Category Archives: Review

Precious and the Zebra Necklace

I used to love sitting down with the latest novel about Mma Ramotswe. To begin with I kept up with each new book as it came, but when Bookwitch got going, a few pleasures fell by the roadside, and my crime sprees in Botswana were among them. I still drink my redbush tea, though.

Alexander McCall Smith, Precious and the Zebra Necklace

So I was happy to reacquaint myself with Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s shorter books about our favourite detective as a child. She was just as sweet then, as the woman she became.

In Precious and the Zebra Necklace, she makes a new friend at school, and when she discovers this girl has a sad mystery in her past, Precious sets out to solve it.

Like the adult ‘crimes’ this is more about human nature and simplicity and ordinary things going wrong. A bit of thinking about things, and talking to people gets you a long way.

Short and sweet.

The Smile

Don’t you just hate babies? I mean, younger siblings. They get all the attention and they are allowed to make noise and keep you awake all night.

Michelle Magorian’s The Smile (a Little Gem) with lovely pictures by Sam Usher is about a young boy called Josh. He has a new baby brother called Charlie, and as if it’s not enough to have your mum stolen away by this noisy newcomer, he’s also had to move house, and his new room has pink and yellow wallpaper which is so bright you need sunglasses to cope.

And here is poor Josh, all alone in his floral jail, while Charlie has the attention of both parents and gets to sleep in their room. His mum even seemed to like the idea that Charlie was going to be with them for years and years.

But being a mum she knows what to do. She cunningly makes sure Josh is in a position where he has to get to know this little pest better.

Or maybe she really did need a shower.

This is a sweet new-baby-rivalry story for the slightly older than the traditional picture book reader.

Brush Back

You have to admire the ageing gymnastics Sara Paretsky does to keep some of her characters younger than they possibly can be, while others move a little faster through life, and letting V I Warshawski’s darling dogs stay as they are.

Sara Paretsky, Brush Back

Brush Back is the story Sara wrote because she wanted to place a crime under Wrigley Field, and in the end she had to hurry as they started a major overhaul of the Cubs’ home ground. She also had to make things up, as they never replied to her emails asking to come and have a look around.

Just as well, since this way Sara could do what she liked, and what she likes is always tough on V I, but eventually ends OK for most of them. I could see two people as being in the danger zone – apart from V I herself, of course – and knew one of them would ultimately be OK, but worried that the other one wouldn’t be.

V I’s dead cousin Boom-Boom is back, so to speak. A childhood friend of his – and V I’s some time boyfriend – Frank comes asking for help when his mother is released from jail for having killed her daughter thirty years earlier. It’s not totally obvious to V I what Frank wants her to do, but being V I she starts digging anyway, and soon unearths lots of shady dealings and people who suddenly want to harm her.

She has a new young and spirited protegé from Canada living with her, which is good for Mr Contreras. V I upsets old boyfriend Conrad Rawlings again, although I’d say he’s mellowing a little. Plenty of baseball, icehockey and lawbreaking – and not all of it by V I – feature in Brush Back. Plus a small cameo by NCIS. (Keep them coming!)

It’s good to be back in Chicago, and it’s good to be back with old friends. Sara knows how to grab her readers.

The Winter Horses

There was never any time to read the crime proof by Philip Kerr, several years ago. It looked good, though. And the book survived my culls, simply because I really wanted to read it. And I didn’t know about Philip’s children’s books. Then I was surprised to find him described as a Scottish crime writer, because I didn’t know that either. Seems he was born in Edinburgh, but doesn’t live in Scotland. Though I could be wrong on that.

Philip Kerr, The Winter Horses

But I’m not wrong about how great a book The Winter Horses is. Set in the Ukraine during WWII it makes for grim reading, but is also enormously uplifting. It’s mostly about Przewalski’s, which are very unusual horses, and during the war they were facing extinction because they weren’t pure enough for Hitler.

The ones in this book are almost human (which is more than you can say about the men who killed most of them), and although wild, can adapt to circumstances. 14-year-old Kalinka has seen all her family killed by the Germans, and most of her home city too. She won’t accept that the Germans will get these last horses as well.

With the help of an old man, this starving girl manages to get a pair of horses away, and manages not to freeze to death on the winter steppe.

This is a children’s book, so I think I’m allowed to say that much. You know there has to be something positive at the end. But I won’t tell you what or how. Only that I had been correct in feeling I’d like Philip’s writing.

Katie and the Starry Night

Here is Katie, back in the art gallery, back causing mayhem, in James Mayhew’s Katie and the Starry Night. Which, as any old person will know, is about Vincent van Gogh, and you probably know all the words to the song as well.

Katie’s Grandma feels sleepy, so ‘rests’ on a bench while Katie looks at a painting with lots of stars in. And she helps herself to one of them. After which mayhem breaks loose, as the stars float away, out of the picture, with Katie in hot pursuit.

James Mayhew, Katie and the Starry Night

In order to catch them she needs the help of various people from some other of Vincent’s paintings, as well as implements such as chairs and ladders and fishing nets. Luckily the people in the paintings are helpful and up for anything, so those stars are eventually caught and returned to where they belong.

In turn, Katie and every reader now knows these works of art rather intimately.

I know I say this every time, but I felt especially close to this story. I used to be very fond of van Gogh. In fact, during my year as a student in Brighton, there was a van Gogh in my bedroom, and for a while I was awfully worried it was the genuine deal.

Women Heroes of World War I

Kathryn J Atwood, Women Heroes of World War I

Here is another book that has taught me things I didn’t know. I’m far too used to looking at WWI either from my neutral standpoint, or from Britain, and Kathryn J Atwood – as an American – looks at it both from her ‘over there’ point of view, but mostly from inside Europe, and mostly as seen by the women who lived there in 1914.

Those women didn’t necessarily want to stand there and do nothing. Many felt the need to do their bit for the war or for their country, or they simply hoped for some adventure in their lives. For some it was relatively easy to get involved, while for others it took a lot of deceit or at least time to get the men to see sense and allow them to join in.

This book tells the brief stories of 16 women who did something, either as resisters and spies, soldiers, medics or journalists. Some of them were poor and uneducated, while others were part of the nobility. Some were of more mature age, and some were only teenagers. Some went looking for war duties, while others had it thrust upon them.

But they all did good and important work, and some of them died doing it. In fact, so dangerous did it seem to me that I was almost surprised any of them lived to a good old age.

This is very fascinating, and in a way it’s infuriating that each woman only gets around ten pages to tell her story. On the other hand, with the bibliography for each entry, you could continue reading on your own, although as Kathryn says, not all books are available in English, which is a shame.

Women Heroes of World War I is an inspiration to girls everywhere. Not necessarily to join wars, but to stand up and do something.

My Name’s not Friday

Samuel has a strong belief in God, and he loves his younger brother Joshua. I was actually left wondering why, in both cases. What did God ever do for Samuel, or for Joshua, come to that? Also, Joshua almost goes out of his way to be a bad little boy. On the other hand, we know that circumstances will make a child or person something that deep down they are not.

Jon Walter, My Name's not Friday

And Samuel is not called Friday.

He has been brought up in an orphanage as a free black boy, and given an education, of sorts. But then circumstances conspire to have him sold as a slave, and he has to learn to live a whole new kind of life, as the 12-year-old property of a young white boy in the American south.

At times I wondered how Jon Walter could know what it was like back then, in a different country, but this is what writers do. They make stuff up, and I don’t suppose that a modern American author would know any more about what it was like to be a slave during the Civil War.

We learn about three different periods of Samuel’s life; the orphanage with all that is good and bad, his life as Friday, who isn’t even allowed to show he can read and write, and what came after the Union soldiers arrived.

It’s very interesting, and at times I was afraid it would turn out to be like Roots, where you never once could know what happened in the first place after someone had moved on, because being real, there was no all-knowing author to let you know about the people and places left behind. Which I found very frustrating. Here we do get to see more than just the time and place in history where Samuel is, and that’s good.

The characters are allowed to change and grow, which makes the story deeper. And the whole book is one big history lesson about slavery, like how you are powerless when your owner sells a member of your family to someone else.

To be truthful, Samuel took a while to win me over, but in the end he did.