Month: August 2020

Red Stars by Davide Morosinotto

Regular readers of these (erratic) posts and viewers on my Instagram (@littlecitygarden) will know how much a book’s appearance matters to me: not just the front cover but the paper, the size, the overall design and, most importantly, whether it opens properly and is pleasant to hold. Almost every day I bemoan the advent of perfect binding and the loss of the stitched book.

Even at first sight this book looked enticing; there were maps, photographs, letters and ‘hand-written’ comments in the margins. Most exciting of all the main text was in two colours, one for each of the twins at the heart of the story, a blue fountain pen for Nadya’s story and a red crayon for Viktor’s. I haven’t seen this since the 1983 hardback edition of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, another book I love. I was captivated by Red Stars before I’d even read the blurb.

In every way the story lived up to the book’s appearance. It is set in Russia between June and November 1941 at the time of the siege of Leningrad. When the story opens the twins are twelve. Evacuated from the city for safety, they plan to jointly record their story in a spiral-bound notebook, one of six they are given by their father. Early on in the journey they are separated, each keeping three notebooks, the plan being that they will put their stories together when they are reunited.

What follows is a brilliant adventure story but not a jolly one in the mould of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome. There is no going home at the end of the day for ginger beer and cake. The twins are thrown into the midst of war in an uncompromisingly adult world. The horrors they see and undergo are vividly described but these are two children who are determined to survive and be reunited with each other. There are plots and sub-plots with good Russians and bad ones, bad Germans and good ones, and danger and treachery everywhere. The bravery, friendship and loyalty of the two groups of children stand out, meaning that one really cares about the characters.

In 1946 the notebooks are given to Colonel Smirnov of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). It is his task to decide whether the twins are guilty or innocent of a number of crimes and it is his comments that are in the margins. As he, and the reader, work through the notebooks it becomes clear that both Viktor and Nadya were guilty of a number of crimes but that there are mitigating circumstances including corruption at the highest level of the NKVD and the ultimate achievements of the children. It is a clever way of constructing the story because the reader is left uncertain of twins’ fate until the last page. Anyone with a sense of adventure, regardless of age, will be gripped by this story.

Red Stars is published by Pushkin Press on 3rd Sept as a trade paperback at £12.99. Please buy it from a real bookshop.

Jane

Each Month From my Window: July and August

Doing Instagram every day has meant that I’ve rather forgotten about our website. But at least I do have a photographic record of what’s been happening in the garden. The grasses in the front window boxes have flourished so I now look out into a shady green paradise. Even on the hottest days my desk only gets dappled sunlight. A passer-by commented that so many plants must make the room dark but I like working in a green gloom, especially when it is so hot outside.

The hibiscus and agapanthus which share a pot by the front door have surpassed themselves this year, flowering more profusely and for longer than usual. My only worry is that they are definitely running out of root space. It is a large pot but not large enough for what are now two substantial plants. A perennial pea winds its way through the mix but luckily that is in a separate container. For several years I have been looking at the main pot and thinking ‘I must do something about it soon’. I think that ‘soon’ is turning into ‘now’. The problem is that their roots have become completely entangled and I don’t want to lose either plant. Perhaps I’ll just top it up with some more potting compost and wait another year.

The view from the kitchen window is a delightful muddle of hardy geraniums, cosmos and last year’s snapdragons. Also though, the first sign of autumn. Every year my witch hazel starts to develop its autumn colouring when the rest of the garden is still in summer mode. I used to worry that it was because the witch hazel was outgrowing its pot, and it probably is, but this happens every year so I have given up worrying. Writing in the midst of a heatwave I long for some slightly cooler weather but I’m not ready for autumn yet.

Jane