The Children of Charlecote, written by Brian Fairfax-Lucy (on whose childhood it was based) and Philippa Pearce (of Tom’s Midnight Garden fame), had promising authors. It had a promising plot-a glimpse into how the upper classes lived in the early 20th Century. And the vast majority of it was a very good read, enthralling in its descriptions of how the other half lived, and how their lives evolved with the huge changes in world politics.
When we think of World War II, we think of soldiers in the trenches, the aerial dogfights, the huge naval battles. What doesn’t spring to mind quite so regularly is life at home, and when it does, it is a Dad’s Army life, a life of soldiers out of the war. What most people don’t think of is regular, day to day life. Everyone’s heard of the bombing, and the rationing-but what happened apart from that, what happened in their 9-5 day? More pressingly, what did the children do? Many had no school, due to bombing or lack of staff, so what did they do with their days? It’s most children’s dream to not have school, and to have free reign over their daily activities. So a book which focusses on the lesser known, less glamorous side of war, on the life of the children is welcome. Such a book exists, and that is the basis of today’s review-it is called The Machine-Gunners, and was written by Robert Westall.
In my first return to The List for two months is Anthony Burgess’ infamous classic, complete with notorious nadsat. A Clockwork Orange is in many ways an odd book, and one which took some time to get into the swing of. However, when I did I found a story with a cracking plot, killer cast, and bemusing language-not unlike The Lord of the Rings! All of these make it a first class novel, and a deserving classic.
I have been a fan of the TV shows Endeavour and Lewis for some years, but for some reason have never seen-or read-an Inspector Morse mystery. As a mystery, Colin Dexter’s Service of All the Dead was intriguing, and I particularly liked the way the characters of Morse and Lewis were brought across. Two deaths, both deceased men are from the same Oxford church. One murdered, one apparent suicide. Chance leads to renowned police officer Inspector Morse taking another look at the original police findings, and trying to shed some new light on the case.
I will tell you straight away I disliked this book-strongly. Gabrielle Lord’s Conspiracy 365- February hit pretty much all the wrong notes with me. Lord seems to have had an idea, which she then attempted to milk by publishing 12 books on that one idea. As regards the plot-what plot?-there was nearly no development in the story line as the attempt to string it out over 12 books leads to each individual book having a lot of drama and action but little actual plot. It’s all very exciting, but it seemed poor. I’m sorry to lambast a book in this way, but this was poor.
A novel narrated by death. I was more than a little cynical before reading, for it sounded more than a little like a gimmick to me. How wrong I was. From the first-especially the “small fact” that “you are going to die”, to the last, I was hooked. Captivated. Drawn in by Markus Zusak’s intriguing tale The Book Thief. This is not a normal book. This is something special, something magical, something to be treasured. An instant classic, the wartime drama stars Liesel, a small girl growing up in wartime Germany. Her brother died in front of her, and her parents are gone. All she has is a foster home near Munich.
Did you know that a primary contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary cut off his own penis, before throwing it into a fire? As Mark Forsyth tells us, this is termed autopeotomy (ignoramus that I was before reading the book I didn’t know what this was). Before Forsyth’s The Etymologicon, I didn’t know that the Oxford English Dictionary, that pillar of English society (mostly used for the game of Scrabble, another pillar) was written by a Scotsman and an American. The Scotsman left school at 14, the American was, at the time of helping write the most influential dictionary ever, was in Broadmoor. Yes, it is that Broadmoor, the high-security hospital of psychiatry. This is only one of the strange quirks that defy belief in the anecdotes of English, and Forsyth is the perfect person to give us a guided tour of English.
The alternative history genre has bred some shockers, but fear not. Robert Harris’ Fatherland is, quite simply, brilliant. It’s one of my favourite books. Thought provoking and thrilling in near equal measure (well, not really, it’s quite a bit more thrilling with some thought provoking bits thrown in for good measure), it embodies everything that the genre should aspire to, it is surely the pinnacle of the alternative history genre. The fact that there were no good Nazis is challenged, the protagonist Xavier March attempts to get to the bottom of the murder of a leading Nazi.
Picture the scene. 1910. The Royal Navy has been demolished, limping away from a victorious fleet of invaders. German invaders. Hundreds of thousands of Germans land on English soil, as William Le Queux puts it, correct even to the “metaphorical button”. Thousands of German spies in England have cut telegraph cables, blown train lines, and restricted any kind of travel. The novel is a flagship of what has been termed invasion literature, and with a premise like this, what self-respecting Englishman could resist? With a review from Max Hastings, and over a million copies sold, this had the promise of an excellent alternative history read.
It was Mark Twain who said that “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t”. Never has this held true more than in the case of Eddie Chapman, a figure whose story is so impossible, that MI5 stated that his tale was “different. In fiction it would be rejected as improbable”. In Agent Zigzag, Ben Macintyre has woven together the threads of a story which brings an entirely new level to the word ‘unbelievable’. It could be a blockbuster Hollywood spy film, complete with near constant explosions. But it’s not-because it’s all true, Chapman was probably the most successful British double agent in the war, and one of the best in history.