Sunday, 13 September 2015


Saving Midnight, by Suzy Zail                 Young Adult fiction

 Alexander Altmann is fourteen.  He hasn’t been known by his name for a long time, ever since he was transported from Hungary by cattle train with his mother and sister to Poland’s  Birkenau/Auschwitz concentration camps.  He is A10567 now, regarded by his Nazi captors as Jewish vermin, subhuman, and there to work until he dies or is shot for not moving quickly enough.  He knows his ten year-old sister Lili has already been gassed, but a miraculous meeting with his mother who was herded into a different line causes him to promise her that he will do his utmost to live so that they can come home to each other - if she can survive, so will he!
            As each nightmare day passes, however, he finds it harder and harder to bear the terrible, gnawing hunger every inmate feels, and to subject his wasting body to backbreaking work for all the hours of daylight for food that an animal would reject – and for what?  Because he is a Jew?  His family were farmers first, Jews second.  His religious teachings were practically non-existent.  In any case, it is painfully obvious that God is not present in the Hellhole of Birkenau;  he has discarded His Chosen People in quite spectacular fashion, and Alexander has nothing but contempt for Him, and those who still chant all their silly, futile prayers.
            Until a tiny glimmer, a pinprick of hope presents itself:  those of the inmates who have experience tending to horses are told to put up their hands:  they are to look after the German Officers’ mounts for the immediate future, but like all work they must do they are always subject to the caprices of those who hold the guns.  The whippings and killings will continue for the slightest infraction, or for no reason at all.
            Alexander doesn’t care – he was raised on the family farm to look after all the animals, particularly horses, for which he has a deep affinity:  to be working in stables again, to be tending the animals he loves most is an opportunity he would gladly risk his life for – and if he is sneaky smart, he can help his charges to eat their food!  Life suddenly seems survivable after all.
            So begins Alexander’s time at Auschwitz, and his eventual meeting with a spooked, damaged horse he calls Midnight.  Midnight a, purebred Arabian stallion, so badly treated on his journey that no-one can approach him.  To his horror, Alexander is informed by Commander Ziegler, the flint-eyed officer who acquired him, that the horse must be ready for riding in two weeks – otherwise both Alexander and the horse will be shot.
            Suzy Zail has given young readers a story that sends shivers up the spine;  that breaks hearts with the sheer cruelty and brutality inflicted on hapless millions;  and the ongoing nightmares experienced by those who managed to survive the unspeakable.  As shocking and terrible as Alexander’s story is, it is still a story that must be told – ‘so that it doesn’t happen again.’
            And it is also a story of love, the emotion that Alexander succumbs to and revels in when he and Midnight bond;  and hope, even more essential than love.  Where would we be without either? This is a wonderful story.  FIVE STARS.

Palace of Treason, by Jason Matthews

30-year CIA veteran Jason Matthews has followed up his international best-seller ‘Red Sparrow ’ (see review below) with a sequel that is hugely disappointing.  We still have the same fascinating protagonists;  Dominika Egorova, fearless and resourceful Russian ‘diplomat’, now a mole for the CIA;  Nathaniel Nash, her case officer and reluctant lover;  lesser characters who are absolute delights, i.e. Simon Benford, CIA boss with the best turn of phrase ever, referring to a couple of ineffectual Heads of Station as future nautch dancers in Bollywood movies;  Marty Gable, Deputy Chief of Station who keeps Nate on the straight and narrow and grounded by such common-sense observations as ‘Make up your mind whether you’re gonna be the insightful case officer handling his agent with perceptivity and skill or the spoony little choirboy chewing his quivering lower lip’.
            And what could Nate say but ‘Golly Marty, the way you put it, it’s a tough choice’.
 Yep, nothing wrong with the repartee, but what has happened to the plot??  Mr Matthews has reduced the action to fits and starts – he combines furiously paced suspense with bewilderingly slow and tiresome details of the inner workings of the CIA and its Russian counterpart the SVR, complete with acronyms, cryptonyms and every other ‘nym’ that ever was – and the recipes are there, too, as in ‘Red Sparrow’, at the end of every chapter.  They are still as lethal as ever, which makes one wonder why the spies don’t try to kill each other at the dinner table, but what do I know:  suffice it to say that Domenika’s foes are more dangerous than ever as she moves up the Kremlin ladder and into the rarefied orbit of President Putin.  (I wonder if he has read this book?  If so, he won’t be pleased!)
Nate has been seconded to the Athens Station, and both he and Marty are shocked when a high-ranking  military officer from the Russian Consulate makes contact, offering to pass on sensitive information about the latest Russian weaponry.  He is not interested in financial gain or to bring ruin on a colleague or a department;  instead he is disgusted and appalled at the direction his beloved Motherland is taking in the world:  this is his idea of payback – a poke in the eye of Putin’s Russia.  Codenamed Lyric, he passes on first class intelligence – until a disgruntled CIA officer in Washington who has just missed out on a promotion he feels should be his by right, learns of his existence, and sells the information to the Russian Washington representative for money.
Add to the mix Domenika Egorova’s homicidal boss who hates her to the extent that he tries to have her killed more than once, (the man should take a pill!) and the reader should have more than enough action to contend with – until the pace is inevitably slackened by the minutiae of everyday ‘spycraft’, not to mention exhaustive explanations of uranium extraction and even a seismic floor, which could glaze the eyes of even the most devoted Jason Matthews fan.
That said, I would still read a third book in the series:  Domenika is fearless;  Nate is hapless;  Marty Gable is shameless, and Simon Benford is peerless.  So there .  FOUR STARS.

Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews

Red Sparrow is not new;  it was published in 2013, but what impresses me about it enough to write a review is that a sequel has been written, ‘Palace of Treason’, and if it is anything like Red Sparrow’ then we are all in for a fabulous treat.
            Russian Dominika Egarova is a privileged, ambitious and enormously talented young woman who adores her country and believes unquestioningly in its leadership under Mr Putin.  Her parents, a respected university professor and a prodigiously talented concert violinist are more circumspect, having felt and suffered enormous discrimination from lesser talents, purely because the lesser talents had ‘connections’ which would always put them in front.
            Dominika aspires to be a ballerina but eventually is sabotaged, just like her parents by a staged accident that ends her career permanently;  enter her influential uncle, who decides that she could be useful as an intelligence officer/honey trap;  a ‘sparrow’ to lure with her great beauty various victims into impossible and irreversible situations.  Dominika gradually realises that she has been coerced and blackmailed herself into an irreversible situation, but because she is a person of intelligence with an exceptional gift – not to mention a huge thirst for revenge,  she decides to play the long game:  after all, ‘Revenge is a Dish that People of Taste Prefer to Eat Cold’.  Yes indeed.
            Dominika’s masters have no idea what hit them when their instructions for her to lure an American CIA agent into her embrace go horribly awry – for them, and  hapless CIA agent Nathaniel Nash:  he has found that his life has changed forever, whether he wanted it to or not!

            Mr Matthews is well qualified to write a spy novel;  he was a CIA officer for more than 30 years and knows the Spook business from every angle, and what a bonus it is for the reader that he is a smart, witty writer who can generate huge suspense, then relieve the tension with much-needed humour.  His characters are (in the main) very believable – except that the villains are more evil than usual, and definitely uglier (!) and I have to say that there were so many abbreviations, acronyms and cryptonyms that I felt battered about the head – oh, and at the end of every chapter was the recipe for a meal that the characters consumed as part of the action:  nothing wrong with that, except that each recipe had enough cream, butter, oil etc to send us all to an early grave.  Did I mind, though?  Of course not.  I am impatiently awaiting ‘Palace of Treason’ which I trust will be full to bursting with more vengeance, corpses and lethal recipes.  FIVE STARS.     

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