Saturday, 29 May 2021

Micro Review 27


Panenka by Ronan Hession (Blue Moose Books)

Own copy

One of my surprise hit books from last year was Hession's first book Leonard and Hungry Paul and I preordered this one as soon as it appeared on Blue Moose's website.

It is simultaneously similar to and nothing like the first book but is still a very special book. Once more it is a character study, and although there are a couple of 'big' events that the story hangs on it really is the way Panenka and his friends and family are drawn that makes the book live.

Hession's skill for me is in seeing the ordinary and writing about it so wonderfully, without being tempted to create big events or extra drama. I felt that I was living with the characters and I could 'see' everything. The reveal of Panenka's current job towards the end was wonderful and a such a special moment that it did bring  a lump to my throat - it is just perfect.

I don't love Panenka quite so much as Leonard but it definitely isn't a 'difficult second book' just another quiet book that feels very special,

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Micro Review 26


The Swallows' Flight by Hilary McKay (Macmillan Children's Books)

Net Galley eProof

Back in 2018, when my reading stamina was at its lowest, Hilary McKay's The Skylarks' War held me captivated and was one of the first books that I managed to read from cover to cover in a weekend. It was a wonderful book and one that my mum and sister have also gone on to enjoy.

Skylarks' was a book about the lead up to the first world war and just after, whereas Swallows' is a story about the 1930s and world war two. The novel is a sequel to Skylarks' but moves on a generation and this time one narrative strand  follows two German boys and we see the increasing grip of fascism on their lives.

As with the first book I quickly lost myself in this one and found it as engrossing as any sweeping adult book set in the same time period. There are a few coincidences that as an adult I saw coming but with fiction this good I don't mind. I really hope that this becomes a classic text for schools, it is a book that deserves the same reverence given to Carrie's War and Goodnight Mr Tom (and I love that book) and it is definitely deserves to be on any curriculum/reading list far more than the implausible (and borderline offensive) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. 

Saturday, 22 May 2021

Micro Review 25


Ariadne by Jennifer Saint (Wildfire Books)


I've long loved tales from Ancient Greece, I think that my love stems right back to early primary school where we first looked at this history and especially to my Usborne Guide to Ancient Greece. I was lucky in that family holidays took us to Greece, and it is a place Mr Norfolkbookworm and I continue to visit (when we are allowed to) and also where we got married.

Retellings of the Greek myths from new view points have become really popular in the past decade and I very much like this new genre. 

In Ariadne Saint retells all of the tales connected to this Cretan princess but from her view point, and that of her sister Phaedra, not from the more traditional male narrated format.

I knew most of the stories that link together to form Ariadne's life but for some reason I hadn't joined them together to make a continuous arc, so to read the tales all linked together was really enjoyable. The tables weren't turned to the extent that Ariadne and her sister became flawless, and the male characters didn't all become cardboard cutout baddies - everyone had shades to their lives. The writing was such that I really did have a movie playing in my mind as I read the book, and I could feel the Greek heat as I turned the pages.

The portrayal of the Greek Gods in this version of the myths was fascinating to read, their jealousy and pettiness made them seem far more human than godlike and as a result even more terrifying in some ways. It also made me reassess my mental image of Dionysus - he really doesn't bear much resemblance to the Disney version from Fantasia in this novel!

It took me a couple of goes to get into the book initially, but that was definitely down to my mood and not the book. This debut novel is a great addition to similar works from Madeline Miller, Pat Barker and Natalie Haynes and I am looking forward to reading more from all 4 authors!

Many thanks to Net Galley for the advance copy, even if I didn't read it until publication day!

Monday, 17 May 2021

Micro Review 24


Arctic Star by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)

own copy

It doesn't seem that long since I was raving about Tom Palmer's last book, but I was late to the party on that one.

His new book Arctic Star has been on my radar for a lot longer and I've had copies on order for quite some time as when Palmer has been talking about it  I knew I would have deep connection with the tale.

Palmer has taken the less well known Arctic Convoys as his starting point for this novel and we follow 3 childhood friends as they join the navy and get assigned to these terrifying naval duties within the Arctic Circle. 

From page one I felt cold, scared and seasick as we experienced the war from the boys' perspective. A very slight break in the tension occurs when the boys get a few hours shore leave in Russia but we're back at sea very soon. 

After taking part in one convoy there is a longer shore leave for the characters and then they are redeployed back to the Arctic, this time serving on HMS Belfast.

This is where my personal connection to the story really starts as my paternal grandfather served on HMS Belfast. He had joined the navy at very much the same age and time as the boys in Palmer's story and through his naval records we've found that he served on 3 Atlantic convoys whilst on board HMS Striker. 

Although these Atlantic Convoys weren't in the same league as the Arctic ones Grandad's did take place during the winter of 1943/44 and so thanks to Arctic Star I can now imagine his time on board more clearly.

Grandad join HMS Belfast in the summer of 1945 and was sailing to the Far East theatre of war when peace with Japan was announced. He was then part of the mission to repatriate POWs from the camps in the Far East, he remained with HMS Belfast in China until February 1946, when he was released to the Naval reserve. He was recalled to the Navy in 1950 (not long after my dad was born) and served on HMS Ceylon during the Korean war. In a big coincidence HMS Ceylon was released from duty in this area by HMS Belfast in 1951.

Palmer's book really brought life on a WW2 ship to life for me. I have visited HMS Belfast, and the guide on duty that day was able to take me to the area where Grandad (and Palmer's characters) would have spent their off duty time but it was the life breathed into this area by Arctic Star that really made the ship come to life for me.

I've been very careful to not talk too much about the plot of the book - if you don't know much about the Arctic Convoys then this book is a great introduction to the campaign whether you're a young reader or an adult. If you do know something about the convoys then this book brings them to vivid life and adds a whole new experience to your knowledge. I really recommend seeking it out if you can, and taking the time to visit HMS Belfast in London when it is possible again.

I don't think that I can review this book any less emotionally, for me it tells a story that is too often forgotten in a respectful and engaging way, and yes - it did give me more than one lump in my throat as I was reading it.

Able Seaman (Henry) Roy Skinner during WW2 with HMS Belfast in Sydney, 1945

As an aside Grandad was a terrible tease and as a small child I knew he'd been in the navy but my grasp of history was pretty weak so I completely believed him when he said he'd been Nelson's Cabin Boy. I did get my own back later on when I bought him a ship's biscuit from the gift shop near HMS Victory and encouraged him to eat it! From reading Arctic Star I am now wondering if he was always a joker or if his wartime service caused it to develop!

Friday, 14 May 2021

Micro Review 23


Quarantine Comix by Rachael Smith (Icon Books)

eProof from Net Galley

I am sure that in the next few years there will be a plethora of books using the Covid-19 Pandemic as a plot device but for me Quarantine Comix is the first I've read and I loved it.

I'd not come across the cartoons on social media over the past year and I am not sure where I saw this mentioned (my already wonky memory seems to have not enjoyed Lockdown 3) but I am glad I put a request in for the book.

While I was lucky enough to be with my husband and to keep working throughout the past year so much else of Smith's comics rang true to me. She really has captured the boredom, fear, weirdness of time as well as the wonder of nature & small things just as I experienced them. (I would just like to reassure my family who read this blog and might find the book too that Mr Norfolkbookworm & I didn't drink as much as Rachael and her housemate, nor did we drink at such odd times of day!)

Thinking on this book further, and discussing it with a friend who also got access to the early copy, I've come to the conclusion that this book had such resonance for me because like the author I was lucky that no one in my close circle appears to have caught the virus  - although there were family losses from other causes that were exacerbated by Covid.

This book is all about the fears and 'what ifs' of the past year and not the actual illness itself - for that you need to read Michael Rosen's Many Different Kinds of Love

When it comes to 'souvenirs' of this odd time I'd definitely include this book in a time capsule - it is just how I recall 2020.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Micro Review 22


Civilisations by Laurent Binet. trans. Sam Taylor (Harvill Secker)

eProof from Net Galley

I have to thank the radio 4 programme Start the Week for bumping this book to the top of my reading pile, rather than letting is languish on my list marked 'potentially sounds interesting' for years.

This book has been called 'counter-factual' but that sounds a little press speak to me - I prefer to call it a 'what if' alternative history novel:

c.1000AD: Erik the Red's daughter heads south from Greenland
1492: Columbus does not discover America
1531: the Incas invade Europe

Freydis is the leader of a band of Viking warriors who get as far as Panama. Nobody knows what became of them...
Five hundred years later, Christopher Columbus is sailing for the Americas, dreaming of gold and conquest. Even when captured by Incas, his faith in his superiority and his mission is unshaken.

Thirty years after that, Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, arrives in Europe. What does he find? The Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation, capitalism, the miracle of the printing press, endless warmongering between the ruling monarchies, and constant threat from the Turks.

But most of all, downtrodden populations ready for revolution. Fortunately, he has a recent guidebook to acquiring power - Machiavelli's The Prince. It turns out he is very good at it. So, the stage is set for a Europe ruled by Incas and, when the Aztecs arrive on the scene, for a great war that will change history forever.

I loved this book from page one, each section takes the story further through history and is written in a style that mimics actual works from the actual historical period, thus the section set around 1000 is written like the Norse/Icelandic sagas and so on.

The book was a delight as history gets rewritten by the victors and when we meet famous people. like Erasmus, it feels natural and organic, not the author showing off what he knows. I am also sure that either Binet (or translator Taylor) are Monty Python fans....

I loved this book, despite it showing up just how insular my knowledge of history, and I wish I'd listened to Mr Norfolkbookworm and other friends earlier and read Binet before now.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Micro Review 21


Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (Cornerstone)

electronic proof

I was surprised to realise that it it was three years since I read and reviewed Weir's last book Artemis. Time is doing that funny thing again as I'm sure it was far more recent!

Project Hail Mary is a book about so many things, but at its heart it is a buddy movie about saving the world.

It is another book that I am loathe to say too much about apart from quoting the blurb that the publishers have released:

A lone astronaut.
An impossible mission.
An ally he never imagined.

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission - and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn't know that. He can't even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he's been asleep for a very, very long time. And he's just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it's up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery-and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he's got to do it all alone.

Or does he?

 The plot is a little far fetched, but like all of Weir's books the science is accurate - and if it does all start to go over your head then you can skim those paragraphs without losing any huge details of the plot!

I really fell in love with this book, and right up until the last page I was kept guessing as to how it was going to end.

This is a great sci-fi read, and I think that it will make a great film - just as The Martian did.