Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Last Bus to Coffeeville Virtual Summer Road Trip!

Today I am delighted to host the final stop on the @noexitpress Last Bus to Coffeeville Virtual Summer Road Trip!

Throughout July and August, bloggers from all over Europe have been posting reviews, interviews and #Coffeeville inspired features as they discuss this brilliantly original debut novel by J. Paul Henderson.

The Novel

The subtitle of Last Bus to Coffeeville proposes it to be 'a funny story about sad things' - a description that is completely apt. Having grown up watching her grandmother and mother suffer with Alzheimer's, Nancy decides she does not want to face the same fate and calls upon her best friend and college lover, Gene, to help. She makes him promise to put an end to her suffering if and when she begins to lose her memory.  Little does Gene know that after years of living separate adult lives, he will be called upon to uphold his promise. But when Nancy is admitted to the secure unit of a nursing home, Gene's plan to fulfil her wishes by taking her to her favourite place, Coffeeville, is hindered. That's until he enlists the help of his godson Jack, and their old friend, Bob, to break Nancy out.

On a tour bus once stolen from Paul McCartney, Nancy, Gene, Bob, Jack and Eric - a young orphaned boy who the group take under their wing -  embark on an unforgettable journey through the South, from Hershey, Pennsylvania, to Coffeeville, Mississippi.  Cue an extremely funny string of events that unfold in a style that many have likened to Jonas Jonasson's The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

As the roadtrip takes the clan through the heart of the South, Henderson's impeccable research and skill at merging history with fiction stands out. This novel not only addresses the themes of euthanasia, love and friendship, but ingeniously traverses important moments in 20th century American history, from the civil rights movement, through popular culture, to Hershey chocolate. You can see more about the places that the characters visit by clicking on the map below (but you should definitely read the book first!):  

Click here for the interactive map

What I loved most about Last Bus to Coffeeville, and what I think makes it unique, is the way in which Henderson offers the back stories of all of the characters one by one as they merge and culminate into this one final dysfunctional family of misfits.  Each character is given his/her moment, and thus Henderson chronicles lives that seem far more real and vivid than just pieces of a plot.

I think this attention to detail is what makes it so successful at addressing the serious subject of Alzheimer's, too. Often diseases such as this are difficult to discuss due to their sensitive nature. Art has always been a way to tackle such topics, and J Paul Henderson touches upon this serious subject with a lightness and a respect that is remarkable.
This truly is a charming, uplifting and considered read. One that you will not regret!

The Author


J. Paul Henderson was born and grew up in Bradford, West Yorkshire, gained a Master’s degree in American Studies and travelled to Afghanistan. He worked in a foundry, as a bus conductor, trained as an accountant and then, when the opportunity to return to academia arose, left for Mississippi, returning four years later with a doctorate in 20th Century US History and more knowledge of Darlington Hoopes than was arguably necessary. (Hoopes was a Pennsylvanian socialist and the last presidential candidate of the American Socialist Party). American History departments were either closing or contracting, so he opted for a career in academic publishing. He now lives in a house in England, drives a car and owns a television set. And that’s about it.

The Road Trip

Henderson's charm isn't unique to Last Bus to Coffeeville, either. Throughout the #Coffeeville Road Trip, this brilliant author has written features and given interviews with bloggers and, as you can see from the links below, his endearing, witty style simply permeates everything he writes.

But don't take my word for it, see what Henderson and the other #Coffeeville bloggers have to say by visiting:

1. Laura's Little Book Blog for Paul's perfect holiday
2. Cup of Coffee and a Book for Paul's top 10 favourite books
3. A Spoonful of Happy Endings to learn more about the interactive road trip map
4. Books, Biscuits and Tea for Paul's perfect road trip playlist
5. Writer's Little Helper for Paul's imaginary bookshop
6. Page to Stage Reviews for Paul's ultimate road trip
7. On My Bookshelf for a review and give-away
8. A Book and a Tea for some coffee inspired recipes - yum!
9. She Loves to Read for A Day in the Life of Paul
10. Reviewed The Book for a review
11. Laura's Little Book Blog for another review
12. Writer's Little Helper for, yes you've guess it, a review!

If these snippets of humour and humility haven't enticed you enough, the novel even has its own website over at Coffeeville.co. And when you're ready to jump on board the Last Bus to Coffeeville, you can purchase it here.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Harry's Last Stand - Harry Leslie Smith

‘As one of the last remaining survivors of the Great Depression and the Second World War, I will not go gently into that good night. I want to tell you what the world looks like through my eyes, so that you can help change it…’ 

As I sat on my sofa, TV on in the background, iPhone carefully poised at my side and opened this book, I wondered whether I was really in the right frame of mind to begin what I anticipated would be a hard-hitting read. It took all of five sentences for me to switch off every noise-emitting device and settle in; this isn't a book that you read with one eye trained on Facebook, this is a book that demands your uninterrupted focus. Harry's Last Stand demands you sit up and pay attention.

As the back cover summarises, Harry Leslie Smith "is not an historian, but at 91, [he] is history". Born into the poverty and deprivation of the post WW1 Great Depression, Smith was only 18 when he joined the RAF and fought for Britain in the Second World War. Without doubt, he has seen more in his lifetime than most of us could even imagine. This book is at once memoir and manifesto, seeking to awaken a generation who, seemingly having forgotten the history behind our current way of life, sit idle as it comes under threat.

As a memoir, Harry's Last Stand has the charming rhetoric of your grandfather telling stories of his life at the kitchen table. Memories, both harrowing and happy, recur as Smith dips in and out of almost ten decades worth of experience. He uses his personal history to explain how he sees the society his generation built at risk of regressing to dark, austere times. An avid reader and established writer, it is unsurprising that Smith's prose flows seamlessly between memory, historical contextualisation, contemporary anecdote and compelling thought.
As a manifesto, Harry's Last Stand is poignant, humbling and challenging. It is so much more sincere, inspiring and provocative than any politician's speech I've heard in recent elections - speeches with which we all seem to be disillusioned. A socialist, Smith voices political concerns about the imminent collapse of the Welfare State - threats to the NHS, inadequate social housing and a benefit system which no longer protects the vulnerable. He voices his anger at the way in which the poor are demonised by politicians and the media, at the perpetuation of the notion that our current socio-economic imbalance is unavoidable, and at the bleak acceptance of this state of affairs that has become imbedded in our subconscious. Smith recounts his memories of communities pulling together and demanding change as he traces Britain’s history, proclaiming his fears of what will become of an increasingly divided, fearful and consumption-driven 21st century society.

Like the majority of voters, Smith is disillusioned with both the Right and the Left, who don't seem to offer a whole lot of difference these days. He is appalled by the unfathomable inequality in our society where "according to Oxfam five families control 20 per cent of this nation's wealth", meanwhile an increasing number of British citizens live in states of unemployment, underemployment, poverty and homelessness. While interspersing his real-life experiences with shocking yet factual statistics, Smith asks us to stop simply accepting this systemic inequality as if it is inevitable. Although there are some points where I might disagree with Smith on an ideological basis, namely his perspective on religion, there is no doubt that his position is steadfast, his arguments valid. As opposed to the wavering, lacklustre politicians of today, this war veteran writes with a resoluteness that inspires response.

But what kind of response? Firstly, read the book. I think it should be compulsory reading for everyone. Put it on the bloomin' school syllabus that has been causing (rightly so) so much uproar of late. Teach young people not only about the bravery that was demonstrated by generations gone by, but about what that bravery accomplished. If nothing else Harry’s Last Stand is a concise and accessible insight to a history that needs to be remembered in order for it not to be repeated. At a time when social media and news channels abound with touching tributes of gratitude to the fallen heroes of World War One, let us not forget that their sacrifice wasn't so that democracy could be taken for granted.
Secondly, therefore: VOTE. As Smith mentions, Russell Brand's style of revolt against the political system by encouraging a boycott of elections achieves nothing. Instead, get involved. Local elections are the place to start. Politics should be taught in schools. Young people should learn about how our democratic system works as it is integral to our daily lives. The sheer complexity of the political system is a mist through which many do not even try and see - it is far easier to plead ignorance; this has to change.
One last thing: Smith points out that despite general stereotypes of people his age in the media, he is not a nostalgic, backwards thinker resisting the modern age. He is more prolific on Twitter than most people I know, recently tweeting:

Harry's Last Stand isn't just some long lament about what is wrong with contemporary society - it is that - but it is a call to activism, too. At 91, Harry is defiant and hopeful. I dare you to read this and not feel the same way.

I certainly will be passing it on to my friends and relatives and thank Icon Books and Leena (@leenanorms) for my copy and of course, Harry Leslie Smith, for making me pay attention.

Price: GBP 12.99
Pages: 224
Publication date: 05-06-2014