Category Archives: Review

‘understanding doesn’t fix it’

It’s on page 158 of Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow. The quote above about how ‘understanding doesn’t fix it.’ It’s one of the most chilling phrases I’ve read. Because it’s true. Just because we might actually understand what the dreadful things in the world today are, doesn’t mean they can – or will be – fixed. And they must be.

Zana Fraillon, The Bone Sparrow

Born in an immigration detention centre, Subhi is at least 22 fence diamonds high (and around ten years old). Unlike most of the people in there with him, he’s known no different and has little idea of the world outside. He is a bit of a dreamer and a storyteller, and rather naïve, but also true and brave.

His mother and older sister are there with him, and his best friend Eli. There is one friendly guard, and Subhi has a rubber duck he talks to. The rubber duck talks back, and is occasionally rather wise.

Based on information from many such centres in Australia, this story rings true. Awful, but true.

One day Subhi makes a new friend, Jimmie, a girl living not far from the camp. Their friendship teaches both of them something new, and the reader hopes, a little. It’s a beautiful friendship, but the ugly reality has a way of interfering with most that’s good.

The Bone Sparrow is sweet and wonderful, but possibly the saddest ‘camp’ book I’ve read. Not necessarily the cruellest as regards what happens. But the worst, because I can see no hope.

We’ve come a long way from Anne Holm’s I Am David. The wrong long way.

Hostages to Fortune

I keep going on about refugees and immigrants, don’t I? But there’s just something about the situation Sadie and Kevin find themselves in. In Joan Lingard’s fifth and last book about our Belfast lovers, the pair have some bad luck, and they still seem to have to be the ones to settle for the bare minimum.

They need to move on again, and ever the optimist, Sadie keeps moving them into every nice little cottage they come across, except it’s not that easy. There is baby Brendan, who is nearly one, there is the dog, and before long, Kevin’s younger sister Clodagh turns up. And she is trouble in a way that their brother Gerald never was.

Giving up new friends again, and looking for their fortune somewhere new again, the two nevertheless stay cheerful, and do their best. Even with Clodagh they manage to be mature, most of the time, in a way that makes you forget they are still only around twenty.

But there are good people around, at least in Joan’s books, and with more hard work and new friendships it seems as if they will weather this storm as well. Kevin goes to see his mother in Tyrone, and realises that he was lucky to escape when he did, even if it is a hard life.

It’s amazing how different Northern Ireland seems, from 1970s England and Wales, but also then as compared to now. It’s almost as ‘far away’ as the places today’s newcomers have left behind.

I wonder what Kevin and Sadie are up to today?

Tibs the Post Office Cat

From a clever dog to a clever cat, whose ‘nearly true story’ Joyce Dunbar tells, with admirably Post Office catty illustrations by Claire Fletcher. Being an old Post Office hand myself, I feel strongly about this.

Joyce Dunbar and Claire Fletcher, Tibs the Post Office Cat

Whatever the truth might have been regarding what happens in this book, Tibs himself was real, born in a Post Office in 1950, and it was his job to keep the mice away. In this story the mice are blamed for eating the letters and licking the glue off the stamps.

Which is why Tibs had to leave his mother and go to the London sorting office to sort (sorry!) the mice out before the Coronation. He even got paid.

The thing about [fictional Tibs] is that his way with mice was rather un-conventional, even allowing for his good manners. So what you expect to happen might not actually have happened, even fictionally, but the mice were certainly not a nuisance for long after Tibs moved in.

And that’s what counts.

This is a very nice little story, and I do love the Post Office connection!

Good Dog McTavish

Meg Rosoff can’t let caring dogs lie, it seems. After Jonathan Unleashed, where his canine flatmates made sure Jonathan was all right, she unleashes McTavish on younger readers in Barrington Stokes Conkers imprint.

Meg Rosoff, Good Dog McTavish

The Peachey family have discovered that mothers are the best. They do most of the work, after all. But when Ma Peachey has had enough, something has to happen, and after some initial domestic mayhem, the remaining Peacheys decide to get a dog. Luckily they find McTavish, who’s prepared to take them on, despite them not being ideal humans for an easy – dog’s – life.

What to do about the laundry mountain, the shoe mountain and everything being in the wrong place? Getting out of bed on time?And when that’s fixed, there’s the cuisine. A dog can only eat so much pizza.

McTavish has many plans, and believe me, they are necessary. But sooner or later a firm paw will work wonders on a misguided family.

I foresee a run on rescue dogs after children – and maybe their adults – have read Good Dog McTavish. Not by me, obviously. Here at Bookwitch Towers we are virtually perfect. Especially me. But needier souls will want a McTavish in their lives.

(Illustrations by Grace Easton)

A Proper Place

We are currently thinking about and talking about refugees and immigrants more than we have for a long time, which means that the story belonging to Joan Lingard’s Sadie and Kevin feels more pertinent than ever. But rather as with the Jewish refugees in the 1930s, so it has become with the Irish who came thirty or forty years later. They are considered mainstream, in light of our most recent immigrants or asylum seekers.

They are, aren’t they? It can’t be just me? And if people have mostly got used to and accepted these older arrivals, then it is fair to assume that we will one day feel like this about whoever we worry about today; be they Syrians or Afghans, or even these ridiculous EU citizens from the Netherlands or Spain who were under the impression they belonged.

At least Kevin and Sadie were allowed to come and live in England. They were poor and not always accepted, and they had to make do with the worst accommodation and look grateful, while working hard to get somewhere. The scenario is one we’ve seen countless times. What I find fascinating is how hard Kevin works at whatever jobs he can find, while Sadie does the wifely tasks expected of females back then, and equally hard. They are no lazy layabouts.

In the fourth book, A Proper Place, they have left London and are living in Liverpool with their baby son. Sadie is learning that she can get to know people and make friends in every new place she comes to. She needs friends, and people to chat to.

Family is at the heart of everything here too. Sadie’s mother comes to visit, and no sooner have they survived this ordeal but Kevin’s ‘bad’ brother Gerald turns up. I was all set to see him on the IRA front line, but there are surprises everywhere.

Needing to look for a new job, Kevin moves the little family to a farm in Cheshire, and after initial teething problems, they are happy there. Sadie continues to learn to get on with just about everybody she meets, both through her friendliness and her hard work for what matters to her.

Behind their successes lie normal problems such as married life, belonging to two opposing religions, being hard up and always being the newcomers. Gerald and the rest of the McCoy clan in Tyrone don’t exactly help smooth things.

You have to love these two for how they cope. Wonderfully inspirational!

Beyond the Wall

Most of the major newspapers have been reviewing Tanya Landman’s new novel, Beyond the Wall, in the last few days, so why should Bookwitch do any different?

This is a fantastic book! It deals with the less common period of Roman Britain, as seen from the perspective of the slaves. Now, slaves are a bit of a speciality for Tanya, and this book does not disappoint. We’re on homeground, so to speak, and although it might seem to have been a long time ago, there’s a surprising number of situations for our heroes that could almost be today.

Tanya Landman, Beyond the Wall

Female slaves were often sexually abused by their masters, and it seems that many babies who were the result of this kind of behaviour, never had a chance of surviving, because they were not needed by the master. It is an absolute agony to think about.

Cassia is one such baby, with the difference that she’s permitted to live. In her mid teens she’s chosen to do for her master what her mother did before her, but somehow she escapes, with her master’s dogs giving chase and soon with a prize on her head.

She believes she must get to the north, past the wall, outside which people live free. And the person who ends up helping her is a young, good-looking Roman. She knows she should probably not trust Marcus, but she has no choice.

This could have been merely an exciting adventure story of how to escape an enraged slave owner, but it soon becomes so much more. You gasp as the tale takes – several – unexpected turns, and you fear for all your favourite characters. And you wonder if, or when, Marcus will show his true colours.

Beyond the Wall becomes a story about the Roman Empire, and not just a British runaway. It’s one of these all too rare unputdownable books.

The Beautiful Game

I remember the Liverpool fans returning home on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, travelling past where we used to live. Not that I was out there watching, but there was this horrible awareness of what had just happened.

Today it’s exactly 28 years since 96 people died at Hillsborough, and football crazy Alan Gibbons has written a book for Barrington Stoke about that day, as well as some other football disasters and soccer related incidents.

Alan Gibbons, The Beautiful Game

If this sounds dismal; it isn’t. Alan tells the short story of young [black] football fan Lennie who’s come to Manchester to see his beloved Liverpool play United, with his dad and grandad, when there is an altercation between the two teams’ fans, over Hillsborough and Munich.

Alan provides brief but full information about what happened, and why, as well as listing a few other football facts. He doesn’t mince words over the actions of the police or his hatred of The Sun newspaper.

Lennie learns that you must behave fairly and decently even if provoked, and why. His dad and grandad were at Hillsborough that day, and Lennie’s grandad has memories of what it was like to be black in Liverpool in the 1960s, when you couldn’t really go to soccer games.

Finally, Lennie is forced to come face-to-face with some real Man United fans, and discovers they are also people and perfectly normal. Sometimes even better at football…

(Illustrations by Chris Chalik)