Category Archives: World War II

Teaser Tuesday – 18th September, 2018 #Brainfluffbookblog #TeaserTuesday

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Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Purple Booker.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This is my choice of the day:
Sadie’s Wars: An Australian Saga – Book 3 in the Currency Girls series by Rosemary Noble

99% One day, in the late 1970s, a reporter from the Grimsby Evening Telegraph visited the Dolphin looking for a story. The landlord suggested he talk to his oldest regular, Stanley Timms, and a piece was written for the newspaper detailing his life. We read it; made fun of it because it sounded unbelievable. A father who owned an award-winning vineyard and a million-acre sheep station, a friend of the Murdochs, and Dame Nellie Melba, a winner of horse races and a member of the CIA in WW2. Not possible, we thought, until he produced his CIA membership card at Christmas dinner. Unassuming, gentle Stanley had spent his war behind Japanese lines as a coast watcher in Borneo. After the war, his forest, the sole remaining piece of Timms property was taken over by the Indonesian government, without compension, and he was left penniless.

BLURB: An astonishing tale, spanning continents, where truth is stranger than fiction. This historical saga of an extraordinary Australian pioneer family continues into a new generation. Sadie is brought up amongst the vineyards of the Yarra Valley whilst her work-obsessed father reaps riches from the boom years before the Great War. With post-war depression looming, Sadie’s only option is to flee from her disastrous marriage, seeking refuge in Cleethorpes, a small seaside town in northern England.

Years later, when her sons are in RAF Bomber Command, she receives a letter from her long-lost brother which forces her to confront the past and her part in her family’s downfall.

No… I haven’t given you a flavour of the story – you’ll have to take my word for it that the writing is fluent and very readable. This extract is from the Afterword as I was just boggled at the manner in which this family discovered they’d been related to a colourful, once highly-regarded member of Australian society who has now been written out of history… Noble has done a storming job of recreating this era through her fictionalised account of the life of Sadie, one of the family members in the middle of this eventful time.

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#Sunday Post – 27th August, 2018 #Brainfluffbookblog

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This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

I have been busy this week writing the course notes for this term’s Creative Writing course which starts on 17th September, which sounds a while away, but I know from experience that it isn’t. I managed to get all but the final handout written, which I’m pleased about. The regular admin and lesson plans still need to be written, but at least I’ve done the hard part.

On Monday I met up with one of my students who has missed a couple of terms through illness. It was lovely to see her again, looking so much better as we caught up on each other’s lives. I had lunch with my sister on Tuesday and we went shopping together on Friday, though I resisted the temptation to buy anything major – which was a feat we celebrated by having a very leisurely chat over a looong cup of tea together. On Saturday, I travelled up to Cambridge to catch up with my son who I hadn’t seen since Christmas – far too long! We visited the Anthony Gormley exhibition, which was marvellous – and then he treated me to a trip on the river. It was so much fun watching him windmill the pole as he punted me up the river that the rain simply didn’t matter.

During this coming week, I will not be commenting or replying on my blog as I shall be on a writing retreat and I’m not sure about the wifi connection – parts of the country aren’t very well served. But I will catch up once I get back.

This week I have read:

Menagerie – Book 1 of the Menagerie series by Rachel Vincent
When Delilah Marlow visits a famous traveling carnival, Metzger’s Menagerie, she is an ordinary woman in a not-quite-ordinary world. But under the macabre circus big-top, she discovers a fierce, sharp-clawed creature lurking just beneath her human veneer. Captured and put on exhibition, Delilah is stripped of her worldly possessions, including her own name, as she’s forced to “perform” in town after town.
I rapidly became engrossed in Delilah’s plight, unable to forget the numbers of youngsters imprisoned and trapped by illegal trafficking, though this book can also be read as a piece of escapist fiction.

 

Kindred Spirits – Book 5 of the Gabriel Ash and Hazel Best series by Jo Bannister
A kidnap attempt outside the school gates in broad daylight convinces Gabriel Ash that his renegade wife is trying to steal their sons from him. Only the intervention of his friend Constable Hazel Best kept them safe. It’s a simple if alarming explanation, but is it the truth? Hazel uncovers disturbing information about another crime, the repercussions of which are still threatening innocent lives seventeen years later. Once again Hazel finds herself at loggerheads with her superiors. Did they really conspire to protect a murderer? And this time she isn’t getting the support she needs from Ash. She’d thought they were kindred spirits: now she’s not sure what his motives are.
I was overdue an enjoyable cosy mystery and this one certainly ticked the box. Enjoyable, likeable protagonists and a gripping situation that steadily builds into a major mystery with an exciting denouement.

 

Spectacle – Book 2 of the Menagerie series by Rachel Vincent
The Savage Spectacle is a private collection of “exotic wildlife.” Specializing in ruthless cryptid cage matches, safari-style creature hunts and living party favors, the Spectacle’s owner, Willem Vandekamp, caters to the forbidden fetishes of the wealthy and powerful. At the Spectacle, any wish can be granted—for the right price. But a number of new exhibits not only create more opportunities for making money, they also pose risks Willem hasn’t yet encountered.
This next slice of the adventures featuring Delilah, a shape-shifting human with disturbing powers was just as engrossing as the first book – and I’m looking forward to reading the final book in the trilogy, which is the Netgalley arc I will be reviewing in due course.

 

Fifty-One by Chris Barnham
Jacob Wesson is a timecop from 2040, sent back to WWII London to stop the assassination of Britain’s war leader. The assignment plays out with apparent ease, but the jump home goes wrong, leading to a series of events that not only puts in jeopardy the outcome of WWII, but all history…
This intelligent, well written time travelling adventure is not only a thumping good read, but raises some interesting questions on the nature of time travelling that I’ve never seen so fully explored. I was also very impressed with Barnham’s depiction of war-torn London in 1940 and the 2040 equivalent.

 

 

My posts last week:

Sunday Post – 19th August 2018

Teaser Tuesday featuring Kindred Spirits – Book 5 of the Gabriel Ash and Hazel Best series by Jo Bannister

Can’t-Wait Wednesday featuring Fury – Book 3 of the Menagerie series by Rachel Vincent

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Foundryside – Book 1 of the Founders series by Robert Jackson Bennett

Friday Face-off – Myths and Legends… featuring Myths and Legends by Anthony Horowitz

Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

Thursday Doors https://jeanreinhardt.wordpress.com/2018/08/24/thursday-doors-110/ Regulars will know this quirky series is a firm favourite – but these walkways are just lovely… you can imagine all sorts of magical adventures occurring in these surroundings.

…my dream dinner guests list… prob’ly change again by next week!… https://seumasgallacher.com/2018/08/24/my-dream-dinner-guests-list-probly-change-again-by-next-week/ Seumas has fun playing this game – this is a dinner party I’d love to attend. What about you – who would you invite to your dream dinner?

#writerproblems: catching #characters with a coda of giveaway #countdown https://jeanleesworld.com/2018/08/23/writerproblems-catching-characters-with-a-coda-of-giveaway-countdown/ Jean gives her take on integrating family life with that of a working writer – and reminds us of a fabulous opportunity to get hold of her marvellous debut novel. I’ve been lucky to read the arc and will be reviewing it in due course. In the meantime, do keep a lookout for it – it’s a wonderful, quirky read…

Spraoi 2018 – Scotch is back! https://inesemjphotography.com/2018/08/24/spraoi-2018-scotch-is-back/ No – we’re not talking the drink, we’re talking a Dutch band playing at a free street festival in Waterford, Ireland. These photos sum up the joy and passion of live music for both the participants and those watching…

Do you Reread? https://emeraldcitybookreview.com/2018/08/do-you-re-read-2.html This is an interesting question – if you get down as far as the comments, you’ll find my views on this subject there. But I am always intrigued to know if readers go back to books they love…

Thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to visit, like and comment on my site and have a great week.

Review of NOVELLA NETGALLEY arc Time Was by Ian McDonald #Brainfluffbookreview #TimeWasbookreview

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I was delighted when I saw this offering on NetGalley – and even more delighted when I was approved to read it. I enjoy McDonald’s writing and was particularly impressed with his lunar duology – read my review of Luna: New Moon here.

Struggling second-hand book dealer, Emmet, is trying to survive in the increasingly difficult financial climate – and then comes across a small poetry collection called Time Was which includes a love letter from Tom to Ben, set in WWII. It sets him out on an astonishing search to discover who Tom and Ben are – a search that takes him to a tucked-away corner of England where odd stories abound about the seas catching fire…

And no… You won’t find that blurb anywhere else, as I wrote it myself. I feel the official version is highly misleading and yet somehow also manages to reveal some of the major plot points. I’m very glad I didn’t read it before I picked up the book, because I would have approached it expecting something completely different.

The main protagonist is gripped by the need to track down the fate of the two young men caught up in WWII and more or less abandons his everyday life to do it. In contrast to the lyrical, slightly highflown prose produced by Tom when in his viewpoint, Emmet is far more down-to-earth with a dry, sarky humour that I thoroughly enjoyed and stopped this turning into a treacly read. In fact, Emmett isn’t a particularly likeable character – and that was okay, too.

Tom and Ben were the people in the story that snagged my sympathy and attention – and I think that is exactly how I was meant to feel, in effect, shadowing the main protagonist in his attempts to find out more about these two people. But history and historical research is inherently messy – it never delivers exactly what you want, in the way that you want it. And there are two major surprises at the end of this bittersweet story that summed up that premise.

Overall, I think this is a haunting, really well written novella with a misleading blurb that isn’t doing it any favours whatsoever. Take my advice – skip the blurb and instead pick up this short story without any prior expectation and let the plot unfold around you.
9/10

Sunday Post – 12th November 2017

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This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

Another busy week – last Sunday was amazing as we completed filming all the major scenes, including the finale and once again, the weather was unbelievably kind with bright sunshine, though it was very cold. Monday and Tuesday were teaching days – though a number of students were off, smitten by tummy bugs and colds. On Wednesday, I attended Pilates and Fitstep again, although I still have a way to go before I regain the fitness I attained in the summer. On Thursday, Mhairi came over and provided a sympathetic listening year as I had a bit of a meltdown over the fact that I was STILL going through the line edit on Dying for Space after working on it for hours and hours… In the evening, I attended West Sussex Writers as Phil Williams was giving a talk on marketing for indie authors – it was an excellent evening with lots of valuable information. It was heartening to see such a great turnout.

On Friday, we had an important meeting regarding Tim’s progress and it was wonderful to see him talk so articulately about his hopes for his future in front of people who he doesn’t know very well. When I got back home, I got stuck into the manuscript and also worked through Saturday, so I should be able to have review copies available by the beginning of the coming week – phew!

Today is my father-in-law’s birthday and Oscar’s birthday tea. Bless him, he has kept our present unopened even though his birthday was earlier this week, so that we can watch him unwrap it.

This week I have read:

The Medusa’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Mask of Medusa by T.O. Munro
Haunted by very different pasts, three travellers journey together across a continent riven by clashes of faith and race. Odestus, the war criminal flees from justice. Persapha, new to all things human, yearns for a way and a place to belong. Marcus Fenwell, schooled in diverse talents, seeks a future beyond a wine bottle

But past and future entwine to snare them all, for the Medusa has not been forgotten nor her daughter forgiven.

This entertaining epic fantasy story is about three strong characters – one has been seriously maimed when engulfed by sorcerous fire; one is on the run from a powerful secret organisation and the Medusa’s daughter, only part human, begins to learn what she is capable of. I will be reviewing it in due course.

My posts last week:

Sunday Post – 5th November, 2017

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Teaser Tuesday featuring The Medusa’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Mask of Medusa series by T.O. Munro

Can’t-Wait Wednesday featuring The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross – Book 2 of The Curious Affair series by Lisa Tuttle

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Friday Face-off – Zip it, lock it and throw away the key – featuring Keeper of the Keys by Janny Wurts

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of novella Ironclads by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

The Chickpeeps – How to Go Vegan with Erik Marcus https://www.thechickpeeps.com/
This is a new podcast to assist people wishing to go vegan, or begin making changes in their diet towards veganism. I’m declaring an interest – my son is involved in this project and I’m so very proud…

How Well Do You Know SFF?
https://www.playbuzz.com/orbitbooks10/how-well-do-you-know-sff?utm_campaign=social&utm_medium=Orbit+Books&utm_source=twitter&utm_content=OrbitQuiz%252COrbitBooks Test your knowledge on this admittedly very small and limited quiz

Tammy’s Top Twelve 2018 YA Sci Fi Books #RRSciFiMonth http://booksbonesbuffy.com/2017/11/07/tammys-top-twelve-2018-ya-sci-fi-books-rrscifimonth/ This is an excellent article with Tammy’s top 12 picks for the coming year – given that it’s #SciFi Month, this is a great opportunity to compile your Christmas list

The Plot Thickens: How To Improve Young Children’s Critical Thinking Skills During Storytime https://freespiritpublishingblog.com/2017/11/07/the-plot-thickens-how-to-improve-young-childrens-critical-thinking-skills-during-storytime/ Reading to children can be so much more than reciting the words on the page…

…an Author’s lament… where Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and modern pirate’s differ…
https://seumasgallacher.com/2017/11/07/an-authors-lament-where-johnny-depps-jack-sparrow-and-modern-pirates-differ/ This is an article about the kind of pirates that don’t sail around the seas sporting a skull and crossbones, wonderful hats or a surprisingly sexy shamble…

And as this is Remembrance Sunday, I wanted to add one of the poems I grew up with – one that my grandmother used to read to me while telling me about all the soldiers who died so we could be free. The wrenching pity is that young men are still falling miles away from their homes. Lest we forget…

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to visit, like and comment on my site and may you have a great week.

Friday Faceoff – Checkmate

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is the one we prefer. This week the theme is black and white covers, so I’ve chosen Blackout – Book 1 of the All Clear series by Connie Willis.

 

This cover produced by Spectra Books in February 2010 is the original. I love the way we get small bubbles of action in amongst the shifting dark pattern – an attractive design that nicely echoes the content of this time-travelling adventure. This one is my favourite.

 

This offering was produced by Gollancz in June 2011 and is another strong contender. The cloud revealing the London skyline from the surrounding black cover is another strong, simple design that is both eye-catching and effective.

 

This French edition was published by J’ai lu in March 2014. The iconic view of Westminster surrounded by smoke smearing the sky would certainly make me look again and though I’m not a fan of solid blocks of colour as a backdrop for the title and author, this time the blue works very well.

 

Produced in September 2010 by Allen and Unwin, this Kindle edition is another successful effort. The greyscale shading works well as the girl is unmistakeably from the late 1930s/early 1940s. The red tinge near the top of the cover just behind the ruin gives a slight sense of menace – and a big clue as to the setting of the book.

 

Published in February 2010 by Spectra Books, this hardback edition is the most generic of the covers and my least favourite. It has clearly been taken from a photograph of the time and I think the overall design is further weakened by a rather limp title font. Which cover do you like best – and which is your least favourite?

 

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb

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This children’s book is a direct sequel to Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s famous novel The Secret Garden which was a favourite of mine, after my grandmother read it to me way back in 1963. So would I enjoy revisiting this world by another author over a generation later?

returntothesecretgardenIt’s 1939, and the occupants of the Craven Home for Orphaned Children have been evacuated to Misselthwaite Hall, a fancy manor in the English countryside, to escape the Blitz. Emmie would hardly call the orphanage “home,” but her heart breaks knowing that leaving Craven means leaving her beloved cat, Lucy. Away from everything she’s ever known and trapped in imposing Misselthwaite, Emmie finds herself more miserable than ever. But soon she starts discovering the secrets of the house-a boy who cries in the night, a diary written by a girl named Mary, and a garden. A very secret garden…

Emmie is certainly a worthy successor to poor, spoilt Mary Lennox. She has edges that have nothing to do with being unduly pampered – quite the opposite in fact. While the adults around her are quite tough with her, I did like the fact that the people running the orphanage aren’t depicted as evilly intent on crushing the spirit of their charges. While their form of punishment may jar with modern norms, at the time it wasn’t uncommon for children to be regularly slapped or beaten with a slipper or strap for transgressions. I could see the adults were all feeling frayed and coping with the practicalities of moving twenty orphans to the other end of the country must have been a daunting task, given that half the staff were off ‘doing their bit’.

Any grizzles? Well I do have a problem with the cover, which is rather cute and girly and gives the impression that this is lighthearted, fluffy read when its nothing of the sort.

Given the book’s relationship with the original story, several characters feature in this sequel that had major parts in the first book. I very much enjoyed seeing Webb’s take on how they went on to develop after original The Secret Garden ended. However, this book is far more than merely an additional riff of that story. Webb deals with all sorts of gnarly issues in this well written, nuanced novel that covers an interesting time in our history. What happened to hundreds and thousands of pets all over the country in towns, for instance – which directly impacted on the adults’ attitude towards one small stray cat. There is also a sudden death, which winded me. I kept expecting the character, who had played a crucial role in Emmie’s happiness, to pop up at the end of the book, declaring that his reported death had been a muddle and it was all going to end happily ever after. It didn’t. I admire Webb enormously for not sugar-coating the bleak fact that during that time lots of men were killed – and kind, caring responsible fathers, sons and brothers were swallowed up by the mincing machine that was WWII never to return. Through Emmie’s shocked eyes, we get a ringside seat into how those left behind coped with such a grievous loss and put their lives back together again.

This is a well-written, though provoking story on dealing with loss – a major theme in Return to The Secret Garden – and Webb does an excellent job of showing the consequences of war in an unsentimental, entertaining way.
9/10

Books I Wish I’d Reviewed…

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I read a number of these a long time ago, before the internet existed or I even considered there’d be a time when I would share my love of books and reading with numbers of other people who also take part in this most solitary of hobbies. And the rest are books that I read before I really got bitten by the reviewing bug. Either way, I occasionally tell myself that I’ll go back and reread them some day to write the review. But if I’m honest – I probably won’t because I generally don’t reread books, in case the second time around they disappoint. In which case, I will have gained two miserable memories – the one of revisiting a favourite book and finding it isn’t that impressive after all, but even more devastatingly – it will also have smirched the lovely glow around my recollection of the delight when I read the book first time around.

In no particular order…

 

Cider With Rose by Laurie Lee
Cider with Rosie is a wonderfully vivid memoir of childhood in a remote Cotswold village, a villagecider with rosie before electricity or cars, a timeless place on the verge of change. Growing up amongst the fields and woods and characters of the place, Laurie Lee depicts a world that is both immediate and real and belongs to a now-distant past.

I read this when I was fourteen and immediately fell in love with the book and the depiction of a lost time in rural Gloucestershire. Much later, when pregnant with my daughter, I encountered Lee’s essay on when his daughter was born and cried as I read it. I was probably a tad hormonal, but it is beautifully written…

 

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartleythegobetween
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Summering with a fellow schoolboy on a great English estate, Leo, the hero of L. P. Hartley’s finest novel, encounters a world of unimagined luxury. But when his friend’s beautiful older sister enlists him as the unwitting messenger in her illicit love affair, the aftershocks will be felt for years.

Another wonderfully written book – a real mixture of humour and bitter poignancy and the ending is a shock. The dialogue is a masterclass in writing subtext and if you haven’t ever read it, do so. Set before WWI, it is another lost world, where poor little Leo is adrift in a social shark tank and is shamefully exploited by people who should have known better.

 

requiemforawrenRequiem for a Wren by Neville Shute
Sidelined by a wartime injury, fighter pilot Alan Duncan reluctantly returns to his parents’ remote sheep station in Australia to take the place of his brother Bill, who died a hero in the war. But his homecoming is marred by the suicide of his parents’ parlormaid, of whom they were very fond. Alan soon realizes that the dead young woman is not the person she pretended to be…

I’d studied A Town Like Alice at school and loved it, so went looking for everything Shute wrote, which was a fair amount. I loved most of it – but Requiem for a Wren stole a particular portion of my heart, as the story depicted all too clearly the personal cost of war. If you ever encounter a battered Neville Shute novel in a second-hand shop – they occur with surprisingly regularity – scoop it up. There is a solid reason why he was such a popular author for thirty-odd years in the last century.

 

Chocky by John Wyndhamchocky
Matthew, they thought, was just going through a phase of talking to himself. And, like many parents, they waited for him to get over it, but it started to get worse. Mathew’s conversations with himself grew more and more intense – it was like listening to one end of a telephone conversation while someone argued, cajoled and reasoned with another person you couldn’t hear. Then Matthew started doing things he couldn’t do before, like counting in binary-code mathematics. So he told them about Chocky – the person who lived in his head.

Another wonderful author, who is famous for The Day of the Triffids, but wrote a number of other really enjoyable science fiction stories. Again, I loved them all – but Chocky was a particular favourite.

 

rideratthegateRider at the Gate – Book 1 of the Nighthorses duology by C.J. Cherryh
Stranded on a distant planet that abounds with fertile farmland, human colonists appear to be in paradise. But all the native animals communicate by telepathy, projecting images that drive humans mad. Only Nighthorses stand between civilization and madness. When a flare of human emotion spreads to all the horses, chaos erupts.

I fell in love with C.J. Cherryh’s writing from the first sentence – and this is her at her unbeatable best. I’d also include the sequel Cloud’s Rider, which is another gem.

 

Sundiver – Book 1 of the Uplift Saga by David Brinsundiver
No species has ever reached for the stars without the guidance of a patron–except perhaps mankind. Did some mysterious race begin the uplift of humanity aeons ago? Circling the sun, under the caverns of Mercury, Expedition Sundiver prepares for the most momentous voyage in history–a journey into the boiling inferno of the sun.

I loved this take on what might befall Earth creatures should we encounter alien cultures – and how terrestrial species other than humans might fare.

 

fallingfreeFalling Free – Book 4 of the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold
Leo Graf was an effective engineer…Safety Regs weren’t just the rule book he swore by; he’d helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn’t anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither save, nor in the rules… Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies now all he had to do was teach them to be free

Another talented speculative fiction author, whose groundbreaking writing has taken me to wonderful worlds. I have reviewed a number of the Miles Vorkosigan adventures – but this particular story featuring the quaddies has always had a special place in my heart…

What about you – have you any books that you wish you had reviewed? Or books you dare not reread in case they aren’t quite as wonderful as you recall?

Favourite Alternate History Worlds

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This interesting sub-genre that intersects with both science fiction and fantasy, is a real favourite of mine. I’m a sucker for a well-constructed alternate history that posits some of the more fascinating ‘what ifs’. And these are the best ones I’ve encountered so far. Again, in no particular order…

Ghosts of Columbia by L.E. Modesitt Jr
This nifty omnibus edition contains the first two books in the series – Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost ghostsofcolumbiaof the Revelator. This is a world where people who are killed violently or accidentally with sufficient time to realise that they are about to die, become ghosts. So large battles become undesirable – battlefields overrun with hordes of ghosts make an area uninhabitable until they fade. The point at which history has also diverged is when the colonists from the Mayflower landing in the New World succumb to the plague, denying England any foothold on the American continent. Which means a chunk of Canada and North America is settled by the Dutch, in a nation called Columbia with New France down in the south and the Mormon state of Deseret jostling in an uneasy truce. For the time being…

Drop into this interestingly original world, ex-espionage agent and political minister Johan Eschbach, now living quietly in New Bruges and working as a lecturer on Environmental Studies at the Vanderaak Centre who tells his story in first person POV.
The story and espionage are well constructed – but what sticks in my memory is this wonderful world Modesitt has created. I love the details he produces about the weather, Johan’s shopping habits and what he has for breakfast – so that when it does all kick off, the violence is all the more shocking. Read my full review here.

 

Farthing – Book 1 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton
In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the farthingupper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…

As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.

But that sense of order being re-established is entirely false – as we get to discover in the two ensuing books… This is a storming start to an excellent trilogy by one of the most versatile, interesting speculative fiction writers around today. Read my full review here.

 

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I picked up this copy of the book as an SF Masterworks because as a solid fan of many women fantasy doomsdayand science fiction writers, I had never read her work and I discovered it was a Hugo Award winner. I’m so glad I did…

When Kivrin Engle travels back through time to complete her doctoral thesis, due to an accident she lands in the middle of a major crisis her Faculty were struggling to avoid. Meanwhile the Oxford she left behind is laid low by a mysterious strain of influenza and, with no one willing to risk arranging her rescue, time is running out. Mr Dunsworthy – who opposed the whole hare-brained notion of Kivrin going back to this particular time, yet somehow found himself caught up in helping her – is an outstanding character. The book is largely in his and Kivrin’s viewpoint and as the situation in both timelines slides away into chaos, it is these two main characters on whom the whole story arc rests.

Willis lays bare the internecine struggles within the famous University with a sense of gentleness that is refreshing in a genre which often exposes human frailty with ruthless savagery. There are a couple of characters who resort to petty rule-hugging in order to protect themselves, but most of the people depicted step up and do their best in increasingly awful circumstances. Read my full review here.

 

Age of Aztec – Book 4 of the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove
The date is 4 Jaguar 1 Monday 1 House; November 25th 2012 by the old reckoning. The Aztec Empire rules the world, in the name of Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent – and her brother gods. The Aztec ageofaztecreign is one of cruel and ruthless oppression, fuelled by regular human sacrifice. In the jungle-infested city of London, one man defies them: the masked vigilante known as the Conquistador. Mal Vaughan, one of the Jaguar Warriors, who police affairs in London, is determined to track down and put a stop to the Conquistador – a determination honed by the knowledge that if she doesn’t deliver, her life will be forfeit…

We follow the exploits of the Conquistador as he rebels against the might of the Aztec Empire for his own reasons – a personal tragedy that sums up, for him, all that is wrong with the current regime. Britain had been one of the last countries on the planet to fall under Aztec domination and as a patriot, the Conquistador – or Stuart Reston, to use his everyday identity – yearns for the country’s lost freedom. But as the chase between Stuart and Mal intensifies, the unique twists that Lovegrove has made his own in this series transform this book into something far cleverer and more memorable. Read my full review here.

 

Dominion by C.J. Sansom
Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany dominionafter Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent Auxiliary Police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours about what is happening in the basement of the Germany Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side.

What must be jumping out at anyone interested in reading the book, is that the event where Sansom’s version of history diverges takes place twelve years previously. So he has to construct a completely different world that emerges after Britain’s surrender. As Sansom is an accomplished historian, his version of this world makes fascinating reading. In this Britain there has been a prolonged period of financial stagnation, leading to widespread poverty without any Welfare State. This is a world where the BBC is strictly censored with newspapers, television and radio staying silent when violent protest spills into death – and morris dancing is upheld as a national dance… But perhaps the most startling demonstration of the difference is when young Queen Elizabeth – still unmarried – is commemorating Remembrance Sunday, with Rommel stepping forward and propping on the cenotaph a large poppy wreath, complete with a swastika.

This is a strong read for anyone interested in exploring alternative historical landscapes and Sansom has beautifully conveyed the fog-shrouded desperation of a country slowly grinding to a halt under a punitive rule. Read my review here.

Review of The Puppet Boy of Warsaw by Eva Weaver

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thepuppetboyThis book has been buried near the bottom of my teetering TBR pile for longer than I care to think – but I’m trying to clear the books I know I still want to read and review from… way back when.

When his grandfather dies, Mika inherits his great coat – and its treasure trove of secrets. In one hidden pocket, he discovers the puppet prince. Soon, Mika is performing puppet shows in even the darkest, most cramped corners of the ghetto, bringing cheer to those who have lost their families, those who are ill and those who are afraid for their future – until he is stopped by a German soldier and forced into a double life of danger and secrecy.

Yes… this is a story of endurance and bravery during the darkest time for Europe during World War II, when Jews were systematically targeted for no other reason than they were a distinct ethnic group that made them an easy scapegoat. Young Mika discovers the small puppets and uses them to create an escape from the increasingly grim reality around them – and then is prompted to share them with those around him, until a German soldier forces him to entertain the troops with his little shows.

There are times when I was concerned the story would tip into sentimentality – but fortunately Weaver managed to avoid going there. Her graphic descriptions of the full horror of the Jewish ghetto is unflinching, along with the fate of the inhabitants once they are rounded up and the neighbourhood is emptied… However, I have read books where that aspect has been fully covered with perhaps more technical dexterity – Weaver’s dialogue at times is clunky which does detract from some of the emotional intensity in some of those crucial scenes. However, what made this offering stand out for me, is that her narrative doesn’t end with the war. I really liked the fact that unlike so many survivor tales I’ve previously read, this one doesn’t end on some triumphant note once hostilities come to an end. Because those caught up in such a bloody, dehumanising business are never free of it – the issue then becomes how they can best deal with those experiences once life returns to normal.

While I had found Mika’s story reasonably engrossing, it is Max’s tale that made me want to read far into the night. It was wrenching to read of his terrible trek from the Russian gulag and then struggle so profoundly to fit back into the family that had been the impetus for his fight for survival during the darkest times in the prison camp. It was this story strand that, for me, sang off the pages.

I would add that this isn’t a read for the faint-hearted – Weaver hasn’t held back from vividly recreating the misery and horror that occurs when far too many people are crammed into a space not equipped for the numbers, without sufficient food. But it left me musing on the nature of survival, guilt and responsibility and I’m glad I’ve read it. If you are interested in reading something that takes the events of WWII and spools them forward to follow the protagonists long after the last shot is fired, then track it down – it’s worth it.
8/10

Review of The Captain’s Daughter by Leah Fleming

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The Titanic disaster has spawned a number of books, and this is one of them. But the difference is it takes that historic event, following a handful of characters snagged by the tragedy to see what happens next in their lives.

thecaptainsdaughterFor May Smith stepping aboard the Titanic marks the start of an incredible journey, destined to take her, along with her husband Joe and baby Ellen, from the back streets of Bolton to the land of opportunity: America. But when the unsinkable Titanic hits an iceberg, May’s dreams are shattered. Jumping from the sinking ship, May loses her grip on Joe’s hand. Distraught, she is pulled into a lifeboat and under the wing of first-class passenger Celeste Parkes. Minutes later, Captain Smith himself swims to the lifeboat and hands May her baby. Celeste does everything she can to keep the pair safe whilst in horror they watch the death throes of the mighty ship. As dawn arrives and the two women are rescued, a friendship is forged, one which is destined to transcend their social differences to last a lifetime.

This is a fascinating take on the most famous shipwreck in history. From that fateful night in 1912, we follow Celeste and May after their lives are changed forever by what happened to them. May, as a poor widow with a tiny daughter to care for, faces an uncertain future, while Celeste’s future is all too plainly laid out in front of her as she returns to a bullying husband. But against all the odds, these two women maintain their friendship and end up each helping the other during various crises during their lives.

However, there are other characters whose lives have been touched and altered by the loss of the Titanic without their even knowing it – and this book also charts their lives. Fleming’s characterisation is strong and her writing vivid and uncluttered. Historic novels need to depict a sense of the period without holding up the narrative pace. Fleming succeeds in doing this, while making the necessary jumps across her long narrative timeline without jarring or defusing the immediacy of her characters – which is far harder to pull off than she makes it look.

As she takes us down the years following the sinking of the Titanic, we are given a ringside seat through both World Wars, witnessing the subsequent tragic loss of life, while relationships are forged and broken. The events and the way they impact on the lives of Celeste, May and those close to them are entirely believable. I was pulled into the book, reading far later than I should have to discover what befalls the main characters.

I love Fleming’s perspective – she could have written something cosier and far less thought-provoking. As it is, this is an enjoyable and worthwhile read and if you have any weakness at all for historical novels, then track down this offering. It is so much more than yet another rehash of the sinking of a famous ship.
8/10