Category Archives: War

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!

Looking at the Stars

Instead of trying – and maybe failing – to write a true story from a real war torn country, it’s possible to do what Jo Cotterill has done. She made up her own troubled country, somewhere hot. It’s probably Afghanistan. Or Iran. Iraq. The main thing is she won’t have got it wrong.

Jo Cotterill, Looking at the Stars

In fact, she has got it very right, as long as you can overlook the horrors of war and sudden death and refugee camps and starvation. Not suitable for the very youngest readers, it is still – I think – aimed at fairly young children. The two main characters, Mini and Jenna are 13 and 14, but I think you’d want to read this younger. Sort of Jacqueline Wilson meets the Taliban.

Except here they are the Kwana, and they are harsh rulers, making people’s lives worse every week. Jenna and Mini are not allowed to go to school, nor is their much younger sister Vivie. It’s only their brother Ruman who goes to school, and their father Potta who teaches – what he is allowed to teach – at the university. He and their Mamie works hard to keep the family safe.

But one day the foreign soldiers come, and Ruman disappears; possibly to work under ground. Neighbours grow suspicious of each other and making a living gets harder every day, until the unspeakable night when this family is split up in the cruellest of ways.

In the end Mini and Jenna have to escape, as they try to make sense of the situation. They end up in a refugee camp where conditions are far worse than either they or the reader could have imagined.

Jenna is the kind one, and Mini survives by telling stories. They continue looking for the others. They make friends among the other camp dwellers, and they grow up very quickly.

I don’t want to say what happens, but it is bleak, albeit somewhat hopeful. Jo has written a fantastic story, which is easy to read, or would be were it not for the awful conditions people suffer. This book will hopefully help young readers to understand what they hear about in the news.

OxCrimes

Pop down to your local Oxfam and buy a copy of OxCrimes: 27 Killer Stories from the Cream of Crime Writers and support the work of Oxfam while giving yourself something good to read for the next few hours.

It’s got ‘practically every crime writer’ contributing. Even the ones I’d not heard of, as I had to confess to yesterday. But especially the ones I do know. Foreword by that Rankin chap who always pops up and takes part in every worthwhile venture going. (All right, not everyone. But 27 isn’t bad. Plus Ian Rankin.)

OxCrimes: 27 Killer Stories from the Cream of Crime Writers

The stories were of every imaginable kind, including a pretty scary sci-fi thriller crime tale from Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. There’s war crimes and ghostly crimes, sexy ones and the usual crime-y crimes. How Anthony Horowitz could be allowed to say what I’ve always suspected about public toilets (you know the kind…) is beyond my comprehension. Now none of us will want to go.

My favourite – if I’m allowed one – has to be Stuart Neville’s, which was brilliant in all its period simplicity. Not to mention chilling.

As for the rest, I think I’ve listed them all. You will know some better than others, just like me. You might find a new favourite, or even one you wouldn’t mind killing slowly and painfully. What do I know?

It’s all in a good cause, even if the blood flows fairly freely in places.

‘With previous books OxTravels and OxTales having raised over a quarter of a million pounds since their 2009 publication, Oxfam is hoping OxCrimes will raise even more, helping to tackle poverty and suffering around the world. Visit Oxfam’s Emergency Response pages to find out more about how you can help.’

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.

The surprise factor

How can you be sure if any subsequent book by author A is better than the first one he or she had published? It’s just about possible to say that an OK book wasn’t quite as wonderful as the first. But if it is a really fantastic novel, can I appreciate it properly?

I’m thinking here of three ladies, whose first books I adored. They are – in chronological order – Meg Rosoff, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein.*

How I Live Now had such an impact on me, that I simply do not know how and where on a scale (stupid things, anyway) I should put Meg’s other books. They are all exceptionally good. Some have been more enjoyable than others. But I had been wondering if anything could ever beat HILN.

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay wasn’t just all right. It kept surprising me and I was left feeling very happy afterwards. As someone I ‘knew’ before I read her debut book, I was also relieved Candy could actually write. Shine was another fantastic book, leaving me glowing. But was it as good?

And as for Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, that was the second best thing to hit me after HILN. (Never mind that I couldn’t even remember the title of it recently. That was merely a senior moment. I’d have been able to tell you the whole plot.) So when Rose Under Fire followed CNV, could it be as marvellous?

I know authors are supposed to get better with writing more books. Many do. Some remain excellent throughout. And I suppose some never quite manage what they wrote the first time round.

But I think what I’m getting at is that the sheer surprise of coming across one of the best books you’ve ever read, is one thing, while any subsequent book by the same author will never be a surprise. You know what they can do. You expect it. You hope for the very best.

So I wonder how I’d have felt about any of the later books by Meg, Candy and Elizabeth, if I’d not read their first novels. And if I’d then got to their debut books, would they have changed anything?

When you take a person’s details (schools, etc) people sometimes write down where in the sibling group they belong. Because it matters. Perhaps the same can be said for books? What might have happened to the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird?

*I know. I know. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s first. It was my first, so it felt like it ought to have been hers too.

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.

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?

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.

‘People respond to courage’

While I eyed up the new furniture at MMU (would anyone really notice if I walked off with one of those sofas?), the other people who had come to hear Deborah Ellis speak scoffed wine and canapés. Deborah is back in the UK for the first time for years, so I’m not surprised her fans wanted to see and hear her.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

Deborah’s interest in Afghanistan started in the late 1990s, when she visited refugee camps in Pakistan a couple of times. She based her idea for writing books about it on the fact that if you know who someone is, you have a relationship, and it’s much harder to hate them.

She heard about two girls who dressed up as boys and went out to work to support their families, and they became her character Parvana, and as she herself has an older sister, it wasn’t at all hard to write about family members who drive you crazy, because that happens wherever in the world you happen to live.

When asked about writing torture scenes, she described water-boarding, and discussed how you know what counts as torture, as well as saying she hopes her fellow Canadians have not taken part in it, but she’s not sure. Deborah reckons children understand complicated situations well, and always ask astute questions wherever she goes.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

Her wish was to show the Afghan people as warm and welcoming, and she pointed out that the Taliban are people too. Trying to explain why the parents and grandparents in My Name Is Parvana didn’t want their children to go to school, she said that if none of them had attended school, it’s hardly surprising they were nervous about it.

Asked about how to deal with writer’s block Deborah recommended doing something real, like the washing up or mowing the lawn. On how to become a writer she suggested reading a lot, as well as reading more advanced things than usual and also different stuff than what you normally read. Then you just sit down and write and 90% of it will be garbage, but you’re allowed to spend 20 minutes a day on writing bad stuff.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

The teachers in the audience use The Breadwinner in the classroom and find that it provides openings for all sorts of discussion and tasks among their students. Not bad for a book which Deborah only hoped would sell $3000 worth for the women in Afghanistan.

Before the book signing at the end, Deborah read a short piece from her new Kids of Kabul, which is based on interviews with children. The one she read was about ‘Frank Sinatra.’

This was a marvellous early start to the 2014 Manchester Children’s Book Festival. (The regular programme will be available very soon.)