Category Archives: History

Malteser

There was an empty box – previously – of Maltesers that I needed to dispose of recently. I realised as I stopped to consider the ex-contents that I couldn’t remember what Maltesers taste like.

Although I no longer eat any chocolate, I can usually dredge up enough memory of what I used to eat and like. And then I want to cry.

But Maltesers? No. I did come to them late in my chocolate eating life, but still.

To me they have literary connotations. I was at the English department at the University of Gothenburg, when two of my lecturers happened to meet mid-corridor. One of them offered the other a Malteser, and then felt he had to offer me one as well.

Wanting to show my appreciation and also how well read and generally well educated I was, I mentioned that I’d just read a novel where Maltesers featured heavily. (And I’m sorry, but I can’t remember which novel. Maybe Graham Greene?)

‘Yes,’ said lecturer no. two, naming the book. I was so pleased he knew what I was talking about. These days I don’t think you could expect someone else to have read, and remembered, the same book. There are too many books we might be reading.

So we enjoyed some literary chocolatey bonding before we went to our respective classrooms.

Just wish I could recall what they are like. I’m sure I liked them, but not so much I’d buy them for myself terribly frequently. Now, give me Anton Berg’s chocolate covered marzipan any day! (Obviously I mean, don’t!)

Over the Line

WWI football, but not that match, the one we all know about.

Tom Palmer writes about a young football player going to war, and he’s not the first one. A couple of books I’ve read recently begin with young men and their hopes of becoming successful – professional – players, only to find WWI getting in the way. It wasn’t the done thing to ‘avoid’ signing up because you were about to get your big break.

Jack in Over the Line is a really good player, but once he’s played his first season he enlists, along with team mates as well as players from ‘the competition,’ and they are placed in the Footballers’ Battalion, who play against other soldiers when not in the trenches.

Tom Palmer, Over the Line

This is another engaging Barrington Stoke story, and because of the soccer aspect it’s refreshingly different from other WWI books. As it’s a short book, it can only afford the briefest of description of life in the trenches. This doesn’t matter – in fact, it possibly helps – as the stark horror of war is painted in a few words.

Some of the people around Jack die, but by the end of the book the reader realises that surviving the war isn’t necessarily the wonderful fate you’d think it would be.

A very footbally war story, and interesting, even for non-soccer fans.

Tom will launch his book with the help of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival on Sunday 6th July. Twice, in one day. Be there!

Theory of battle

We arrived in the run-up to the Battle of Bannockburn 700th celebrations, which kick off big time today. The Resident IT Consultant has understandably been more excited than me. He is the historian of us, and the native. But I thought I’d be reasonably OK with going along to the new visitors’ centre to experience the battle.

Maybe I’d have been less underwhelmed if I’d studied the website in detail before going. I didn’t look at it at all, because in general I’d expect anywhere like that to be possible to negotiate without an instruction manual.

It was complicated, as well as dark and confusing and it involved standing up at all times, which pales rather when you’ve signed up for nearly two hours of battle. (I know. It was worse back in 1314. I shouldn’t moan.) I don’t take in unexpected oral instructions very quickly, and I feel if a venue has to send you off into battle with a written booklet (there wasn’t one) they have missed out in the design of the whole place.

I suspect what it is, is a lack of theory of mind on their behalf. They know how it works, because they built it and/or work there. I’d be a lot better on a second visit, but at £11 a pop it’s not something people will do (unless a member of the Scottish – or English – National Trust), or can’t do if they are visiting from elsewhere.

You start off with 3D glasses which put you straight into the path of battle. We discovered we were in direct line between the arrows being fired and their goal. We had soldiers impaled by horrible weapons right next to us, and horses riding by an inch away. That was very instructive.

Next you can meet and chat to a dozen or so people involved in the battle, from both sides. Technically it veered between very easy to impossible to get your hand-waves hit the right spot. But like the first bit, it was quite interesting and helps you understand war of any kind.

Then came the ‘shows’ we had time booked tickets for. I’d assumed sitting down. I’d assumed slightly bigger venue. Finding it was tiny and standing up, and nowhere near interesting enough (to me) to remove the claustrophobia from being foremost on my mind, I spent five minutes picking up the courage to leave the room. As I’d suspected, the doors were not easy to open, and required the help of the person running the battle show, which rather removed any hoped for inconspicuousness on my part.

Once out, I didn’t mind ‘losing out’ or having to wait for my historian to stand through the whole thing. Although, the only choices for sitting down (I had over an hour to wait) was the wall by the car park or in the café. I tried both. Outside was cold, and inside I found out exactly how uncomfortable those trendy Tolix chairs can be.

When I had also witnessed other visitors being unable to identify the correct door to the toilets and overheard a member of staff saying they were badly signposted, I could only conclude someone has forgotten that first-time – and possibly once-only – visitors need clarity, and in more ways than one.

It’s like starting a new school. You know nothing to begin with, but learn by returning every day. You won’t be going to Bannockburn quite as frequently as that.

But, all in all, a lovely concept. I liked finding out what it might have been like standing in that field 700 years ago. I would have appreciated more information beforehand, but then so would the soldiers back in 1314, I imagine.

If you are not phobic, do go. But watch out for the arrows!

Vango

Timothée de Fombelle’s Vango, Book 1 – Between Sky and Earth is the kind of book that makes your hair stand on end. It’s the sheer unexpectedness of finding something new and marvellous, as well as ‘simply’ getting a reading experience which is pretty special. I’d never heard of Timothée or Vango until the second book arrived, but it looked so good I requested the first book so I could enjoy both.

Timothée de Fombelle, Vango, Book 1 - Between Sky and Earth

Set primarily in the 1930s, Vango could be David’s – from I Am David – older brother. A displaced boy with a mystery, one who speaks several languages, is hard working, popular and good at many things. Born in 1915, Vango is 19 when we meet him, and then the action moves back and forth from when he was three until early 1936. Set mainly in Europe, we move from Paris to Italy to Germany and Scotland during the exciting fictional 1930s that we love so much.

Vango can climb. Anything. There are Zeppelins, repercussions from the war as well as a slow romance going on. It’s very exciting. Very lovely. Perhaps because people are not talking about this book as much as they should, because it’s French. A translation, by the capable Sarah Ardizzone. It’s a typical example of how you lose out through xenophobia. Admittedly, Timothée’s idea of Scotland is based more on England, but who cares? It’s fun. It has a flavour of The Thirty-Nine Steps, with some Jules Verne thrown in.

Having decided to take a – very short – break before reading book 2, I can’t entirely say where Vango is going. But trust me, it’s worth reading. This is the kind of discovery you want to make, rather than more of the same, whether wizzards or vampires. You get Vango, and countless more colourful characters that you want to get to know better. That’s more than enough.

Al Capone Does My Homework

Gennifer Choldenko covers a lot in the third outing for Al Capone, in her trilogy set on Alcatraz in the 1930s. To begin with, there’s a terrific children’s novel. Then there’s the autism aspect, which she handles so well, fitting it neatly into the plot. Also some American history, as well as showing us the community spirit of people living close together in such an unusual place, with a bit of crime and lots of excitement added.

Not that Mr Capone enters centre stage, or anything. He just hovers in the background, somehow colouring much of what goes on at Alcatraz prison.

The lovely Moose is 13 now, and his Dad has been made Assistant Warden. This causes lots of trouble, with jealousies among other prison guards, and difficulties with the cons. Then there is Moose’s sister Natalie, who is 16 and is autistic. Her family are trying to teach her to make eye contact with people.

Attacks on people, arson, gambling and counter-feiting fill this book on childhood in times gone by, and exciting though this is, what matters is the friendships, the solidarity and the hard work it means to have Natalie in your family. Moose does so much, and still feels he is failing. He’s also falling in love, which is both easy and hard in such a small place. ‘Being locked in a shed with a girl you once kissed and your best friend who happens to be a girl is not exactly relaxing.’

Gennifer Choldenko, Al Capone Does My Homework

I know Gennifer has done a lot of research, because she says so in her notes. But it only shows in how natural the whole story feels. You end up thinking you’re there on Alcatraz, in 1930s America. I’m sorry the trilogy has come to an end, but I have enjoyed every minute of all three books. Credit to new publisher Hot Key Books for taking over, and for keeping the cover art – by Melvyn Evans – in the style we’d learned to love.

 

Arrowhead

Ruth Eastham’s Arrowhead begins with some pretty un-Norwegianlike behaviour among a group of school children in the north of Norway. But that’s OK, because they have a reason for it. They are not quite themselves.

Ruth Eastham, Arrowhead

The book’s hero, Jack, is Norwegian, but brought up in England, so counts as an outsider. He’s not the only hero; there is Tor, who is a dead viking, and Jack’s present day allies Skuli and Emma. They live in Isdal, which is as cold as it sounds, despite it being summer (sort of). And everything is a bit odd. No one behaves as you’d expect, apart from Skuli and Jack, and we soon find out why.

Arrowhead is another rewriting – or fantasy – based on Norse mythology and other old stuff. I noticed Beowulf in there. Odin obviously turns up, the way he tends to do.

In the end it’s up to the three live heroes and the dead one to work on setting Isdal – and the world – right. Can they do it?

Ruth has got most of her Norwegian facts sorted out. Even the local mountain has a good name. And people eat waffles in the town’s café. (That really impressed me, until I found out that some witch had had a say in that. But they should eat waffles.)

Very exciting adventure, and one I reckon would make an excellent film. I could see it as I read. The arrows. The fire. The fighting.

The Night Raid

Boys will be boys. They were – mostly – just the same back in Roman times. Or do I mean Greek?

Caroline Lawrence has written her first Barrington Stoke story, and it is both an exciting read and quite educational for people like me. If you’re a bit shaky on the Classics, then The Night Raid is for you.

Caroline Lawrence, The Night Raid

It begins with the fall of Troy, when two young boys, Rye and Nisus, flee for their lives, having lost family members. Both want revenge, but first have to start new lives with the leader of the Trojans, Aeneas.

The reader learns what happened to the Trojans in exile, and how they arrived in Italy, years later.

If the story sounds at all familiar, it will be because a chap called Virgil wrote a poem called the Aeneid, and Caroline has borrowed from that to tell us what happened to the teenagers, Nisus and Rye.

I think it’s fantastic the way an author can take something old and seemingly difficult and bring it to a new audience by re-writing something that many of us will happily avoid for as long as we possibly can.

Thank you for educating me a little bit, Caroline.

The Demons of Ghent

You know that feeling you have when you’re climbing about on the rooftops of Ghent, with Death right behind you? That’s The Demons of Ghent, the second of Helen Grant’s Flemish trilogy. It’s that strange thing, the perfect book, both extremely soothing and calm (I suspect it’s the Flemish aspect), and heart-stoppingly scary.

Climbing to the top of buildings and walking across whole city blocks is frightening enough on its own, without adding a stalking monster who kills people. Someone you might encounter as you run along some vertigo-inducing parapet or other narrow strip of roof. Add rain or darkness, and it’s almost heaven. (If you’ve been good. If not, it will be the other place.)

Helen Grant, Demons of Ghent

Veerle has had to move from the small village that she loved and knew so well, and is forced to live with her father and his new – pregnant – wife, who resents her presence. Not happy at school, Veerle bunks off, and meets Bram, another desirable young man (Kris seems to have dropped out of sight, to begin with), who is into rooftops.

People are dying, though. ‘Suicides’ jumping off houses. And Ghent natives are seeing ‘demons’ on the rooftops at night. As an outsider Veerle finds this rather odd.

Until the day she comes across someone whom she thought was dead and it all goes horribly wrong. It’s tough being wanted by two handsome young men all at once, as well as having Death turn up wherever you go.

I’m wondering if we will ever have an explanation, or if Veerle will keep putting herself in danger until it’s too late? Are the odd things that happen to her connected, or is she just prone to meeting new monsters at every new turn?

Helen writes so naturally that you can’t really see how she pulls it off. And although the reader screams at Veerle not to do whatever she has in mind to try next, it makes for surprisingly comfortable reading. Yes, Death and vertigo are both scary, but there is an intrinsic calm to this Flemish life.

Comfy horror. I love it!

Hurling oneself off towers

Is never a good idea. We took the day off for the Resident IT Consultant’s birthday yesterday and looked at a ruin. Not me, but a really big and even older one.

Cambuskenneth Abbey

I’m in the middle of reading Helen Grant’s Demons of Ghent and am feeling distinctly anti-tower at the moment. Which will be why I suggested we go and look at Cambuskenneth Abbey – ruin of – yesterday morning. It is primarily a tower, off which you can’t really hurl yourself, as they have closed the door to the staircase.

Cambuskenneth Abbey

So it’s mostly a nice tower and ruined Abbey walls and some old graves. An old King – James III, I believe – is buried there. He’s got a nice view, in his old age. Pretty grassy meadow and the river, and some nettles, and the Ochils in the background.

Cambuskenneth Abbey

So we looked around and took a circular stroll round the village, and all I had with me was a mobile phone on which to take photos. (Took me hours to work out how to squeeze them off the phone and onto the computer and then to the blog. I hope you appreciate it.)

After this ‘taxing’ stroll we had scones and tea in a nearby (-ish) farm café. They also sold local stuff such as bananas and genuine vegetable pakoras.

(Helen Grant has a lot to answer for, starting me off on visiting graves and ruins like this.)

One Day in Oradour

You couldn’t make it up.

Some books are very scary, very exciting and sometimes filled with unimaginable cruelty and horror. But if you wanted to invent a plot that was beyond awful, I still don’t think you’d go quite as far as what happened in Oradour.

Helen Watts has written One Day in Oradour, and based it on the real events from one day in 1944 in this French village. While she has fictionalised parts of the day’s events – because she wasn’t there that day – and changed the names, it is all mostly as it happened.

What concerns me is that I’d never heard of this massacre of French civilians by German troups. I suppose the killing of nearly everyone in a village during a war might be seen as ‘natural’ somehow. Maybe, but not like this.

Reading the first half of the book I could barely continue. You know what will happen and to watch as the villagers go about their peaceful, almost idyllic, lives, considering there was a war on, you just want to walk away and not find out how.

Helen Watts, One Day In Oradour

But you have to, and I did. It’s compelling reading, but so heart-rending, that it’s tempting to skip bits, to arrive sooner, and to avoid some of the atrocities. I’ll let you decide which you do.

A few people survive the German’s revenge for the killing of one of their top men in the area. And one child. Read that again. One child. It’s the boy on the cover. He was seven. He was real. He lived until 2001. And I never heard of this.

This isn’t a book for everyone. I’d like to think people would learn, by reading it. But I suspect some of us never learn.