Sunday, 22 April 2018

Michael Murpurgo Month


IT’S MICHAEL MORPURGO MONTH!
Welcome to the Children’s section of Te Takere’s Library blog, which is expanding to include the wonderful selection of fiction available for the children of the Horowhenua.  There are so many cool titles for kids here thanks to our great buyer librarians that they definitely deserve their very own section:  just as adults can access fiction choices on this blog, now, thanks to JD’s website expertise, children will also have the same ability to pick and choose.
First up as a five-star recommendation is  ‘The Elephant in the Garden’by British children’s author Michael Morpurgo.  He needs no introduction;  his stories have delighted, enthralled and moved kids of all ages, and he is always careful to get his facts right – his writing is always objective and his research impeccable.  Many of his books are set in times of war, written without specific blame for one side or the other;  rather, their stories demonstrate the futility and heartbreak of conflict and its terrible consequences – but they always have happy and hopeful endings, for no child should finish a book and feel sad. 
The following books reviewed are most suitable for ages 10 years and up.  (And really keen and clever eight year-olds!)

An Elephant in the Garden, by Michael Morpurgo.
            Karl’s mum is a nurse who works in a Rest Home.  She enjoys her work;  even though a lot of her patients are very old and nearing the end of their lives, they are all still interesting and unique people who deserve her care and respect.  Such a person is Elizabeth, who is 82 years old and swears that when she was sixteen, an elephant lived in her garden! 
            Karl’s mum rolls her eyes at this;  it is a favourite chant of Elizabeth’s and the old lady wants to tell Karl all about it – she has taken a great fancy to him, for sometimes he has to come to the rest home when mum works in the school holidays, and he likes to sit with her.  She says he reminds her of her little brother Karli, and Karl is very flattered, and even more so when he and his mum when her shift has ended, finally have the time to sit next to Elizabeth’s bed and hear her wonderful, terrible, unbelievable story:  an elephant really did stay in Elizabeth’s garden, an elephant called Marlene.
            It is February of 1945.  In the city of Dresden in Germany people are feeling lucky but scared:  so far the British bombers have left their city alone but the people know that this enchanted time cannot last;  the war is coming to an end and Germany is on its knees – the Russians are approaching from the East and the Americans are moving in from the West.  Everyone is making plans to flee, including Elizabeth’s mother, who works at the local Zoo.  Elizabeth’s Papa is a prisoner of war in Russia, and her Mutti hopes to find shelter at her sister’s farm in the country outside Dresden if bombs start to fall.  Mutti hopes also to rescue her very favourite animal from the Zoo, a young 4-year-old elephant named for sultry movie star Marlene Dietrich;  Mutti was there at her birth and can’t bear the thought that she will be shot along with all the other zoo animals if the bombers come.  Well, Marlene can come along with Mutti, Elizabeth and Karli, so there!  Mutti has lost so much already;  she’s not leaving Marlene behind if they have to become refugees.  The decision is made.
            And it happens more quickly and brutally than they can imagine;  the bombers do come, turning the beautiful city into a fireball;  tens of thousands of people die and the bombing of Dresden becomes known as one of the Second World War’s worst atrocities – but miraculously, Elizabeth, Mutti, Karli and Marlene escape the horror and eventually join the miles of refugees leaving the ruins of their lives, homes and dreams behind. 
            On their long, hazardous trip to safety they meet many people, some dangerous and some so kind and generous that they put their own lives at risk to help each other, but all of them fascinated and cheered by refugee Marlene, the last creature anyone would expect to see on their exhausting life-and-death march:  Marlene is a beacon for hope and happiness in a blighted world, a talisman to prove that people’s luck can always change for the better, and who better to write of this than Michael Morpurgo.  FIVE STARS.
Shadow, by Michael Morpurgo                        Junior Fiction

This is the third book I have read by Mr Morpurgo and he impresses me as much as ever:  in each book is a lesson for children,  couched lovingly in an adventure which is always based on fact -  both the lesson and fact being that war anywhere in the world is The Great Destroyer, a vain conflict that decimates populations and ruins countries, and wars fought in the name of religion are the worst of all, for religious fanatics are always absolute in their belief that their cause is just, righteous – and the only way to live.  Everyone must follow the Way, or die.
Aman and his mother are living in a cave in Afghanistan.  They have been driven from their home by the Taliban who murdered Aman’s father for not being properly respectful, and they lead a hand-to-mouth existence. When a shivering, wounded, filthy little dog arrives at the mouth of their cave one night Aman’s mother tries to drive it away – they don’t have enough food for themselves, let alone a mangy animal! 
But the dog won’t leave.  She stays just out of the range of missiles lobbed at her and gradually Aman comes to admire her determination to be friends.  He sneaks food to her, bathes her wounds and a true friendship is formed, and it is the dog  Aman names Shadow who eventually leads them away from the danger of the Taliban, and after a series of frightening adventures, to the safety of a British Army base hundreds of miles from where they started – for Shadow is really Polly, a very special dog indeed, trained to sniff out IED’s – Improvised Explosive Devices – and the troops, particularly her owner Sergeant Brodie are overjoyed to see her again:  she went missing after a skirmish and they thought she had died – it is truly miraculous that she has found her way back to the base, bringing two refugees with her.
There are many facets to this lovely story, not least being the plight of refugees, not only in their own country, but the uncertainties they face of a new existence in their country of choice, in this case Britain, for Aman’s mother has a brother to sponsor them on their arrival.  Aman attends school for six years, making many friends before he and his mother are finally refused residential status, then sent to a detention camp before deportation to Afghanistan.  Mr Morpurgo pulls no punches: he writes baldly of the lack of humane treatment for refugees caught in the limbo of red tape and disinterest at immigration removal centres;  once again this fact is shamefully stranger than fiction but fortunately for young readers (and me!) Aman’s story ends happily.  Friends old and new rally to help him, including Shadow, and once again Mr Morpurgo has written a heartwarming story for us all to enjoy.  FIVE STARS.

Little Manfred, by Michael Morpurgo             Children’s fiction
To most children, Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction;  he has a great body of quality work for young people which covers many different subjects, and his book ‘War Horse’ about a young man’s wonderful relationship with his horse during the 1914-18 war was filmed to much acclaim by Steven Spielberg.  Now, he visits another war, World War II, to examine once again, through the eyes of the very young and the elderly, the horrors and tragedies of a global conflict, searing and traumatic for all those who fought and a source of unforgettable memories and regrets for those who survived.
It is 1966.  England has just won the World Soccer Cup, defeating Germany 4-2;  the country is ecstatic!  On their Suffolk farm, Charley and her mother cannot understand what the fuss is about;  neither of them share Dad and Alex’s worshipful enthusiasm of the Beautiful Game and really couldn’t care less WHO won.  Needless to say little brother Alex thinks his sister is just being a big GIRL.  She doesn’t know what’s good.  Instead, Charley and her mum would rather that Dad would do as he said he would, and fix mum’s old childhood toy, a small wooden Dachsund called Little Manfred, which he stood on and broke – and always said he’d repair but never did.  For some reason that she never reveals, Little Manfred is very important to mum, and she is very upset that her old toy is missing a wheel.
It is not until the children visit the beach not far from their farm that many little mysteries are solved:  they meet two elderly men, an Englishman and a German, sightseers who have returned so that one of them can see once more where he was a prisoner of war, working on the very farm that Charley and Alex’s mum lived with her parents twenty years before, and where she still lives with her husband and family. 
Walter, the German, was rescued by Marty, the Englishman when his ship, the mighty battleship ‘Bismarck’ was sunk by the British navy in a huge sea battle;  Marty’s ship, HMS ‘Dorsetshire’ picked up some of the survivors from the water but nearly 2000 men drowned, abandoned to their fate because there were rumours that U-Boats with torpedoes were in the area.
Walter’s best friend Manfred and he formed a bond with Marty, who showed them kindness in many ways , but the steadfast friendship of Manfred and Walter sustained them throughout their imprisonment, and the kindness shown to them by the farming family they were sent to made their lives more bearable;  in fact Manfred became so close to their little girl that he made her a wooden toy, a Dachsund, so that she could remember them when they returned to Germany.
Twenty years later, the toy is still with her, broken but not discarded, a symbol of love, friendship and understanding that transcended fear and hatred in the midst of war. 
What a lovely story this is, simply told but full of wisdom and life lessons that we could all live by, young and old alike.  Little Manfred was truly the gift that kept on giving.  FIVE STARS.






WarHorse, by Michael Morpurgo


Children’s author Michael Morpurgo is one of the most prolific and gifted storytellers in print.  He writes on a multitude of different subjects, and for children of all ages.  (Including me!)
‘WarHorse’, his classic tale of the First World War, was published in 1982 and subsequently dramatized on the stage and in a fine movie directed by Stephen Spielberg. 
The story of Joey, a rich red bay with four white socks and a white ‘cross’ on his forehead is told by Joey himself, three parts thoroughbred and one part farmhorse, from the time he is bought by Farmer Endicott in a drunken bid to spite someone he hated, to the time he is sold as a cavalry horse to an army captain in 1914, because the farmer needed the money - ‘ a man’s got to live’- despite the fact that his son Albert loved Joey and had trained him to pull a plough and earn his keep:  Endicott’s betrayal is so underhand and shocking that Albert vows to join the army as soon as he is old enough so that he can find Joey and bring him back to England and the safety of his former life.  It is a promise he keeps, joining the Veterinary force at age 17, still in time to witness first-hand the bloodbath on the battlefields of Northern France:  boys become men overnight – and horses share strange allegiances and frightening adventures, as Joey relates with vigour and poignancy.
This is a wonderful story – beautiful and terrible, an object lesson for all in the brutality and futility of war and how it deprived millions on both sides of everything they held dear, in the end accomplishing very little.  How fortunate, though, that we have writers of the calibre of Mr Morpurgo who are unafraid to write of such things for children, for children are our future, and should know of the terrible mistakes their forbears made.  FIVE STARS

The Fox and the Ghost King by Michael Morpurgo

            The fans of Leicester City football club (and it’s really well supported) are the most loyal ever;  they call themselves The Foxes, and believe that even though their team is pretty rubbish at the moment, a miracle can always happen and who knows?  They could even go all the way in the Premier League!  Yeah, right.  And pigs might fly, too. 
            BUT!  The fans have noticed that (strange as it may be) every now and then, a family of REAL foxes turn up at the football ground to watch the game.  (WHAAAAAT?!)  And every time they do, Leicester city wins.   It’s true, the team’s real live fox mascots seem to bring them luck – why, if those little critters keep turning up enough times, Leicester City might even get to the final!
            And according to one of the little fox cubs who tells the story (which he must have repeated to Michael Morpurgo), him, his brother and his dad were out fossicking for really good things to eat one night after being to the football grounds;  they trekked home through a big carpark that was being excavated by archaeologists looking for Medieval remains, and all those heaps of soil proved irresistible – full of bugs, worms and other creepy crawlies that round off a meal of pizza and pie crusts and chips from the big game very well:  what a good time they were having – until a ghostly voice interrupted their fun and commanded them to dig deeper so that his ghostly remains might be discovered.
 Well.
Dad fox was not intimidated by the voice, even though the voice announced in booming tones that he was a King and expected instant obedience:  the voice wanted something, and while Dad fox was happy to help, he wasn’t going to work for nothing.  The King, who announced he was Richard the Third, wanted his remains to be discovered so that his spirit could finally rest in peace;  if the foxes could dig down far enough, the archaeologists would dig down too and eventually find him.  Dad fox and the two cubs didn’t mind obliging (the kids really liked digging!) but if the Ghost King was really who he said he was and was really as powerful as he reckoned he was , then surely he could arrange for Leicester City football team to get into the Premier League final.
            The deal is struck:  Dad and the kids start digging a hole so deep that it would be impossible for any archaeologist worth his spade to miss finding King Richard – and when the King is found, Leicester gives him a State Funeral and a proud resting place in Leicester Abbey, much more fitting than being buried under a car park!  And the Ghost King keeps his part of the bargain, too – Leicester City achieve the impossible and don’t just get into the final:  THEY WIN IT! 
            As always, Mr Morpurgo has woven gold out of extraordinary events – he never fails to enthrall.  Go the Foxes!  Suitable for really keen soccer fans  aged eight and up.  FOUR STARS 
               
             



    

Thursday, 12 April 2018


ANOTHER GREAT READ FOR APRIL, 2018

So, everyone - before we start, what do you think of my amazing new look?!  Thanks to dear Library computer supremo Joanne Dillon (JD), my blog looks totally amazing - needless to say, it would have stayed back in the dark ages for ever and ever if it had to rely on my non-existent designing talents, but a change is as good as a rest, and I think the change here is FABULOUS.  Six stars, JD!    

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb

            The Greenbrier Ghost is firmly imbedded in West Virginia folklore, as well it should be:  after all, what other man in United States history was convicted of the murder of his young wife by the testament of her ghost – as
stated by her mother at his trial.
            In 1897, backwoods Farmer’s daughter Zona Heaster is married in unseemly haste to Erasmus ‘Trout’ Shue, a young blacksmith new to the area.  He is handsome, muscular, full of charm;  she is pretty, bold and already experienced more than she should be ‘in the ways of men’.  Her parents are worried;  the groom has been married before – twice! – and one wife died of an accident within a year of marriage.  The other ex-wife gives him a wide berth.  Zona, that impulsive, bored, and flighty  girl has never taken to the hard life that is her mother’s lot;  her housekeeping skills are non-existent, and she and her new husband are living a long distance away to be nearer to his work, so Mary Jane, Zona’s mother, can’t visit regularly to make sure that she is performing her wifely duties satisfactorily.  And Mary Jane’s misgivings are horrifyingly correct:  within two months riders appear at the family farm to notify them that Zona is dead ‘from a fall’, and her grieving husband will be bringing her body back for burial in her home county.
            Yes, ‘Trout’ Shue does return Zona’s body to her grieving family, but he isn’t sad at all, in fact he is laughing and joking with his companions as they unload the body:  Mary Jane is incensed, and swears to find out how her daughter, that poor silly girl, really died, especially as the ghost of Zona appears to her, saying that she had been murdered – and a subsequent exhumation and autopsy proves the truth of that statement:  it doesn’t help that Shue yells as he is arrested:  ‘you’ll never prove it!’. In the eyes of everyone he is guilty as sin.
Ms McCrumb’s impressive novelised account of this true event then shifts to 1930 and the incarceration in the Lakin mental hospital for the ‘Coloured Insane’.  James Gardiner was Shue’s assistant attorney at the blacksmith’s trial;  while he believed innately in Shue’s guilt, he still wanted to give the best defense possible, and he and his white mentor managed to get the well-deserved death sentence reduced to life – an ultimately fitting punishment, for ‘Trout’ Shue could never abide being confined in small spaces, or living on pig-swill.  Gardiner has made a suicide attempt and during his talks with a sympathetic coloured psychiatrist, his memories of his first important trial emerge, clear as a bell.  The Greenbrier Ghost is vibrantly alive – thanks to the unshakeable, confident testimony of Zona’s mother:  but was it really the truth?
It is not easy to make facts live and breathe again with all the urgency and immediacy of today’s news, but Ms McCrumb effortlessly manages the task:  in her fine and capable prose these notorious historical events are painfully real once more, especially the great, unhealed divide between North and South created by the Civil war, and the grief and agony of a mother sworn to avenge her child.   FIVE STARS.        
             

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout


This is the second volume of stories concerning Lucy Barton, that damaged little girl who managed to escape her horrific upbringing in a small Midwestern town to make a name for herself in New York as a writer – not without more damage on the way; her first marriage is over; her girls are grown and have their own lives (in fact they barely get a mention in this volume), and she has married again: now, because she is on a national tour to promote her latest book and has reached Chicago, not far from her birthplace, she feels it is time to be brave, bite the bullet and make contact again with the surviving members of her family, her sister Vicky and brother Pete.

As in ‘Olive Kitteridge’, (my Fave! see review below)Lucy’s tale is continued in a short story format, introducing characters who knew her family and her as a child, like Tommy Guptill who originally employed Lucy’s father on his dairy farm until the night the barns burned down and he and his family were left with nothing: he got a job as janitor for the local high school and was sad to see that Lucy Barton was always the last to leave the classroom; in fact he came upon her there one night as she slept: she was there because it was warm. Now he is trying to coax her brother Pete out into the world again, for Pete has become a recluse and needs to see that the world is not as frightening as Pete believes. Unfortunately for Tommy’s hard-won peace of mind, his overtures of friendship reveal a secret that should have stayed buried.

And the Nicely family – the Pretty Nicely girls, the town called the daughters: they looked down on Lucy’s family and rightly so, them being so dirt-poor, but the girls’ Mama used Mrs Barton from time to time for sewing and alterations: it was the least she could do – until it was eventually revealed that Mrs Nicely lived in a Glass House, and her days of throwing stones were over. Her behaviour and subsequent divorce for adultery had such an impact on the Pretty Nicely girls that their small town lives were changed forever, especially Patty Nicely, who has taken refuge in food and is known at the high school where she works as a Guidance councillor as Fatty Patty. Unfortunately too for Fatty Patty, she has to advise Lucy’s niece Lila, daughter of Vicky, on future career options: Lila is feeling rebellious and insulting, especially about Patty’s weight and the meeting degenerates into a horrible slanging match – which doesn’t surprise Patty; it’s typical of that family! Until she decides to buy a copy of Lucy’s latest book, prominently displayed in the local bookshop – and unexpectedly finds optimism and positive truths that she can apply to her own circumstances.

Lucy’s meeting with Vicky and Pete takes place, but produces such a flood of awful reminiscences (like the time their mother came home to find that Vicky was crying over something that had happened at school; she couldn’t stand the children to cry, so when Vicky couldn’t stop she got her shears and cut up every piece of Vicky’s clothing – then sewed it all back together like horrible patchwork so that Vicky had something to wear the next day) that she has a panic attack and is forced flee back to Chicago and the safe anonymity of her other life. Her brother and sister have to stay where they are: they have nowhere to flee to.

Ms Strout has produced another small masterpiece of connections near and far, with characters as finely wrought as a Vermeer painting and prose as lucid and clear as the light he painted so beautifully: how fortunate are we to enjoy such literary wealth.

SIX STARS!
✱✱✱✱✱✱

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A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett


This is the third volume in Ken Follett’s action-packed history of his fictional town of Kingsbridge, founded in the middle ages by the monks who lived there to service the mighty cathedral they constructed. Now it is 1558 and Kingsbridge is prospering and largely Catholic under Queen Mary Tudor, who abolished Protestantism when she ascended the throne, in fact she was so zealous in her revenge against Protestants she has earned the unfortunate sobriquet of ‘Bloody Mary’. She doesn’t care: she has restored England to the True Religion.

The Willards and Fitzgeralds are the leading citizens of Kingsbridge: young Ned Willard hopes to make 16 year-old Margery Fitzgerald his bride, but her father and brother have more grandiose plans – if they marry her to the local Earl’s son, they will become related to the aristocracy. Marrying for love is laughable; everyone knows that marriages are alliances, meant to strengthen families religiously and politically. Ned doesn’t stand a chance, and removes himself from the cause of his sorrow by taking up a position as assistant to Sir Robert Cecil, the Protestant Princess Elizabeth’s adviser. He finds the intelligence work he is required to do an intriguing distraction to his personal troubles and in time comes to enjoy his employment – especially when Elizabeth becomes queen upon Mary’s premature death, and to every loyal Catholic’s horror, restores Protestantism as the rightful religion of England. For this great sin she is declared illegitimate and excommunicated by the Pope, and plans are immediately in train to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

This tumultuous time of history in Mr Follett’s hands is like reading a superior thriller, especially when the machinations of the French court are revealed; Catholic Mary of Scotland must take the throne of England from the bastard Elizabeth (even though Mary has lived most of her life in France with her relatives, the powerful Dukes of Guise), thus consolidating the power of catholic Europe: Italy, France and Spain are rich and powerful enemies and little Protestant England is woefully outnumbered in every way. And it does no-one good to advertise their Protestant faith in those countries, as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of thousands in Paris proves.

Mr Follett’s minor characters are well-realised and cover the bases for the action he imagines in Spain, France and the Netherlands: Ned’s brother Barney is a sea captain and gives a blow-by-blow account of the huge defeat of the Spanish Armada – and I have to say that normally, my eyes glaze after a while at detailed descriptions of antique weaponry and battle tactics, but Follett is such a great story teller that my eyes were glued, unglazed, to every page, which is no mean feat!

The story ends with the Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes in 1606. Again, the event is written with heart-stopping suspense, not easy to sustain because everyone knows the outcome and this is a 900 page doorstop of a book – at the very least you have to have strong wrists! – but, apart from some truly sloppy editing (Ned is a ‘dreamboat’ and Margery is ‘small and sexy’. Characters say OK every now and then, too. For Heaven’s sake, I don’t expect the prose to be heavily Shakespearean, chockful of Prithees and How Nows, but GIVE ME A BREAK!!)

I am now wondering if Mr Follett will set his next story in the New World, for one of Ned’s grandsons is a Puritan and about to set sail on the Mayflower. Regardless of editing shortcomings, I am still enormously impressed by ‘A Column of Fire’. In Mr Follett’s capable hands, history is more than well served. It is the great adventure that it should be.

FIVE STARS

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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Finding Audrey, by Sophie Kinsella


Audrey Turner is making a slow and painful recovery from a bullying incident at her previous school. Three girls have been excluded for their part in the affair and Audrey spent several weeks in hospital before coming home to her family who have been affected as badly as she, but are still able to give her the love and comfort she needs.

Now she stays at home, waiting to start at another school when the new term begins – the mere thought of which brings her out in a sweat, but her psychologist Dr Sarah is confident that she will make that goal, and many more besides. Audrey wishes she felt the same way!

But all is not doom and gloom and darkened rooms: Audrey’s sixteen year old brother Frank wants to be a Gamer, specifically on LOC (that’s Land of Conquerors to you) and he has a team that includes Linus, his totally cool schoolmate, who comes round often to practice: they want to get onto the next levels and compete in the Regionals – then after that the Finals, then After That ….. well, who knows? The sky’s the limit! And miracles do happen in Audrey’s pathetically uncool little life, for it appears that Linus thinks she’s pretty! Even though she hides behind dark glasses ALL THE TIME because she can’t bear people to look her in the eye. He actually comes to sit with her when she’s watching TV in her darkened room, and one magic day he even holds her hand, something she hasn’t allowed anyone to do since The Incident.

Then Audrey’s mum spoils everything: Frank is spending FAR TOO MUCH TIME IN FRONT OF A SCREEN! ( The clarion cry of all 21st Century Mums). If he doesn’t change his ways, young man (another sure sign of Mum Rage) then she will throw his PC out the window. And eventually, she does! Well, she told him she would. She is a woman of her word. Linus is despatched just as speedily – he and Frank can hardly practice if Frank has nothing to practice on, and without Linus’s visits to look forward to, Audrey’s world shrinks again. Until Linus thinks up a solution: Would Audrey feel up for a visit to Starbucks? With him?

And so begins Audrey’s reintroduction to streets, people, noise, traffic – all the things she wasn’t able to face in the preceding months. Maybe she’s not such a loser after all, especially with someone like Linus to support her and help her to feel normal. As Doctor Sarah says, life is an upward graph, full of peaks and troughs, but as long as it keeps aiming upward from the troughs everything is normal – and that is what’s happening, finally, for Audrey: she’s moving upwards.

Ms Kinsella has captured with sharp accuracy 21st century family life with all its pitfalls and dangers; the bullying incident is never detailed and that is all to the good; what happened to fictional Audrey is tragically common and it takes a brave and clever writer to put it on paper without revealing awful detail. And an added bonus: Ms Kinsella’s humour. This is one of the funniest books ever about a serious subject, because it’s the story of a loving family; how tragedy affects them, and how they deal with it. Totally cool!

FIVE STARS

(And I'm proud to say that my granddaughter Ava recommended that I read this book: she is indeed a great reader! Thanks heaps, darling. xx)

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Berserker, by Emmy Laybourne



Our library has a great selection of Teen fiction; sadly, there are not enough hours in my day to devote time to reading everything that looks great – just the same, I have flown through two titles over the weekend, and no, I didn’t skim-read because they were weak; I just couldn’t put them down until I’d finished, so there!

‘Berserker’ merges a tale of the Old West in 1883 with Norse Mythology. In Ancient Times Odin, King of the Gods bestowed on his three favourite kings the Nytte, a mighty gift of six super powers to continue through their lineage: in Norway 1883, the Nytte resides in three of the children of Amund, himself a wonderful Shipwright who has lost his Gift and has turned to drink. Three of his four children have the Nytte: Stieg, the eldest is a Storm-Rend. He can control the wind. Knut, the second son is an Oar-Breaker, endowed with superhuman strength and a gentle heart, but Hanne – Hanne the third daughter is a Berserker, compelled to kill anyone who threatens the life of those she loves. Sissel, the youngest girl has no gift at all.

It has long been Stieg’s dream to emigrate to America; he wants to start a new life in a new country; he wants to be a schoolteacher and to live as far from the strictures and constraints of the Old Country as he can; when he is established, he will send for his siblings. They shouldn’t have to spend the rest of their young lives in poverty while an old drunk takes whatever they earn to swill down his throat.

Tragically, Amund is threatened by men who want the money he owes them, and Hanne feels the danger to a loved one: she answers the call and slaughters them with joyful efficiency – until the bloodbath is over and her normal self prevails: she must give herself up – she has butchered three men – God will never forgive her! But in this case, the Old Gods are present and ready to look after those with the power of the Nytte: Stieg and his siblings manage to find enough money for them all to take ship to America, there to try to contact their Uncle Hakon in Wolf Creek, Montana: he is a Berserker and will be able to teach Hanne how to control her terrible gift.

Ms Laybourne has melded hardscrabble pioneer existence with old Norse legend very successfully, especially when the family is pursued by those who would try to harness their talents for cruel and crooked motives. The suspense is always kept at a satisfyingly high level and, while the ending is satisfying, it’s not REALLY the end; I believe ( I HOPE!) a sequel’s on the way.

FIVE STARS

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The Woman at the Window, by A. J. Finn


Anna Fox is the woman at the window. A former successful child psychologist, she is a recluse, an Agoraphobic – terrified of open spaces; she stays in her house because she can’t bear to be outside, but that doesn’t stop her from being interested in the daily lives of her neighbours; after all, there is nothing else going on in her life except alcoholism, so she might as well spy through the zoom on her camera on those who live around her – she deserves some entertainment, surely!

So begins one of the most pageturning, unputdownable (truly!) thrillers I have read in a very long while. This is A. J. Finn’s first novel, but who would ever know that, for the writing is so polished and confident, the plot so heartstoppingly (is that a word? Well, it is now!) clever that one would think that he had a whole series of bestsellers behind him.

Anna is separated from her husband and daughter pending divorce proceedings, a horrifying situation she hopes may change – if only she can rid herself of her phobia, which manifested itself after a trauma she still can’t face: she still calls them every day, however, promising (as always) to stop drinking, to take her medications and (as always) to follow the advice of her psychiatrist.

Promises, promises. Anna is trapped in her house, a prisoner of her phobia and her addictions; nothing is going to change in her life – until new people move in across the street, a couple with a teenage boy who, in Anna’s opinion, looks as lonely as she feels. This feeling is eventually borne out by a surprise visit from her new young neighbour Ethan, bearing a little gift from his mother: a fragile association is formed – only to be shattered one night when Anna drunkenly spies on a killing, the murder of Ethan’s mother in their new house. To make a nightmare situation worse, after calling the emergency services Anna tries to leave her house to offer assistance, only to collapse on the street: when she revives it is to find that, according to the police, there has been no incident with the neighbours of any kind, no murder, and definitely no body. She Has Imagined The Whole Thing.

But Anna knows what she saw – doesn’t she? Even though she is shaken that, in her nightly call to her husband, he seems to disbelieve her, too – BUT. She knows what she saw. Proving it is something else entirely, especially when her calls to the police to reveal subsequent tampering with her phone and email are discounted as the ravings of a very sick woman.

Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this story; he would have made a great movie of it – and A. J. Finn purposely doffs his hat to him by giving Anna the solace of watching all of the master’s great 50’s black and white thrillers to pass her lonely time – while someone plots her murder.

FIVE STARS

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