Archive for the ‘Book reviewing’ Category

I have finished reading my thirteenth novel for 2022, Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter, by Astrid Lindgren. I bought this novel because I had read Pippi Longstocking as a child, and I remember being utterly thrilled by the feisty wild protagonist. I’ll admit I was unaware the author had written other books. Bursting with curiosity, I raced home from the bookstore and started reading it straight away.

My first take on it would be that despite being published in 1985, Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter, has a timeless quality to the writing that makes it seem to come from another age. I guess this reflects the author, Astrid Lindgren, having been born in 1907 and quite literally belonging to another age. The story starts with a flourish and continues the same way. On the night that Ronia was born a thunderstorm was raging over the mountains, such a storm that all the goblinfolk in Matt’s Forest crept back in terror to their holes and hiding places.
The story is set in the past. There is no technology. The robbers milk their goats, churn their butter, and hunt for their meat. Ronia is born the only child of Matt, the robber chieftain who lives in his castle in the mountains with his band of twelve robbers and Lovis, his partner. The thieves rob the forest travellers for their goods and live a life of freedom. Ronia, the black-haired daughter, grows up to know every part of the forest so well she can find her way through it in the dark. Like Pippi, she is a free spirit who learns to dance and yell with the robbers.

Life goes on unchanged until the day Ronia meets Birk, the only son of Borka, the rival robber chieftain who lives in Borka’s Wood. Although the kids are initially wary, they also are immediately drawn to one another as children on their own are likely to do. The pair slowly fall in love, which I found a little odd considering their age. Nevertheless, fall in love they do, in utter secrecy as their fathers are arch-enemies. When Matt and Borka, the two rival chieftains, have a major clash, Ronia and Birk reveal their bond and run away into the forest to live by themselves, causing great distress to both families.
The story follows the harsh realities of life in a cave for the two youngsters, in which they grapple with growing up fast. They manage to survive through spring and summer, and finally, much to the reader’s relief, the pair are finally reunited with their families and allowed to return home before winter.

It’s a highly original tale. I had never read anything like it before and perhaps never will again. Ronia, as our protagonist, is described by her mother, Lovis, as “a storm-night child” and “a witch-night child, too.” The dialogue and the phrasing, everything about this tale is evocative of a bygone age. Ronia gasped with rage. Borka’s Keep! That was enough to choke you! What rogues they were, those Borka robbers! And that rascal grinning over there was one of them!
Perhaps the fact it is so unusual and different is why I found it so fascinating. I couldn’t stop reading because I couldn’t imagine what would happen next. And the funny thing is that nothing much does happen. Even so, the story is well told in a quaint fashion that could turn it into a classic. It was certainly enough to inspire Studio Ghibli’s series, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter!

Astrid Anna Emilia Lindgren, née Ericsson, was born in Sweden. She was a highly successful children’s book author and screenwriter whose novels have been translated into nearly eighty languages, from Arabic to Zulu. Lindgren has sold close to 165 million copies worldwide. She earned the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing in 1958. Though she published many titles in her lifetime, it is Pippi Longstocking that is her main legacy as Pippi became an international phenomenon. Lindgren is particularly beloved in her native Sweden, where she appears on the 20-kronor note.
Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter, won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. While it is not in the same league as Pippi Longstocking in my humble opinion, it was an entertaining read.
My rating: Three stars

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Yvette Carol
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Full of high adventure, hairbreadth escapes, droll earthy humor, and passionate, emotional energy. ~ Horn Book


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I have finished reading my twelfth novel for 2022, The Dragon Defenders, Book One, by James Russell. In New Zealand, you can’t move without hearing about this author and this series. Every time you browse through a secondhand bookstore, firsthand bookstore, or library, you are apt to see one or other of the five-volume series pop up. Whether it is Book Two: The Pitbull Returns, Book Three: An Unfamiliar Place, Book Four: All Is Lost, or Book Five: The Grand Opening, The Dragon Defenders series is everywhere. As is the author, the self-published James Russell, who tours Indie fairs and conferences, featuring as a bestselling author. A big fish.
Recently, I picked up the first book in the series and could hardly wait to see what all the fuss was about. I think I started reading The Dragon Defenders the same night I bought it.

The middle-grade novel series follows the adventures of Paddy and Flynn, brothers who live with their parents and little sister Ada on an island populated by dragons. Brought up isolated from technology and today’s world, the boys spend their days honing their bushcraft outside. They are self-trained sharpshooters with their slingshots and bows and arrows. Athletic and strong, the boys have excellent surviving skills. When a group of egg and dragon poachers led by a guy called Pitbull come to the island, Paddy and Flynn must outwit them, aided by their pets – Clappers (their horse), Lightning (their falcon), and Coco (their dog). The boys use a combination of planning and tricks to save the dragons.
There is a lot of action at times. The boys are proactive risk-takers. Nothing is too violent, however, and the author’s message of not taking revenge on one’s enemies makes a timely point of difference. The feature of extra digital content is a bonus, which the reader accesses through a device or smartphone. It’s the sort of multimedia feature that kids love these days. For an old fuddy-duddy like me, it was a novelty to see the maps and videos appear, yet it also felt like a distraction from the more important business of reading. Digital enhancement is not my preferred way of imbibing a book. I prefer the paper versions. I find it hard to get lost in a fantasy world when I’m fumbling with my smartphone.

If you asked me my main takeaway? I’d say too much exposition. In the opening chapters, the author tells us a lot about the characters, setting, etc. ‘They were allowed to explore the natural world, and as little children, they got hurt. A lot. There may never before have been two children with so many bumps and scrapes, bruises, and cuts.’ It’s the sort of thing we get rapped over the knuckles for by modern tutors and critique groups. I recall reading the Harry Potter novels with the same sense of surprise at the amount of exposition. These days the arbiters of style recommend less is more. Yet, J.K.Rowling’s book sales are only rivalled by the Bible, and James Russell is one of New Zealand’s bestselling authors. For some writers, the rules don’t apply. Good on him/them for sailing above the prevalent writing mores. They are staying true to themselves, and we need more people like that in this world.

James Russell is also the author of the best-selling Dragon Brothers Trilogy of picture books (The Dragon Hunters, The Dragon Tamers, and The Dragon Riders). The Kiwi author launched his first book for adults, Mine – A Surfing Odyssey on North Sentinel Island on June 1, 2021. He lives in Auckland with his wife and two young sons.
The Dragon Defenders, Book One, is a gripping adventure for 7 – 12-year-olds. It is a solid start to the series, and I always applaud a happy ending.
My rating: Three stars

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Yvette Carol
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‘As you’ll have realized by now, Paddy and Flynn were born adventurers.’ ~ The Dragon Defenders


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I have finished reading my eleventh novel for 2022, The Gypsy Crown, by Kate Forsyth. It is the first book in the six-book series, The Chain of Charms, published in 2006. Kate followed this with The Silver Horse, The Herb of Grace, The Cat’s Eye Shell, The Lightning Bolt, and The Butterfly in Amber. Recommended for grades 5-9.
Set during the time of Oliver Cromwell (1658), Emilia and her cousin, Luka, are Romany gypsies (the Rom). The story starts with two gypsy clans coming together for the marriage of two young members. They make a wedding agreement. 13-year-old Emilia, Luka, and other family members travel to the nearest village to sing and dance to help raise the dowry. But singing and dancing are considered the work of the devil. The gypsies are captured and imprisoned, then threatened with hanging. Only Emilia and Luka escape, with Emilia’s horse, Alida, a pet dancing bear named Sweetheart, a trained monkey called Zizi, and a faithful dog, Rollo.

After a hair-raising journey, Emilia, Luka, and their animals make it back to the matriarch of their clan, the Queen of the Gypsies, Maggie Finch. The matriarch tells them the legend of the chain of charms. Long ago, a gypsy matriarch had broken her chain of charms, giving one charm to each of her five children, and ever since then, the luck of the Rom had turned foul. Maggie Finch gave Emilia the gypsy crown, her first charm from the chain. She tells the children if they can gather the charms from the other gypsy families, it would help bring their family freedom and turn the tide of fortune to favour the Rom.
The Chain of Charms series follows the adventures of Emilia and Luka as they seek to find each of the families that hold the charms on their quest to reunite the legendary chain. The first book, The Gypsy Crown, sets the stage for the five books to follow and establishes the high stakes involved. Emilia and Luka have a deadline. They must free the imprisoned members of their families facing the gallows. Whew!

I love historical fiction, and I picked up this slim volume purely because it takes place in England at the time of Cromwell’s rebellion. Historical fiction can be hard to write convincingly, and I always read with curiosity to see if the author has managed to live up to the challenge. It didn’t take long to feel reassured she had. As well as adventure, there is historical value in a book like this. The reader will learn about life in the 1600s. I learned something new because prior to reading this, I was unaware they persecuted gypsies. Across Europe, punishments included flogging, torture, branding, mutilation, hanging, and shooting. These details put the reader firmly on the side of the Rom. Who doesn’t love a good underdog tale?
Once Emilia and Luka get into trouble and are on the run, the action becomes high octane, and I was on the edge of my seat. At first, I was annoyed that they took the bear, Sweetheart, with them. How do you run for your life with a bear in tow? It seemed an insurmountable problem. But what it does very successfully is to pile on the tension. Brownie points to Kate Forsyth.

Who is Kate Forsyth? I was curious to know, as the book surprised me (in a good way). Kate writes with assurance, yet I’d never heard of the author before. It surprised me to read her biography. Kate has a doctorate in fairytale studies, a master of Creative Writing, a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, and is an accredited master storyteller. The girl is over-qualified! She writes Historical Fiction, Children’s Books, and Fantasy. Born in Australia, Kate is now the internationally bestselling author of 40 books. She lives in Sydney with her husband and three children.
My only beef with The Gypsy Crown is that it was too brief. The subject was so meaty and could have included a lot more historical details, but I inhaled it in two sittings, leaving me feeling short-changed. I wanted to get to know the characters more, too. However, since the idea is to entice the reader into the next book, it succeeds on that level. And since I assume the story length would be ideal for child readers, it is an easy-to-read, engaging story that all children would enjoy.
My rating: Two and three-quarter stars

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Yvette Carol
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‘They can imprison us and beat us, but they cannot stop our hearts from feeling and our minds from thinking and our tongues from speaking, can they?’ The man heaved a great sigh, and then repeated, very low, ‘Can they?’ ~ The Gypsy Crown


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I have finished reading my tenth novel for 2022, The Dead of the Night, by John Marsden. Sequel to the powerful, critically received Tomorrow, When the War Began, this book is equally compelling. This is one of those happy situations where the second book is as good as the first. There are seven books in the Tomorrow series by this popular author, A Killing Frost, Darkness, Be My Friend, Burning for Revenge, The Night is for Hunting, and The Other Side of Dawn. The Dead of the Night is the second book in the series, also known as The Ellie Chronicles.

The Tomorrow series is based on a horrifying premise. A group of young people leaves on a camping adventure in the Australian outback. They return to find their country invaded by an army. The invaders have ransacked the teenagers’ hometown, and everyone has been rounded up in prison camps, leaving this one band of teens to survive on their own. At the end of the first book, Tomorrow, When the War Began, Corrie was shot in the back and Kevin had taken her to the hospital. The Dead of the Night takes up the story a short time later when Ellie, Homer, Lee, Robyn, Fi, and Chris decide to brave going into the hospital to see if Corrie’s okay and discover Kevin’s whereabouts. They get the answers they wanted but then have to run the gauntlet to return to Hell, their hiding place in the bush. After a lot of teenage angst about their lot and the nature of warfare, the gang decides they can’t sit around forever. They need more supplies for living in Hell. They want to take action against the army that invaded their land, took over their homes, and took their families prisoner.

Ellie is the narrator. A wonderfully imperfect human being, Ellie is an honest and relatable protagonist. Ellie, Homer, Lee, Robyn, Fi, and Chris make a smaller more manageable group of characters. Despite their inexperience, this doesn’t hold them back or make them think they would be unable to make a difference. These young people are clever, resourceful, and daring enough to think of creative solutions. Through Ellie, we see how the gang has toughened up since the first book. They are turning into warriors. It is rewarding, especially when they meet another guerilla group of adults, Harvey’s Heroes, whose outdated views, odd rules, and meaningless attacks mess everything up.
Our brave teens make meaningful foray after foray. But war is no walk in the park. They face the reality of violence and have to kill people to survive. Blood and guts galore. It makes the stakes life and death. Poor Ellie suffers greatly over her killings. The nature of warfare is debated in various ways throughout the entire book. Every death has a meaning and a consequence which is as it should be. Whew. It was hard to read and just as hard to put down at times.

Despite the striving for survival and the strife of war, the cast is still made up of fallible teenagers. They fall in and out of love, make mistakes, suffer emotional rollercoasters, and (gasp) touch one another. This series is for the Young Adult market and not appropriate for underage readers as there is a sex scene between Ellie and her boyfriend, Lee.
Our heroic gang inflicts damage on the enemy, especially at the end of the book, where some homemade bombs include the ingenious and diabolical use of humble kitchen toasters. I felt the characters were believable, especially our heroine Ellie who is a little spitfire. The story is a non-stop adrenalin ride once you hop on board, and also, it is also emotionally satisfying. If I saw another book in this series on the shelves, I would probably buy it.

I admire John Marsden’s writing. He is solid. When you see his name, you know it’s a book worth reading. Marsden finds unique ways of expressing feelings and navigates the large cast with ease. Born in Australia on September 27, 1950, Marsden writes for the Young Adult, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Nonfiction markets. His first book, So Much To Tell You, was published in 1987. This was followed by Take My Word For It, a half-sequel written from the point of view of another character. His landmark Tomorrow series is recognized as the most popular series for young adults ever written in Australia. And, rightly so.
My rating: Four stars

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Yvette Carol
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Write something that’s worth fighting over. Because that’s how you change things. That’s how you create art. ~ Jeff Goins


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I have finished reading my ninth novel for 2022, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Winner of the 1963 Newbery Medal, A Wrinkle in Time was the first book in the Time Quintet series, followed by A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters.
Any writer who has a few years behind them will know about not starting a story with the worst opening line ever, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ I can remember one writing tutor teaching us how to grab the reader’s attention with the first line. The old chestnut, ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ was trotted out as the perfect example of what NOT to do. In other words, it is so banal as to send a reader running for the next book. No one told Madeleine L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Time starts with that very line. I gasped out loud, I tell you. I was impressed at the same time. So surprised was I by this bold choice of the first line that I read on with avid curiosity to see how this story would play out.

A Wrinkle in Time starts with great promise. The first chapters are thrilling.
We meet the Murry family through the eyes of Meg. I warmed to our protagonist instantly. Who could resist such a deeply flawed, tetchy, troubled character? “I’m full of bad feeling.” Meg is so honest about her resentments, but why is she so angry? She lives in a cozy home amid a rambling garden. Her beautiful scientist mother is understanding and gives “Meglet” space to be herself. Also, sharing the house are her siblings, the twins, Sandy and Dennys, and the youngest member of the family, the enigmatic Charles Wallace. However, there is sadness lurking in the background. We discover their physicist father has been missing for years. It’s the thorn in Meg’s side. In Chapter One, the family meets an odd friend of Charles Wallace who blunders into the house during a fierce storm. The strange little woman Mrs. Whatsit arrives dressed in rubber boots, an overcoat, a pink stole, and scarves of many colours and says unexpected things like “Wild nights are my glory.”

When Meg and Charles Wallace go to look for Mrs. Whatsit and her friends, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, they join forces with another boy from their area, Calvin, who insists on going with them. The three old women help the children travel via tesseract or a “wrinkle in time” across the universe. They visit other worlds. Along the way, the women tell them about dark energy which is consuming the universe. The three children are determined to stop the Darkness.
They reach a planet called Camazotz where they find Meg’s father trapped. Camazotz is controlled by an evil brain called “IT” which takes control of Charles Wallace. After a period of being scared of IT and distraught about their inability to free Charles Wallace from his mental enslavement, Calvin and Meg manage to free Mr. Murry. They escape (just) to another planet where Aunt Beast heals Meg. With renewed strength, Meg frees Charles Wallace through the power of her love, and the group makes it back to Earth. However, the children still have not managed to touch the Darkness. They may have made it home, but we know the danger is not over.

My predominant response to this book was one of disappointment. It started with such promise and a banging protagonist in Meg. The three old women were mysterious, while Charles Wallace was some sort of genius and different. But, as soon as they left Earth via the wrinkle, things went downhill. The three old women remained undeveloped. I wanted to know more. The planets visited and subsidiary characters like the Happy Medium were not described enough to satisfy any questions. Meg, who was so feisty at the start, hardly spoke a sensible word throughout their planetary travels. I constantly expected more of her, yet she didn’t step up until the final part. And Charles Wallace, who was so clever, turned into a helpless minion of IT until Meg rescued him. The book won a prestigious award and is the childhood favourite of many. But, upon finishing this book, there is no way this side of a tesseract that I would seek to read any more of the series. My humble apologies to fans and the author. But for me, this book failed to deliver.

Madeleine L’Engle was born in New York City on November 29th, 1918. Her interest from the beginning revolved around writing poems and stories, which reflected in her poor grades. When she was 12, she moved to the French Alps with her parents and went to an English boarding school in Switzerland. Returning to the United States two years later, she graduated from University with honors in English. Before meeting Hugh Franklin, her future husband, Madeleine published her first two books, A Small Rain and Ilsa. Hugh was an actor, and Madeleine became an actress to improve her skills as a playwright. She and Hugh married and had three children together. She died in 2007, aged 88. She had published sixty books in her lifetime and is the most well-known for A Wrinkle in Time.
My rating: Two and a half stars

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Yvette Carol
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From ‘An Interview with Madeleine L’Engle:’ “Which of your characters is most like you?”
“None of them. They’re all wiser than I am.”


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I have finished reading my eighth novel for 2022, When Did You See Her Last? The second book in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket. The premise of this series has the author writing himself as a kid detective, up against the baddie, Hangfire, both seeking a strange statue, the Bombinating Beast. Throw in a missing father and a missing girl, and you have the basic storyline of When Did you See Her Last?

A girl has gone missing, the Ink Inc. heiress and genius chemist Chloe Knight. Apprentice detective Lemony Snicket, and his incompetent chaperone S. Theodora Markson take on the case. The tale is set in a town that flourished because of ink, aptly named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. The town is becoming deserted because it has run out of squid. It is rumoured Chloe Knight has created a new type of ink that would reverse the fortunes of the dying town. Snicket has to find out more about a strange group called The Inhumane Society. He must piece together the clues surrounding Chloe’s disappearance and hopefully rescue the girl with a lot of hijinks along the way.
Snicket stories tend to cruise along the edge of the ridiculous, bringing to mind other such stars of the genre, like David Walliams and Anthony Horowitz. As always, in When Did you See Her Last? Snicket likes to have fun with words. “A laugh is harder to swallow whole than a honeydew melon. Her mouth twisted every which way, and her eyes flitted madly as she looked everywhere but at me…We waited until it was safe to open up the laugh, and then we shared it.”

It takes guts to do that.
I liked it when the author wove into the story references to classic books the Lemony Snicket character had read without giving us the actual title. However, this device relied on the reader having read all those children’s books. As an adult, I thought it was clever, but it occurred to me that all these finger-on-the-nose references would go over the head of the modern child reader.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the author speaking directly to the reader, yet, it’s a device Snicket uses a lot. The ‘breaking down of the fourth wall’ is a technique some people love. I read an interview with Neil Gaiman last week, in which Neil said the books he had read as a child wherein the author spoke directly to the reader made him feel all warm and cozy inside. So when he started writing his books, he used the same technique.

I find the author’s voice an intrusion. It breaks the spell holding me, which I find jarring. It does not add any warmth but provides a reminder of the puppeteer pulling the ropes.
“No matter how many slow and complicated mysteries I encounter in my life, I still hope that one day a slow and complicated mystery will be solved quickly and simply. An associate of mine calls this feeling “the triumph of hope over experience”, which simply means that it’s never going to happen, and that is what happened then.” ~ When Did you See Her Last?
I guess author intrusion comes down to a matter of personal taste. Snicket is a popular author so it obviously works for him.
Lemony Snicket is the pen name of American novelist Daniel Handler (February 28, 1970). The author of several children’s books, including A Series of Unfortunate Events. This series has sold over 60 million copies and was made into a film and TV series. Lemony Snicket serves as both the fictional narrator and a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as the main character in its prequel, the four-part book series titled All the Wrong Questions.

Ever wondered how Daniel chose that pen name? It originally came from research for Handler’s first book The Basic Eight. Handler told NPR that “the character of Lemony Snicket, this man who speaks directly to the reader and is tangentially involved in the stories that he’s telling is more of a character. We just thought it would be fun to publish the books under the name of this character.”
Essentially it works. Book sales speak volumes. I think the concept is cool, and the pen name is different. The panache is there. The idea of the pessimistic protagonist is an excellent twist. Snicket knows how to spin a web and layer in the questions, whether wrong or not, to keep the reader guessing the answers until the end.

Purely from the point of view of personal taste, When Did you See Her Last? is not my favourite kids’ book. But then it’s not my least. Farcical noir is not a genre I would seek to read for pleasure.

My rating: Two stars

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Yvette Carol
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“Being curious is the most important part of being a journalist. It might be the most important part of being anything.” ― Lemony Snicket, When Did You See Her Last?


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I have finished reading my seventh novel for 2022, The Secret Forest, by Enid Blyton. I have reviewed books by Enid Blyton before. She was a favourite author of mine from childhood. My jam used to be The Famous Five or The Secret Seven. As the great author wrote 800 books in her lifetime, there are always books of hers I have yet to discover. Recently, I bought a couple of novels in The Secret Stories series at a secondhand bookstore.

Though I was unfamiliar with the series, reading The Secret Forest, I immediately warmed to the Arnold children, Peggy, Mike, Nora, and Jack. Enid Blyton is such a straightforward, old-fashioned storyteller. Within the first pages, we have the setup when Prince Paul invites the Arnold children to the (made up) kingdom of Baronia for the holidays. It’s not just any old holiday. Prince Paul wants them to stay in his castle. Once the children are on holiday, we hear there are robbers abounding in the countryside, and we are alert that there is a mystery afoot. The Secret Forest is at the heart of the story, a completely inaccessible woodland in the depths of the Killimooin mountains. We meet Prince Paul’s family. Enid Blyton depicts the royal residences and lifestyle with simple vigour. She had a particular grip on understanding what children want to read. Beverly Cleary was the same and once described it as having the capacity to vividly recall being a child and write to the child she once was.

In The Secret Forest, the story’s climax builds with a steady tension as the children and their minders tangle with the robbers. When Prince Paul’s handlers are taken prisoner by the robbers, the boys go on a dangerous rescue mission. They enter the mountain through a hidden passage leading to the Secret Forest. The boys rescue the men, but on the way back, a ferocious storm nearly catches them in the rising floodwaters.
I felt the book had a darker feel than The Secret Seven or Famous Five adventures of my youth. The obstacles seemed almost insurmountable, and the threat of mother nature was the scariest of all. I’m sure if I’d stumbled on this series as a child, I would have devoured the other three – The Secret of Spiggy Holes, The Secret of Moon Castle, and The Secret Island in the twinkling of an eye. It’s exciting stuff.

Enid Mary Blyton (1897 – 1968) was born in London. She published a volume of poetry called Child Whispers in 1922. In 1925, she released her first full-length novel, The Enid Blyton Book of Bunnies. Her vast catalogue of titles is still being republished for the digital generation of young readers. Although modern readers reject her descriptions of gender, race, and class (her Noddy books featured golliwogs until they updated the later editions), there is a general curiosity and a fascination with these old books. Stories like The Secret Forest belong to another era when such things as racism and casual sexism went unquestioned. It gives us insight into the morals and beliefs of those times, which is fascinating in itself, like a slice of our collective past, although we may not agree with it.

These days you would stir major controversy if you wrote a boy character saying, ‘you girls can’t go on the adventure you’d just get into trouble.’ A modern audience reads stories such as these by Enid Blyton with curiosity to see what outrageous thing the characters say or do next.
That being said, reading The Secret Forest was like stepping back to childhood when things were so much simpler. I enjoyed the ride. Enid Blyton clearly knew how to tell a story. According to the Index Translationum, ‘Blyton was the fifth most popular author in the world in 2007, coming after Lenin but ahead of Shakespeare.’ In the UK, Enid Blyton still sells over one book a minute. It’s the sort of success any writer hopes to achieve. The Secret Forest is another volume from her legacy.
My rating: Three stars

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Yvette Carol
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“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” ~ Albert Einstein


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I have finished reading my sixth novel for 2022, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Best of Friends. I came about ownership of a few Alfred Hitchcock books recently. In our neighbourhood, people put unwanted household items out on the grass verge in front of their houses for the folk passing to take away. On my walk one morning, I spied a box of books on the sidewalk. All the books were obscure but recognizing Alfred Hitchcock, I grabbed the three novels bearing his name. I wondered if he was an author as well as a filmmaker and figured it might be worth a look.

The first thing I discovered was that this was not a book written by Alfred Hitchcock. It was a collection of horror stories he had compiled. A delightfully devilish digest of death, by a student of the sinister. After my initial disappointment that Hitchcock had not written the content, nevertheless, I read the stories curious to see what he’d chosen.
The slim volume starts with an introduction written by Hitchcock, a mini horror story in itself. Then I read the novel with trepidation, hoping the stories would not scare me too much. There was no need to worry. The stories were not too spooky. They were cautionary tales about how things can go wrong in the high-octane, high-risk, daredevil world of crime.

The tagline for the book reads It’s always evil weather when Alfie and his pals get together! That pretty much says it all right there. The tone is old-fashioned and as quaint as two sticks rubbed together to make a fire. Its tagline shows its age by being light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek about the horror. Authors of that era (the late 1960s, early 1970s) did not need to shock us into infinity or hit us with gore and other questionable content. They produced storylines of high calibre, focused on dialogue and interaction. These authors rendered scenes in remarkable detail while adding slight turns of fortune, then the falling from grace, that has readers wincing for the characters and feeling doubly glad we are at home safe in our beds and not walking in their shoes.

The short stories are professional and convincing. The authors often hold out the “a-ha” moment until the last minute. However, given that modern readers expect thrills and spills on every page these days, this might be one of those books that belongs to our collective past and is only for those readers who can appreciate the difference.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock KBE, the iconic and influential film director and producer, was born in London in 1899. Following a successful career in Britain in silent films and talking pictures, he moved to Hollywood. He became an American citizen with dual nationality in 1956 and directed more than fifty feature films in a career that spanned six decades. For a complete list of his films, see Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography.
I found his compilation, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Best of Friends, entertaining and a charming window into a bygone age. It gets extra merit points for being low-key horror and not scarring me for life. I recommend it for nostalgia value alone.
My rating: Two stars

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Yvette Carol
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Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. ~ Neil Gaiman


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I have finished reading my fifth novel for 2022, Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan. This book was chosen as a last-minute rush-buy on my way out of a bookstore, and it was one of those times when you make a snap decision on one factor alone. In this case, I bought it because I recognized the author as the man who wrote Atonement.
Amsterdam is a contemporary adult novel, a short read at only about 200 pages long. When I started reading it, I was put off at first by the whiff of literary fiction. The pretension of literary fiction makes my toes curl. I thought, is this…? But then McEwan began to relax a bit, and I no longer had to re-read every sentence three times to understand it, so I began to enjoy the ride more.

The story begins with two friends meeting at a London crematorium where a service is underway for Molly Lane. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday were both Molly’s lovers at different times in the past. Also at the funeral is Julian Garmony, the Foreign Secretary, a right-winger in line to be the next prime minister.
We hear the story from Clive and Vernon’s point of view as dual narrators. It is written in a linear style, apart from a few deviations. Clive is a highly successful composer, and Vernon is the editor for a local newspaper, The Judge. We meet both men when they are at the height of their careers and powers. However, they say pride comes before the fall. Amsterdam is a disturbing instructive tale to make anyone think twice. Alain de Botton, reviewer for The Independent on Sunday, called Amsterdam ‘a pitiless study of the darker aspects of male psychology.’ While I couldn’t comprehend the terrible choices the two characters made as the tragedy unfolded, I couldn’t look away.

Vernon sees compromising photos of Julian Garmony and makes the fateful decision to run an expose about the scandal in his newspaper. He aims to topple the Foreign Secretary from his pedestal while at the same time plumping up readership numbers for The Judge. Every moment of self-applause from Vernon anticipating the fall of his rival made me squirm.
Concurrently with Vernon setting up an editorial trap for Garmony, Clive is under pressure to deliver an orchestral score for an important social event. He is already late delivering the music and struggling to find the peaceful frame of mind necessary to create art. He is drinking too much. Then he takes himself away to the country to write. Unfortunately, the stress follows him, and Clive makes a terrible moral choice while there, of such epic poor judgment, that I blanched. I blanched and knew he was doomed. No spoilers though, sorry.

The dominoes start to fall. The political maestro, Garmony, turns the tables on Vernon. Clive and Vernon bicker and things spiral even further downhill from there until the book ends in catastrophe. It is a moral tale only for those with the stomach for it. Touted as a comedy, albeit a dark one, I failed to find anything comedic about Amsterdam. Perhaps the funny aspect was so high-brow it went over my head? I also failed to connect with the lead characters. Clive and Vernon were rendered too shallow for my liking. And yet, Amsterdam won the Booker Prize in 1998, so what do I know.

Some say this win paved the way for the rapturous response granted to Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement. Either way, his works have earned the author considerable acclaim. Born in the United Kingdom in 1948, McEwan studied at the University of Sussex. He received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970 and later received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia. The recipient of numerous awards, McEwan was awarded a CBE in 2000. He is the well-regarded author of seventeen books.
My rating: Two and a half stars

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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“It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
— Robert Benchley


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I have finished reading my fourth novel for 2022, Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, and what a doozy. I have been looking forward to reviewing this book. It’s one of those books that gets inside you, haunts your thoughts, and creeps inside your dreams. You become so caught in the spell that you anticipate every opportunity to sit down and read more. When you have finished the novel, as I unfortunately have, you continue to think about it for a long time afterward. I love books like that. It is truly remarkable and potent fiction.

Piranesi was a Christmas present. The enigmatic cover image features a statue of Pan atop a carved pedestal and the author’s name, plus a few embellishments embossed with gold. The medallion on the cover of my copy tells me Piranesi won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. The blue cover displays soundbites from various movers and shakers, like The Sunday Times: ‘Full of wonders’ Erin Morgenstern: “Spellbinding” and The Guardian: “Utterly otherworldly.” All this before we even open the book. When we open the cover, we are treated to seven pages of gushing review snippets from everyone who has a voice in the media, from the New York Times, to Esquire and Observer, from BBC.com to Literary Review. It is almost overkill.
But does the content live up to the hype? In a word, yes.

Okay. At first, I was all at sea. The novel is so divergent from anything I had ever read that I was thoroughly off-put. Instead of chapter numbers and so on, Clarke divides the story into seven parts. Then she heads the chapters with surreal titles. For example, the opening chapter starts with the heading:
When the Moon Rose in the Third Northern Hall, I went to the Ninth Vestibule
ENTRY FOR THE FIRST DAY OF THE FIFTH MONTH IN THE YEAR THE ALBATROSS CAME TO THE SOUTH-WESTERN HALLS

There is no dithering at the door or slow easing into this fantasy. We become transported via the confounding title into another place, another world. We then read the entries and, in that intimate way, dive into the life of a naive, wandering, fascinating man as he recounts his life living in the House. He is alone apart from visits twice a week from an impeccably-dressed man he calls ‘the Other’ – called such because he is the only other person alive in the world.

Piranesi and the Other are scientists. The latter needs help with his research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi tells us about the ’15 people who have ever lived.’ The 15 include himself, the Other, and the 13 bodies whose skeletal remains he visits to take gifts. Through these diary entries written in our protagonist’s journals, we discover that our narrator is a man in his thirties. The Other calls him Piranesi, although our protagonist is sure that this is not his real name. But he has no recollection of any other name so he adopts it.
The House is a riveting, unique fantasy landscape I had never encountered before, a world where ocean and architecture mix. There are thousands of classic halls, endless epic architecture, and statues half-filled by the sea and afflicted by king tides and floods.

The sense of being somewhere ‘completely other,’ of being slightly off-kilter persists without let-up from the first chapter, where our protagonist climbs a statue fifteen metres above the pavement to avoid the ‘joining of three Tides’ below. As we read, a few things start to make sense, but Susanna Clarke never lets up presenting more questions as the story goes on, and the mystery of where the House is and what is happening becomes deeper and more complex.
Clarke does not stop with intricate plot lines and compelling character development. She also plays hardball, boldly using the simple visual device of adding capitals liberally everywhere. For example, This Tide thundered up the Westernmost Staircase and hit the Eastern Wall with a great Clap, making all the Statues tremble.
We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Clarke teases and tests us every step of the way. Once I had adjusted to this crazy ride, I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it each time I had to stop. The austere august magnificence of the House entranced me and captured my imagination. It was depicted in marvellous detail until I was walking in that world.
As it went on I knew Susanna Clarke’s talent was next level because of how much I cared for Piranesi. I worried about him as I realized he was in danger. It was affecting. During the climactic scenes, I was stealing minutes to race back and read. I needed to know how it would turn out. It was with regret I finished this book. Since then, I have looked back with nostalgia upon my time moving through the hallowed halls of the House with its beloved child, Piranesi. It was so new and cool. It was everything.

Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham, England, in 1959. Educated in towns across Northern England and Scotland, she worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing, including Gordon Fraser and Quarto. After a stint teaching English in Bilbao, Clarke returned to England in 1992. Living in County Durham, she began working on her first novel, the bestselling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In 2020, Clarke released Piranesi. She has also published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies. One story, “Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower,” was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001. Clarke lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.
I take my hat off to the author and her stellar work, Piranesi. This fresh story transcends genre, and we must call it what it is – Art.


Susanna Clarke has earned herself a rarely seen top rating from me.
My rating: Five stars and a Huzzah!

Talk to you later.
Keep reading!
Yvette Carol
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“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” — Aldous Huxley

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