Sunday, 25 July 2021


We Germans, by Alexander Starritt.



           ‘What did you do in the war, Grandpa?’ was the classic question asked by all young offspring of their grandfathers after the Second World War, and some of the answers were horrifying, heart-stopping adventures, but told with verve and, if the memories weren’t too awful, depending on the age of the grandchild, related in the sure knowledge that they fought to liberate the world from Tyranny and Injustice, and a mad Leader who wanted to destroy civilisation.  For they were on the winning side.

            A young Scotsman asks his German Opa the same question;  Callum’s mother is German but he has been raised in Scotland and, despite being bilingual and having regular holidays with his German grandparents in Heidelberg, he sees himself as a countryman of the Winning Side:  when he asks the question of his Opa, it is in such a way that the old man is irritated and refuses to discuss his experiences.  Callum’s curiosity is not satisfied until after the old man’s death, when a letter from Opa is discovered, addressed to him, which relates in chilling detail exactly what Opa did in the war, the war that started so gloriously for hundreds of thousands of German troops marching East to Moscow, and ended with the starving remnants of those ‘invincible’ forces trying to make their way back to a Germany that was in utter chaos:  this is what I did in the war, Callum.’

            Callum’s Opa went to war as a conscripted Artilleryman in 1940.  His scientific studies at University were interrupted, but he didn’t think he’d be away for very long;  he was sure that he would realise his cherished dream of being a scientist once victory was achieved, and life would be back to a comforting normality with his family.  Now it’s 1944 and he finds himself ‘foraging’ for food in the Polish countryside – any kind of food, with other starving soldiers from the remains of various regiments as they tried to reach the  German border.  He is ashamed, too, to be taking food – any kind of food – from the villages they pass through, for he knows that the inhabitants are starving as well.  But hunger has no morals.  And they know the Russian Army is not far behind:  there will be no mercy from them.

            Opa’s experiences are a classic example of what it was like to be on the losing side, the side that committed crimes of such heinous savagery that the world will never forget;  a cultured nation that will always be branded by the terrible sins of supreme power and blind obedience.  By the end of this powerful narration Callum – and every reader – will know, too.   Alexander Starritt has produced a brilliant, singular morality tale, one that should be taught in schools.  SIX STARS.


Saturday, 17 July 2021


Katipo Joe series, by Brian Falkner.  Junior Fiction

Book One, Blitzkrieg

Book Two, Spycraft.


            Brian Falkner’s wonderful wartime adventure series opens in Berlin in 1938:  Hitler is massing his troops and Germany is preparing for the Thousand-Year Reich and a pure Aryan race.  Joseph St. George is 12 years old and living in Berlin, the son of British Diplomats.  He has lots of friends at school and is envious of them because they are all joining the HitlerJugend, the Hitler Youth – why can’t he?

            His parents explain to him very succinctly why he can’t, especially after Kristallnacht, The Night of the Broken Glass, when Jews and their property were beaten and smashed:  on the surface Deutschland sparkles; behind the glitter are horrible undercurrents which culminate in a midnight visit to their home from the Gestapo, who drag Joe’s father off for questioning.  Joe finally realises that his idyllic childhood in Germany is over, especially when he and his mother are forced to flee to a series of Safe Houses on their way to Switzerland and eventual safety in Britain – where his mother immediately sends him home to her brother in New Zealand because he will be safe there.  Outrageous!

            Joe doesn’t believe he can survive without his mother.  He still doesn’t know what happened to his father, and he has no idea what kind of work she does in Whitehall, but he is determined to get back to her whichever way he can – and after three years he does, stowing away on a cargo ship, nearly drowning when a U boat torpedo strikes, but he does make it back to London – just in time for the Blitz, and to find that his Mother is spying for Churchill.

            Brian Falkner keeps up a cracking pace throughout Book One;  his research is top-notch and he provides a glossary and relevant photos as Joe is eventually recruited by Whitehall to train as a Junior Spy;  he is tall and fair, the perfect Aryan specimen, and his language skills are exemplary.  After the right training he will be sent back to Berlin – as an assassin:  no-one would ever suspect a tall, handsome Aryan Hitler youth as a murderer of one of their own.

            Spycraft, Book Two, is set in Bavaria in Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s planning and social centre:  once again Joe has been parachuted into Germany to replace a HitlerJugend lad who mysteriously disappears from the train that Joe must take to join other young girls and boys who are the cream of the Hitler Youth.  They are to appear in a movie by acclaimed film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, a propaganda film to show the German public – and the world – the perfection of German Aryan youth under the Third Reich and, as with Book One, there is more to Joe’s mission (and more life-and-death risk) than he could possibly imagine;  the suspense and excitement never falters, and Falkner’s portrayal of all the monsters of history is first-rate.  At this stage of the series, Book Two should be classed as Young Adult as themes and the story change, but the only criticism I have so far is the lack of Book Three.  I need to know what happens!  SIX STARS!!

Tuesday, 6 July 2021


Exit, by Belinda Bauer.


          Felix Pink is a widower who lives a very quiet life with his rescue dog Mabel in a small Devon town.  He is a retired accountant and his days are orderly and structured – he would never say ‘boring’, but oh, how he wishes that his Margaret were still with him – in her right mind.  For his wife gradually succumbed to dementia, leaving him entirely alone in the world, their beloved son having died many years before from cancer in what should have been the prime of his life.  No-one knows the meaning of the word ‘solitary’ better than Felix, or the terrible, on-going grief he experiences on his weekly visits to the cemetery to replace the flowers on his loved ones’ grave.  He wonders how long it will be before he will join them permanently, but until that longed-for day arrives, he will try to live an upright, decent life, as Margaret would have wanted him to.

            And to that end, he has joined a very discreet society called The Exiteers, a group of dedicated people who help people to end their lives – providing said people meet certain criteria:  they must be terminally ill, leave a Will and/or very clear instructions and be able to administer a dose of a certain gas (provided by the Exiteer) themselves;  the Exiteer will be there purely for moral support, and to ‘clean up’ the scene after death, so that a verdict of suicide is patently obvious in the Coroner’s Report.  Felix has ‘assisted’ at quite a number of deaths, and as the story opens, he is about to assist with a new recruit, a young woman who nervously reveals that this is her first time, and she decided to ‘join up’ because her Nan died a horrible, lingering death and she wants ‘to make amends’. 

            Fair enough.  Except that, unbeknownst to them the house they visit has not one, but two patients who appear to be terminal and, after the young woman botches things irretrievably with # 1, # 2 makes his presence known by querulously demanding from another bedroom ‘Was anyone going to get on with the job?’

            Belinda Bauer has combined high tragedy with low comedy in this ruthless examination of the British version of the Swiss euthanasia clinics;  she examines the ‘system’ from every angle, including the corruption that is rife and so easily flourishes in the most unlikely sections of society – until decent, boring (yes, boring, Felix!) people take a stand.  Great characters, great story, FIVE STARS.      

Monday, 28 June 2021


Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.



Nobel and Booker Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro has brilliantly demonstrated yet again the sad and sick society we live in with his chilling new dystopian novel, ‘Klara and the Sun’.  It is a cautionary tale, surely, the human race would never metamorphose into a society so terminally ill – would it?

            Sometime in the near future we meet Klara.  Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend, a life-size human copy, a machine operating on solar power.  She sits in a shop, expecting eventually to be sold to a family who would purchase her to be a companion for their child.  She is a super-intelligent machine who is capable of expert and intellectual thought, the ideal companion for children whose parents can afford her.  She’s not the latest model, being a B2;  B3s are even more versatile and sophisticated, but she hopes to be sold to a family who will be kind and appreciative of her special gifts – for Klara is special:  she has a treasured relationship with the sun, Giver of all Life, and it warms her heart to see it through the shop window travelling each day across the sky.  She sees other things too, that confuse her about humans:  where are they all going in such a hurry, and why?  And why is there pollution everywhere?

            One day a young, disabled girl stops in front of the shop window, and tells Klara that she’s The One, the one that Josie wants as her companion.  There’s something very wrong with Josie – not in her essence, but physically;  she is enormously intelligent, but her body is failing her and as Klara spends more time with the family it becomes horribly clear that genetic manipulation has occurred (now the norm in this society), but it hasn’t worked for Josie.  She is dying.  The effects on the family have been tragic:  the parents are now divorced and blaming each other for everything;  Josie’s best friend Rick hasn’t been genetically manipulated, he’s physically sound, but won’t have the same opportunities in life for that reason.  Klara’s heart (if she was built with one) aches for them all and, because she believes utterly in the healing power of her God the Sun, she requests Him to let Josie get better, so that she can have a normal, happy life with her friend Rick.

            But what is happiness?  Klara only knows that Rick and Josie long for it, as do their families.  There must be some way that she can help – because that is what she has been programmed to do:  to help.

            And the way Klara helps is the ultimate act of unselfishness, only to be repaid by the caprices of human nature.  Kazuo Ishiguro has demonstrated yet again his enormous skill in portraying society in all its guises – and self-destructiveness. His beautiful Klara will stay with us all long after we have read the last page.  SIX STARS.

Saturday, 19 June 2021


The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold.             Junior Fiction.



        Reading this beautiful little book was sheer pleasure, and the icing on the cake was the beautiful monochromatic illustrations by Levi Pinfold.  This story has all the necessary triggers to make us turn the pages feverishly:  a young eleven year old girl whose mother has recently died;  her scientist Dad who is ill-equipped to take up both parental roles for her as he is grieving too, and her Granny Apples (so named  because she smells of apples) is wonderfully consoling, but lives too far away from Dad’s city job to be a help.  And the awful insult to injury is not that her mum died from an illness, but by an idiot drunk driver. 

            It’s hard to get back on an even keel from such a tragedy, and April’s only consolation is the affinity she feels towards the wild animals who visit her overgrown garden.  She has quite a rapport with a family of foxes and various other creatures;  they lessen the ache in her heart a little – her mother had the same gift:  wild things trusted her.  Will life EVER get better?  It doesn’t look like it, until her Dad gets a job on a remote Norwegian Island for six months, measuring weather patterns.

            Granny Apples is horrified that April is going too, but the deed is done;  They are off to Bear Island in the Arctic Circle, where the ice-melt is already causing huge problems for the remainder of the once-flourishing wildlife – including polar bears, those magnificent, ferocious beasts who once held sway in the region;  now most of them are starving as they can’t trek across the ice to hunt seals:  the ice has melted.

            And a bear – the last bear – is trapped on the island, starving, wounded by the horrible plastic rubbish the human race is shamefully responsible for all over our beautiful, nurturing planet:  even the Arctic Circle cannot escape our garbage.  Until April meets the huge creature, and unlikely as it sounds, forms a firm and wonderful friendship with him when she wins his trust.

            ‘The Last Bear’ should be a must-read for all children today, for they are the conservators of tomorrow:  they have to repair the damage their forebears have visited upon the world.  Hannah Gold has crafted a beautiful story of a friendship that ends on a very necessary message of hope;  the places and people she writes of are all based on sound factual research, which makes her story even better.  This precious little book should rightly become a children’s classic.  SIX STARS!! 

Monday, 7 June 2021


The Abstainer, by Ian McGuire.



           English author Ian McGuire has constructed a novel so justly weighted against the country of his birth that it would be easy to mistake him as being from the Emerald Isle;  his fictionalised account of the infamous hanging in November 1867 of three innocent Irishmen wrongly accused of the murder of a Manchester policeman weeks before is the precursor to the monumental battle that follows:  the retaliation by the Fenian Brotherhood’s efforts to take revenge against authority figures in Manchester, that filthy, teeming city that is home and slave work in the mills to a large and dirt-poor population of Irish, there because their own country cannot feed them.  Thanks to the English.  Manchester is the battleground for what is to come, a war to the death between two men, representing each side.

            James O’Connor has been sent from Ireland to ‘advise’ the Manchester Police Force on the Fenians.  He had a career as a constable in Dublin until tragedy robbed him of his family and he took to the drink;  now, he is on his last warning and has become an Abstainer – and an Outsider with the Manchester constables, who treat him with ignore, or contempt.  Never friendliness.  Nevertheless, he has built up a good network of informers and learns that an assassin is coming over from New York to commit a retaliatory crime big enough to stop the English in their murdering, bombastic tracks.

            Enter Stephen Doyle, a soldier who survived the American Civil War and found that the strategies, battles – and killing – is what he is good at:  warfare is his speciality and he does not expect to return to New York having failed at his mission.  But he reckons without the complication of James O’Connor being added to the equation, especially when Doyle dispatches one of the informers, O’Connor’s nephew.

            What started as a routine assassination for Doyle, with various unfortunates being disposed of along the way, becomes a titanic struggle to the last breath against O’Connor, who has enough weights on his conscience without adding more family members to the list:  he needs to atone for his nephew’s brutal death.

            Ian McGuire has written a singular historical novel that reads partly as a thriller, nailing us to every page, and a tragedy Shakespearian in its proportions.  His spare, beautiful prose makes one sentence do the work of ten.  ‘The Abstainer’ is a truly Great Read.  SIX STARS.

Thursday, 27 May 2021


The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, by Marianne Cronin.



Lenni Eklund is seventeen years old and has a terminal disease.  She is a patient until her eventual death in a Glasgow hospital, and she’s not particularly happy about spending the remainder of her life there, or the lack of answers to the Big Questions, as in ‘Why am I dying?’, a question she poses to the resident hospital chaplain, Father Arthur.  He doesn’t have a Godly answer, but she likes the way his name rhymes with his occupation:  he, in turn, is flummoxed by Lenni:  ‘Because you are’ is not satisfactory, he knows this, but apart from sharing his sandwiches with her and eventually, his steadfast friendship in the too short time till his retirement, he can think of nothing else.

            Until Lenni joins an Art class for people with long-term conditions and meets Margot, a tiny eighty-three year old Scottish lady with loads of artistic talent and a fascinating life story to tell – and who better to tell it to than Lenni, starved for life experiences that she will never enjoy or endure, but the ideal repository for all secrets and confidences – not because she will die soon and take the secrets to the grave, but because she is the best listener imaginable, remembering every detail, and frequently bringing her own  hilarious take on Margot’s life experiences, good and bad.  A great friendship is born and nurtured, and between them they produce a painting for each year of their lives, which add up to One Hundred Years, a whole century!  And for each painting they tell each other the story behind the painting and, tragic as some of the stories are,  they are made luminous and unforgettable by the deep and enduring affection Lenni and Margot have for each other, and their perfect understanding of what they have together.

            This lovely story was always going to end in tears – how could it not, with the certain death of at least one of the unforgettable protagonists, but there’s no bathos or syrupy background violin music as Lenni eventually departs for pastures new;  thanks to Margot, Father Arthur and various other new-found friends from the Art class she has packed a century of life into her seventeen years.  She has lived.

            It’s hard to believe that this singular book is Marianne Cronin’s debut novel;  her writing is wonderfully assured – who would have thought that the story of a terminally-ill teenager could be so enormously entertaining and funny, but it is a tribute to Ms Cronin’s writing talent and the strength of her characterisations that Lenni and Margot will stay with us for many years to come.  SIX STARS.