I admit now, before going any further, I am a fan of whatever Rose Tremain writes. She is a marvel, walking the fine line between consummate story teller, and restrained, elegant, divine writing. Nothing is revealed too soon, but just enough from the beginning to set the tone, begin a story, beguile the reader with intriguing characters and behaviours. She writes with affection, not just of her story line, but her characters, the moral and ethical dilemmas they find themselves in, she creates real human beings, throwing life's troubles in front of them. I just love her work.

This latest novel is no different. Another reviewer made the wonderful observation that the book is composed in three parts, much like a musical sonata. And music features heavily in this novel. The first part begins in 1947, introducing Gustav, a five year old boy living in near poverty with his unhappy, unpleasant, non-maternal and morose mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. We have little knowledge of Emilie's circumstances and why there is no Dad on the scene. Gustav starts school, and meets Anton, a new comer to the area, shy, bit different from the other boys. Gustav and Anton develop a most unlikely friendship, Gustav being introduced and taken under the wing of Anton's wealthy parents. Anton is a very talented pianist, Gustav developing a great love of listening to Anton practise.

Anton's family is Jewish, upsetting Emilie who is anti-Semite, the significance and reason for becoming apparent in the second part of the book. This second part tells the story of the years before Gustav's birth, really Emilie's story, explaining quite sadly and poignantly why she is the mother she is to Gustav. Just another horribly sad war story really.

In the third part, Gustav and Anton are middle aged, Emilie is still alive but very elderly. The friendship between the two men has wavered over the years, depending on their life circumstances. Have they had good lives? It is hard to say. I suspect not, there is a lot of sadness in each of the two men. As they age however, they are brought together again, and the last few pages are just wonderful in what happens, and how beautifully it is written. 

STASI CHILD by David Young

The cover is so 'airport book shop' pick-me read - easy, light, thriller, a page turner, just the thing for a long flight. Or wet weekend. And the plot is also very easy and quick to come to grips with. Set in  East Germany in the 1970s you know already it isn't going to be a happy, cheerful, fun read. Corruption, bleakness, paranoia, spying, distrust and propaganda fill the pages of this very readable novel. It is definitely a step above that standard airport read, and I guarantee it will hold any reader's attention.

Oberleutnant Karin Muller is the highest ranked woman in the People's Police. She is a proud supporter of the political system she has been born into, happily accepting the propaganda about the West , its dysfunctional capitalism, its wastage and general depravity. She lives in a society where everyone is constantly under suspicion, who can you trust, wages are low, living conditions bleak and colourless, independent thought is actively discouraged with arrests and worse. Karin is married to a school teacher, Gottfried. Gottfried has already served penance at a reform school for watching Western movies and associating with a known communist. Hardly surprising the marriage is under strain.

Karin and her partner Tilsner are investigating the discovery of the body of a teenaged girl on the eastern side of the Wall, looking as if she was shot fleeing from the West. They are tasked by the Stasi to only find out the identity of the girl, not the identity of her murderer, which immediately raises the suspicions of Muller and Tilsner. Naturally things are never what they seem, and there are plenty of obstacles in the pursuit of the truth. Parallel to this detective work is the story of Irma , a young girl living in the reform school that Gottfried just happens to have been sent to. Irma is there for the sins of her mother, who is/was a prostitute. This is a truly horrible place, awful things happen which are tied up with the murder that Muller and Tilsner are working on. Gradually the two plot lines meld, Muller going beyond simply identifying the victim, naturally, but leading to the satisfactory conclusion. Although a number of loose threads.

Even better, this is the author's first novel in the Karin Muller series, so there were plenty of fish hooks dangling at the end to easily support another novel. She is quite a character, Karin Muller, although as another reviewer pointed out, she blushes way too often whenever attractive men are about. Hardly a characteristic you would think would be part of a senior toughened police officer. I can't Jane Tennison blushing in public!


A really well written, gripping and vivid novel about a dark period in both Britain and Kenya's recent history. Those Brits doing it again - undermining the locals and destroying their way of life, with the locals fighting back. Author John McGhie is a journalist, having worked for the BBC and Observer newspaper, C4 News, and others. Primarily an investigative journalist he has also turned his hand to film making, his major achievement being a prize winning film he made about historical war crimes committed during the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya during 1952-1963. This would appear to be the background to his novel, the focus being on the Mau Mau reparation case, seeking an apology and financial reparations from the British government to Kenyans still alive from those times. Britain saying sorry to any nation is a gob smacking event, this settlement unprecedented when it finally happened in 2013.

This novel then, takes place in both the present and the past. It is 2008 and Samantha Seymour is one of the team of lawyers sent from London to talk to the claimants about their cases and their allegations against the colonial government of the time. She knows her grandparents lived in Kenya during this time, met and married there, and that there was something very murky about her grandfather's involvement in the Mau Mau rebellion that no one ever talked about it. She goes to Kenya with an open and curious mind, seeking to learn more about her family history.

Back in 1952, her grandfather Johnny Seymour has recently arrived in Nairobi, still traumatised by what he saw in the camps at the end of WWII in Europe. He has since become a journalist/photographer, working with his old army boss Grogan Littlejohn,  for the Government Information Office. He doesn't really like the culture of the British colonial that he is forced to live and work in, preferring the wide open spaces of Kenya, but he quickly becomes smitten with Tansy, a nurse who has lived most of her life in Kenya, and would appear to be Grogan's girlfriend. But it is his work as a photographer that exposes him to the underbelly of the great British colonial might, and before long he is fighting his own battle to stay alive, record what is going on around him, and save the lives of both Tansy and their Kenyan driver.

Great characters, both flawed and honourable, terrific story development and a most satisfying conclusion. Excellent book.

WHEN THE MOON IS LOW by Nadia Hashimi

Average I am afraid to say. I loved her first novel, "The Pearl that Broke Its Shell", and thought I was onto a winner with this equally heartfelt story of an Afghan mother and her three children, making the horrendous and treacherous journey to her sister in England. This refugee themed story has been told numerous times, tragically sad and beyond comprehension for all of us in our comfortable and safe homes, but all too real for thousands of people in the Middle East. You would think it would be easy for a good story teller to convey all that in her writing, and yes, there is plenty of that in this story. But I really felt quite disengaged from it all. The story, the characters - I just did not have that feeling of being with Fereiba who is the mother, in her awful journey, there was a huge disconnect there.  Fereiba's story is narrated in the first person, and as a mother myself, I was trying very hard to relate to her, but it just was not happening. The parallel story of her 13 year old son who is separated from his mother and siblings while in Athens was even more dangerous, but again, I simply felt I was reading about this child's life from a far away place. This was more so, as for whatever reason, Saleem's story is narrated in the third person.

Lots of things happen to this small family, much of it awful, there is plenty of tension and suspense, but it just did not grip me in the way I felt it should. There is danger everywhere, but often I didn't feel the immediacy and horror of that danger. I don't think it is due to over saturation, after all we are absolutely awash in novels set in WWII, and these are stories we need to hear. But it is such a shame that for such a great subject matter, where I really wanted to be engaged, enraged, uplifted and humanised, that I simply wasn't.