Category Archives: Review

Dogs in Space

In the last few weeks I’ve come across dogs and space several times. Most recently it was Frank Cottrell Boyce who mentioned Belka and Strelka earlier this week. And the odd thing is, that before I read this picture book about them by Vix Southgate and Iris Deppe, I’d never heard of them.

Laika, yes. I thought she was the most famous space dog, even if she did die up there. And now it turns out that Belka and Strelka orbited Earth in 1960 and lived to ‘tell the tale,’ paving the way for [the human] Yuri Gagarin the following year.

They were street dogs, recruited, ostensibly because they were used to the rough life out there. But you can’t get away from the fact that if things went wrong, they had not been anyone’s pets.

But once lured off the street, they received cosmonaut training rather like their human colleagues, and the best dogs were picked for the first space flight.

Vix Southgate and Iris Deppe, Dogs in Space

And it does seem as if the pair was ideally suited for this job. I’m glad to have made their acquaintance after all these years.



Orangeboy is just as good as everyone said. Patrice Lawrence has written about being young and black, and male, in London today, without making it.., I was going to say ‘too grim’ but it obviously is grim. Just not in the way it could have been, given its topic.

16-year-old Marlon, from a good home in north London, can’t believe his luck when beautiful blonde Sonya chooses to go out with him. But you know what they say, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably won’t end well.

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy

The date from hell gets its grips into Marlon, who so far has tried hard not to be what his older brother Andre was at the same age, finding that it is rather hard to escape crime and gangs once things have gone wrong.

His mum expects him to revise for his GCSEs, while Marlon finds out far too much about drugs and weapons and the police. And much violence. As a loving son he attempts to protect his mum while adhering to the rules that say you don’t tell, even on your enemies.

And he’s only 16, so maybe has to be excused from using common sense and telling trusted adults what’s going on. He does have a great friend across the road, but she’s also young.

I couldn’t see how this could end well, but felt that it had to, at least partly, without selling out and getting too unbelievably sugary. You just want to read on and on, and the 432 pages melt away as you pray Marlon will be safe.


My interest in the female Russian pilots from WWII has finally been met. Well, I’d happily read more, but Elizabeth Wein’s dyslexia friendly novel Firebird goes some way to satisfying me. It’s a start.

Elizabeth Wein, Firebird

I knew the British and American female pilots had a tough war, even without fighting. But the young Soviet girls who flew planes had a completely different war. More was asked of them, and then it seems Comrade Stalin had the bright idea to suggest that if they ended up behind enemy lines and survived, they’d be shot for treason when they got back home.

The mind boggles.

Anastasia in Firebird has flown for as long as she can remember, and it makes sense to volunteer on the day her country joins the war. But even though she flies well, they make her stay on as a flying instructor to begin with, rather than join her male friends.

That would have been a different story, whereas this one, where Anastasia and many others form a women’s unit of pilots is infinitely better. I’d read about them, and after this taster, I’d like to read more.

It was a cruel war for everyone, but I’m fairly sure the Russians had it worse (unless it was the Germans who froze as much on their side of the line), and there was never much in the way of good news.

They were skilled, and they were brave.


Glowglass is the sanest of Kirkland Ciccone’s books. I hope my opinion on this does not upset him. So far Kirkland’s novels have gone from almost impossible to crazy to nicely weird, to Glowglass, which is about the mass murder – by porridge – of a religious sect. It’s pretty enjoyable.

Kirkland Ciccone, Glowglass

One morning the Glowglass ‘family’ sit down to breakfast and only two of them stand up again. They are 15-year-old Starrsha and her much older, and mute, ‘brother’ who have to face the rest of the world once all the dead people have been taken away.

To begin with, Starrsha goes to school, something she always wanted to do. Although as even us normal people know, going to school is no easy thing.

The whole story is told by Starrsha in the form of a video recording, where she starts at the beginning, and continues until the bitter (or maybe not) end. It’s a bit of what we always ‘knew’ about sects, plus quite a lot we didn’t, and never asked about, like porridge, with and without salt. Barbie, My Chemical Romance and Marlene Dietrich all feature.

Starrsha is intelligent, if a bit naïve, and takes her new life in her stride. But her dead Father, the cult leader – God, if you like – has a way of messing with her and her brother, even from the grave.

As I said, quite fun, depending on your sense of humour, or just enlightening regarding cults and life in general.


Another holiday; another Selma Lagerlöf for the Resident IT Consultant to read. Though it has to be said that he had to take a break, because it wasn’t always all that pleasant. I know that sounds  unkind, but as you will see from his review below, Banished was a bit of a mouthful, and even Selma suffered.

“Banished is the latest product of Norvik Press’s initiative to publish new translations of the work of Selma Lagerlöf. Bannlyst (its Swedish title) was originally published in 1918 and first appeared in English translation (as The Outcast), in 1922.  This edition is translated by Linda Schenck, translator of  Lagerlöf’s Löwensköld Ring trilogy and five of Kerstin Ekman’s novels.

Lagerlöf, the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, was a committed feminist and pacifist and was horrified by the violence of the First World War. After personally having seen the bodies of thousands of dead soldiers floating in the sea after the Battle of Jutland she was inspired to write a novel that explores the double standard that allows people to hold death sacrosanct and yet neglects the sanctity of life.

Banished tells the story of Sven Elversson, a member of a failed polar expedition on which the survivors are forced the eat the flesh of one of their comrades in order to avoid perishing. He is a brave and kind man but is rejected by those around him and banished from their company. Banished is a thought-provoking tale of love, death and survival that grapples with moral dilemmas as relevant today as they were a century ago.

By the end all those who have found Sven reprehensible realize that human life is worth far more than human death and that during the ongoing war the same people who vilified an explorer for doing what he had to do to survive were prepared to disregard daily mass murders and to glorify those who carry them out.”

Selma Lagerlöf, Banished

The Resident IT Consultant is now recuperating with something a wee bit lighter. But I’d say, keep them coming! He – sort of – enjoys them.

Bone Talk

Candy Gourlay has always written about people from the Philippines, and in her third novel she has stepped even deeper into her country and further into its history. The result is absolutely magical.

Candy Gourlay, Bone Talk

Set in 1899 in a small village in the mountains, people live pretty much as they have always done. Ten-year-old Samkad and his friend Luki, who’s OK despite being a girl, play as they’ve always done, when the day comes for Samkad to become a man, i.e. to receive the ‘cut.’ They are very much bound by tradition and the older men rule the village.

They have deadly enemies – the Mangili – and are always on the look-out for them. It’s how you stay alive. But at ten Samkad isn’t quite as mature or knowledgeable as he thinks, as he discovers when many bad and surprising things happen in quick succession.

But of course in 1899 the whole country also have enemies, having been invaded by America. In Bone Talk the two worlds meet, and things will never be the same again. Samkad might have started out charmingly naïve, but he grows and does become a man, and it has little to do with the cut.

It’s hard to call a story about this difficult time lovely, especially considering that so many bad things happen. But it is lovely; a real must-read. While I really, really liked Candy’s first two novels, this rather surpasses them. There is truth in the saying that you should write about what you know, about your place, your country, your people.

Read Bone Talk, and discover the other side to the Philippines. The side we didn’t know.

Black Snow Falling

I raced through this very beautiful volume, to find out what it was really about. Had L J MacWhirter written a romance, or a horror story, or was it pure fantasy and /or science [fiction]?

L J MacWhirter, Black Snow Falling

Black Snow Falling features people who believe Earth is at the centre of the universe. Well it is the 16th century, so not too abnormal. But this can cause problems, as it might have done for dear old Copernicus.

It’s a kind of Cinderella situation, with a loving and sensible, but widowed, father who goes off somewhere, leaving his daughter Ruth with a wicked stepmother and some step-siblings, and this being 1592 there is always a risk of being married off to some ghastly man.

Some of the story happens in 1543, when Henry VIII visited Ruth’s home, except she wasn’t born then. He was between wives, and he would not tolerate any nonsense about the Sun being the centre of everything.

There are creatures who come at night and steal your dreams. There is much that seems inexplicable, but Ruth being a determined heroine type of girl (she skates, for instance), she sets out to find what goes wrong and to put it right.

I’m beginning to suspect I must have had a dream or two stolen from me at some point…

(One thing; any book with as gorgeous a design as Black Snow Falling ought to come with a ribbon bookmark, as well. That’s what I think…)