jealous. A great read!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Past Secrets: Cathy Kelly

A chick-lit romantic novel with pretensions to be something grander – but organisation and plot lets it down. An undemanding read with good characterization, but there are problems. The author allows the story to become confusing and disjointed when she attempts to make a ‘mystery’ out of whether or not one of the main characters actually had an affair with a well-known artist some years before the start of the novel. This leads to some frustration for the reader. Another trip-up is when another main character talks about walking past customs officers after coming off the Galway to Dublin shuttle flight. Excuse me? Going through customs after an internal flight? Otherwise the plot is entirely predictable. We know it will all work out well in the end; the devoted couple will overcome difficulties and stay together; the woman whose lover cheated on her will find a much more worthwhile man; the daughter who ran off to L.A. with her musician boyfriend will realise the error of her ways and return home to mother. What’s disappointing is that although the novel is set in Ireland, there’s very little to give an Irish feeling to it – yes, the street they all live on is given some character, but it could have been any street almost anywhere in the English-speaking world.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Size 12 is not Fat: Meg Cabot

A delightfully entertaining and easy read – a chick-lit mystery novel at its best, without pretensions to be anything else. Heather Wells is a former teen pop star fallen on hard times and has decided to go back to college. To earn her keep she takes a job as assistant residence hall director in New York City. A couple of undergrad female students die, supposedly ‘elevator surfing’. Heather decides there must be something else going on, and risks her own life to find out exactly what.

Cabot has an ear for language and gets it right, giving the story and setting an authentic feel. The plot moves along at a good pace and there’s plenty of humour involving all those little problems that women have to put up with: men who cheat, dress manufacturers who mislabel the dress size, and the impossible boss.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Things My Mother Never Told Me: Blake Morrison

I read this book, which for the most part also covers the same period of time, soon after reading To War With Whitaker, so comparison is inevitable. Both books are about strong women, one told in her own voice, this one written by her son, who also uses wartime letters between his parents to help tell the story of their courtship and eventual marriage after the war.

Morrison’s mother comes from a large Irish family – just how large only becomes known to him after his mother’s death. She had kept many details of her early life hidden from her English husband and children due to the discrimination experienced by Irish Catholics in England during her lifetime. She came to England soon after qualifying as a doctor, and worked in a string of hospitals throughout the war. Her work is difficult and demanding, and she’s frequently exhausted, often getting ill. At the same time, the courtship is carried on through letters and infrequent meetings, as Arthur Morrison, also a doctor, is serving overseas for most of the war.

It is Arthur Morrison who comes off least well in this narrative. His letters show him to be stubborn, insensitive, petulant, easily bored, and sexist. It grates that Kim (her real name is Agnes, but he gradually forces her to change it) is doing more interesting and demanding work than he is. He berates her for being a Catholic and refuses to get married in a Catholic church. Eventually he has a long-term relationship with another woman, for which he never apologises; nor does he ever acknowledge the hurt he causes his wife. The author repeatedly steps in, as if he could warn his mother against marrying his father, but I found this device tiresome and it does little to add any interest to the history of his parents’ relationship. In the end, for me, this is the story of a very ordinary man who ruins the life of a woman who might have gone on to achieve a more rewarding life had she grown up in different conditions and at a time when it was more acceptable for a woman to have a career. Directly following the war there was a lot of pressure on women to return to what was considered their proper domain in the home. Blake Morrison also wrote And When Did You Last See Your Father? but following what I’ve learned about his father in this book I feel no urge to read it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Natural Curiosity: Margaret Drabble

One of my unspoken complaints when looking for a good book to read is that it seems impossible to find a good novel that reflects my own life in any way. I would like to find a story that I can read with pleasure and identify with the main characters, find something of myself in them, read the questions that I have about life and learn how others in similar situations answer those questions.

In this novel the main characters are three women in their 50s in 1980’s Britain, and I wonder if any women readers were able to identify with these characters. Not me. These women are comfortably sure of themselves and of where they belong, they seem ‘very English’ to me, complacent, most of their questions in life answered. So, not great literature, no really big issues raised, just every day lives of comfortably well-off professional older women.

Is it a good read? The large number of minor characters becomes difficult to follow, but there’s enough going on, enough to keep us wondering what’s going to happen next, with a little bit of mystery thrown in, to keep the reader occupied and interested. Good enough.

Friday, July 17, 2009

To War With Whitaker: The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly 1939-45 : Hermione Ranfurly

A terrific book! This is a different view of life during WWII – the view from the Middle East, and also a woman’s view. Yes, she’s a countess, but when fighting the military bureaucracy that only seems to make things more difficult. She’s young – 25 at the start of the war, and only just married. Her husband (also just 25) is with the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers, and they get posted off to Palestine. Wives are not allowed to follow, but that doesn’t stop Hermione! Thus begin her adventures around the Middle East – Jerusalem, Cairo, Baghdad, Aleppo, Algiers, and eventually Italy. Early on the military brass try to get rid of her, and force her to leave on a ship going back to England. She jumps ship in Cape Town (the ship is eventually bombed by the Germans, and her best friend is killed) and manages to get a seat on a plane going back to Cairo by pretending to be a secret service agent.

She has excellent secretarial skills and eventually the powers that be are forced to admit that they really do need her, as there’s a desperate shortage of English-speaking secretaries in Cairo and Jerusalem. Not too long after her return to Cairo, her husband is captured and taken prisoner by the Italians, and she spends much of the war wondering and worrying where, and how, he is. In spite of this, she still meets dozens of fascinating and important people through her work, and writes about them charmingly. She describes the enormous difficulties of wartime life, the uncertainties, the minimal living conditions, lack of bathing facilities, cramped spaces, all in a straightforward manner without complaint. She’s the type that gets on with it, no matter what. The book isn’t really about Whitaker, her husband’s batman (“a soldier assigned as a personal assistant to a commissioned officer”), although he provides a constant reassuring presence.

There’s an excellent obituary of Hermione, with more details of the book here:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Verity Red’s Diary – A Story of Surviving M.E.: Maria Mann

I only really got into this when she was given three kittens, Paddy, Murphy, and Mary, and began describing their antics. Having ME is rather boring – nothing happens, and improvement is so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable. Every person with ME has a different collection of symptoms to differing degrees, so I found it difficult to identify with Mann, whose condition is much worse than mine. She also suffered from the ignorance and prejudice of the medical world and family members, all of whom appeared to be quite sceptical and unsympathetic about her illness. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of ME, and quite why people suffering from this condition should be subject to such prejudice is difficult to understand. Anyone doubting the existence of this prejudice (coming from doctors and lay-persons alike) only needs to read relevant entries on the now infamous blog of the so-called “Dr Crippen”, a practising NHS doctor in the UK, and comments that readers have added on the topic.

Aside from all this, Mann has a whimsical and creative style which includes her quirky and funny poems, imaginary parties with pixies and dwarves, and odd-ball names for friends and local drinking establishments where her boyfriend disappears to on Friday nights. She has managed to find the humour in ME, in spite of it all, and this is what makes her story an enjoyable read. Her life, constrained by moderately severe ME, is described in every detail, sometimes minute by minute, as she struggles to wash a plate or get dressed. Her weekly visits to the osteopath and exchange of letters with friends provide an external view of her ordeal. If you have ME or know someone who has it, and enjoy this style of writing, then this would be an interesting book. If you’re looking for a traditional novel with gripping action and in-depth characters, then I’d look elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Miss Garnet’s Angel: Salley Vickers

Several reviewers quoted on the front and back covers of this book describe it as ‘subtle’. I agree. I hadn’t, and still haven’t, come across this novel anywhere else until a friend gave it to me to read. At first I wasn’t greatly taken with it, finding the main character, Julia Garnet, somewhat boring and unsympathetic. I was prepared for some soppy tale of how she finds a guardian angel and true love in Venice, despite her age.

The story did not proceed as expected. It turned into a fascinating historical novel going back to the ancient Jewish tale of Tobias, which almost certainly had its roots in an even older tale coming from the Zoroastrians of Persia. Some of the tale of Tobias takes place in Nineveh, present day Iraq, and it’s saddening to note that Christian communities which have existed for many centuries in that region of the world (they pre-date the Muslims by a very long time) are now being forced out of their ancient homelands.

The ancient story is balanced with a modern-day parallel, and there is a pleasantly happy ending (of the kind that I might choose for myself) that doesn’t involve anything quite as unrealistic as the main character falling in love.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers – The Autobiography: Kate Adie

I have to object to the subtitle of this book – I do not consider this an autobiography. It’s a fascinating collection of stories from the front line of reporting in war zones, with a couple of chapters about how Adie got started in the business. However, the truly personal side of events is missing. I kept comparing it to Aiden Hartley’s “The Zanzibar Chest” which I read last year. Hartley was a war reporter working for Reuters predominantly in African countries; his career ended when his father died and he had a nervous breakdown. His book is compelling, each chapter a more gruelling war, in which he is fully engaged. His accounts from the working front line are balanced with accounts of the social life of reporters and photographers living on the edge, and he doesn’t spare the seedier details of alcohol and drug abuse, and includes enough information about his romantic life to give us greater insight to his character and personality. Adie, on the other hand, manages to maintain a professional distance and only once or twice in the book she admits to breaking down and crying over the horrors that she’s witnessed. Her private life is curiously and frustratingly absent. By the end of the book I felt like I knew very little about Adie the person. Reading one anecdote after another about one war after another became a chore lacking the crucial element of a more personal view.

Having made my complaints, I must admit that there were some interesting titbits such as when she made her views on religion plain visiting the Vatican and describes: “the peculiar maleness everywhere – fussy young priests skittering around and fat cardinals with jewellery gliding like Daleks over the marble.” (p.132) And the odd time or two when she loses her patience and thumps someone! (Unfortunately I forgot to make a note of those references – sorry!).

The chapter on the war in Northern Ireland is interesting, not least because it’s so ignored by the majority of the English. I think any African familiar with war would find much that is familiar in her account of this conflict. For example, while we are currently horror-struck over the recent cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, did you know about the cholera outbreak in Belfast?
“…the Divis Flats in central Belfast. The Divis were notorious, never mind for being a bastion of republican sympathy, but also for being the only place in Europe to have experienced an outbreak of cholera in the late twentieth century.” (p. 163)

There is also plenty of humour. When under heavy fire in Beirut, she gets stuck in a shop for several hours:

“Thus I found myself stuck – and in heaven – in Beirut’s largest shoe shop. Three full hours of battle raged outside while I went through every pair of shoes in the basement. Finally, when the coast was clear, I staggered back to the hotel with three boxes of elegant shoes. The other journalists looked up from the bar enquiringly: ‘Front line,’ I said, heavy retail action.”

There were a couple of major omissions; she includes a photograph from Rwanda, but writes nothing about it; and there are a couple of photographs with members of her birth family, but writes nothing at all about how she was reunited with them (she had been adopted as a baby).

Still a fascinating book. Still well worth reading. And still pretty amazing for anyone to have done all that she’s done and risked her life so often, and to have survived – apparently – mentally and physically intact.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lionel Shriver: Double Fault

Shriver is best known for her 2005 Orange Prize-winning novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I’ve yet to read. Double Fault analyses the marriage of two professional tennis players, from the day they meet to the day they split up. The difficult ending is inevitable and foreseeable, so I’m giving nothing away. Shriver’s skill lies in her handling of dialogue and her ability to show the twists and turns followed by the mind of a young woman critically lacking in self-confidence. This is a modern marriage, a “partnership” between equals, but problems arise when each partner is equally driven by an overwhelmingly competitive spirit.

At times this is an agonizing and frustrating read; what propels the reader on is wanting to know how and why, ultimately, the relationship ends. The “why” can be difficult to answer, but when we understand the female character’s reasons, we then understand how marriage is still based on the assumption that one partner, inevitably the male, will take the lead in the relationship. Can a marriage of equally successful and equally dominant personalities succeed? According to Shriver, no.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

David Ball: The Sword and the Scimitar

One of those sweeping historical novels that brings to life the realities of battles for ships (laden with goods) and power that raged between Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean of the 16th century. This is the novel to take with you when you go on holiday to Malta, as Malta lies at the heart of the story, even though much of the story also takes place in Algiers, Istanbul, and Paris. The story tracks the life of a Maltese brother and sister, separated at a young age when the boy is captured as a slave by a passing galley. The lives of ordinary Maltese are contrasted with those of the Knights of St John, the Maltese nobility, slaves serving in the galleys, and the servants of Suleiman the Magnificent in the Topkapi palace. At over 700 pages, although many scenes are intensely gripping, the book is too long. I skimmed several sections that could have easily been cut without any loss to the heart of the novel. Wonderful to read this and then wander through the streets of Birgu where much of the action takes place and see the historic buildings mentioned in the book.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Nicole Krauss: The History of Love

Sad. Things never quite work out for the characters of this story, who are steeped in the sadness of holocaust survivors. There are two main characters, an old man and a young girl, whose stories run in rough parallel to each other, only meeting at the very end, when it’s really too late. Not an optimistic work, not the usual happy ending. The description of the lonely life of an elderly holocaust survivor, living alone in NYC, is intensely moving; however, I found that the story pushed and stretched the boundaries of reality with an intricately constructed plot that was maybe just a bit too clever.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Recovery from CFS: 50 personal stories
Compiled and edited by Alexandra Barton

My biggest problem with this book is that the editor is disingenuous in the way she uses the terms ‘ME’ and ‘CFS’ interchangeably. There is no differentiation in the book between ME and CFS; indeed, the controversy over labelling the neurological disease ME is completely ignored. ME is a distinct, well-defined, neurological disease classified by the WHO (ICD-10 G93.3) which can be diagnosed using specific scans (see CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), however, refers to a collection of symptoms and by definition is not a specific illness.

The majority of general practitioners and other medical personnel do not understand the distinction between ME and CFS; indeed, thanks to a deliberate policy of mis-labelling, most people are unaware that ME is a distinct and clearly defined disease. The reasons for this are clearly explained by Jodi Bassett in her article “Who benefits from 'CFS' and 'ME/CFS'?” which can be found at:
One result of this failure to clearly differentiate between ME and other un-diagnosed health problems with fatigue as the primary symptom (please note: fatigue is NOT the primary symptom in ME) is that people are often diagnosed with ME when they do not have ME, and others are diagnosed with CFS, which cannot be an actual diagnosis because there is no disease “CFS” – it is merely a collection of symptoms. All of which brings me back to the book in question: it is clear that some of the contributors suffered from illness and problems that have caused the symptom of chronic fatigue, but that they probably did not have ME, even when the contributor describes him or herself as having had ‘ME’. Therefore the book cannot be seen as referring only to ME cases; it clearly refers to a mix of ME and other illnesses which have chronic fatigue as a symptom (among a variety of other symptoms). Although the title only refers to ‘CFS’ (possibly to head off complaints such as mine!) the two terms are used interchangeably elsewhere throughout the book – and on the back cover.

The book is also in need of a good edit and more meticulous proof reading before the next edition comes out!

Having got all my criticisms out of the way, here’s what I do like about the book. It offers some hope to people with a range of health problems, including ME. It is empowering to learn that some people do recover. Before reading the book I had come to a point where I accepted that I had ME, that I would probably always have it, and that I simply had to learn how to live with it as best I could. Since reading the book I’ve picked up my research tools once again, and have begun exploring all the internet links provided in the book, and indeed have moved on way beyond the information provided. I’m currently looking into the link between ME and Lyme disease, which is not mentioned in the book. One type of treatment unfortunately not mentioned in the book is lymphatic drainage, practiced and taught in the UK by R. Perrin, an osteopath. It would have been interesting to read the stories of those people who’ve been treated by Perrin.

The book is a useful starting point for people who have been given the catch-all chronic fatigue diagnosis. I do not, personally, agree with the ‘miracle cure’ stories – I suspect that these people did not actually have ME. At present there is too little research done on ME, and the research that exists appears to be ignored by medical practitioners such as those in the UK who are responsible for the NICE guidelines on ME. One day there will be an explanation for the cause of this organic, neurological illness, and one day we will know what the most appropriate treatments are. I just hope it’s in my lifetime.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lynne Truss: Making the Cat Laugh – One Woman´s Journal of Single Life on the Margins

From the author of: "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves", this is a collection of columns she wrote for The Listener, The Times, and Woman´s Journal - written before she became famous. She's an entertaining and witty writer, with wry comments on the life of the single woman.

Barbara Kingsolver: Pigs in Heaven.
The Cherokee Nation vs Taylor Greer. About the adoption of Indian (native American) children away from the reservation. 6-year old Turtle, the adopted daughter of Taylor Greer, sees someone fall into the Hoover Dam, ends up on Oprah, is seen by an Indian lawyer Annawake Fourkiller, who then starts the process of getting Turtle back to what remains of her family. But it turns out that Taylor´s mother, Alice, is ¼ Cherokee too… Kingsolver is one of my favourite US writers, and this one is every word as good as others by her which I’ve read: Prodigal Summer, The Poisonwood Bible, and Animal Dreams.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Thelma Gruenbaum: Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin

Out of approximately ten thousand children who were imprisoned in, or passed through, the concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezin) only one thousand six hundred survived. Located sixty kilometres north of Prague, the camp served predominantly as a transit camp where Jewish prisoners were held before being transported to extermination or labour camps further east, such as Auschwitz. Terezin also served as a ‘model’ camp where the Nazis could show Red Cross officials what the camps were (supposedly) like. Thus inmates received slightly more food than those in other types of camps, and cultural activities and sports were allowed. Many children also attended classes during much of their internment, albeit secretly, as educational activities were prohibited. Over 33,000 prisoners died from disease, malnutrition or mistreatment while in Terezin.

For roughly two years, a group of forty boys aged ten to twelve when they began their internment, lived in one room at Terezin together with their team leader, a young man of twenty years named Franta. Franta had completed a two-month teacher training course in Prague, and had a couple of years’ experience running an orphanage. The nine survivors of Room 7 who were interviewed for this book all credit Franta for building them into a cohesive unit known as “the Eagles” (Nesarim) that was envied by the other boys, and for giving them the moral strength and will-power to survive. The ten survivors (including Franta) all eventually left Czechoslovakia and were scattered around the world, but kept in touch with each other sporadically.

In the early ‘90’s, with increasing age and the fall of the iron curtain, the Nesarim began organising reunions that include their wives (some of whom are also survivors) and children. They have returned to Prague and to Terezin to visit the places where they once lived.

One might imagine that reading these memoirs would be depressing, but it isn’t. If you want to know the meaning of life, here it is. If you want to better understand how children survive under conditions of extreme hardship, this book gives indicators. And if you want to know how people who’ve been given a second chance at life choose to live, you’ll find answers to your questions here.

The Holocaust, like the Rwandan Genocide, must never be forgotten. This book adds further insight into those terrible years. For anyone looking for more detail about life in the camps, the books of Primo Levi are also indispensable reading.