Category Archives: Authors

Forge

As I was saying the other day, I took my time over reading Forge. But that was probably for the best, as I was much better prepared for The American Revolution by now. I haven’t read much fiction set during this period (apart from Chains, the first book about Isabel and Curzon), and looked at from my comfortable perspective 200 years later, I always reckoned America ‘simply freed itself.’ You know, because it wanted to.

Laurie Halse Anderson, Forge

Chains was mostly Isabel’s story, and Forge is more about Curzon. They have finally escaped, but things don’t go well. Curzon ends up enlisting to fight for the Patriots, and most of the book is set in Valley Forge, where George Washington set up his headquarters.

Black soldiers were unusual, but not as rare as you might think. So when the soldiers freeze and starve and nearly kill themselves just trying to survive the winter of 1777-78, at least white and black suffer equally. It’s not even only the poor, as many better off men fought for freedom from the King of England as well.

On the other hand, the leaders at Valley Forge have food to eat, and beds to sleep in.

Laurie Halse Anderson, Forge

Forge is mainly about Curzon and his fellow soldiers, and about being black and being a slave. Neither Curzon nor Isabel are as free as they would like, and far too many people believe slavery is perfectly all right.

Laurie has put a lot of real people and real battles and real conditions into her book. It’s actually quite interesting to find out that so many of the characters were not made up, and that those who were, were based on real people. Each chapter begins with a quote from something written by leaders of the revolution, as well as by soldiers and others.

If you – like me – hoped for a resolution to Isabel’s and Curzon’s problems, you will find that you have to read one more book first, Ashes. And it’s not been published yet. (At least me being late means my wait will be shorter…)

Maybe there is a lot of young fiction about this period in America. I hope so, because it’s an interesting time. In a way it’s surprising I’ve not come across a lot more, unless very little has actually been written.

Why she’s still reading, fifteen years later…

Remember my appalling reading habits when I was young? Well, here is a glowing example of what the perfect parent should do – according to Bookwitch. Author Helen Grant makes me green with envy. I’m hoping that now that I will be living closer to her, some of her excellence might rub off.

Who am I fooling? Over to Helen:

‘I read to my teenager. I didn’t think there was anything particularly noteworthy in that, until the Bookwitch wrote and asked me whether I would be prepared to do a guest blog about it for her: what I read, how I find the time, and also something about the fact that the teenager in question is prepared to listen to me reading.

Helen Grant

I started to think about the topic a bit and it is perfectly true that when you think “bedtime story” you don’t think “mum and teen.” You think of sweet little shock-headed toddlers who have to be read to, because they can’t read themselves yet, or primary school kids who like a reassuring half-hour with mum before bed. Hey, look at the music video for Ylvis’ What does the fox say? – how old is the kid sitting on his grandpa’s lap, do you think? Four, maybe five years old, tops.

What you don’t imagine is gramps reading to 170cm of gum-chewing teenager in a hoodie.

So how come I’m doing it? It’s a long story.

My daughter made her appearance in the world almost three weeks late, and I have often wondered whether it was missing that three weeks of thrilling outside world experience that made her so darn sleepless as a baby. I know all mums think their darling is special, but I really am convinced that I had the wakefullest baby ever. She resisted sleep at all costs, maintaining instead a kind of squirelly perma-attention that would continue until she was screeching with tiredness. Car drives and being carried around in someone’s arms would make her drop off (eventually) but it can be difficult to prepare meals whilst driving a car or carrying a baby. Another solution had to be found.

By trial and error, we discovered that reading aloud would make her go to sleep. I suppose it was the reassurance of a familiar voice without too much interaction: no coochy-coo, who’s a nice baby then? – more, I read, you listen. As she was too tiny to know or care what the reading matter was, we chose our own. My husband read her Heinrich Harrer’s mountaineering classic The White Spider; I read her Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (another of those cultural experiences she was too young to remember later, like visiting every single Antoni Gaudi building in Barcelona). A few terrifying crevasses or paragraphs of war-torn love and she would be fast asleep.

Helen Grant's reading pile

Over the years that followed I often read to her and her little brother. Greater love hath no mother than this, that she readeth every single volume of Beast Quest, believe me. I discovered that the classics are still the best. Beatrix Potter’s language is so flowing and elegant that it can be read accurately even when the person reading is three-quarters dead with exhaustion.

Eventually, of course, both kids learnt to read themselves, and were able to pursue the time-honoured custom of covert under-the-bedclothes reading after lights out, whilst I put my feet up – or more probably, emptied the dishwasher.

Reading aloud was relegated to one of those things we did during particularly long car journeys or intolerably wet days on holiday.

Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve started it again. My daughter is a voracious reader, so she doesn’t really need any encouragement to get through books, but she did need some help with sleeping. The dawn of the teenage years seemed to have restored her to factory settings, so to speak: all of a sudden she was having problems sleeping again, resulting in exhaustion in the mornings. Sitting up late at night in front of a bright screen – whether tv, computer or hand held console – is not a good recipe for sound sleep. Science says all that artificial light close to the face fools the body into thinking it is still daytime, and delays the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. Trouble is, if you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 11pm it is difficult to lie patiently in a darkened room waiting for the elusive sleep to arrive.

Alan Grant at bedtime

I suggested reading to her again. And that is what we have done. We started off with The Hound of the Baskervilles; since then we have also done King Solomon’s Mines, The Lost World, Dracula, The Chrysalids, The Werewolf, Carmilla, my own novel The Glass Demon, and various short stories including those of Arthur Conan Doyle, Saki, M.R.James and L.T.C.Rolt. We choose the books between us. I think this is pretty key to the teen-being-prepared-to-listen bit. It helps that we share a taste for thrilling and creepy stories. If she wanted me to read her endless romances I would still read them, but I’d be reading between clenched teeth. We’ve also tended to go for stuff she might not tackle on her own: Dracula, for example, is easier if you have someone ancient on hand to explain what telegraphy, collar studs and hansom cabs are (not, I hasten to add, that I actually remember those things!!).

Yes, it does take up a bit of time in the evening – but on the other hand, the time is more pleasantly spent than if I were passing her door every ten minutes saying “Haven’t you turned that light out yet?” Nobody gets nagged, she gets entertainment as she slides into sleep, and I get to rediscover books I loved in the past.’

St George and me

And we’re off. Not this very minute, if you’re an early reader. But barring horrific delays and mishaps and calamities, this is the day.

Does it seem like an un-English thing to move out of the country on St George’s day? ‘snot intentional.

It’s World Book Day. The real WBD, I mean. So I suppose it makes sense that a Bookwitch moves around in the world, a little.

Shakespeare kicked the bucket on this date, and when I looked it up, lots more people as well. Not Cervantes, for some obscure reason. I had laboured under the impression that he and William died on the same day, but Don Quijote’s creator has shifted to a day earlier. Oh, well.

Some were even born on April 23rd. Ngaio Marsh. Halldór Laxness.

Oh look, there’s the dragon..!!!

Scotland for Beginners

1314 an’ a’ that. Well, you can’t say I’ve not picked a good year to move to Scotland. Or place. In fact, by the time we have somewhere to actually live, I suspect we’ll be hitting the Battle of Bannockburn celebrations almost squarely in the face. 700 years…

To be perfectly honest, I’m a little hazy on Bannockburn. Who did what to whom and why? The where is more obvious. We have decided Bannockburn is too far out for us, but there have been some attractively priced houses to consider.

Anyway, Daughter felt I needed a book to help me get by, so she gave me Rupert Besley’s brilliant Scotland for Beginners. I think it helped that she knew I’ve collected his postcards for decades. (They’ve been packed in some box for the move.)

So, it’s got a little bit of everything. It begins with your arrival. Apparently you drive in the middle of the road. And I will do just fine if I say ‘dinna ken’ all the time.

‘A wee way’ is further than ‘no far.’ It mentions the West Highland Way, without which I’d not have had a Resident IT Consultant. (Although I didn’t know the footpath was pioneerd by a motorist in 1980 who set off south from Ben Nevis in search of a phone box. I think he found one in Glasgow.

This useful guide has something to say on kilts, midges and dead haggises (they make good sporrans).

And even without the book I know not to get my hopes up if someone tells me I’ve already had tea. (It’s a tad mean, if you ask me.)

Because I learned to talk while living in southern Sweden, I will have no trouble with the ‘ch’ sound. I just don’t want to be mistaken for a Sassenach.

Rupert Besley, Scotland for Beginners

The Red Tree

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

It has a rather Finnish, Tove Jansson kind of feel to it. The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is a book I’d not read before, and I was struck by how Finnish it seemed. Not surprising, but still.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

I can’t make my mind up whether it is sad or not. It deals with feeling sad. Days that start bad and get worse. Shaun’s pictures show pretty vividly how bad you can feel; lonely and dark, and unsure of who you are, even.

Reading this book and discovering you are not alone in feeling alone, ought to be a good thing. Finding you can share your thoughts and feelings with someone who has been there.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

And then there is the ending…

A very beautiful book.

Now, before and much earlier

At the same time as I read Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, which briefly featured the men who built the railways across America, I was facebook stalking Son and Dodo on their travels across America on possibly the very same rails. Or maybe newer versions of what was being built 150 years ago. It felt like one of those odd coincidences.

Amtrak

Besides, modern people don’t usually cross that vast continent down at ground level, taking days travelling at speeds of 40 mph.

Crossing America

After Reading Buffalo Soldier, the one unread book which I suddenly felt I must read was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Forge. It was the ‘black soldier in American history’ theme, although I had actually forgotten that Laurie’s characters lived a hundred years before Tanya’s.

They too were slaves, and the war is America versus England, instead of North versus South. I did find the war in Buffalo Soldier very harsh, but it is nothing compared with the war to free ‘the country of the free’ from European rule. The conditions were atrocious.

The place names have only ever been names to me. Yes, maybe someone fought a battle there, but it’s history. Now I can put so much misery to the small gains made with such great sacrifice by all the soldiers involved, whether English or American, free or slave.

Son and Dodo are back home, and they turned up yesterday, telling us all about the trip and giving us a picture show on two laptops simultaneously. And they’d visited Concord, one of those places where much blood flowed and people suffered. Because it’s what you do as a tourist.

Without Forge, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Boston

It’s strange how the realities between the three centuries have changed. Freedom fight in the 18th century. Civil war in the 19th. Leisurely travel, accompanied by digital cameras, laptops and facebook in the early 21st century. I wonder what Tanya’s and Laurie’s characters would have thought if they’d had an inkling of what was to come?

Perfect for…?

If you want to add to the description of a book, you could say it’s a bit like ‘XX.’ But only if it is a bit like XX. Sometimes when I’ve written along those lines, I lie awake at night, wondering if anyone else will see it the same way, or if I have been misleading.

Or you could say it would suit someone who also likes XX or YY, whether they are genres or authors or single book titles. Because it helps in the describing, and it might genuinely assist fans of whatever it is, to try this particular book or author.

But again, it needs to have some semblance of truth in it. If you mislead and thereby disappoint, you will have undone what you set out to do.

So I have to admit to hating it when press releases claim things like that. Or when publishers actually put it on the cover of the proof copy.

Meg Rosoff

A while ago I read an early proof, the cover of which claimed it was ‘perfect for fans of Meg Rosoff and Annabel Pitcher.’ (This could help identify it to the people involved, so I hasten to add that I don’t intend to disparage this particular book. It just wasn’t what the cover claimed, but then I didn’t believe the statement in the first place. To my mind it is virtually impossible to be like Meg Rosoff.)

But to reviewers or bookseller who might not know this, it could lead to them recommending the book on those grounds. Hopefully, the reader would like this book as well. We can all like lots of different types of books.

What the statement says to me, is that it will be perfect for readers of other YA novels. But then you sort of expect that. YA readers will like YA books. No need to point it out.

It’s different if the publishers were to ask Meg or Annabel to read the book and provide a quote. Then it is ‘Meg Rosoff: “This is a great read!”‘ and it’s a recommendation, not a comparison. I would need to know what kind of books Meg likes, though, if I intend to use the information to help me decide.

Now would be a good time to tell me about all such comparisons I’ve made, which disappointed you deeply. (Sorry, no refunds.)

An Austen-free upbringing

After wondering why I didn’t read the books by Jane Austen or the Brontës in my early teens, I suddenly realised why, and who I could blame for this regrettable shortcoming. (Always important, because it certainly wasn’t my fault.)

My Swedish teacher when I was 15, is who. The last year of secondary school we had free reading once a week. I am – with my mature adult hindsight – guessing it was a way to get the non-readers to read. Anything. At. All.

We were allowed to read whatever we wanted, and could bring our own books or use the school library. I generally sat down with an Alistair MacLean, or similar. Generally in English (which is odd for a Swedish lesson, but never mind). Naturally the teacher would have preferred me not to.

So she suggested books I might try. The only one I remember is Pella. I am sure the Pella books were fantastic, and the teacher had most likely loved them when she was young. But I was 15, and I was reading MacLean. Pella would – possibly – have been right for me about three years earlier.

All these years I’ve remembered the teacher’s badly chosen suggested books and I have understood what she was hoping for. I just haven’t thought of what she ought to have pointed me in the direction of instead, because she was quite right in wanting me to better myself with something other than MacLean.

I already loved all manner of romances; the kind where a young governess meets her new employer who is a brooding and somewhat strange man, and where they eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The Jane Eyre copycats. Reader, I had no idea there existed the real thing and that it would have been much more satisfying. (Not better than MacLean, obviously, but as good…)

We knew of Pride and Prejudice because it had been on television. At that point I was of an age where understanding there’d be a book as well was too much to expect. We knew about Vanity Fair, because that too had been on television. Also, Heathcliff ran around the moors on television, and I knew there was a book, but it didn’t tempt me at all.

I knew about Dickens because we had children’s abridged versions. And yes, he’d been on television.

Mother-of-witch was many things, and for someone of her background she had an astounding number of proper books and books in English. But she had not been brought up on the classic governesses, and so she could not point me in their direction. Which is fine.

But my well educated mother tongue teacher could have. And should have.

Mrs G’s book

I promise. I will not keep going on about the G family and how they influenced me. Not for all that much longer, anyway. But an influence is an influence and cannot be ignored.

It’ll get sadder now. Many years after my year of lodging with them, I was shocked to to be told that Mrs G was terminally ill. And that she’d not been wanting to tell me, because it was precisely the same illness that Mother-of-witch died of five years before. And she knew that, and I bet she knew that she was at least as much of a mother figure as she was friend. To lose two mothers to the same illness could be seen as carelessness.

Towards the end you go a bit crazy. I know I did. Mrs G clearly sensed it, and knew what to do.

A couple of days later a parcel arrived for me. It was a book. One of hers. Not one that I particularly wanted, but one of hers and so very well chosen. It was old and worn. It was Swedish Embroidery, by Eivor Fisher.

Eivor Fisher, Swedish Embroidery

I had been surrounded by embroidery for most of my life, and with it being mainly mid-20th century in style, it was precisely what I’d been surrounded by. Mother-of-witch and all her friends embroidered such things. In short, a little boring. For me.

But to Mrs G it was obviously fresh and exciting, being part of a much earlier craze for things Scandi (same as Sarah Lund’s jumpers) that young people well versed in arty ways liked back then.

What really made her gift special, however, was the card that accompanied the book, explaining why and what. Before they were married, Mr G had to attend classes in the evening for his architect course, which he didn’t care for. I suppose he’d rather have gone out with his girlfriend.

His girlfriend was so nice (well, we already knew) that she enrolled in embroidery classes at the same Art College, so that they could go for drinks afterwards. I find that very romantic.

So, there was the reason for the book. She wanted to leave a little bit of herself for me to keep. It’s amazing how knowing the background to something can change how you look at it.

This was precisely the book I needed. I won’t be embroidering anything from it, the way Mrs G hoped. But I don’t need to.

Buffalo Soldier

What a book! Buffalo Soldier is my first by Tanya Landman, and I don’t know why I waited so long. A few weeks ago the internet was awash with praise for this book, and I was the only one who didn’t even have a copy… Luckily, hints work well and it didn’t take long for one to arrive.

It’s a sad book. Well, no, it isn’t sad so much as the reason all the really awful things that happen, is sad. That’s history for you. Set in the years before, during and after the American civil war, it shows us a very different America from the one we might know now.

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier

Charley is a slave girl from the south. She doesn’t know her parents, and her master isn’t particularly fair, and his new wife is worse. The overseer’s son persecutes her daily. But then the Yankees arrive, and the black slaves are ‘freed.’ Only, life appears to get worse, and Charley sees so much that is bad, that she steals the clothes off a dead man and disguises herself as a boy and joins the army.

That’s when she discovers how truly bad and unfair and insane the world can be. She works hard, as a new kind of slave, and no matter how much she tries to get herself killed, she survives when her friends don’t.

Tanya covers the history of black slaves and Indians, and the ruling ‘whiteys’ as well as the emerging US by showing us what the world looks like from Charley’s point of view. Her life is so bleak and so difficult, that neither she nor the reader can quite trust the slight ray of hope when it finally appears.

But to have a story book happy ending to what could very well have been a true tale of a young black slave and soldier during the second half of the 19th century, doesn’t seem quite right.

What makes this book so special is that even someone who craves happy endings can love it. The good parts are so very good that they carry the overwhelmingly bad parts. That’s a difficult thing to do, and that will be why everyone was talking about Buffalo Soldier.