Category Archives: Review

Return to the Easy

To the best of my knowledge, this is ‘my’ only book about New Orleans. It’s a good one. This review originally appeared in March 2013.

“I enjoyed this book so much! Out of the Easy is the new book by Ruta Sepetys, published this week. In her first book Ruta proved how much she knew about being a starving Lithuanian, whereas here she is a right madam.

Is it OK to feature a brothel in a YA novel? I mean as the main thing the book is actually about. I think it is. Ruta writes awfully knowledgeably about it, too.

Set in 1950 in New Orleans, Out of the Easy feels really fresh. By that I mean it’s in no way a standard story for young readers, either in setting or in plot. The first chapter where we meet 7-year-old Josie and her hooker mother is one of the more captivating first chapters I’ve come across in a long time.

And the rest of the story, set ten years later, keeps the pace and the promise. Josie has long looked after herself, since her mother is incapable of doing so, or even caring that she doesn’t. There are no regrets at all. Instead Josie has a makeshift, but well functioning family around her, from the local madam and her driver, to the author and owner of the bookshop where Josie sleeps.

She is hoping to rise from all this and make something of herself, when she gets caught up in the murder of a rich tourist.

This is James Dean and Tennessee Williams, and we might have met the characters before. But the story is new, and it’s crying out to be turned into a film. I loved it!”

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Dogs of the Deadlands

Now is a poignant time to be reading a book set in the Ukraine. Especially one about Chernobyl, because the news is full of relevant stories about both the Ukraine and the awfulness of potential nuclear ‘problems.’ But Anthony McGowan couldn’t know this when he wrote Dogs of the Deadlands, his tale about what happened to the dogs left behind when the humans fled the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

I didn’t know how he would handle this plot, but I was sure it would be absolutely excellent. And I was right. It is. There are not many people I would trust to kill [fictional] dogs and wolves with such tenderness. Or even the odd human who happened to get in the way.

Starting to blub already. Sorry.

And I have to admit that like many people, I didn’t actually remember which part of the old Soviet Union Chernobyl was in. Just that it caused so much suffering to so many.

Dogs of the Deadlands introduces a new puppy as a seventh birthday present for Natasha. It’s what she always wanted. But then, as soon as her happiest moment has come, they have to leave, because of the nuclear meltdown. And no pets, not even cute puppies, can come. They were to be looked after, at first. Then to be put down. But this didn’t happen in all cases.

And it’s the ones that remained that we meet in this book. I would like to say it’s very realistic. But what do I know? Or, even, what does Tony actually know? It’s a fascinating premise and we meet so many interesting dogs and wolves, and a few other animals of the forest.

It’s not terribly vegetarian, if you get my drift. We want the animals to find food and not starve. But it’s not very appetising a lot of the time. They fight, and they struggle. There is friendship and lots of courage and cunning.

This is a perfect book.

(Fabulous illustrations by Keith Robinson.)

Dark Music

I surprised myself by reading David Lagercrantz’s Dark Music. But what with David appearing at Bloody Scotland this Saturday, and the fact that a copy of his book ended up in my hands, I decided to see what he could do with two detectives from two completely different backgrounds.

In fact, seen from my exile point of view, I am wondering why Chileans seem to pop up so much. Are they – the second generation immigrants – seen as more attractive than some other nationalities? More attractive to me, having met some of the parent generation fleeing Chile back in the day. Anyway, here we have Micaela Vargas, who almost ruins her family’s reputation by joining the police. I’m curious to see if her delinquent brothers will be made more of in future books.

And on the opposite, but same, side we have the Holmesian Hans Rekke, a professor who sees too much and who is frequently high on drugs. He’s rich, too. Being clever can be a drawback, and it can be hard to stop thinking, and seeing.

Together these two start solving a murder that the police gave up on. It’s 2003/2004 and most of the signs point to Afghanistan. The crime as such is perhaps not so interesting, but the way the two detectives interact is. And then there’s the government and various foreign agents. What’s so special about a football referee from Kabul?

I quite liked the way David introduces the next book. At least, I hope it’s the next book. So I suppose that means I want to see more of Vargas and Rekke?

(Translation by Ian Giles)

A Killing in November

It’s lovely when people get on. But it’s also quite good – or fun – when they don’t. That’s what you have here, in Simon Mason’s new crime series about DI Ryan Wilkins and his close colleague DI Ray Wilkins. Ryan could possibly be described as white trailer trash (from Oxford), while wealthy Nigerian Ray graduated from Balliol (also Oxford).

A Killing in November trails in the footsteps of Simon’s Garvie Smith YA crime novels, and at first I laughed out loud at the humour of these two very different and also difficult detectives. But it’s a murder tale, so it gets darker, albeit with some very light and unusual touches throughout. I loved it.

Our two DIs have a dead woman on their hands, found at Barnabas Hall, in the Provost’s study. No one seems to know who she was. Rubbing each other up the wrong way, not to mention the people at the college, Ryan and Ray do their best, while trying [not really…] not to annoy the other one.

Highly recommended.

You can find out more about it at Bloody Scotland on Saturday 17th September when Simon Mason is here, chatting to two other crime writers – David Lagercrantz and Ajay Chowdhury – about their own respective detective pairs in Detective Duos. See you at the Golden Lion? I can almost promise you that David’s British translator, Ian Giles, will be present as well… I’ve been hearing a lot about his Dark Music. And there is Ajay’s The Cook.

Sally Jones and the False Rose

Sally Jones and The Chief travel to Glasgow! Here is Jakob Wegelius’s new story about our favourite ape and her beloved chief, and it’s a good one. Glasgow offers up all manner of horrendous characters, and one or two good ones. And, I hadn’t thought this through before, but for the purposes of the story Sally Jones needs to be left alone and like so many parent figures in fiction, The Chief has to be temporarily removed.

They are both honourable creatures and that’s why they travelled to Scotland. While renovating their old ship, the Hudson Queen, they came upon something valuable, which they are determined to return to its rightful owner. If only they could find her.

The low lifes of Glasgow quickly send The Chief off on bad business, holding our dear ape hostage. But Sally Jones is no ordinary victim, so she manages to move ahead, towards some sort of solution. Old Glasgow is an interesting place, and so are the crooks you find there (although their names could in some cases have been a little more Scottish).

I won’t tell you more though. You will want to read and discover for yourselves how some decent people are not decent at all, and how some bad ones are not all rotten. But which ones?

(Translation, as before, by Peter Graves.)

Resist

It’s the tulip bulbs I’ve never forgotten. Even as a child, learning that Audrey Hepburn had to eat tulip bulbs to survive during the war, it seemed both fantastic – in a bad way – and hard to believe. Just as I couldn’t really get my head round what Audrey was doing in the Netherlands.

If you read Tom Palmer’s new book Resist, you will find out, and it will probably leave you with tears in your eyes. Unlike many novels about the resistance in the war, in whatever country the story might be set, this one is a little more – dare I say it? – ordinary. Because it is based so much on what actually happened to Audrey and her family, rather than what an author has simply made up.

You meet Audrey – called Edda here, for her own safety – in her home village of Velp, near Arnhem, as she is setting out on helping the local resistance. It’s the kind of thing you need to keep secret, because the less anyone else knows, the safer you all are. Edda’s family have had bad things happen to them, and lying low is the way forward.

Covering the last two years of WWII, we learn much about ordinary Dutch people. Except, they are not ordinary; they are brave, albeit often in a quiet, life-saving way. I learned more about Arnhem, which to me was ‘just’ a place name connected with the war, in a bad way. And the tulips.

The same age as Anne Frank, we have to be grateful Audrey survived, if only just. It’s hard to believe that starvation can be so much more of a threat than being hit by bombs, say. And people fleeing their old homes has become much more of a current thing than we could ever have thought, until recently.

This is the latest of many thoughtful books from Tom Palmer about WWII and its effects. Its brevity adds to its seriousness. And the cover art from Tom Clohosy Cole is stunning.

The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown

We have almost forgotten about polio, haven’t we? These days we fear other illnesses, even if we are still given protection against polio; both the baby and its parents. In Elizabeth Laird’s new book about Charity Brown, her heroine has been held captive by polio. This is soon after WWII. But thinking back on what happens in this semi-autobiographical novel, I reckon it’s religion that holds Charity back more.

Her deeply religious family are poor, and when she returns home after a long spell in hospital, it is to a very cold house. For her father it is more important to seek new members for their little church, than to earn money to keep his wife and four children comfortable. They are always warned what not to do, and Charity remembers it all, and heeds it even when she’d rather not.

And then, all of a sudden, they have inherited a large house, and the parents intend to use it to do good [to others].

Their new life is puzzling, but ultimately both interesting and promising. Charity makes a friend. Maybe. Religion so easily gets in the way of everything. Her older siblings want new things in life. Visitors from other countries turn up, and it’s not always the ones you trust who deserve that trust. War enemies are also people.

This is a heart-warming and lovely story. Not your standard postwar tale, but a new look on what might have been.

The Imagination Chamber

We were getting some dips and stuff in Sainsburys some time ago, Daughter and I. I rarely go, but we were alone for the evening and wanted something nice. We exited through the aisle where you can now buy books. Which is nice. Overheard a man with small daughter ask her if she wanted a nice book. That too is very nice. That he’d ask and that she’d get something along with the potatoes and fish fingers. I just prayed silently ‘not one by DW, please!’.

Have no idea what she got. But we got ourselves a Philip Pullman. That was nice, but somehow a little unexpected, along with the dips and stuff.

It was The Imagination Chamber, about which we knew nothing. I took it to be the short book they publish while impatiently waiting for the last Book of Dust. Just to let us have some crumbs. (Seems it might not have been, as I have since found out about another short Pullman to come soon.)

I could tell it was going to be possible to read it in about fifteen minutes. To tell the truth, I wasn’t hopeful. But, you know, it was rather lovely. I found myself in the His Dark Materials world again, reading – very short – snippets about many of the characters we already know. I don’t think they were borrowed from the books. And they probably weren’t ‘deleted scenes’. Too good for that.

So yes, I enjoyed The Imagination Chamber. It was like poetry with friends. And the physical book is beautiful, especially in these days of carelessly churned out book covers. Thick paper and red edges. It’s a volume you want to hug and stroke a bit.

So what were they doing sticking an almighty price sticker on the back, which is ugly, it is not even straight, and I daren’t try to remove it because the first tentative pull didn’t yield in a promising manner.

But yes, all the rest is lovely.

Escape to the River Sea

It is always very nice meeting favourite characters again. Especially those from a really good novel; people you’ve perhaps wondered about after reading their story. You want more, and if someone other than the original author has written ‘more’ then you might be quite happy with that as a solution as well.(I remember finding Ben Gunn in the library when I was a child. Never mind who wrote it. There was more!)

Here is Emma Carroll’s take on what might have happened to the characters in Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. They really were characters you wanted to meet again.

I was pleased to see what happened to Clovis, who is now a proper adult, seeing as it’s just after WWII. He has taken in 11-year-old Rosa from Austria, along with other evacuees. The arrival of Yara, a young and quite unusual woman, eventually takes Rosa to the Amazon, following in the footsteps of Maia, all those years ago.

WWII has had an effect in Brazil as well, so it’s no longer the same. Neither are Finn and Maia, who are now also proper adults. In my opinion, perhaps too much of properness. (But then, Anne Shirley grew more sensible with age, so perhaps this is inevitable.)

What follows is an Amazonian, post-war adventure, featuring new children in recognisable surroundings. As a story it is fine, and fun, albeit lacking Eva Ibbotson’s magic.

Friends Like These

The title of Meg Rosoff’s new novel – Friends Like These – should be seen as a warning that things will be dark, and somewhat sordid. Certainly, the cockroaches are not fun. But I suspect Meg knows of what she’s writing. Unlike her heroine Beth she wasn’t 18 in the 1980s, but most of us were 18 once, and Meg will know what a hot summer in New York might have entailed. Sweat, cockroaches, drugs and sex. And friends.

Sort of friends.

Beth meets Oliver and Dan, and her new best friend Edie, when she arrives in Manhattan for an internship as a wannabe journalist. It’s about being rich or poor, Jewish or WASP; knowing your way around or learning as you go. Edie knows everything, and Beth is happy to let her lead, to have a new, really good friend.

I’m sort of Beth, and I wonder if Meg is too, but I couldn’t possibly tag along like that, agreeing to every crazy idea Edie comes up with. Beth works hard, and has to play even harder, just to keep up.

I loved most of this book. As you’d expect. Perhaps not that part in the middle where I was sure Beth would be going straight to hell. But after that I was able to see what Beth was capable of, and Edie too, and I could breathe again.

Is this a YA book? Not sure. It’s about teenagers, doing teenagery stuff. But it’s historical, too, and I wonder if the doings of the 1980s are more for us who lived through those times, than 18-year-olds today? Beth is an innocent behaving like a mini adult. And Edie, well…

It is interesting, this seeing how others live, be it the non-judgemental Beth or the manipulating Edie.