books monthly december 2019
  books monthly christmas issue 2019
  crammed with brilliant new gift books... a very happy christmas!


Welcome to the Christmas 2019 issue of Books Monthly - this astonishing array of stunning new books makes it my very best Christmas edition ever! There are new pages of Bloomsbury Children's Books and Alma Classics... And remember, books are simple, sometimes cheap, fantastic Christmas gifts - there's nothing like a decent book for Christmas, and in this month's issue you'll find plenty of inspiration, including four superb puzzle books on the nonfiction page... enjoy your Christmas, remember what it's about, and let's hope better times are coming for all of us.

Fiction Book of the Month - Pamela Bell: Emmerdale At War

 Published by Trapeze 3rd October 2019

The perfect Christmas gift, full of warmth and nostalgia, for fans of ITV's Emmerdale, and readers who love heartwarming and heartbreaking stories set during wartime.

Britain is at war once again and the families of Emmerdale are trying their best to cope with a new way of life.

Rationing has been introduced across the country, two million more men have been called up for service, and blackouts, evacuees and military training camps have become the norm. In Beckindale, three young women are about to find their lives changed forever...

Annie Pearson is working on Emmerdale Farm, while her love, Edward Sugden is at the front line. Lily Dingle has found purpose in joining the ATS, though she may get more than she bargained for. And Meg Warcup, now teaching at the local school, has taken in two children evacuated from Hull. They've adjusted to their new way of life until one day a German plane comes crashing down in the village... and changes everything in the village of Beckindale.

The third novel in the Emmerdale series transports us to the Yorkshire Dales in the midst of World War II, exploring the lives of Emmerdale's much-loved families. Will the nation's favourite village overcome adversity to deal with the loves and lives lost?

I have watched Emmerdale - or Emmerdale Farm as it was when it started - since the first episode, and it's at least ten years since I found myself enjoying it more than Eastenders, which had been my favourite soap (I'm not a Coronation Street fan, not since the black and white days when Elsie and Dennis Tanner, Len Fairclough, Minnie Caldwell etc., were in it). There has been talk, lately, that there have been revivals for Eastenders and Coronation Street, whilst Emmerdale is currently suffering from a large number of exits - major characters' actors leaving the show. It's true, there have been some really stupid and annoying plots during the past couple of years, but for me, Emmerdale remains head and shoulders above the other two, and it will take more than a few leavers to shake my belief in the show.

The most stupid storyline of recent years remains the totally unbelievable arrival of Mattie claiming to be a sex-changed Hannah. Hannah was a tall, very attractive young lady, at least three inches taller than Mattie, and a very pretty girl. Mattie is short, and rather plain looking. He certainly doesn't have Hannah's features, and I long for a change in the storyline where Hannah returns to the show and denounces Mattie as a gold-digger. Apart from that, Emmerdale strikes a chord with me for one very simple reason - it's set mostly in the countryside - 75% of it is set outdoors, and even the interior shots of David's shop, Brenda's café and the Woolpack give you the sense that just outside the doors of those establishments are the Yorkshire Dales. From my bedroom window I could see the farms and rolling hills leading towards Churchdown. From the front room window, I could see Coopers Hill...

I was born and raised in the village of Brockworth,
halfway between Gloucester and Cheltenham, the village that is home to Coopers Hill, down which they roll the cheeses on Whit Monday. Behind our house was a small estate of Nissen Huts which had served as an Italian PoW camp. Beyond that was miles and miles of countryside and farmland. The other side of the main road, Ermin Street, which carried traffic to Gloucester one way, the Cotswolds the other, was also farmland and countryside. I don't know what it's like now, because I left in 1963 at the age of sixteen, and I haven't been back except once, in 1965, when my fiancée (now my wife of 53 years) and I went with my parents to visit my sister Jean and her husband. I believe there are now such things as motorways carving their way through the countryside I used to roam day after day, hour after hour, on my bike or on foot, either with friends or alone. I was the archetypal Gloucestershire boy. I knew the farmers, because I delivered their newspapers, and I watched and loved watching their cattle and sheep.

I was there when Morgan's Farm went up in flames; I was there when a slightly crazed woman broke into the vicarage, hell-bent (sorry!) on having sexual intercourse with the vicar. I was there when the snow drifts were above head height in the 1962-63 winter that began on Boxing Day (or was it New Year's Day? I forget) and froze until March, months when I had to steer my bike through frozen ice ruts a foot tall on the main road and the bypass, past the Walls Ice Cream Factory on the way to the Crypt Grammar School, seven miles from home, where I'd started in 1957. You can read my piece on Christmas then and now on this page. This is why I love Emmerdale, for just those reasons - it's my world, the countryside - the scenery is breathtaking, and the village of Emmerdale in the Parish of Beckindale, I believe, is peopled by the sort of characters I knew and loved in Brockworth, back in the 1950s.

We had our scandals in Brockworth just as they do, but on a grander scale, in Emmerdale. I remember Annie Sugden, Matt and Dolly, Jack and Joe Sugden in the opening episode, which saw the funeral of Annie's husband, Jacob; I remember the arrival of the Dingles and the apocalyptic fight between Ned Glover and Zak Dingle, the subsequent deaths of Tina and Butch Dingle. The Glovers are long gone. I remember the plane crash, Lockerbie-style, during which Eric Pollard conveniently left his first wife, Elizabeth, to die; I remember Marlon comforting Eric when the latter was suicidal, I remember the arrival of Alan Turner in the village, and the arrival of the Tates, when Kim was Frank's secretary, and then the Kings, of whom Jimmy is the sole survivor. I've grown old watching Emmerdale Farm and then Emmerdale, and I would still rather watch it than Eastenders, despite the fact that I come from Cockney stock. And now, Pamela Bell has captured the origins of Emmerdale in three wonderful Emmerdale books, Emmerdale at Christmas, Spring Comes to Emmerdale, and Emmerdale at War, three beautiful books that cover a period from 1914-1941, in the manner of a family saga. You can read my reviews of these three fantastic books, which will appeal not only to Emmerdale fans, of course, on the fiction page. In the meantime, I want to place them, on this page, into the context of family saga fiction.

For me, there are three great names in family saga fiction: John Galsworthy, Winston Graham, and at the head of them all, Mazo de la Roche. Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga came into its own with the televisation back in the 1960s-70s. I tried reading the books, but they didn't fire me to the extent the other two did. I have been avidly re-reading the Poldark saga as Pan Macmillan have republished them to coincide with the fantastic Sunday night serials, and loved every word. As always, there is so much more in the books than in the TV shows, but the shows brightened up Sunday nights as never before. And finally the Whiteoaks Saga by Mazo de la Roche. I collected these books back in the late 1950s and still have many of my original collection. They are a joy to read, and now Poldark and the Whiteoaks are joined by the brand new Emmerdale Saga. The Sugdens are there, right from the start, and the Dingles appear in the village from Ireland early on in the first book. The Skilbecks are there too, and Matt and Dolly were Skilbecks. This is family saga fiction at its very finest, and although book four, which arrives in February 2020, is penned by a different Bell, this time by Kerry Bell (a relative of Pamela, maybe?) it will, I'm certain, fit in perfectly, and I hope there will be many more Emmerdale books to come. They've certainly brought me a great deal of joy this month, and you can read my reviews of all three opening titles on the fiction page!

Fantasy & S|F Book of the Month - Stephen King: Doctor Sleep

 Published by Hodder & Stoughton 19th September 2019

'By the end of this book your fingers will be mere stubs of their former selves . . . King's inventiveness and skill show no signs of slacking: Doctor Sleep has all the virtues of his best work' - Margaret Atwood, New York Times

An epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted readers of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon.

Following a childhood haunted by terrifying events at the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance has been drifting for decades.

Finally, he settles into a job at a nursing home where he draws on his remnant 'shining' power to help people pass on.

Then he meets Abra Stone, a young girl with the brightest 'shining' ever seen. But her gift is attracting a tribe of paranormals. They may look harmless, old and devoted to their Recreational Vehicles, but The True Knot live off the 'steam' that children like Abra produce.

Now Dan must confront his old demons as he battles for Abra's soul and survival...

I have a core of Stephen King books I'm happy to read over and over again, beginning with IT, followed by The Stand, and of course the Dark Tower series. There's also 11:22:63, Salem's Lot, Insomnia, Bag of Bones, and the four Holly Gibney titles. And now there's Doctor Sleep, which is the sequel to The Shining and follows the supernatural adventures of a grown-up Danny Torrance. I don't re-read The Shining that much, perhaps once in any ten years, but Doctor Sleep has been a fall back read several times now, and I never tire of it. The burgeoning relationship between Abra and Danny is terrific. I find Doctor Sleep a far more easier read than The Shining - there are no groups of youngsters in it, as with It, although we do follow the progress of Abra through kindergarten and early adolescence, which is when things start to get really interesting. I've read reviews of the Ewan McGregor film, and realise at once that when it's out on Blu Ray, I shall have to watch it on my own as my wife is not a huge fan of Stephen King movies, more's the pity. She will happily watch Salem's Lot, but then there is no gore in it. And as she's an Idris Elba fan, she's happy to watch The Dark Tower, which I thought a very good adventure film but didn't really capture the essence of the seven-volume fantasy blockbuster. Doctor Sleep is a tale of good vs evil, but it also contains scenes of child abuse and murder which could make for uncomfortable reading, although in King's expert hands these scenes move the story along at a terrific rate. This sensational new edition of Doctor Sleep obviously echoes that famous scene from The Shining, and the story is one of King's finest, in my opinion.

Children's Book of the Month - Malcolm Saville: Redshanks Warning

 Published by Girls Gone By Publishers 29th October 2019

Redshank’s Warning  is the first title in the Jillies series.

Redshank’s Warning introduces us to the Jillions – Mandy, Prue and Tim – and the Standings – Guy and Mark. The scene is Blakeney in Norfolk with its wild salt flats. When the Jillies meet Guy and Mark, they are expecting some happy bird watching but they never guessed what else they would be watching. What was Miss Harvey plotting? Who was the villain, Mr Sandrock or Mr Martin? And what was the meaning of the Redshank’s warning?

The introduction has been written by Patrick Tubby who recently spent a Malcolm Saville Society weekend in North Norfolk.

I would have had a couple of titles by Malcolm Saville as part of my subscription to the Children's Book Club back in the 1950s, but even if I did, I don't remember them, only Monica Edwards's Wish For A Pony, which GGBP may well publish in the years ahead. Malcolm Saville remains, for me, a children's writer of excellent adventure stories involving various groups of children, a la Enid Blyton, who remains my firm favourite in this genre. Redshank's Warning is a tour de force of brilliant inter-relationships between the children and the grown-ups, and various scenes are very reminiscent of the very best Enid Blyton, particularly the Barney adventures. The added bonus for me is that Redshank's Warning is set on the North Norfolk coast, which is where I live, and features scenes in Cromer and Sheringham, but mainly in Blakeney. The introduction, with the fascinating photos of the Saville family in East Runton whilst on holiday, staying in the shop I pass on my way to Cromer at least twice a week and which is just five minutes' drive from where I live, are absolutely fascinating. The story is classic children's adventure fayre, which is a genre that still exists but now mostly set in fantasy, I think, and rightly so. You couldn't set a children's adventure in a world that has villains wielding kniives and peddling drugs, could you? This is the stuff of the 1950s mindset, when Saville's and other authors' works were adapted for thrilling hour-long radio plays on the BBC's brilliant Children's Hour. It's important to keep these works alive, and as always, we owe a huge thank you to Girls Gone By Publishers, who remain the most important children's fiction publisher in the UK. Superb!

Nonfiction Book of the Month - Dan Cruickshank: Manmade Wonders of the World

 Published by Dorling Kindersley 3rd October 2019

Discover and explore the most incredible statues, monuments, temples, bridges, and ancient cities with this unparalleled survey of the most famous buildings and structures created by humans.

From Stonehenge to the Sagrada Familia, from the Great Wall of China to the Burj Khalifa, Manmade Wonders of the World plots a continent-by-continent journey around the world, exploring and charting the ingenuity and imagination used by different cultures to create iconic buildings. This truly global approach reveals how humans have tackled similar challenges - such as keeping the enemy out or venerating their gods - in vastly different parts of the world. As writer, historian, and broadcaster Dan Cruickshank writes in his foreword, "reading this book is like taking a journey through the world not only of the present but also of the past, because the roots of many wonders lie in antiquity."

By combining breathtaking photography with 3D cutaway artworks, floorplans, and other illustrations, the hidden details and engineering innovations that make each building remarkable are revealed.

Featuring the most visited monuments in the world - such as the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, and Machu Picchu - as well as some hidden gems, Manmade Wonders of the World can help you to map out the trip of a lifetime or simply be enjoyed as a celebration of the world that humans have built over thousands of years.

Blu Ray DVDs are supposed to be anything from four times to seven times sharper than ordinary DVDs, and HD television is of course much sharper than ordinary TV. 4K (Ultra high definition) is sharper still, and most modern laptops are displaying in HD. This latest title from Dorling Kindersley has its photographic illustrations in Ultra High Definition, or so it seems to me, because they are clearer, sharper than any other book I have ever seen. The subject of these photographs is Manmade Wonders, with a glowing foreword by the great Dan Cruikshank, and I cannot remember ever enjoying a "coffee table" book more than this one. It is stunning and beautiful in every aspect, the photographs are jaw-droppingly good, very high definition, and the maps and diagrams (the cutaways) are second to none, stunning. This is a strong candidate for my nonfiction book of the year, and quite frankly, I can't see anything else coming anywhere near. I've had the privilege of reviewing a vast array of nonfiction books over the years, and this one has to be the very best of all of them! "Breathtaking" indeed!

Christmas then and now - 1957 vs 2019

The christmases we used to experience back in the 20th century were entirely different to those we experience now. I've chosen 1957 to illustrate this because, for me, this was the year that was entirely dominated by books. 1957 was the year I started at the Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester, and I was still finding my feet, although my end of term report was sufficiently good to put me in the top stream, form 2A, as opposed to 2B and 2C, both of which were markedly slower than my 2A. The first term, when we were grouped together randomly, was the term we did every single subject, and although that continued for the rest of year 1 (the form names suggested year 2, but year 1 was a long lost preparatory form and no longer in use), there were already signs by Christmas that I had chosen the subject path I wanted to take - classical, rather than modern. At home our entertainment comprised a radiogram, newly bought from Currys in the Oxbode, Gloucester, so there were gramophone records, mostly shellac 78s; and the radio. Television was not something we were interested in. But the books...

By the end of year 1 I was a confirmed classics scholar, ditching the sciences and taking Greek, French and Spanish instead. And by Christmas, I was also catching up with English literature reading that boys from other schools had already undertaken. If Aunts and Uncles wanted to know what was on my Christmas list, I would simply say "books", and my parents told them which books to get. So, Christmas 1957 arrived, and with it a treasured real leather football which my Dad and I struggled to inflate with my bicycle pump - I'd bought my own bike on easy terms, once again from Currys in the Oxbode, Gloucester, several months earlier, and anyway, a bike was much too expensive for a Christmas present! A tin of toffees and a hexagonal wooden box of Turkish Delight, together with an apple, and an orange completed the edible contents of my Christmas pillow case.

And then there were the books. As well as my Lion Annual and my Tiger Annual, there was a book I hadn't been expecting, the first of Eric Leyland's magnificent Commander Books for Boys (these carried on for the next three years), five hundred glorious pages of boys' school stories, pirates, cowboys, cavaliers, stories about the Khyber Pass or some such place - it should have seen me through the next 3-4 months, in fact the dustjacket suggested that here was a year's worth of reading for boys,  but I was an avid reader, and I devoured it and the two Annuals in a couple of weeks, and then turned my attention to my sister Jean's companion book, the Coronet Book for Girls. But there were also a number of smaller rectangular packages, containing titles like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both by Mark Twain; David Copperfield by Charles Dickens; and a Roy Rogers novel, a story written by my hero himself. That was the sum total of what I received from Mum, Dad, Jean, and my Aunts and Uncles. David Copperfield was a handsome leather bound (or something similar to leather) blue volume with gold lettering on the spine. I believe it may have been a truncated version, because it was quite a slim volume, but it had the bones of the story and that was good enough for me at the time! Contrast that with the 888 pages in the Alma Classics version that just arrived! A matching blue leather version of Oliver Twist came my way on my birthday in September the following year.

I don't remember the publisher of the Mark Twain books, but I have tracked down versions similar to the ones I got, and you can see the covers below, alongside the covers of the latest editions, published by the great Alma Classics and kindly sent along for this feature by my contact at Alma Books. You'll also find them on the children's page with some words by me in this issue. Of course, there is no shortage of new and secondhand versions of these children's classics, but in my opinion Alma's versions are the best. The covers are stunning, and the content is second to none, with explanatory notes etc., and clear, easy to read text.

Christmas 2019 for me will feature movies on blu ray, and books; books I can't get for review purposes because they were published in previous years, but books I want and can't afford because times are hard; we get the lowest old age pensions of any country in the EU (and at the time of writing we are still in the EU - hopefully to stay), and the government has cheated us out of another benefit: Savings Credit, where they encourage you to save in order to enhance your old age pension by promising this benefit, which carries with it such things as free dental treatment and free spectacles, but when you apply, they say you have too much money coming in to receive the benefit. It's fraud on a grand scale, with, as always, old age pensioners suffering.

We're probably not a typical family when it comes to spending at Christmas. There always seems to be enough money for other people to buy games consoles, iphones, ipads and all manner of over-priced tech., the same money that's around when it comes to buying over-priced and evil fireworks with which to terrify our ageing dog (what a waste of money fireworks are, to be sure; I fervently hope the next government bans the sale of fireworks to the public. Sainsburys took the lead this year, let's hope the other retailers follow suit!). The amount of money spent on a close loved one in our family doesn't go above £30 and that's stretching it. As I said, times are desperately hard. Looking back, my 1957 Christmas centred on books, books, books, and I wouldn't had had it any other way. My 2019 Christmas won't be typical of this mad mission to get further and further into debt, in a kind of "debt-wish"; it will again centre on books and DVDs, and once again, I wouldn't have it any other way.

The January issue of Books Monthly will be published on the 1st January. I am not expecting a huge number of new books with the exception of Pen and Sword, who send me a crate of books each month, and I already have 30-odd titles for the next issue, with more on the way! January is traditionally a time when I select my Books of the Year - looking at this issue, I get the distinct impression that many of them will be books of the year themselves! There will be a new Alma Classics page, I think, with details of Alma books coming in JanuaryRest assured, there will be plenty to read in the new year! Have a lovely Christmas, and a Happy New Year - see in  2020!

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its 22nd year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email at and I'll let you know where to send it.


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The books below and all of this month's reviews all make great Christmas gifts!