You’re pHow to b brve cvrrobably aware that Diabetes has been in the news recently owing to the announcement that researchers have successfully implanted insulin producing cells into mice. Thus taking large steps toward curing this debilitating disease which affects 6% of the worlds adult population. According to the website figures released in November 2015 showed that there are currently 3.5 million people in the UK with diabetes. Unlike the UK, there isn’t a national register of diabetes sufferers in Ireland. In 2013 the international Diabetes federation estimated the figure at 207,490. I know at least two people with it, one being my brother-in-law. I don’t know any children with it, although according to Diabetes Ireland there were 2.750 people under the age of 20 with type 1 diabetes according to a paediatric audit in 2012. Type 1 diabetes is 50 times more common in those aged under 18 and the peak age for diagnosis is 10-14yrs. Thus we come to this month’s book – it’s How To Be Brave  by Louise Beech.

The book tells the story of Natalie Armitage an army wife and her nine-year-old daughter Rose.  The two of them lead a sheltered existence in their home in the suburbs of Hull. It’s Halloween and they are dressed up ready to go trick or treating, when Rose suddenly collapses, along with Natalie’s world and their lives as they know them. Later in the A&E, while waiting to hear what’s wrong with her a daughter, a familiar old man appears beside Natalie and comforts her but when the nurse comes to break the life changing news that Rose has Type 1 diabetes, the old man is nowhere to be seen, just the scent of Sea and Salt. Over the next couple of days their lives are turned upside down with the rather sharp learning curve that comes with  getting used to the strict regime of insulin injections and the rapid deterioration of Rose’s personality. One day she is a sweet slightly annoying nine-year-old, then behold an out of control brat. Poor Natalie has to try to get to grips with the diabetes routine, her husband Jake’s absence serving in Afghanistan and the monster possessing her daughter. But the mysterious old man troubles her and unbeknownst to Natalie is visiting Rose in her dreams, until she goes missing. When she is finally found after a frantic search, she tells her mum the old man led her there to find the book. The book in question is a diary belong to Natalie’s Grandad Colin Armitage a merchant seaman whose ship the SS Lulworth Hill was torpedoed off the African Coast in 1943. The diary records his life in the life raft following the sinking. The mother and daughter reach an agreement that Natalie will read the diary to Rose in return for letting her mum administer the injections, which up until then has been the major source of hostilities between the two. Will Colin’s ghost and the story of his sacrifice and bravery while adrift at sea be the tentative bond to aid mother and daughter through the initial trying stages of their new life. Also what of Colin’s story? Do he and the other fourteen occupants in the life raft survive…?

I have to get this off my chest first and foremost, never have I felt such an over-riding urge to slap a character in a book as I have with Rose. Even before she collapsed she was starting to get on my nerves. But afterwards there were times when I just wanted to scream, even throw the book down out of utter frustration.Natalie like most parents these days is up against kids who know the law better than the generations before them and thus play up to their parents and authority figures at every turn.

Louise Beech

Louise Beech

According to the author H.P. Lovecroft “ The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown“. Yes, this maybe the main driver of Rose’s rebellious streak –  but the utter contempt with which she treats her mum is scandalous.

As for Natalie, I have nothing but sympathy for her and predicament she finds herself in although despite numerous offers of help from family, friends and Social Workers, she shuns the advice to seek counselling, when you can clearly she is out of her depth and just treading water. Deep down she’s a mother first and foremost thus she knows that her daughter’s change in character is down to the chemical imbalance and her body’s desperate attempts to recover.


The main thing that kept me reading and the two main characters going forward was Colin’s story. It is a truly dramatic and harrowing read but strangely enough a true story. Colin Armitage is actually Author Louise Beech’s grandfather and was aboard the Lulworth Hill when it was sunk by an Italian Submarine in the South Atlantic on the 19th March 1943.  It’s a real eye opener to life adrift at the mercy of the currents and surviving on milk tablets, Bovril tablets, biscuits and a couple of ounces of water a day, having just read We Die Alone by David Howarth, Colin’s experience comes a very close second to it in the endurance stakes.

This is English author Louise Beech’s first book, published in 2015 by Orenda books she’s no stranger to the sea and travelling having been a travel writer for a local Hull newspaper for years, while having her first play performed on stage at the Hull Truck Theatre in 2012, where she also works as a front of house usher.

SS Lulworth Hill

SS Lulworth Hill


The whole book is a marrying of two very large chunks of truth and a dollop of imagination to stitch together Colin’s story and Louise’s experiences of coming to terms with a child diagnosed with Diabetes. It makes the book a very good read and one that should get onto the Book Club circuit quite quickly if it hasn’t already.

I was sent my copy by the good people at Orenda Books. I can definitely recommend you get this debut novel, I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for future books by an author who definitely knows how to press one’s buttons and keep you engrossed.



We Die Alone CvrImagine you’re living on the outskirts of a small rural village or in an isolated farmstead – in Nazi occupied Norway, north of the Artic circle.  On a bitterly cold, dark, mid-winter evening there’s a knock on your door. You open it to find a wounded and disheveled stranger, close to exhaustion. He’s on the run from the Nazis. He needs you to feed and shelter him. You know that if you do, you will be tortured and killed if found out. Not only you, also your children – who are sleeping upstairs – could also be killed to make an example of “collaborators” or transported to a ‘labour’ camp.

What would you do?

This is the recurring real-life dilemma faced by housewives, fishermen and villagers when Jan Baalsrud lands on their doorstep in this month’s book, it’s We Die Alone by David Howarth.

Jan Baalsrud is not a fictional character. He was a Norwegian commando sent from England as part of an under-cover sabotage mission to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance during World War II.   The mission goes horribly wrong when, having sailed from Scotland to a remote bay north of Tromso, the leader of the mission reveals their identity to a local store owner who they have been told is a trusted contact. Too late they realize that their contact has died a year earlier and the new owner of the store, who has the same name, is terrified.  The message on a poster in his own shop: “Contact with the enemy is punished by death” is no idle threat. He calls a friend in the Department of Justice. Next morning a German gunboat sails into the bay.

The ensuing battle results in 11 of the 12-man commando unit being killed or captured (and subsequently executed).  Only Jan – wounded and minus a boot – escapes into the adjoining snow-covered hills.

So begins Jan’s epic 68-day escape journey across artic Norway to eventual safety in neutral Sweden.  Actually, epic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Add heroic, superhuman and phenomenal and we get a little closer – but it is difficult to find the superlatives to truly do justice to what Jan Baalstrud endured over these 68-days.

Jan's Jrny

The Route of Jan’s Epic Journey


Evading capture was only one of his many challenges. The harsh conditions of the Artic mountains presented an even more formidable threat.  Caught in an avalanche, he survives a 300ft fall that leaves him concussed, hallucinating and snow-blind.  He suffers severe frost-bite and starvation. Unable to walk because of a gangrenous leg, he endures days on a mountain lying in a hole in the ice under a boulder – his “snow grave”.  His physical perseverance is phenomenal, but even more impressive is his mental resolve and determination – superhuman is what comes to mind.  What other word adequately describes the level of resolve required to methodically amputate his own toes to rid himself of gangerene while lying, wet and cold, under a rock? Or to doggedly maintain a daily routine of basic survival tasks when convinced that he has been abandoned?

Jan’s courage and bravery are without any doubt exceptional and deserving of fulsome admiration, even adulation. But it is those who help him – the housewives, fishermen and

Jan Baalsrud

Jan Baalsrud

villagers mentioned above, the ordinary Norwegians on whose doorstep Jan appears – who truly deserve the accolade of ‘heroic’.  With the sole exception of the aforementioned shop owner, every single person who Jan seeks help from gives it willingly. They hide him, provide him with food from their meagre war rations, haul him in a stretcher up a mountain, drag him in a sled across a treacherous plateau – all the while putting themselves in mortal danger of being caught and executed and endangering their families. And when Jan reaches safety in Sweden, they remain with this danger still hanging over them like a sword of Damacles. For two more years they continue to live with the constant threat that an inadvertent word or an accidental comment might alert the Germans to their ‘treason’. Jan’s courage and bravery was motivated by a powerful desire to survive. The bravery of the men and women who ensured his survival was selfless. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Without doubt they are the real heroes of this amazing story.


And the most amazing thing? It’s NOT fiction – it all actually happened. These were real people who acted with astonishing bravery and selflessness to help a stranger who could not have survived without their help.  In this instance, truth is not only stranger than fiction but also much, much more wonderful.

David Howarth

David Howarth

The author, David Howarth, had a direct connection with the story. He was one of the commanding officers of the secret naval base in the Shetland Islands from which the boat that brought Jan and his ill-fated comrades to Norway embarked. After the war he re-traced Jan’s escape route with him and interviewed the people who helped him. This first-hand knowledge is evident throughout – and adds to the readers sense of witnessing inspiring real-life events.


Written in 1955, this was the third of 18 books on military history written by the English author, the others included Sledge Patrol (1951), Shetland Bus (1951), Thieves Hole (1954), Dawn of D-Day (1959), Sovereign of The Seas (1974), The Dreadnoughts (1979) and Nelson: The Immortal Memory (1988). We Die Alone was made into a movie “Ni Liv” (Nine Lives) in 1957 and inspired a 5-part Norweigan TV series in 2012.

The book retains a freshness and immediacy largely due to Howarth’s fast-paced, journalistic writing style. There are a few ‘time-warp’ issues that reflect attitudes that would not be tolerated today but were almost universally accepted at the time – e.g. some comments on the Lapps generate a ‘gulp’ in today’s reader – but these do not detract from the inspiring humanity of the story.

Read this book. It’ll restore your faith in human nature. And as we face into months of ear-bashing by Donald Trump’s hate-filled invective we need to be reminded that we have the capacity for empathetic heroism.