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R. A. Williams "Rosemary the rock nut" (Cambridge, UK)

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Midnight Saboteur: One Boy's Battle in a World at War
Midnight Saboteur: One Boy's Battle in a World at War
by Martin Booth
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Quite a good read, but wildly improbable, 9 Feb 2010
As a lifelong W.E. Johns fan I'm interested in World War II children's stories. This one bears a more than passing resemblance to Johns's 'King of the Commandos', where a young English boy gets stranded in Dunkirk and becomes one of a band of child saboteurs in occupied France. That story seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but Booth's is far more so - in fact it teters on the boundary between the far-fetched and the downright silly. That an English boy knowing no French could wander about a small French town, crawling with Germans, and not attract attention, is improbable enough; more so is the idea that he could, at the drop of a chapeau, help the Resistance create mayhem in that town without the Germans taking it out on the locals by shooting hostages wholesale. The town seems to be remarkably well provisioned, too, for rigidly rationed German-occupied France: orange juice? Ice cream? And can you seriously imagine that an English child could successfully guide a wounded RAF officer across several miles of unknown French countryside, bristling with German patrols, purely on the basis of a few oral instructions???

Never mind. The hero has some exciting adventures and so long as one can swallow a whopping dose of improbability, the book is a good read. I wish, though, that authors or editors would get a proper linguist to check books like this before they're published. Anyone who went about in France saying 'Mon oncle est bu' and thinking it means 'My uncle is drunk' would be rumbled in exactly the time it took to produce this outrage. Booth must have failed his GCSE French - and that takes some doing, believe me.


The Sterkarm Handshake (Point)
The Sterkarm Handshake (Point)
by Susan Price
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Riveting, but a pity about the bogus language, 8 Feb 2010
This is a passionate, powerful, involving story which is very difficult to put down. The only thing that puzzles me is why the author chooses to make her sixteenth-century characters speak in a sort of bastard Old Norse. There's certainly quite strong Scandinavian influence on some northern English and Scots dialects, but nobody on the Borders (unlike Orkney or Shetland) would have been speaking a anything like Norse in the sixteenth century. Their dialect might be difficult for a modern speaker of standard English to understand, but it certainly wouldn't be as impenetrable as portrayed in the book, and somebody acquainted with the more recent rural dialect of the Carlisle region, such as Joe, would quickly have got used to it. I presume the language is intended as a de-familiarisation device, but why go to such trouble, in an otherwise vividly realistic depiction, to create something so bogus?


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
by John Boyne
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.85

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Special Educational Needs child meets sticky end, 31 Jan 2010
[Warning: story spoilers]

This is one of the most over-praised books I've read for a long time. I think its success must be almost entirely due to the fact that it relates to that most fashionable of horrors, the Holocaust. (Sorry to any Jews reading; I don't mean that the Holocaust should not be taken seriously. But taking it seriously is one thing, and cashing in on it is another.)

For one thing, a reader, child or adult, who doesn't know anything about the Holocaust will find the whole thing baffling from end to end, because nothing about the Holocaust is explained, except a vague bit of blether from the hero's sister about the people behind the fence being Jews. Unless you know the historical background already, you can't make sense of the story and you can't appreciate the author's far-from-subtle irony.

The irony comes from the fact that the hero, nine-year-old Bruno, is the son of the newly appointed commandant of Auschwitz (who I presume is modelled on Rudolf Hoess, said to have been a devoted dad when he wasn't busy supervising mas murder). So monumentally thick is Bruno that although he's lived his whole life in Hitler's Germany and is the son of a fanatical and highly successful Nazi, he can't recognise Hitler when he sees him, has never seen the 'Heil Hitler' salute, and thinks that Hitler's title is 'the Fury' (which unintended pun works in English, but not in German, which Bruno presumably spoke). And although this is 1943 and Bruno lives in Berlin, he seems completely unaware of the fact that Germany is at war. Indeed he has not the slightest understanding of any aspect whatsoever of the current situation, and has never been told anything whatever about Jews. He apparently goes to a school, but even in Nazi terms it must have been a lousy one.

Then when he comes to live by Auschwitz he's so thick that he assumes - and goes on asuming for a year - that the barbed wire encircles a holiday camp, and it never occurs to him, even when it's spelt out to him in letters a mile high, that the inmates are thin because they're starving, and bruised because they're ill-treated. Of course nine-year-olds are not all-knowing and all-understanding, but were you as paralysingly stupid and ignorant as that when you were nine? I jolly well wasn't.

I have my doubts about the portrayal of Auschwitz as well. For one thing, there are lots of kids about who don't appear to be doing any work. I thought the idea was 'work or die'. Moreover, Hoess says in his memoirs that 'children were invariably exterminated since owing to their tender years they were unable to work.' However, it may be that kids were around in 1943. What is certain, however, is that when the wind blew from the crematoria in Birkenau the stench could be smelt for miles, and even a kid like Bruno who spends all his time stuffing himself with roast chicken and chocolate cake would surely notice something disagreeable in the air from time to time.

There are odd moments of pathos: the prisoner boy, Shmuel, does seem to have more than two neurons in his head and is quite endearing, and one feels sorry for old Pavel. But as a book about the Holocaust, this is pathetic. Perhaps you have to tone down the horrors if you're to appeal to nine-year-olds, but I don't think it's right to tone down the horrors and I don't think this is a suitable subject for a tweely sentimental book for nine-year-olds, or indeed anyone else. You need to grow up, learn about Auschwitz in the proper historical context, and then read Primo Levi. And then get down on your knees and thank God that you weren't born a Jew at that time.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 28, 2010 10:41 PM BST


The Red Rose of Ruvina (Stormy Petrel)
The Red Rose of Ruvina (Stormy Petrel)
by Violet Needham
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading, but only just, 9 Jan 2010
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The faithful editors who produced this reprint admit that 'the story is weak', and it certainly is. It reads like what it is, a last effort by a tired and ageing author who has shot her bolt. Nonetheless, no true Violet Needham addict will want to be without it, because it does at least give us another glimpse of Dick, Anastasia and other favourite characters.

I've a feeling that somewhere in the book there lurk the seeds of a genuinely exciting tale; it ought to be re-written by an author sufficiently in sympathy with VN to handle her characters and settings, but with enough pizazz to tighten up the narrative. It's a pity that copyright precludes that.

Alternatively, I've always thought that VN novels would make cracking good children's TV drama. What about <The House of the Paladin>, for example? A haunting setting, a frantically exciting plot and some splendid parts for both child and adult actors - yummy! And if that one worked, perhaps a good script writer could be persuaded to ginger up some of VN's less successful efforts, such as this one.


Sword Song
Sword Song
by Rosemary Sutcliff
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hail and farewell, 9 Jan 2010
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This review is from: Sword Song (Hardcover)
I've only just discovered this final novel by one of the greatest historical novelists of our time (and I don't just mean children's historical novelists). It fits, though only marginally, into the 'dolphin signet ring' sequence that began with <The Eagle of the Ninth>, fitting into the gap between the end of <Sword at Sunset> and <The Shield Ring>. It would be worth reading for that reason alone; but it's also a solidly researched story of British Vikings, free from sentimentality and moralising and with Sutcliff's usual vivid characterisation, especially as regards the warts-and-all hero, Bjarni. He's not so obviously appealing as (say) Marcus or Justin or even Aquila, but he's a realistic depiction of the complex of loves, hates, loyalties and ferocities, expertise and ignorance, intelligence and supersition, that you might expect from a ninth-century barbarian. He's accompanied by Hugin, another of Sutcliff's adorable dogs: I was in constant fear lest something awful happened to him, but don't worry, it doesn't.

The author died before completing the final draft of the story, and it does show. The tale is episodic, some of the episodes are a bit disconnected, and the ending, though neat in that it takes the hero back to his starting point, is ragged in terms of story development. The heroine, Angharad, doesn't appear until very late and her story is rather truncated; I'd have liked to hear more about her. Nonetheless the book is a worthy farewell to a favourite author. People who write as well as Sutcliff ought not to be allowed to die!


Death of an Ocean: A Geological Borders Ballad
Death of an Ocean: A Geological Borders Ballad
by E. N. K. Clarkson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 24.80

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't miss this one, 28 Dec 2009
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I have a bone to pick with these authors. I got so absorbed in the book on Boxing Day that I forgot to switch on the Morecombe and Wise Christmas show and missed the whole thing! However, comics may come and comics may go but rocks go on for ever, and this is as good a rock book for the interested amateur as I've ever come across. At the start I was inclined to say 'Oh God, not ANOTHER trot through plate-tectonics-for-dummies'; but the introductory explanations are exceptionally clear, comprehensible and consistently relevant to the Borders themselves, as well as drawing some enlightening analogies with contemporary tectonic events elsewhere. The succeeding text draws a fascinating picture of Borders geology, covering but not confined to the visible traces of the Iapetus subduction and ending with an account of the most recent glaciation. The authors also pay generous tribute to the great field workers and schoars of the past - including some women, I'm pleased to say - whose pioneering work did so much to elucidate the geology of this area before the Big Idea of plate tectonics made it all make sense (though the latest researchers now seem to be busy making it obscure once again!). The photographs (unlike those in the companion volume on Scotland's volcanoes) are clear and illuminating, though it would have been nice if the authors had proof-read the lettering on the diagrams and made sure all the keys were complete (what are the blue bits in figuire 3.2?). The book is also a field guide with grid references etc. (Was it wise to give such precise directions to potential geological vandals? Or do they know the best places to vandalise anyway?) I'm going to the Borders on holiday next year and I shall certainly be clutching this book in my hot little hand. Perhaps if I'm very polite to the authors, they'll come and tell me exactly where to find THE JOIN at Dobb's Linn? I gather that there isn't a real golden spike in there...


The Xenophobe's Guide to the Swedes (Xenophobe's Guides)
The Xenophobe's Guide to the Swedes (Xenophobe's Guides)
by Peter Berlin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No need to be a xenophobe, 1 Feb 2009
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I always wonder if people get put off by the 'xenophobe' in the titles in this series, because they all seem to be affectionate, if critical, portrayals of the nations concerned. This is an amusing and enlightening introduction to the Swedes, and gets more useful information into far fewer pages than many more pretentious guidebooks. I shall certainly pop it in my handbag before venturing in to Viking-land.


Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared
Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared
by Andrew Brown
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A good way to put yourself off Sweden, 11 Jan 2009
This book will teach you a little about a very interesting subject, viz. modern Sweden, and a good deal about a very uninteresting subject, viz. Andrew Brown, who apart from having spent some time living in particularly insalubrious concrete slums in Sweden, and fishing in some much nicer bits of the country, doesn't seem to have led a very interesting life.

If you want to learn about Sweden (which is why I got hold of the book), then the Insight guide will give you twenty times more information in half as many pages, and provide a lot of pretty pictures into the bargain, not to mention telling you where to stay, eat, have fun, etc.

It's possible that you might buy the book for the sake of what it tells you about fishing, but since I've always considered this the most boring pastime in the world, I can't comment on that aspect because I skipped all the fishing pasages.


Kenneth Mckellar's Scotland/Folk Songs From Scotland
Kenneth Mckellar's Scotland/Folk Songs From Scotland
Price: 17.04

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incomparable voice, incomparable recordings, 31 Aug 2008
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My dad had the original LPs of all McKellar's Scottish song recordings and so I grew up with them. Later I scoured second-hand shops for scratched and battered copies to call my own. Now at last I have a perfectly clear, handy, travel-anywhere set that really does this glorious singer justice. Such purity of tone, such clarity of diction, such adaptability to the lyrical, comic, tragic or dramatic potential of each song - I'll never get tired of them. Roll on the complete collection on CD!

It's true that not all the songs are of equal quality and that some tip over into sentimentality, but this is compensated for a thousand times by the real gems - Will Ye No Come Back Again, McGregor's gathering, Isle of Mull, and my favourite on this disc, 'Gin I were a baron's heir'.

Magnificent as McKellar's voice is, however, a tribute should be paid to the arrangers, most particularly Bob Sharples, who again and again, on this disk and on other early McK recordings,turns fine performances into exquisite ones. If McKellar's rendering of the Syke Boat Song has been hailed as being as 'good as opera', it's largely thanks to the orchestration. Similarly, his rendering of the lovely 'Mary Morrison' on the Burns disk is greatly enhanced by the setting, particularly the violin creating the 'dance' in verse 2. To be honest, the contrast with the very ordinary arrangements in McK's more recent recordings is stark: Sharples wins every time. All praise to him.

More reissues please!


Travels With Boogie: 500 Mile Walkies and Boogie Up the River in One Volume
Travels With Boogie: 500 Mile Walkies and Boogie Up the River in One Volume
by Mark Wallington
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.86

5.0 out of 5 stars Irresistible!, 5 Aug 2008
I've just read some excerpts from '500 Mile Walkies' to a group of friends staying together in Minehead and they roared with laughter and absolutely loved it - in fact they all vociferously demanded details of where they could get the book, so MW (if you're listening) I may have upped your sales a bit! As a dog-lover and dedicated coast path walker I am devoted to this book and re-read it regularly: there's nothing that cheers me up more effectively on a cold, grey winter evening than following once again that delightful journey with Boogie.

My five stars are strictly for '500 Mile Walkies'. I agree with other reviewers that 'Boogie up the River' is much less appealing, though still a worthwhile read. The situations are contrived, the characters much less agreeable - especially the odious Jennifer - and the whole thing compares very badly with its obvious inspiration, 'Three Men in a Boat'. There are some delightful moments, however, as with the American great-grandmother who 'likes to eat'.

'Pennine Walkies' is also an agreeable read. The dog obviously isn't the same Boogie, but the uneasy man-dog partnership is still amusing and the endearing dottiness that was so conspicuously lacking in the characters of 'Boogie up the River' is back again here. And I like the running jokes, such as the items of discarded female clothing that keep appearing by the side of the path...


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