A Quartet of YA Reviews

For those of you not aware, YA stands for Young Adult: a genre which seems to have made a significant impact recently. Just for the record, I am definitely not a young adult. These books were lent to me by Miss Oblique #1, who as my devoted followers will know, is a young lady of discernment and taste. Nevertheless, I probably would have read stuff like this when I was a young adult, and I find them absorbing.

It is an interesting debating point as to what makes them specifically Young Adult. (Note the capitals.) All these books are really fantasy; I won’t bother to justify the worth of that genre, but refer you to Terry Pratchett’s essays in ‘A Blink of the Screen’. The plots are complex; the writing is of good quality. I suppose a major point is that all the protagonists are young adults. There is some romance, but any sex is understated. I don’t want to over-analyse; they are just good reads.

My reviews are mercifully brief.

‘Wolf by Wolf’ by Ryan Giraudin

3This is an alternative history fantasy. Germany won World War 2. Hitler is still alive. Every year, the youth of Germany and Japan compete in a trans-continental motorcycle race. Yael, a concentration camp survivor and part of the resistance movement, takes the place of a previous winner in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

The book alternates sections in the “present” of the race with sections about the “past” of the concentration camp and what followed. The race parts are believable and engaging. The past is moving and chilling; somehow the fictionalisation makes it very realistic, though I realise I could not possibly imagine the horror of the real historical sources.

Apart from the setting, there is a specific fantasy element, which is surprisingly plausible, and an excellent twist. A sequel, ‘Blood for Blood’, has been published and I look forward to reading it. Recommended.

‘Guns of the Dawn’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky

4This looked pretty standard fantasy fare, but is more impressive. It is set in an alternative world, where a war is raging between the “revolutionaries” of Denland and the monarchists of Lascanne. Eventually women are called up, and the heroine, Emily Marshwic, joins the fighting in the swamps of the Levant. Again there is a specific fantasy element, the “Warlocks”, who are magicians, given their power by the royal touch, who use fire against the enemy.

The contrast between Emily’s genteel home life and the environment of the war is done well. The characters are believable, although some may be a little stereotypical: the fat quartermaster, the “shell-shocked” officer. The plot has some good surprises, with some good political elements and a satisfyingly unpredictable outcome. Parallels with real warfare and history are present, although not over-stated. Romance is portrayed as being complicated, as it usually is.

My only real problem was with the battle scenes. I lost interest in the details; judging from review extracts, I am unusual in this view, and Miss O. tells me it’s a given of this type of book.

It’s great. All along, one has the suspicion that the war and the political situation may not be all they seem, but the denouement is gradual and absorbing.

‘Crooked Kingdom’ by Leigh Bardugo

1This is the sequel to ‘Six of Crows’, a surprisingly good novel again set in a fantasy world, with a limited number of other fantasy elements: powers (exercised by individuals called Grisha) such as tidemaking and healing. There are echoes of Holland in the city where it is set. In the first book, Kaz Brekker, a thief and criminal, assembled a team to trace the source of jurda parem, a substance that magnifies the powers of the Grisha unimaginably. He was double-crossed; now his spy (and suppressed love interest) Inej has been kidnapped and he is being sought by various interested parties. He wants revenge and wants her back. So far, so ordinary? It’s of course more complicated than that, with intricate deals and political intriguing.

I found this as good as the first novel. It’s a believable world, and the “special powers” theme is not overdone. I found the ending moving and there was the suspicion of a tear in my eye. I’m no expert on this genre, but I feel this could comfortably be characterised as a mainstream fantasy novel, rather than specifically Young Adult. It’s probably best to read ‘Six of Crows’ first.

(Note: Miss O. says that the other novels set in this world are not as good.)

‘Traitor to the Throne’ by Alwyn Hamilton

2This is the second book of a trilogy; I have reviewed the first (Rebel of the Sands- Alwyn Hamilton) and raved about it. I had really looked forward to this one, and saved it until the end of this quartet of Miss O. loans. Again, it’s a fantasy world, with other fantasy or “magical power” elements. I admit to being just a little disappointed. Possibly I had over-anticipated. I found there was too much re-establishing of the plot at the beginning and there were too many names, although not to the extent of some adult fantasy. (Can anybody remember all the characters in ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’?) Occasionally the magic powers were employed a little erratically; surely you can defeat anything with such forces? However, once it got into its stride it was captivating and I look forward to the sequel.


I suppose underlying this post is a question: why shouldn’t adults read YA books? It’s probably obvious that my answer is that there is no reason at all, just as there is no reason why adults should not read children’s literature.


The Coolest Man Alive

John Lee Hooker was, of course, the coolest man alive. When he died, the title naturally went to Leonard Cohen. When he died, I was not sure who it would be. In a flash today it came to me. Of course, it’s Bill Nighy. Although he may be a bit young for the honour….

Pictures public domain: Bill Nighy by Jenn Deering Davis- CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18217426


His name was Christopher, but with his usual wish to be individual he spelt it Chriss. When I was about 13 he first turned up, with his characteristic ambling gait, on the short train journey to our boys’ grammar school. He was different. He wore a suit, not the normal jacket and trousers. His hair was longer than everybody else’s, and his attitude was…. individual. He provoked some adverse responses from teachers, pupils and parents- in hindsight, not justified. They were somehow straighter times, especially in sleepy Sussex

His mother was a doctor, just moved to the growing village practice. His father was an ordained priest, who taught woodwork and I think lectured in philosophy. He called me Marcus Aurelius.

Chriss borrowed his father’s cassock to go to a youth club disco, immediately singling him out for potential violence, which he escaped across fields and streams. He rode a home-made bike to the station with upside-down racing handlebars and a tiny front wheel. He went off on holiday in Norfolk on his proper racing bike with a home-made trailer, and ended up meeting a well-known illustrator and getting a ride on a Norton Commando. He saw bands first, and organised a coach trip to see Deep Purple at the Rainbow.

He was always that bit better than me at everything: chess, tennis (he could give me a 40 love advantage in each game and still beat me), running and of course meeting girls. I could nearly match him at table tennis, which we played on a huge table in his parents’ barn.  My parents really didn’t like him, because of his parents’ relaxed approach. Writing this, I realise that I unconsciously copied him. I wanted a racing bike. I went off on a cycling holiday on my own (and gave up after two nights). I admired Nortons. When he went off on Inter-Rail across Europe I envied him, but was too scared to do it.

I still fondly remember many evenings at his house listening to records on his parents’ impressive B&O hi-fi. I suppose I did have individual tastes, but their au-pair had LPs which widened my horizons: ‘Love’ and ‘Juicy Lucy’ for example. We had fiecely contested games of Monopoly and chess. We cycled to Brighton: the longest trip I’ve ever done. It seems tame now, but it was a big adventure then.

We left school and lost touch. He went to university, I went to teacher training college. I think he was eventually doing a master’s degree in agriculture. The last time I saw him was when I was 22. I was very happy (I had a girlfriend!) and we met in the pub one late December night, where we drank King and Barnes Old Ale (sadly missed) before saying goodbye in the snow. I’ve done the inevitable internet searches, without success. Perhaps he’s gone off grid. That would be very satisfying somehow. Perhaps it’s best not to resurrect the past.


There was no good reason for writing this, except that as usual I just felt compelled to do so. The beautiful Norton motorbike is just for the sake of having an image.

Lion (2016 film by Garth Davis)

A wonderful film exploring the emotions of adoption, loss and displacement.

The basic premise of this film, which will as usual sound simplistic, is that a young Indian boy from an extremely poor background gets lost and ends up a thousand miles from home. Yes, really. He is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, but as an adult realises that he has a deep need to find his birth mother and his brother. It is based on a true story.

I won’t give any more away, but of course it goes far deeper than that, particularly focusing on the complicated web of emotions involved, for the boy, his birth mother, his adoptive parents, his girlfriend, his adopted brother, and others. It is set, beautifully, at first in India and then Tasmania. I suppose you could castigate me for implying that the poverty portrayed in India is beautiful; but the photography is vivid.

Image result for Dev Patel LionThe acting is outstanding, particularly from Sunny Pawar as the young boy. It is very hard to believe he is playing a part, he’s so naturalistic and convincing. He says very little. Dev Patel (pictured: he from Slumdog Millionaire) is the boy as an adult and is extremely good, showing emotion without milking it. (He is also very beautiful. So I believe.) The adoptive parents, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, pack a real emotional punch for me; and here is where it gets difficult to write an objective review.

We are adoptive parents four times over, and although no film can depict every emotional state involved in adoption, as all adoptions are of course totally different, I don’t believe that this one could be bettered in that task. There is joy, sadness, heartache, loss, at all stages. They never go. It’s extraordinarily difficult to empathise with all the participants in adoption, and I believe this does just that. Of course I am going to have a particular identification with the adoptive parents. Phrases like “my real parents” really pack a punch for me, whereas they probably mean little for anybody not involved. Perhaps, if I am going to be at all picky, the parents are a little too wonderful; but perhaps I am just too aware of my own shortcomings.

I cannot think that any film could give you more of an insight into adoption and still be entertaining. Maybe it makes the adoption process look too easy, though of course I have no knowledge of what it is like in Australia. Maybe it does not acknowledge the cultural problems. BUT if you want to have a very good idea of the feelings involved in adoption, then go and see it….. Oh, go and see it anyway. It’s a great film. Why didn’t it get a shed load of Oscars?

Yes, I cried.

Lakaz Maman, Southampton

If there was one post I wish I could popularise more, this is it: Lakaz Maman is just so good but I feel it’s neglected.

We are extraordinarily lucky (some might say spoilt) to be able to eat a huge variety of foods from other cultures and countries. Lakaz Maman, with its take on Mauritian street food, is a welcome addition.

We visited with Misses Oblique #1 and #3 on a Saturday lunchtime. As you may know, our youngest daughter is ‘developmentally delayed’ and one of our unconscious criteria for a good meal out is how well she is received. At Lakaz Maman she was made welcome by a young, polite and attentive waiting staff. As a result, she was calm and happy and as a result we could enjoy our meal in a relaxed way.

lakazSo to the food. Mrs O. has a chicken and prawn ‘Magic Bowl’: a stir fry, delicately spiced, with a fried egg (which ought not to work but does). With some trepidation (I am famously wimpy about hotly spiced food) I try a braised mutton ‘Cari Lakaz Maman’ accompanied by fragrant rice, chutney and pickle, which is  the best curry I have ever eaten, and does not blow my head off as feared. Miss O. #1 has a special: a mutton burger, with soft and tasty meat, served with chips. The photograph is of my Cari Lakaz Maman and sadly does not do it justice.

(Why does one always slip into the present tense when writing a food review? Have I said this before? OK, but why?)

You can bring your own booze, for a corkage charge, but I wouldn’t bother; their range of soft drinks is excellent and appropriate. I have mint and lemongrass iced tea, which is surprisingly refreshing and a great accompaniment to the food; Mrs O. has iced coffee and there’s no fuss about finding milk for Miss O. #3. They happily provide lots of tap water. We even find room for puddings: chilli and lime chocolate pots, which have a suitable chilli kick, mango and lime chocolate slice, which satisfies even chocaholic me with its blend of chocolate and fruits and salted caramel sauce, and ‘Puddine Coco’, a dessert of coconut milk and fruit. The staff recommend this and it’s delicious.

Our youngest diner has samosas: adventurous for her, but amazingly she eats them. These are followed by chocolate ice cream (of course), with suitable toppings.

There is a reasonably wide but not bewildering range of food, with specials. On a future occasion I would like to try the ‘Gajaks’, which seem to be something like tapas, including prawn and fennel croquettes and ‘Octopus Dippers’.

I just can’t fault this place. The food is tasty, spiced sensitively and a fair price. It’s a light and comfortable atmosphere, and it’s conveniently located in Bedford Place. The service is excellent, attentive but not pushy. I thoroughly recomend it. (No, they’re not paying me or giving me free meals. I mean it.)

Lakaz Maman website