Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Tokskvig

I started reading this book last night. When I finished the last page, I got out of bed, made breakfast, then stood in front of the bifolds looking out at the garden while drinking coffee. I watched a magpie watching me, and thought that as long as there are Danes, there maybe hope for the human race after all.

It was 4am, so I was probably a bit more emotional than I usually am.

Now I don’t read a lot of YA fiction. I think the last one was Predator’s Gold from the Mortal Engines series. But I actually made the effort to track this one one down after my much better half (she’s a huge Toksvig fan) played me an interview where Toksvig talked about her family’s involvement in a nationwide plan to the evacuate Danish Jews (or as the Danes liked to call them, Danes) from the occupied Denmark. Toksvig had written a short story about it. I’ve got more than a passing interest in the exploits of Scandinavia during the war. In fact, I thought their sacrifice and bravery has never received the recognition it deserved, so I wrote a book about it. I wrote about Norway, but it could just have easily been Denmark.

I didn’t find Toksvig’s short story, but I did find this book, and as you may have already guessed, I think it’s certainly the best YA novel I’ve ever read.

There were 8000 Jews living in Denmark when the Nazis invaded (April 1940). The country was small, and ill-equipped to fight, and so submitted in pretty short order. In fact, the term Hitler’s Canary was coined by the British press, as they now viewed Denmark as a caged bird, singing for the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, as with most things regarding the British press, nothing could be further from the truth.

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The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco

I read Silk a couple of years ago, and to this day it remains the best book I’ve ever read. In fact, it was so good, I couldn’t finish another book for months. But I realised … and I’m doing it again: this isn’t about Silk, this is about another piece from Alessandro Baricco’s multi-room writing studio.

I’m not sure how the Young Bride escaped my radar for so long, but when I found it, it was a day of joy. It’s an odd story; a dense, literary tale about a young woman who comes to live with a family of wealthy textile merchants. She has been promised to the Son of the family’s patriarch, but on her arrival she discovers the Son has travelled to England to study manufacturing. No one is sure when he will return, so she decides to wait for him, slowly becoming indoctrinated into the strange domestic and sexual rituals of the Family. After a time though, it becomes clear that the Son is no longer in England; he left the country to travel further, and has not been heard from since. The Bride, now bewitched by the Family, and weaving an intricate web of desire of her own, must face the possibility that the Son may never return.

Yes, it’s Alessandro Baricco, so you know it’s going to be a great book, though that doesn’t mean you’re going to like everything about it. I mean, I like a good poetic read as much as the next would-be writer, but sometimes I found the prose a little dense, to the point that it sometimes got in the way of the story, and that’s a shame because it really is a great story. The characters are perfectly flawed, the setting is immaculately crafted and the pace, while measured, is pretty much what a book like this needs. But occasionally, very occasionally, the story gets lost in the poetry.

But aside from that, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read that doesn’t builds to a gentle but satisfying end.

Seven out of ten

When Fortune N’tobe Fell from the Stars

If you glance over to the sidebar – that’s it; near the top, just after the recent posts section – you’ll notice that something has changed (aside from finally updating the icons for Apple Books).

Yes, it’s finally here: book number four. A novella (only 40,000 words or thereabouts).

I took a writing break after The Quisling Orchid and just focussed on short stories and reviews. Book 3 was an expensive effort in terms of time, brain space and money, so I thought I’d dial it back a bit.

Fortune started out as a collection of short stories about life in Soweto, something I could read to my mum while she was in hospital. Unfortunately, my mum didn’t recover away, so I didn’t want to carry on with the book.

A few people who’d read the unfinished version said they’d like to see how it ended, and hoped that I’d pick it up again, eventually. ‘Time’s a great healer, Dom.’

Well, they say that, but it doesn’t apply to everyone, so the book stayed in the drawer (metaphorically speaking; it actually stayed halfway down the tree in Ulysses) for a couple more years.

I think it was a combination of things that finally got me to dust it off (metaphorically speaking; I actually just opened the folder in Ulysses and started typing):

  1. Last July (2019) there was an incident in which a body fell from the undercarriage of a plane approaching Heathrow, so I sort of thought it was a story that needed to be told.
  2. I’d like to think my mother didn’t raise a son who didn’t finish something he’d started.

Besides, good writing is supposed to hurt, isn’t it?