The House with Chicken Legs

Marinka lives in a house that has legs. And not just any old legs – chicken legs. Every now and then, almost without warning, it gets up and walks to where it – and its inhabitants: Marinka, her grandmother and their pet jackdaw Jack – are needed most.

I was given a most insistent personal recommendation for this one, so came to it with few preconceptions. I thought the title cute and expected a story to match. Instead I got a book ringing with genuine pathos, beautifully and wittily written, that finds the humanity inside the magic, and which had a couple of shock turns in the middle that demanded a pause in reading to process.

That’s because the places where Marinka’s grandmother is needed, the places where the house with chicken legs takes them, are places where the souls of the recently dead need to be tended to, listened to and ultimately encouraged to accept that it is time to move on to the next stage in their existence.

Naturally this doesn’t give Marinka many opportunities to make real human friends. The house either doesn’t stay in the same place long enough, or it does, but the local children Marinka’s age are scared off by apparently witchy goings on. That leaves the dead for Marinka to try to befriend, but her attempt at doing so changes everything.

Drawing on Slavic folklore, the novel will be read by some children as a fun adventure. And by others as a poignant story about coming to terms with death, and an exploration of how love and friendship are never possessive, but often sacrificial. Not bad for a book with such a cute title.

Salt to the Sea

Buy SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

I approached this young adult novel with wary curiosity more than anything. I wrote about the true story behind the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 in my book, Final Voyages: The world’s worst maritime disasters, so I knew who most of the 9–10,000 victims were – the beneficiaries of lebensraum, German citizens who moved eastward after the Third Reich cleansed swathes of Poland of her own people.

How do you write a novel that demands your sympathies for character who are only refugees now because of their own legacy of turning much of a continent into refugees (or worse) half a decade before?

Of course, there’s a reason why Ruta Sepetys won the Carnegie, the Booker Prize for children’s literature, with this novel, which is her answer to that question, and which deserves much of the prestige with which it has been lavished in the past couple of years.

For most of the characters in the opening chapters, the war is already over, even if the killing hasn’t stopped and peace is still months from being declared. A disparate group of people end up sheltering in the same barn overnight on their way through occupied Poland, heading towards the coast, where the greatest sea-based evacuation in history awaits them. Some of them won’t make it. And all of them have secrets. Soon three young people become bound by what they know about each other – secrets that may give them power, or be their greatest weakness.

For those who make it to the harbour, there’s an agonising wait to be boarded, but of all the ships docked, the lavish former liner the Wilhelm Gustloff is the one everyone wants to get on. And over 10,000 of them are squeezed aboard. But a Soviet submarine lurks in the freezing waters of the Baltic. Relative safety in Germany is only a 48-hour voyage away, but the promise is a lie.

I first learnt of the Wilhelm Gustloff from The Tin Drum author Gunter Grass’s more recent novel, Crabwalk. In that he notes how the disaster’s place in history has moved sideways since 1945. It started as just another tragedy in the bloodiest months of the Second World War, either suppressed or ignored. After the war it became something unworthy of being mourned in a newly shamed Germany who had no right to feel a sense of suffering. More recently, however, it has become a totem for the Far Right – a little-known massacre of mainly civilians written out of history by the victorious perpetrators, but which proves Germans were victims all along.

Sepetys does somewhat try a little too hard to establish that most of her main characters are not typical German occupiers or their offspring, but ordinary people who have been caught up in the turmoil of events. We can feel sympathy for them because they didn’t build their homes over the bones of the Poles.

What’s more she spends a bit too long establishing just how vile the Red Army was behaving as it forced the Reich back towards Germany’s old borders. The net result is that the Soviets seem like the true monsters even before they torpedo the Wilhelm Gustloff, whereas the crimes of the Nazis are somewhat downplayed, and the only main character who remains loyal to Hitler until the end is a naïve buffoon. I wonder what Gunter Grass would make of this treatment of the disaster, which does somewhat pivot on us being kept from knowing which of the anonymous victims are like our heroes, and which remain devoted to Hitler too.

Of course it’s not a novel about goodies and baddies, because every character here lives in the grey area left behind after they have been overrun by history. As Oliver Stone would have it in Platoon, the first casualty of war is innocence, and almost six years after this war began, by the time the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk, were there really any innocents left?

Mold and the Poison Plot

Buy MOLD AND THE POISON PLOT by Lorraine Gregory

Mold has a nose that is the envy of nobody. He personally is entirely unfussed by the size of it, but secretly he wonders whether it was part of the reason his birth mother abandoned him as a baby. Not that he has particularly suffered for that, because his adoptive mother Aggy has given him a wonderful life, even if her healing tonics aren’t as highly regarded as she thinks they are and she drinks too much.

She’s no royal assassin, however, so it’s a shock to both of them when she’s arrested for trying to kill the king with poison disguised as a tonic. Suddenly Mold’s nose is not just an expansive sunshade for his lip, it’s the key to saving Aggy’s life. Naturally with such great nostrils comes an almost superhuman sense of smell. That means if Mold can get close enough to the comatose king, he might be able to smell what was used to poison him, and then maybe just perhaps he will be able to sniff out a cure in time to save not only the king, but his falsely-accused assassin too.

Mold’s adventure is packed with heroes and villains aplenty, but it is the nasally-blessed one himself who stands out, and not just because of that hooter. The story is told entirely through his wonderful first-person voice, an instantly convincing working-class vernacular that puts a fresh new spin on what is at heart a traditional story about fairness and friendship.

Lorraine Gregory doesn’t shy away from hints of a world that is riddled with injustice, suffering and violence, but these things give Mold’s quest agency, and don’t make the story any less rip-roaring and fun. Obviously a story about a boy with a big nose is going to involve some deliciously revolting details, most of which actually come thanks to a couple of trips through the ever-useful abandoned passages that are the sewers beneath the king’s castle.

Without giving anything at all away, come the end of the book it seems ripe (if you’ll excuse the semi-pun) for a sequel. Forgoing that, perhaps a movie adaptation by Terry Gilliam.

State of Wonder

Buy STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

Having run away from her medical career after making a devastating mistake, the taciturn Marina Singh is much happier living the quiet life of a researcher for a pharmaceutical company – a job where the decisions she makes are a few steps further removed from life and death.

Part of the company’s research is based on studying the remarkable health of indigenous people living a drug-free existence in the depths of the Amazon. When one of Marina’s colleagues visits the project and is reported dead not long after, she becomes the inevitable replacement for two reasons – the scientist leading the project is her former university tutor Annick Swenson, and the wife of her dead colleague manages to use a bit of emotional blackmail to get her to go and investigate what might have happened when there is no body to return with the truth.

Marina enters the heat and everyday lethality of the heart of darkness having to choose between taking antimalarial tablets that give her horrific night terrors or risking the delirium of malarial fevers. Either way she is unprepared for what she finds when she is reunited with Doctor Swenson and meets the subjects of her study – women in their seventies who are still as fertile as their grandchildren.

The echoes of Joseph Conrad are naturally rather fresh, though here it’s not the dark heart of men being explored, but women who believe their own ambitions in one of the wilder corners of the world are altogether more altruistic. They’re not really, of course. If anything, the corporate and mercantile aims are even more brazen than they were in colonial times.

It’s a slow-burn novel, capturing the stifling heat and humidity of the rainforest. Marina is quite a passive main character for most of the book, but it doesn’t really suffer for it. She has been drifting through life, too timid to make a decision, second guessing every choice she dares make, in case she makes another terrible mistake. Only here, unable to escape the person whose absence led to Marina’s original mistake, will she be able to face up to what happened and move on.

Station Eleven

Buy STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

Kirsten and the rest of her Travelling Symphony of actors and musicians walk the empty roads between Ontario and Chicago, looking for outposts of fellow survivors in this depopulated North America who would like to sit and watch some free Shakespeare. Because, as the Symphony’s motto (and Kirsten’s tattoo) goes, survival is insufficient. For these artists, there needs to be more to life than simply existing, scrapping for food and salvage in the slowly decaying remains of the old electric world.

Kirsten is obsessed with finding copies of a little-known series of graphic novels called Station Eleven. They are set on a space station built to appear like a planet, drifting somewhat aimlessly through the cosmos, with all its inhabitants hiding beneath the surface and living a lonely existence. The books were written and drawn by an artist whose estranged husband Arthur Leander died on stage right in front of a young Kirsten, only a few weeks before the end of the world.

Kirsten’s storyline is juxtaposed against the relatively trivial lives of people before the arrival of the plague that killed off most of the world’s population. She lives somewhat vicariously via both the Station Eleven stories and the tawdry celebrity gossip rag news items about Arthur Leander and his lovers that can still be found littering the abandoned cities.

Putting on plays gives her and the others a sense of purpose to continuing to exist, but as with Station Eleven and the celeb goss, they are also about co-opting the apparently more interesting lives of others. Whether the characters in the plays and Station Eleven really have the more valuable lives simply because people are interested in the presentation rather than the reality is a question Kirsten never really contemplates.

Part of that is because the novel is somewhat overburdened with characters (Kirsten only just about manages to come to the fore overall), and could have done with being double – yes – the length. Kirsten is clearly yearning to make a connection, but it’s difficult to make a connection in a world where there aren’t many people left to connect with, and most of those she does meet will either be afraid of her or, perhaps more likely, give her immediate cause to be afraid of them.

There is hardly anybody left in this bleak Midwest to be interested in someone like Kirsten in the way she is interested in constructed personalities spouting perfect lines of poetry or long-dead celebrities gifted sensational captions to photos of them living apparently exciting lives. The only people who have any form of celebrity cachet now are apocalyptic cult leaders, and their fame is earned for all the wrong reasons.

Despite all this, the novel’s post-apocalyptic world is certainly not as bleak or miserable as The Road. In its celebration of art as a way of giving existence meaning, it helps give things a sense of hope. It’s whether that itself is pretty meaningless is something the novel leaves unresolved – mostly.

The Gone World

Buy THE GONE WORLD by Tom Sweterlitsch

NCIS detective Serena Moss is called in when a mother and child are found murdered, with the older daughter missing, presumed abducted. But Moss’s assignment isn’t simply due to them being a naval family. The suspect is the victims’ husband and father, but that’s impossible. He was an astronaut on board the USS Libra, a top secret spacecraft sent into the future, and which supposedly never came back.

Moss is assigned to the case because of her own experience travelling into the future, being sent forwards to arrive at a point after uncrackable cases have been solved so that she can come back with the necessary information to do it. On one of her journeys into the future she arrived at the moment of Terminus – the end of the world. Everyone else who has seen it comes back changed by the experience, and her leg wasn’t the only thing Moss lost from her time watching humanity’s chaotic, violent end.

As she pursues the culprits across the decades – whilst still trying to keep a grip on her life in the present – she slowly starts to realise what must have happened to the Libra. She travels in time to bring back the truth, but she might not be the only one doing that, and the truths others are bringing could have devastating consequences.

This novel is a really quite ambitious genre crash of a novel. It is alternately (and then altogether) hard crime, sci fi, horror and apocalyptic fantasy. At times it reads like a Stephen King novel that has been adapted into a film with a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino but directed by Prometheus/Alien: Covenant era Ridley Scott, and then novelised back into prose by someone who secretly likes Stephen King but who still has a bit of ambition to be taken seriously by literary critics (and who is a really, really big fan of Interstellar).

And most of the time, it works. The twisting plot bends paradoxes so far the novel does start to creak a bit in the second half, before everything (and quite literally everything) comes together for a breathless conclusion. I see a movie version is in the offing, possibly directed by Neill Blomkamp, which makes me curious wondering what they will simplify – and perhaps tone down – to make it accessible and palatable enough to justify the amount it will inevitably cost.

The Storm Keeper’s Island

Buy THE STORM KEEPER'S ISLAND by Catherine Doyle

Fionn and Tara Boyle’s mother has been avoiding Arranmore Island ever since their father died in an attempted lifeboat rescue that went disastrously wrong. Struggling to cope, she sends the pair of them back to Arranmore to stay with their grandfather, and that’s when Fionn discovers his (and the island’s) secret.

Malachy Boyle’s cottage is full of strange candles, named and labelled, including some that must never be allowed to go out, and others that must never be lit in the first place. Fionn finds out the hard way what happens when you mess around with these candles. They are effectively the levers controlling the island’s magic. Lighting a candle allows the bearer to peel back the layers of time and catch a glimpse of past eras when good and evil magicians fought their battles over Arranmore.

Old Malachy’s time as Storm Keeper is coming to an end, however. And that means ancient rivalries are coming to the fore once more as the established families jostle to offer the island a replacement. Fionn knows he’s not brave enough, but after visiting the past and being seen, he may have changed the course of the future already.

I loved books like this when I was younger, where the parents abandon the kids, send them off to a mysterious coastline, there are caves and magic and old secrets, and beastly local kids, and the shy boy finds out he’s the hero of the story after all. For a while it seemed as if this kind of tale had gone out of favour, when everyone was trying to go the Harry Potter route, or stories for this age group had gone darker or more urban.

Despite some modern trappings, this is a very traditional story. It might seem a bit churlish to call it old fashioned, but Catherine Doyle isn’t trying to reinvent any wheels here. She’s polished up an old one nicely, though, with sparkling, genuinely witty dialogue that brings her characters to life.

Bomber

Buy BOMBER by Paul Dowswell

It’s quite the culture shock for Brooklyn native Harry Friedman to leave the land of plenty and arrive in an England that has already been at war for four years – a country of rationed food, air raid sirens and shelled-out buildings. He isn’t given time to acclimatise, though. Barely has he got his feet on the ground when a B17 Flying Fortress landing at the airfield he has been posted to turns into a fireball.

This is not the heroic adventure the underage Harry thought he was signing up for based on the Pathe newsreels showing 3,000 miles away. Back there, you’re a hero if you complete 25 missions. Over here, you’re just a fairytale – hardly anybody lives long enough to do that. Once he’s understood that, Harry is determined to live every day in the moment, because tomorrow he might have to fly to face a faceless enemy for whom having a surname like Friedman will single him out.

For much of its length this is a more episodic, action-driven novel than many of Paul Dowswell’s others – focused on the events rather than the characters. Harry’s Jewishness is mostly just there to increase the suspense after his Flying Fortress is shot down over France in the second half of the novel, and his pairing off with a British sweetheart is more of a fantasy on his part than a developed relationship, seeing as they only really get a couple of scenes together.

To an extent the book reminded me of the film Dunkirk. We don’t really need to know any more about these people. They exist only in this moment, because it may be their last. Everything here is about the danger and tension of being the guy stuck in the transparent gun turret beneath a bomber plane that the Luftwaffe is desperate to stop reaching its target. And what happens next when the bomber crew fails their mission, and the Luftwaffe succeed in theirs.

Young Adolf

Buy YOUNG ADOLF by Beryl Bainbridge

Austrian expat and born-again Liverpudlian Alois Hitler is not looking forward to a visit from his younger brother Adolf. The Titanic may have just sunk in an ocean of hubris, but Europe obviously has a bright future ahead of it in which the oddball Adolf just doesn’t seem to fit. Alois knows why his sister paid for Adolf’s one-way ticket to England – to get him out of Austria and make him Alois’s problem instead.

Which is a role young Adolf fills with apparent fervour. Coming from months of wandering from hostel to hostel, getting to lounge about on Alois’s sofa and stew about a cruel world not appreciating his art from there instead is a big improvement. But Alois and his wife are not content to let this bone-idle egotist with ideas far, far above his station just annex their home. They insist he get a job. So he ends up as a hotel porter, which is where he becomes the patsy in some sort of criminal plot that may or may not also involve the strange bearded man Adolf keeps seeing around.

Nascent Nazis probably weren’t the usual heroes of such whimsical japes back when Beryl Bainbridge wrote this in the mid-70s, and to be honest, reading it these days it does seem a bit smug about the past not only being past but dead too. It’s positively dripping not with blood but with irony, and entirely self-consciously too. Bainbridge’s winking eye and nudging elbow is never very far from the page.

Writing a serious treatise about how a directionless, mercurial boy turns into a fascist isn’t her intention here, of course (so a couple of scenes giving a taste of young Adolf’s oratory skills and visiting the abusive past he and Alois suffered seem a tad incongruous). Here he’s just another underachieving drifter who thinks he deserves more than he’s getting. And maybe ultimately that’s her point. Within a few years there would be plenty of angry young men just like him. And if Hitler hadn’t become Hitler, somebody else probably would have done.

I, Coriander

Buy I CORIANDER by Sally Gardner

Coriander Hobie is growing up in the 1650s – Cromwell’s England. Her mother is a woman with secrets, but when she dies, Coriander fears those secrets may have died with her. Unfortunately for her, she soon has bigger things to worry about. Her father, never the most discreet of Royalist sympathisers, is warned that he should take a Puritan wife to prove he has had a genuine change of heart.

The plan doesn’t work, and he has to flee certain death, leaving Coriander behind with Maud, her new stepmother. Maud is the embodiment of the cruelty of ignorance. Under the sway of a fundamentalist preacher (the wonderfully named Arise Fell), she subjects the household to the pernicious meanness of puritanism, which eventually results in Coriander being shut in an old wooden chest as a punishment.

Her good god-fearing guardians haven’t even decided whether they will let her out in a couple of days or leave her in there to die. But they don’t get the chance to do either. Because Coriander has found another way out of the chest – one that leads to another world.

This is very much a novel of two halves, but halves that are somewhat splintered and spread around the entire book. Having read it back to back with Sally Gardner’s The Red Necklace, I couldn’t help but make comparisons, and during the half set in the real world, I tended to feel it was the better book. Less so during the half set in the fantasy world.

The historical half of the novel is suitably grubby and dripping with the usual injustices of political and religious oppression, which help give the more whimsical fairytale elements of the other half (it’s a bit like Cinderella finding a way to Narnia instead and not giving that prince’s ball a second thought) a bit more of an edge. I wanted to read more of the latter, which largely revolves around revelation of back story. Everything comes to a close very quickly, and I was left feeling as if this was just the start of a series.