Category Archives: Review

The Race

There was more to Eric Liddell than running along the beach in St Andrews in the film, or the famous swap of races in the 1924 Olympics to help him keep his Sunday clear for God.

In his new book The Race, Roy Peachey has found out more about this early sports hero, and we meet Eric both as a small child in China with his missionary parents, and we see him as a student back in England and as a medical student in Edinburgh. He has three passions; rugby, running and the church. It’s the church that takes him back to China after the Olympics; this time as a missionary himself.

Eric’s running is described in parallel with modern day school girl Lili, who like Eric lives for running, and who is both Chinese and British, having been adopted from China by British parents.

Lili usually wins every race at school, but with the announcement that the Queen is coming to watch their school race, she finds she has an annoying competitor for fastest runner.

So we follow Lili’s training sessions and her family life, alongside learning about Eric Liddell, China’s first Olympic medallist.

The Race is a fabulous tale; Lili’s story interwoven with Eric Liddell’s. I loved every minute of this fairly short book, and would have liked to read more, especially about Eric. It’s this kind of surprise find that makes reading such a great pleasure.

After the crocodiles

It’s World Refugee Day. It shouldn’t have to be, but it is.

I’ve decided to revisit my review of In the Sea there are Crocodiles, by Fabio Geda, from ten years ago. They are both, the book and its author, favourites of mine, and describe so well one ‘typical’ journey made by an innocent and far too young a person.

In this case the person is Enaiatollah Akbari, who was due to appear with Fabio in Edinburgh, but who was denied entry into the UK. To appear at a book festival, not exactly to live.

I tried to find out what’s happened to Enaiatollah, who by now ought to be in his early thirties, but there wasn’t much. But I did discover there is a second book by Fabio, about him. Read Megan Farr’s interview with Fabio here. Whether we will get to read this book is another matter. Other countries have wanted to translate the book from the Italian, but not English-language publishers.

Storia di un figlio: Andata e ritorno (Story of a Son: There and Back) covers at least one very sad fact, which makes me angry again about why Enaiatollah had to leave his country in the first place.

Spring

For a novel about Spring, there was rather a lot of Autumn in Ali Smith’s Spring. But I like a good October as well as the next witch. And I obviously failed to read it while it was still Spring, although some people regard June as still not Summer.

As with Autumn and Winter, this is a very different and very entertaining novel. I suspect I didn’t understand it quite so well, however, but understanding isn’t everything. Feel fairly confident about who is connected to whom, and have great hopes for the next book.

Partly set in a detention centre for refugees, where they are treated as just about worse than criminals, it’s a shocking aspect of life in the UK as it is today.

It’s also a story about Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as about Charlie Chaplin. It’s about the power of television films on subjects like Beethoven, or Andy Hoffnung as it was called. And if you didn’t know how to pronounce Kingussie, then here is your chance to learn. (The disturbing thing is I know what I was doing that day in October 2018 when the film producer waits for a train. A train anywhere, really. Away from Kingussie.)

The reassuring thing is that there are people in this book who want to do the right thing, and who do it. And because of coincidence it matched up with something I saw a link to on Facebook… It felt like it was meant.

Reading Ali Smith makes me feel a bit intelligent. Not very, but some. Enough.

When the Sky Falls

Being Billy meets Goodnight Mister Tom. And you could certainly have two worse books than those, for angry young boy in WWII. Phil Earle’s new book When the Sky Falls is full of anger and full of falling bombs.

Joseph arrives in London, just as London’s children are evacuated. He’s to stay with Mrs F, because his grandmother can’t cope any longer. His mother left long ago and his father’s just off to the war. He’s angry.

So is Mrs F, or at least, she’s hardened herself, and between them it takes a gorilla to make a difference. This is the huge ape at the family zoo Mrs F still looks after, with only a few starved animals left in it. When the planes come in the night, she stands guard outside Adonis’s cage, ready to shoot if the cage takes a hit, to keep people safe from this large and potentially dangerous animal.

Joseph hates school, and it hates him back. Dyslexia wasn’t ‘invented’ back then, so neither he nor anyone else knows what he’s got. He’s just ‘lazy’. He hates the hard work at the zoo as well. At least to begin with. He almost hates the chirpy Syd, the girl who also works there.

This is emotionally draining stuff, but invigorating at the same time.

Someone will have to die, and something else will have to give. But who and how and when?

I can see how this is Phil’s favourite book.

Fake News

‘I’ll send out a copy of Fake News too’, said the publisher in response to my comment that while C J Dunford’s new YA title looked quite promising, I didn’t have a lot of May left in which to read it. But she clearly knew what she was doing, guilting me into finding more reading time.

Only joking! Once Fake News was here, I could tell it was a book for which May had to be stretched a little. But it has caused me much trouble, I have to tell you. The first afternoon when it was lying on my table, to be picked up by my hands, I had to – twice – remove it from the hands of the Resident IT Consultant, who, unbidden, declared it looked really good. And as I was racing through the book, I attempted to stop for little breaks every now and then, but it was actually impossible to stop. I closed the book and opened it again within seconds.

This is an intelligently written story – which will be why a certain somebody thought it was an adult novel. Let me just say it takes much more to write quite so sensibly and entertainingly for a YA audience. Partly set in a school, and also in the bedrooms of the four children involved, it doesn’t sink to the usual levels of such tales.

Three teenagers, one 11-year-old (he’s so clever he’s been moved up a few years at school) and a dog, decide to give the world some more fake news. Just to prove it can be done and that we are gullible. They do it for several good reasons, or I wouldn’t have approved. And there are aliens.

Possibly the aliens were why things happened the way they did, but that was also a lot of fun. And can you believe teenagers are so young these days they haven’t watched ET? GCHQ might have been involved. And eco-warriors. A creepy wannabe journalist, some surprisingly decent teachers at school, and the question of whether pink and purple go together.

Fake News is so much fun. You too will want to read it, even if there is very little May left. You can have June.

See you at the launch tonight?

Mammoth

You know when you oversleep? You wake up disoriented, maybe disgusted with yourself, and everyone is already somewhere else?

This is what happens to the mammoth in this picture book by Anna Kemp, with really very mammothy illustrations by Adam Beer. He is quite late waking up. Where is his herd? And what are all those odd things he can see everywhere?

Well you can tell what’s happened. Modern life is here and his herd is no more.

Slowly our mammoth gets used to this strange new world, and he tries really hard to fit in, but also to find a new herd for himself.

There is one. There nearly always is one, if you look hard enough. Not the same as before, but creatures you can hang out with. This goes for most of us.

Big in Barnes

Today I bring you a review from the keyboard of the Resident IT Consultant. He’s been enjoying Bernard O’Keeffe’s debut crime novel, The Final Round:

“DI Garibaldi is the only policeman in the Met who can’t drive a car which means when he’s not being driven by his DS, he uses a bicycle or buses to get around. The tube gives him claustrophobia and he feels you learn more about London and its people by travelling by bus. You have to go back sixty years to the crime novels of John Creasey and his ‘handsome West of the Yard’ to find a London detective who travels by bus.

DI Garibaldi lives in Barnes, so when a man’s body is found near the Thames, he’s conveniently close to hand. The victim was last seen at a charity quiz at which, during the last round, a series of scandalous allegations were made about his Oxford contemporaries, most of whom also live in Barnes. Any one of them might be the murderer, and their sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction only reinforces one’s suspicions.

Perhaps DI Garibaldi is a little unrealistically free from the police procedures and paperwork that dog most other modern detectives, but it’s an amusing story, firmly rooted in southwest London, and leading to an exciting climax.”

And, there’s more! On the day of publication – Thursday – the Resident IT Consultant joined me at the launch, held online and also a little bit in the Barnes Bookshop, where Gyles Brandreth showed what a fan of the book he is, by asking Bernard lots of questions. And he’s also a Barnes inhabitant…

After explaining quite how much the book, or rather, the detective, has to do with Garibaldi biscuits, Bernard read from the beginning of the book, when the dead body is found..

Generally speaking, this was a very Barnes-y launch, quite noisy, in fact, with what I suspect to have been mostly Bernard’s friends and family, plus the publishers. And us at Bookwitch Towers and Bernard’s publicist Fiona, also up here in the north.

Apart from being a bit related to the biscuit, on his wife’s side, Bernard refused to jinx book no. 2 by talking about it prematurely. He is a pantser, not a plotter, and it sounded as if he’s the kind of author who changes his mind about who did it, somewhere in the process of writing. More exciting that way.

Asked who he’d like to see as Garibaldi on screen, were this ever to happen, Bernard moved swiftly between [a younger] Tom Conti, or maybe Peter Capaldi, to Toby Jones, which really doesn’t leave us any the wiser as to what the man looks like.

Oh well.

The Swallows’ Flight

I need to offer up even more and bigger thanks to Hilary McKay and her writing. It seemed impossible that there could be a book as great as, or greater than, The Skylarks’ War, but with The Swallows’ Flight I would say Hilary has done the impossible.

Thank you from the bottom of my tear-drenched hankie.

This time it’s about the children born between the two wars, whose turn it is to fight when WWII begins. Although, as with Skylarks, we learn most of what we need to know in the twenty years before. The war is ‘skirted past’ reasonably briefly. Unlike its predecessor, Swallows features not only a group of children in England, but we are introduced to two German boys and their families in Berlin.

And it works. We get to know Hans and Erik as human beings, and we see the changes to life in Germany alongside the boys. We find out what they want to do with their lives until developments mean they end up doing totally different things; in this case the boys become pilots in the Luftwaffe.

At ‘home’ we meet the generation after Clarry, Peter and Rupert from Skylarks. Peter and Vanessa have six children, and Clarry is godmother both to her niece Kate and to her best friend Violet’s daughter Ruby. We all need a Clarry godmother!

While we wait for the war that lumbers towards the families, we mostly learn about normal stuff like sibling rivalry, being bullied at school or being unwell and almost forgotten about by others. It is all this that forms the characters of these children, soon to be adults. Even Clarry’s and Peter’s rather unsatisfactory father has a role to play. There are cats, including a very random one, and there is a – smelly – dog.

There is much over the years to be sad about, but also many small and humorous incidents. I won’t spoil your reading.

My tears were partly over the inevitable deaths, but more for all those moments that simply make you cry. They rather bunch up towards the end of the story. There is much humanity here, and Hilary’s touch is lighter than ever.

Keeper

Alan Gibbons is staying in the world of football. He knows it well, and he writes about it attractively, especially for the younger Barrington Stoke reader. And interspersed with the actual story, there are pages of football facts, on what he’s just written about in the previous chapter.

Even for a dyslexia friendly book, this is short. But it’s powerful, and should work well for sports mad boys. (Even I liked it.)

Shane is a new boy at school, joining the class, and the football team, in the middle of the school year. Unusually he’s no shrinking violet, but starts off really bossy.

The boys handle him reasonably well, for being so young. But when his ‘dad’ comes along to the game at the weekend, there is no end of trouble.

It’s up to the boys to work out what’s wrong.

Great football story!

Love, friendship and nature

It was the flamingoes that convinced me. And I suppose it’s always lovely to read about creatures looking for love. Especially the male gentoo penguin, who woos his chosen partner by offering her a smooth and round stone. This is from Dancing Birds and Singing Apes, How Animals Say I Love You, by Smriti Prasadam-Halls, and illustrations by Florence Weiser.

In Rachel Bright’s little story about The Whale Who Wanted More, with very whaley pictures by Jim Field, we learn that amassing stuff does not make you happy. Happier. If you feel you need something, it’s probably something else. Friendship, maybe. Respect to Crystal who knew how to stop Humphrey the whale’s bad behaviour.

And finally to Benjamin Zephaniah’s Nature Trail, illustrated by Nila Aye, where we follow a bright-eyed little girl through her garden, looking at everything beautiful. When ‘we’ got to the night time garden, sleeping among the petals, I was caught. It’s as if I’d been there before.