Category Archives: Review

The Titanic Detective Agency

We should at least be safe from sequels. The fact that Lindsay Littleson’s crime novel is set on the Titanic sort of rules that out. The days are limited as it is, with three child passengers on this famous ship finding mysteries and setting out to solve them, unaware that time is even shorter than the official expected arrival in America.

Lindsay Littleson, The Titanic Detective Agency

As one of the few people on earth who have not seen the film, it was interesting to learn about travelling on the Titanic; the different passenger classes, for instance. And interestingly, Lindsay didn’t make up her characters. They are real passengers (and the fact that they were, does in no way guarantee that they survive), and this makes everything more realistic.

Like Johan from Knäred. I was gratified to find someone who could have been practically a neighbour, on the Titanic. Johan was poor, so travelled in third class, on his way to join his father and older sister, having left his mother and younger siblings behind in southern Sweden. He speaks no foreign languages, but still manages to befriend Bertha from Aberdeen and her young friend Madge.

It’s not the mysteries that matter; it’s the Titanic and the lives described. You meet people and even though you know what will happen, you have no way of knowing who will die and who survives, or what will become of the survivors, for that matter.

Learning about a catastrophe in this way brings home the awfulness of both the voyage, but also of how people lived and why they travelled and what they were hoping for, or fearing, in America.

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The Time Travel Diaries

I had such a lot of fun with Caroline Lawrence’s Time Travel Diaries that I kept returning to the book until I found out what happened and how it ended. Which I’m obviously not going to tell you about.

Caroline Lawrence, The Time Travel Diaries

And it’s not Caroline who’s time travelling, but her new main character Alex. At least to begin with, I felt he spoke rather like a hardboiled private eye, albeit as a Y8 London school boy who is a bit of a wimp.

What helps is that he speaks [modern] Greek because of his gran, with whom he lives, and Latin because of school. So he’s quite handy to have around if you suddenly encounter people from the olden days. In this case, Roman London.

Yep, Caroline hasn’t exhausted her knowledge of those days yet, and there is plenty to learn about old London. Or is there?

I can’t really tell you how or why Alex suddenly goes back in time, nor what happens when he does. But it’s fun. And you know things won’t go entirely to plan, because what would be the point of that?

Speaking for myself, I like seeing what it was like a long time ago, in places that I know today. Especially as I am not expecting to actually end up there, with their bad teeth and plagues and stuff.

It’s a bit of a mystery, and although you might feel for technical reasons that this time travel lark isn’t something to be repeated, even if Alex were to survive, it does seem as if this isn’t the last we’ve heard of him.

D-Day Dog

It’s possible to like war too much. Maybe you don’t stop to think about what war really means, or you get carried away by the excitement of weapons and explosions. And there is that idea of patriotism, duty to your country.

Tom Palmer, D-Day Dog

In Tom Palmer’s D-Day Dog 11-year-old Jack loves all things to do with war, as does his Reserve soldier father. They play war games at home, and Jack just knows that to serve your country is the greatest honour.

Then comes the school trip to the battlefields, and his father is called up, and life turns upside down. The children are told to find a dead soldier to read up on; someone whose grave they can visit. Because Jack has a dog, Finn, which he loves more than anything, he is pointed in the direction of a paratrooper who served in the war with his dog.

And suddenly it all becomes too real and Jack begins hating war.

There are probably many boys who love the idea of war and violence, and this book will be a good way of finding out what’s important in life – and death – and why people do what they do. It also brings attention to the Falkland war, Afghanistan, and Syria, where one of the girls in Jack’s class comes from.

Behind everything on the trip we see Jack’s love for Finn, for his dad, and his fear of what might happen to his family. For anyone unfamiliar with the details of D-Day, or with any war for that matter, this is a powerful little story.

And you know, they have dogs in Syria too. It’s just that Jack had no idea.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria

Do you like Ballet Shoes? And When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit? Then you will love Catherine Bruton’s No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria

Aya is eleven and has arrived in Britain with her mother and her little brother Moosa. They’ve been here three weeks and queue most days just to see their caseworker and to get food and nappies. Her mother speaks very little English, and is not well. It falls to Aya to do the talking, and the looking after.

At the community centre somewhere in Manchester Aya suddenly hears music, and feels compelled to see where it is coming from. This is how she discovers a ballet class, and having loved her ballet classes back in Aleppo she is drawn to the room.

But can someone like her ever dance here in England?

Set mostly in Manchester, there are flashbacks to Aya’s story of what happened in Syria, and how she and her family ended up in England. Most of her family. In a way it’s the standard refugee tale, but every such story has real individuals in it, and this is Aya’s.

Catherine has got everything right here. It’s exciting, but reassuring. It’s sweet, but not too sweet. And we need to be reminded of all this right now. The dreadful past. The dreadful present. We need to make things better.

I hope you will love this book as much as I did.

Total Recall

Total Recall is one of my Sara Paretsky gold nuggets; picked up second hand and kept until such a time as I needed more Warshawski to read. This last week was it, and I was struck by how Sara introduced her story with a mention of Oxford (just as I was leaving that place) and the Resident IT Consultant’s old college.

Sara Paretsky, Total Recall

The book is almost twenty years old, and deals with two things. First the crime, which is insurance crime in Chicago, and I couldn’t help noticing how it pre-dates the things we are so concerned with today. You can put a few bad guys in prison, if they survive their brush with V I, but they don’t run either the local police department, or the country. People’s lives are in jeopardy, and their money, but there is less of the wholesale fear for your existence that we see today. And mobile phones were not what they are now.

So I enjoyed the crime, if one can say that. It seems that lightning can strike in the same place twice.

The second topic of the book, which underlies all that happens, has to do with Lotty Herschel’s past in Vienna and her time in London after being evacuated. Anything that goes back to the Holocaust is harrowing, but in some way I see Lotty’s current suffering as being more that of anyone looking back to a point in their childhood and youth. It’s the child’s fears, and the lack of control you had as a young person when things happen.

Partly told in Lotty’s own words, we learn many new facts about her and Max, and others previously mentioned in these books. (This makes me wonder how it works when an author starts writing. Sara couldn’t have known everything about the characters she put in the first story. And as the author makes new facts, and then more new facts, it’s fascinating how it all fits in, and makes that person more of who she or he is.)

There are many wise words and sentiments about loss and death and guilt and all those bad things we sometimes believe in. I hope Sara can remember them for herself, but then we are always our own worst enemy, as proven by Lotty in this book.

Astronomers in Action

Astronomers in Action – another science book by Anne Rooney – has brought the action much closer to home than what I’ve found in general astronomy books. I kept recognising concepts and words that have surrounded me for the last eight years, and I still found it fascinating. I hope the book will inspire many young people, either to read more books like this one, or to take things a step further and study astronomy.

Anne Rooney, Astronomers in Action

The thing about writers like Anne is that they are good at explaining complicated stuff in a way that makes the reader understand. She is no astronomer, so perhaps that is why I suddenly ‘got’ the difference between Kepler and K2. Both have been mentioned almost daily in the Bookwitch household, but I was never entirely certain exactly what was what. (Sorry!) Or possibly I merely forgot.

This short, picture book-length volume shows us the people who work with astronomy. There are several ‘From the Field:’ pieces, telling us what normal people get up to when they work in this kind of area. There is the chap who turned up in Big Bang Theory, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I gather is famous. And there is, well, Daughter, who has chased exoplanets for some years now.

Anne Rooney, Astronomers in Action

And others. Let’s just say I felt right at home with these people, their computers and their telescopes. I’d like to think that this good feeling will reach many readers. It’d be good for budding scientists, curious to discover more. They, too, might find an unknown planet rattling around in space one day. (The temporary working name for the ‘Bookwitch planet’ was Helen’s World. It has now been given a boring long-digit name instead. Now that it’s real.)

Anne Rooney, Astronomers in Action

You will know why I wanted to read Astronomers in Action, but I was surprised by quite how much fun it turned out to be. Short enough to be an easy read, and interesting enough to capture your attention.

Home Ground

Home Ground is a short, but necessary, story. Alan Gibbons has written this for Barrington Stoke, and like most of his books it is very much a book for boys.

Alan Gibbons and Chris Chalik, Home Ground

It’s got football at its heart, and would appeal to all football fans out there. And the other thing that matters is friendship. Fairness. Understanding that not everyone is the same, but that we are equal in our own way, and that we all matter.

Even refugees. Some of the boys in this story don’t like outsiders, or change. Not even if it helps their team win. Or at least, not come last.

So here is a story that shows the reader why people are the way they are, and how it can be good for everyone to include newcomers, who might look and speak different. But they’re all football players.

Alan has included short pieces on refugees, what they are, and why. He mentions what might have happened to them before they came here, and what their lives can be like. This could seem too obvious, but for the target readers in this case – boys between eight and twelve – it may well be necessary. There is also some information on famous, refugee, footballers.

I hope this book will both entertain and inform, and change.

(Illustrations by Chris Chalik)