Category Archives: Review

Murder Under Her Skin

That was a good run-up to Christmas! I so enjoyed sitting down with Stephen Spotswood’s second Pentecost and Parker mystery. Happily it was even better than the first, and I now wish myself into a future where there are lots of Pentecost and Parker novels. I hope to see you there.

This time our private eyes leave New York to go to the circus. Parker’s old circus no less. She doesn’t need to throw any knives, but the murder they have come to solve does involve a knife in the victim’s body, and it’s a victim Parker knew well, and the obvious murder suspect is her old mentor.

The small Virginian town the circus is in might be your typical small town in the South, but it is also not, and that’s very refreshing. People are prejudiced, and there is religion, but it’s not the way you’d expect. Ruby, who used to look out for Parker when she arrived as a teenager, was popular with everyone. And still she ended up dead.

We discover more about Parker’s past, obviously, but also about Pentecost’s family, and the usefulness of knowing your bible. Perhaps our two detectives packed too many changes of gorgeous clothes – I can still see that film – but it’s learning about life in the South and what a circus is like, as seen from the inside, which makes this book. I’d already minded, a little, that the action moved away from New York, and now I mind a little that it will, presumably, move away from the circus too.

But there will doubtless be another setting for me to like, and new clothes for Pentecost and Parker to wear, and more characters for them to suspect.

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].

Always

I was all right. It was fine me not having read two of the books in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. This one – Always – is the last. And it really is the last. Because several of the books have turned up in random order, it doesn’t actually matter at all. But it does help if you have met and know Felix.

He is an old man now. Granted, he was old before as well, in modern Australia. But when Once began he was a child, and that childlike way of being has remained with both Felix, and the current child in the book. The world is full of sweet and lovely people.

But I suspect that when Morris saw what was going on in Europe today, he needed to write one more book about Felix. Because there are also many rather nasty people, and perhaps a book won’t help change that, but it will help the reader to believe in courage and goodness.

Wassim is the latest – last – child and he is as kind and thoughtful as all the others have been, especially not forgetting Zelda. Either of the Zeldas, but mostly Zelda the first, who died. (I’m sorry if you didn’t know that, but it’s very much part of the story.)

We’re back in, not quite Poland, but somewhere a bit like it, and Wassim is having a hard time, with dead parents and Uncle Otto, who can be harsh sometimes but who took him in, and the Iron Weasels who are very bad. In other words, we and Wassim are looking at a Europe that hates foreigners and coloured people and anyone else who is different; Jews, Muslims. You get the picture.

I’m grateful to Morris for wanting to write about this, which I believe both he and I thought was part of the past, the past where Felix was a child and WWII happened.

Wassim knows he needs help, and he learns about Felix, and he looks him up online. Although it could be worth noting that public libraries ‘can be more dangerous than they look.’

Anyway, he finds Felix and Felix agrees to help him. This is where you need to start worrying. But with these two very sweet people working together, you know some good will come of it. Even if you also know, or suspect, that some bad is unavoidable. Remember Zelda.

Now is very much a time when we need a Felix.

are we having fun yet?

Sigh. The best-laid plans of witches, and, well, others. I was going to do a Lucy Mangan tonight, by which I mean take a leaf out of her book – are we having fun yet? – and do as she does. I mean her fictional female character Liz. Liz wants nothing more than to be left in peace, and a night on her own in a hotel seems like heaven. (For me though, it was Omicron that got in the way, and I am no longer required to babysit Daughter’s work laptop while she has fun at the ‘office’ Christmas party, as the party is now going to be hot chocolate online.)

But, I must say that Lucy, no, I mean Liz, has a lovely husband. I’m not sure he’s meant to be, and yes, he’s useless at so much, like most of his brethren. But he understands her so well, even if he has to be reminded of stuff every now and then. He’s kind. When Liz wants to live her dream of a cold Bonfire night out, and dresses her children accordingly, and they get too hot, Richard tells their five-year-old to ‘boil quietly’ so she doesn’t spoil mummy’s evening. And for poor Richard’s birthday the family bake him a somewhat ruined cake, which he eats with manly determination. “‘I thought it was a Frisbee covered in shit!’ he says cheerfully. ‘Biting into it and finding it was actually made of food was a nice surprise.'”

This diary style, a year in the life of Liz and her family, is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. The shit cake episode made me laugh so much I cried. The rest of the time I found myself nodding in agreement with Liz as she remarked on what Richard said, or the children, or the [mean] mums at school. Liz has two children. I believe that is the main difference between Liz and Lucy. Her parents are remarkably similar to Lucy’s, as is her sister.

I know that people are often like each other, but this is wonderful! Liz thinks almost exactly the same intelligent thoughts that I do.

I thought I was alone. And I’m not.

Nothing to Hide

I do love James Oswald’s Tony McLean. But I believe I love Constance Fairchild more. As I have already pointed out, they are quite similar, in their poshness and that. But it’s fun to have a female detective, and one who’s so good at annoying people that neither she nor the reader knows whether she will remain with the police. Or for that matter, end up dead.

This time she’s facing the paparazzi outside her flat, and that doesn’t exactly help with any hiding or lying low. Neither does finding a body – albeit not a dead one – near her bins. (I’ll let you in on a secret. I thought a body part was going to be in her fridge. But it seems Con is just not good at household chores.)

New boss, new-old colleagues who don’t care for her. Her neighbour Mrs Feltham is still around, and still cooking delicious curries. And there is another trip north to Scotland, with another appearance from Rose, as well as a meeting with one of Tony McLean’s team. More than one, actually. I like this crossover of characters.

The crime is awful, as is the way things happen. James is good at really appallingly unpleasant bad guys. We see more of Con’s family, and the family home. There is a wedding, and there are funerals.

But I really do like this.

Fortune Favours the Dead

Sometimes a witch has to retire a little bit, in order to get to some good new stuff to read. (I can recommend it.)

Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favours the Dead wasn’t new new, so much as lying in wait for me, because we both knew, the book and I, that I would get to it, if only I could. This debut crime novel came along as my guaranteed good read on that trip in October. And it was good.

It’s a Pentecost and Parker mystery, and both of them – Lillian and Willowjean – are female private eyes, in the kind of New York so many of us know quite well, because 1946 and New York feature a lot in films. This tale is told by Parker, the sidekick discovered by Pentecost just as the former was getting ready to bash her head in with a lead pipe.

I suppose it’s obvious that this could not have been written 75 years ago. Too much looking out for other women, too much same sex love, too much equality if you like. But that’s good. And it’s funny, and you like Willowjean, because she’s brave and capable, and you like Lillian, who is a great boss. There is also a more than useful cook, also female.

It’s a locked-room mystery. It had to be suicide, didn’t it? A dead woman’s dead husband’s ghost can’t really have murdered her. Can he? We’re moving in well-off circles, if not the exceptionally wealthy. But you know, featuring beautiful women wearing gorgeous clothes. (I look forward to the movie.)

With her background in the circus, Parker is no stranger to a bit of knife-throwing. It can come in handy. As do most of the other things she can do for Pentecost, who has multiple sclerosis, with better days and worse days.

It’s a very visual story; you have no trouble seeing these characters or the settings. Please bring on the film! Meanwhile, I’d usually say I can’t wait to get my hands on book no. two, but this time I can’t, because it arrived a couple of days ago. I really was quite late with this one, from just over a year ago. Won’t be late again.

Miss Graham’s [Cold] War [Cookbook]

We’ve got used to books where we are all terribly pleased the Allies won WWII. And it’s quite obvious, really – isn’t it? – that the victors take over and they run things, while the losers put up with it. Especially if you are the victorious one. And the British were quite decent and everything worked out for the best.

Well, there’s much that’s wrong with this picture, and I’m glad to report that Celia Rees deals with these tired clichés in her adult book about Miss Graham and her cookbook, back in Germany in 1946. To begin with, I found it refreshing to have a heroine – neither young, nor old – who drinks and has sex, in a way that we’ve got used to female heroines not doing [back then]. In fact, Edith Graham is quite normal, in a way that fits in with both modern thinking, but also doesn’t feel wrong for the 1940s.

And the British… well. They ‘know’ they are right and the Germans ‘had it coming.’ But they are not very nice. Nor are the Americans, and it goes without saying that the Russians are all wrong. We see the victors eating and drinking really well, while the Germans are quietly starving on the sides. Perhaps not those who ‘had it coming’ but more the normal civilians.

Edith is in Lübeck to look after education, but she has also been involved in a couple of sidelines, doing bits of minor (?) spying for the Military, and also for someone else. She does this with the help of her recipe collection, which turns out to be a useful hobby.

She makes friends, but also plenty of enemies. Above all, she learns that all is not simple and that even close friends are doing the wrong thing and not always for the right reason.

In a way I already knew this, but I still feel my eyes have been opened. And the book has probably forever ruined similarly set books where the Allies are the heroes.

There are a couple of unusual twists to the story, at least one of which I could sense from the beginning, while not quite sure how it would work out. I’ll leave you to enjoy the book, and to see what you think will happen.

(I believe the words ‘cold’ and ‘cookbook’ have been dropped from the paperback edition. I would like to think that they have also edited the surplus of ‘Teirgartens’ I was disturbed by. Or not. German is a foreign language, after all.)

The Upper World

Time travel is always good, even if in this case Femi Fadugba only lets his characters travel fifteen years. It’s enough, though. And it’s in Peckham. Which is also fine. Stay with what you know well, and in this case that would be quantum physics. And Peckham.

Told from the points of view of Esso and Rhia, we learn what used to be, and what it might become. Esso is a teenager today, and Rhia is the same age fifteen years on, when things have changed quite drastically in some respects. I wouldn’t say that her world is better. It’s scarily regimented in many ways. But then, being black and a bit of a troublemaker in Peckham today is not plain sailing, either.

I like the fact that Femi lets his main characters be good at physics and maths, while also being quite normal teenagers, getting into scrapes, hoping for a decent future for themselves. And trying to explain to your gun-toting ‘friends’ that you travelled into the future that morning, but now you are back, and using science to do so, is quite fun.

And if it’s time travel, does that mean nothing is ever too late?

Abigay’s Farm

This book by Odette Elliott, who has long been a reader of Bookwitch, is relatively short, but it has everything. By this I mean it’s a nice story, in that old-fashioned sense, while also giving us a mixed race family, illness and potential disability, discussing problems facing farmers today, and how to deal with bullying. That might be all, but is definitely enough to be going on with.

Twins Abigay and Gabriel get on – I was going to say, surprisingly well – but they are twins, so this will explain their interaction with each other. Used to doing everything together, enjoying life on their grandparents’ farm, Abigay is shipped off on her own, because Gabriel is in hospital.

The farm is lovely, but there is something different about it too. The grandparents look worried and the local bully seems extra sure of himself. Abigay finally works out what it is, and she also works out how things might be solved. Back in London there are new problems for Gabriel, meaning more worrying on all fronts.

But as I said, this is a nice story, and things will work out. Eventually.

I would like to have a farm like this to visit. I suppose having grandparents would be taking wishes too far, but a favourite spot in the countryside would be lovely.

a Boy his Bear and a Bully

Be brave.

That’s not easy, I know.

In a Boy his Bear and a Bully, Katie Flannigan writes about Scott who takes his teddy to school with him. He’s not alone, as Rosie brings her unicorn to school too. But Duncan, he’s the mean one, bullying Scott every day.

And then Buttons – that’s the teddy – disappears.

I think we all know what happened. But how to sort it? Well, it’s Dress Up Day, and wearing his dinosaur suit, Scott finally knows what he has to do. It still takes courage.

I hope readers of this book will be able to be braver than I would be.

Illustrations by P J Reece.