Category Archives: Review

The Last Hawk

I forced myself to take reading breaks so that Elizabeth Wein’s third book with Barrington Stoke, featuring female pilots during WWII, would last a little longer. The Last Hawk is really something; the same exciting flying war stories as we’ve come to expect, but as seen from inside Germany.

Ingrid is a 17-year-old German glider pilot. And she stutters. So not only is she at risk from the war in general, and flying in particular, but she faces having ‘her own’ turn on her, because she stutters. Faulty citizens are not something Hitler wanted to keep.

This is so chilling, even when in many ways it’s not news [to me], and it would have felt good to be able to look back to this time and know that it would never happen again. But we know this is not the case, don’t we?

Ingrid is recruited as an assistant to test pilot Hanna Reitsch, to show future Luftwaffe pilots how to fly. Plus some other, less attractive, tasks, which worries her. She needs to work out what to do, and if she has the courage to do it.

Perfect reading material for teenagers today. Enjoy the mix of fiction and real facts, and learn from it before it’s too late.

Who are the reviews for?

I realised I don’t actually know. It had always seemed that it was sort of obvious, but one day as I finished the Guardian Review, sighing over how few – or none – there were of children’s books, my mind turned to adult books. Because there were a ‘good’ number of them being reviewed.

But why would I read them? And what reason do other, proper adults, have for reading the reviews?

If I read a review of a book I most likely will not even consider getting or reading, it’s because it still sounds fairly interesting, but mostly because the review reads well.

So, I clearly read the reviews like anything else, which is to be entertained. Possibly informed, but what point is information if I don’t like the way it has been written?

Having got this far I realised that there was perhaps no difference to reviews of children’s books. They are not so much there to tell the reader to buy or borrow the book. It’s to entertain the adult as he or she reads the Guardian Review, or Bookwitch, or anything else like that. If so, it almost doesn’t matter how many, or which, books are reviewed.

Why do I review? Well, I like reading. And when I’ve read, and liked, I want to share my thoughts. That sharing is mostly done in the hope that the reader will enjoy it, and maybe take things further and buy or borrow the book. No, no maybe about it. That really excellent book I’ve just told you about; you simply must read it. And tell others.

Take the London Review of Books. To the best of my knowledge I’ve never read it. But my vivid imagination of it makes it into a magazine full of book reviews. It seems obvious. And then, in an article about its recently departed editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, someone wrote that Margaret Thatcher had been mentioned far more times than certain big literary names. And I thought, ‘why?’

She’s not all that literary, compared to old Shakespeare or new Amis, or any of all those famous writers in between. So first I learned that it’s not all reviews. Fine. But Thatcher makes it more into a political magazine [to my mind], and we have other ones for that.

This sent me back to Bookwitch. How often had I mentioned our former PM? Once. A year ago. And now, twice, counting this piece.

Back again to the Guardian Review, the children’s books bit. Had I been too naïve believing that the reviews are meant to send well-intentioned adults into bookshops to buy one of the recommended books for a little person in their life? Or, for themselves, perhaps, like when I discovered How I Live Now at the age of 48. I was then forced to look around for younger hands into which I could press copies of this marvellous book, so it mostly worked.

And then there is the other kind of review. Years later I still relish the review by Anthony McGowan of, let’s say, some other children’s author’s debut novel. He didn’t keep it in. At all. Not having read more than a page or so of the book in question, I felt he was right [in his opinions], if a bit rude. It was a fun read. But it wouldn’t have been fun had it been my book. I understand that when a year or so after the two of them did an event together, the author was dignified and charming. Anyway, Tony is very kind. He just got carried away. In a national broadsheet.

Kat Wolfe On Thin Ice

It was with some dismay I realised I’d missed the second Kat Wolfe mystery. But here, for both you and me, is Kat’s third adventure, Kat Wolfe On Thin Ice.

Kat and her co-detective Harper Lamb are on their way to the Adirondacks (I will never be able to say that right) for half term, along with Harper’s dad and Kat’s mother. And on the basis that parents always need to be lost before the fun starts, they mislay Professor Lamb before they even get on the plane, and Dr Wolfe somewhat later but also before they really arrive where they are going.

They learn there has been a diamond heist in New York, and the trial of the 91-year-old thief is about to start. The star witness for the trial manages to disappear near their Adirondack cabin, and Kat and Harper start detecting. There is a snow storm on the way, and there are huskies. And a raccoon. But that’s just fine because Kat is missing her pet leopard.

Harper misses the internet and computers, but she still manages to do some research for their detecting. And it’s quite astounding what the girls come up with, and how they tackle every problem. Because as I said, the parents are long gone, and what with the storm and everything…

Very exciting, just as I had hoped and expected. And maybe this is a little farfetched, but it’s so well plotted and researched that every step of the way seems believable. They even cook, which is just as well because that is one hungry raccoon.

The solution to the jewel heist mystery is just that bit different to what you might have thought, too.

The Deep-Sea Duke

This sequel to The Starlight Watchmaker, by Lauren James, is equally delightful. Science fiction, which still feels unusual for Barrington Stoke, but all the more welcome for it.

So if you like inter-species gay romance, this is the story for you. It was already hinted at in the first book, but here Hugo learns that he is not a lesser being for being an android. In fact, sometimes he is better suited for life than his – not human, because they are not – living friends. Even if one is a sort of rock.

Hugo and Ada have been invited to spend the school holidays with Dorian and his family, on a planet many weeks away. It’s a beautiful planet, but currently overrun by refugees and all the problems associated with that. Like large butterflies. Otters.

They all help in the end, but Hugo helps the most.

And as I said, there is romance. Very lovely.

When the World Was Ours

Her new novel, When the World Was Ours, is Liz Kessler’s best work. It stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s not saying a little.

I had heard about the background to this story set before and during WWII for several years, and always found the tale of Liz’s grandparents’ serendipitous encounter with a British couple on holiday in Europe, spine-tingling and hair-raising and all those other things you feel when something truly special happens. So I had been waiting for this book. Really waiting.

I have also, more recently, heard that many young people today don’t believe in WWII; don’t believe that it really happened. They need to read When the World Was Ours.

This story about how one young Jewish boy and his parents managed to escape from Hitler’s annexing of neighbouring countries before 1939, shares many aspects of what you can find in other children’s books set in the same period, most notably Lisa Tetzner’s Die Kinder aus Nr. 67. But I don’t believe I have seen the persecution of the Jews and the transport to the concentration camps, or the way someone might join the Hitler Jugend, from the inside, the same way as in this book.

Leo, Elsa and Max are three close friends in Vienna in the mid-1930s. We follow them from Leo’s ninth birthday until just after the end of the war. It starts in an idyllic enough fashion, but little by little, bad things enter their lives, and their relationship. Leo and Elsa are Jewish. Max is not.

This is realistic. It will not be a happy ever after for all of them. It can’t be, because that’s not how it was. But while reading about Leo’s route to England, based on Liz’s dad’s, we also learn much about what it was like if you were left in a Europe where things were quickly turning very serious.

As a hardened soul, I only cried towards the very end. But you can start much earlier if you want to. You will probably have to.

You will hopefully also want to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. I hope it’s not too late.

Winter

It certainly is. Here and now, but also in Ali Smith’s Winter. Although I’d almost have preferred to call it Christmas. It’s mostly set at Christmas, with flashbacks to older times, summer and winter, like we got in Autumn.

Instead of the seemingly interminable queueing for a passport application to go through, as we had in Autumn, Winter begins with Sophia visiting the optician. Unnamed, but recognisable as one of those High Street ones. I’m glad she was hard on them. But then her bank was hard on Sophia.

This wealthy – or is it formerly wealthy? – sixty-something woman, is seeing things. Even without the help of the optician. It’s a head. No body, just the head.

It’s Christmas Eve and Sophia’s thirty-something son Art is coming to stay, with his partner Charlotte. Except there is a problem. But problems can be dealt with.

There is also Sophia’s kind, but quirky, older sister Iris.

In the background we have the politics of the day, Christmas 2016. It’s only partly Brexit. Now there’s also the election of the 45th President to be concerned about. And the flood of refugees, who are not seen as human beings by our leaders. Iris cares. Sophia less so. And Art is confused. His new Charlotte is great, however, and she truly gets the Brexit conundrum.

Perhaps there is hope. I’d like to think there is.

I’m looking forward to Spring, in more ways than one.

The Invisible

Tom Percival’s The Invisible is a picture book with a message. It gets this across by having a captivating story about young Isabel and her family, falling on hard times, supported by the most beautiful art on every page.

The family are terribly poor, and in the end they have to move from their cold and spare home, to a flat on a very much less attractive council estate on the other side of town where they know no one.

After a while, Isabel discovers that she’s turning invisible in the stark and dismal new surroundings. But after a while longer, she suddenly sees other invisible people, like the lady with the flower pots, the bird man and the bike repair boy.

By joining in and doing things with these people, they all discover a new meaning to life, and they become visible.

The story is an important one, but to me it’s Tom’s art on every page that steals the show. To be able to paint a ‘portrait’ of these unlovely council tower blocks, the cold wind, the snow, and shops filled with ‘stuff’ that people can’t afford, is a miracle.

I’m hoping this book will be read and enjoyed by small readers and their adults. I know I would have liked to read this with someone.

Swan Song

I’m the kind of cynical reader who doesn’t automatically swoon because a book has animals and troubled children in it. When I was first told about Gill Lewis I was extremely cautious. Until I gave her a go.

If you haven’t already, please give her a go. She is one of our silent, but strong, authors for children. There are animals. In this case swans, as the title Swan Song hints at. As a vet, Gill knows about animals, and swans, and other birds, who also feature. It shows. There is a lot of knowledge without it being in your face. You kind of get to share that knowledge and feel clever as well.

There is also a troubled boy, Dylan, who has been expelled from his secondary school. He coped with Y7, but in Y8 things got too much and he punched his best friend. So off to Grandad in Wales he goes.

Grandad may not have a television, or internet, but he knows about swans. This being Wales, he also sings. Swans and singing are both good healers for troubled boys. Especially one who is so surprised to learn he can go on Grandad’s bike anywhere he wants. This boy who feels it’s ‘weird not being told what to do, when to do it and where to go’.

This, to my mind, is what’s wrong with today’s parent/teacher generation.

Give them a Grandad with swans any day!

Swan Song is another mature story in easy to read format from Barrington Stoke.

The Morning Gift

I 95% adored this adult novel by Eva Ibbotson. It came highly recommended by several people whose taste I respect, and my knowledge of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books backed this up.

To begin with I sat back and basked in the way Eva put her words together, how she described the background to what happens in The Morning Gift. The plot is good and the characters loveable and interesting and the setting in prewar Austria/Vienna was enough to make me want to go back there.

We meet the family of the heroine, Ruth, who is 20 when the real action begins in 1938. Prior to that we’ve learned how her parents met and how the well off Viennese intelligentsia lived. We also meet the British hero, Quin, who is everything you want from the romantic, but also kind, intelligent, rich man in your life.

When the Germans take over in Austria, the family flees to England, but due to a technical mishap Ruth does not manage to leave. Enter Quin, who obviously wants to help, and in the end this help has to take the form of a marriage of convenience.

If you’ve read romantic fiction before, you will know what to expect, except here you can expect it in a wittier and more intelligent shape than average. This is Eva Ibbotson we’re talking about.

You know it will end well, even though we are just coming up to the beginning of the war. You know that London in 1938/39 will lead to six years of a very bad time, and these are Jewish refugees we’re talking about. Added to which is the lack of acceptance by white English people who are not too keen on foreigners.

So the war is perhaps 2% of my ‘negative rating.’ The other few percent, well, this is set – fairly realistically, I would say – in the 1930s, and the book was published in 1993, written by someone who had experience of prewar London. Had I read it back then, I’d not have seen much of a problem when Ruth and Quin finally ‘get together’ properly. But now, in 2021, this is #metoo territory. And, well, I felt uncomfortable.

It quickly returns to most of its charm again, and all is well. Only, the degree Ruth worked so hard to get, is no longer needed once there is a happy ending. Not even in this modern version of a time when that would have been the norm (or so I imagine).

On the other hand, how can you not love a heroine who knows herself; ‘Would you like me to stop talking? Because I can. I have to concentrate, but it’s possible.’ So is reciting poetry – in German – to a sheep.

The Silent Stars Go By

This new book by Sally Nicholls is everything you’d want it to be. It tells the story of 16-year-old Margot who becomes pregnant just as her fiancé Harry goes off to fight in WWI in 1916. Harry doesn’t know, and when he’s reported missing in action, Margot eventually has to tell her parents about the baby. Her father is a vicar, and it’s not welcome news.

Three years later, Harry – who is not dead – returns home, and wants to see Margot, who is back for Christmas, and she has to decide what to do, what to tell him.

Set at a time when unmarried mothers were much more frowned upon than today, and also at a time when prospective future husbands were far fewer than some years earlier, this is not an easy problem to solve. Added to which is the fact that Margot’s parents adopted her son, so she can’t very well ‘take him back’.

Margot is lovely, and so is Harry. The whole village is pretty lovely. But there is still a problem to be solved. And there was a fact about adoptions I didn’t know before reading Sally’s book.

As the reader, you want everything to work out perfectly, but you can’t see how it can be done. Or which part of almost perfect it will end up having to be.

But take it from me, Sally Nicholls just gets better and better.