Category Archives: Review

The Enigma Game

By about page 4 of Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, The Enigma Game, I turned to the end to check that there really were another 400 pages for me to read. I knew there should be, but wanted to make sure. What is a witch to do when reading a prequel to her second most favourite book in the world? Other than explode with contentment, I mean.

This is so good. It’s a second prequel to Code Name Verity, taking place after The Pearl Thief. This is a book for meeting old friends. Jamie, aka James G. Beaufort-Stuart, is back, and so is Ellen, with a mention of her twin. They are doing their bit for the war, at an airfield up in the cold north eastern corner of Scotland.

And there’s Louisa Adair, nearly sixteen and a recent orphan. And half Jamaican. I only mention this because life is harder when you have brown skin, and you need a job. Louisa is an expert at identifying different kinds of planes by sound. She’s also into music, which is useful when she gets a job as assistant to an old German opera singer, Johanna von Arnim.

Once they’re all ‘gathered’ at the pub near the airfield, the action can begin. Well, Jamie and his pilots are kind of busy all the time, but then a German defector turns up with a stolen Enigma machine, which in their innocence they put to good use. This is more dangerous than you might think. But at least, it matters a lot less if you are brown-skinned, or a traveller or a posh pilot. Or German. They are in this together, and it being the early part of the war, you know that whatever happens ‘now’ there will be more danger later on.

Not everyone survives, even at this point.

I need more. Lots more.

Burn

I have to admit to a degree of surprise on hearing that Patrick Ness’s latest novel – Burn – would be about dragons. He just doesn’t seem like a dragon kind of author, I thought. But then, most of his stories are not of the entirely normal kind either, with space travel and hearing men’s thoughts, or any of his other books. So why not dragons?

Why not, indeed? Dragons are lovely. Or can be, in the right hands.

Here we are in 1957 and the strain between the US and the Soviet Union is growing. Things can only get worse.

We are back in Patrick’s part of the world, near Seattle, but out in the sticks, mostly on a farm, or in the woods. 16-year-old Sarah is finding life hard; she’s less white than her neighbours – except for the Japanese boy she rather likes – and her mother died and her father is struggling to make ends meet. That’s why he hires the services of a dragon to help on the farm.

Kazimir (that’s the dragon) is there for another reason. He knows that Sarah is the centre of an ancient prophecy, and he needs to help. There is a religious sort of assassin coming, and two FBI agents.

Whatever you think of these characters, they are both interesting, and mostly quite intelligent. (It’s the sheriff you need to keep your eye on.) This makes them a dream to read about, and you discover, yet again, that people can change, or that bad people can have good in them. And you just don’t know what fate has in store for anyone.

I need to shut up here, so I don’t give the game away. But trust me, it’s a good game.

And, well, I’ve not been told. But there could be a sequel. I’d welcome one. But there doesn’t have to be. This novel is perfect as it is.

Dead Land

Sara Paretsky’s latest crime novel, Dead Land, is another triumph for V I Warshawski. This time V I gets drawn into a dangerous crime through her goddaughter Bernie. And there is a third dog. Not for keeps, but Bear does help solve the crime.

As always – and I hate how this sounds normal – it’s greed that is at the bottom of what happens. This time, greed in Chicago, but there is also a tie to Chile, with some of the action harking back to the coup against Allende. To my mind there’s not been enough written about this and it’s high time more people learn about what the US was up to back then.

Not only is V I’s current love interest brand new (from the last book), but we have a new police detective for V I to pit her investigation against. I do hope we’ll see more of Sergeant Pizzello.

Kansas isn’t always as flat as it’s made out to be, and it offers plenty of action, even for a Chicago PI. And one of these days V I will have to learn – and remember – that she’s not as young as she was, and take things more easy. But I doubt she will.

I, on the other hand, will always feel safe in her company. And Sara’s.

The Enchanted April

April 2020 might not feel all that enchanted, but it still seemed appropriate to read Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April right now, seeing as it was available. It features the beauty of Italy in April, but I have to say that my part of Scotland has managed to look enchanting in its own way.

Having known nothing about the author, except recognising her name, I discovered this novel in the Guardian Review a while ago, and felt the recommendation was strong enough that I would actually order the book. And read it.

Set in 1922, four women – strangers to each other – take up the offer to spend April in a castle in Italy after seeing an ad in The Times. We meet them as the first two, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, slowly come to the realisation that by sharing the let, and allowing themselves to use their nest eggs, this could be a dream come true. They advertise for two more women to share the cost.

So it’s a sort of strangers in an airbnb.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot leave behind Mr Wilkins and Mr Arbuthnot in lowly Hampstead, whereas the elderly Mrs Fisher is a widow and the young and gorgeous Lady Caroline just wants to be left alone. (Too many admirers.)

Lotty (Mrs Wilkins) and Rose (Mrs Arbuthnot) enjoy the freedom of not having to always put their husbands first. Mrs Fisher is a bit bossy, and Lady Caroline, aka Scrap, complains all the time but does it so nicely that everyone is charmed.

It’s clear that Lotty is somewhat of a witch, in that she ‘sees’ things. And her seeings do have a tendency to come true, however annoying Mrs Fisher finds her.

The castle truly is enchanted, or how else do you explain the changes in the four women? And the effect it ends up having on several other people. It’s not only the quiet, beige, Lotty who flourishes. There is magic for everyone.

It’s not quite what I had expected, but such fun and so lovely. We could all do with enchantment and wisteria, whether in Italy in April, or by some other means. Even if it’s not going to happen this year.

Survival in Space – The Apollo 13 Mission

I’d not realised quite how old I am. Or stopped to consider how young Barrington Stokes publicist Kirstin is. But there is nothing like a 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission to bring these facts home. To her, it’s a historical – and interesting – tale. To me, it’s something I lived through, found fascinating, wrote an essay about at school, and nerded like crazy about.

For me there was nothing boring about the third trip to the Moon, unlike – it seems – many people who felt we’d done the Moon now, so what was special about it? I didn’t even realise this was an optional setting; you just had to be interested in such an interesting thing.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13 Barrington Stoke are publishing David Long’s Survival in Space – The Apollo 13 Mission, with lots of excellent illustrations by Stefano Tambellini. It is such a great thing to have a book like this in dyslexia friendly format, and it’s so attractive.

David starts by giving the reader a brief history of how man has always wanted to get off the ground, leading up to the lunar expeditions, starting with Apollo 11, and moving on to Apollo 13. And let me tell you this, his summary of what happened is much better than my essay, and it tells you exactly what you want to know. It’s almost as if he had been there.

I don’t want to give anything away, but there was a mishap – on April 13th, even, in some parts of the world – and the astronauts had to do heroic things, hoping to return safely to Earth.

Read the book!

Watch the film. I will. Again.

But as I said, read the book.

I mean, if anyone had made this up, as a script for a film, it would all have seemed a bit unreal, wouldn’t it?

Provenance

That angry feeling you get when someone just turns up and starts helping themselves to your biscuits. You know. How dare they? Without even asking.

Kate Thompson’s new [adult] novel Provenance is set far from her usual Ireland. It’s about Elliot – an English doctor in Australia. After a long ago road trip with a friend, taking the scenic route to Alice Springs he has a fascination for the centre of the Australian continent, and he just can’t let it go.

Elliot wakes up in a hospital bed, and he has very little idea of what has happened to him. A brain injury prevents him from remembering, and the reader discovers alongside Elliot as the tale slowly unravels. A bit like Elliot himself, really.

The plot centres around Aboriginal art, plus Elliot’s fervent wish to drive really deep into the forbidden parts of the country outside Alice Springs. There are so many rules to do with what you are permitted to do, because the people there have rights. Except those rights get ignored by many white people, except for when it suits them to quote the rules back at someone like Elliot, the perennial outsider.

He wants to be liked, so much. And he wants to be a part of the local way of life, so much. At least he thinks he does. He puts up with things that he perhaps ought not to, until the day when someone eats his biscuits, without asking, out on a very big road trip.

But the big question is; what really happened?

Like Elliot, we learn quite a bit about the people there, their art, their wanting toyotas, the importance of initiating the young into the traditional ways, and how the white incomers have cheated them all the way. It’s not surprising things are not going well.

It’s much the same as the issue of taking biscuits that are not yours to take.

This is a well written, interesting story, showing a new Australia to the rest of the world. It’s a colourful minefield; worth visiting, but dangerous, nevertheless.

Last Victim of the Monsoon Express

The fact that I actually bought an ebook is testament to my fondness for Baby Ganesh, my most favourite baby elephant. I discovered that Vaseem Khan had published a novella about Ganesh and his Inspector Chopra, [retired]. And I had to have it. (Took me a while to manage to get it to climb into my Kindle, but that’s my lack of IT skills.)

And it’s set on a train! What could be better? Well, according to Chopra, the size of the dead birds they served for dinner could be greater.

Like the Orient Express, this is luxury train travel, Indian style, and very lovely. Or it is for those who don’t end up murdered, or are suspected of having done the deed. To make up for it, there is of course Ganesh. Because there is nothing strange about taking your elephant on board a train. At all.

An unpleasant man dies. Before too long it seems as though just about everyone on that train had a reason to want him dead. Chopra just has to choose which one it might have been.