Tag Archives: Elizabeth Wein

EIBF and me, 2014

It is here. The programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Book festival. And I’m sorry, but all I can think of is that Sara Paretsky will be there. It’s been three years, and she is finally coming in the summer rather than freezing her nether regions off in February/March. Which is so sensible.

OK, there must be a few other authors scheduled for the two and a bit weeks. Think, witch, think!

There are some very interesting looking events where authors one admires talk about authors one admires. I’m going to have to see if I can catch one of those, because they look like tickets might sell out fast (small tent). Then there is Patrick Ness who will give the Siobhan Dowd talk and Val McDermid will pretend to be Jane Austen.

Wendy Meddour is coming and there is a lovely pairing of Francesca Simon and Irving Finkel. Another interesting pair is Caroline Lawrence with Geraldine McCaughrean. Elizabeths Laird and Wein will cooperate, and Gill Lewis is also making an appearance.

Many more excellent authors like Sophie Hannah and Arne Dahl, Tommy Donbavand and Liz Kessler will be at the festival. I have to admit to paying less attention to the ‘grown-up’ authors again, in favour of my ‘little ones.’ Those who are given orange juice instead of wine (although I am sure not at EIBF!) because they write for children.

Have to admit that many of my hoped for events are school events. I am glad that some of the best looking events are for schools, because it means someone thinks school children deserve the best. I want to be a school child on a very temporary basis at the end of August.

Deck chair

I’m hoping for plenty of stamina on my part. I have planned a number of full or nearly full days, for about two thirds of the festival. (I was thinking of having a holiday at some point.) The event I am fairly certain I won’t be able to go to but wish I could, is Eleanor Updale talking about Vera Brittain. That would be really something.

Perhaps I will see you in Charlotte Square? (If my eyes are – temporarily – closed, just give me a gentle nudge.)

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.

The Scottish novelists

Lists will rarely be complete. But some are more complete than others.

On Monday Herald Scotland published a list of Scottish children’s authors.* What prompted this seems to have been Julia Donaldson’s decision to leave Scotland and move back to England. It felt like an ‘oh god who do we have left in Scotland if Julia Donaldson moves away?’ kind of list.

Don’t worry, J K Rowling is one of their ten ‘best.’ So are others that I know and admire, along with a few names I have never heard of. Which is fine, because I don’t know everything, and I’m sure they are great writers. I don’t even know who counts as Scottish for this purpose.

Although, with J K topping the list, I’m guessing they allow English writers living in Scotland. That makes my own list rather longer. Harry Potter isn’t particularly Scottish as a book, even if Hogwarts is in Scotland. Do Scottish authors living in England, or god forbid, even further afield qualify? (I’m not so good at keeping track of such people, so I’ll leave them out for the time being.)

As I said, I have no problem with who is on the Herald’s list. But along with quite a few Scottish authors, I gasped when I realised who weren’t on it. Catherine MacPhail and Gillian Philip, to mention two very Scottish ladies. Linda Strachan, Julie Bertagna and Theresa Breslin, who are also pretty well known and very Scottish indeed.

Keith Charters and Keith Gray. Damien M Love and Kirkland Ciccone. John Fardell. Lari Don, Lyn McNicol, Joan Lingard and Elizabeth Laird. Cathy Forde. Dare I mention the Barrowman siblings, Carole and John? Alexander McCall Smith writes for children, too. Roy Gill, Jackie Kay. Cat Clarke. And how could I forget Joan Lennon?

I’m guessing former Kelpies Prize shortlistees Tracy Traynor, Rebecca Smith and Debbie Richardson belong. (There is one lady whose name is eluding me completely right now, but who appears at the book festival every year and seems very popular…) Have also been reminded of Margaret Ryan and Pamela Butchart. (Keep them coming!)

Most of the above have lovely Scottish accents and reasonably impeccable Scottish credentials. But what about the foreigners? We have the very English, but still Scottish residents, Vivian French, Helen Grant and Nicola Morgan. Americans Jane Yolen and Elizabeth Wein. Ex-Aussie Helen FitzGerald.

And I really don’t know about English Cathy Cassidy, who used to live in Scotland but has more recently returned to England. I think she counts, too, along with all those writers whose names simply escape me right now, but who will wake me up in the night reminding me of their existence.

I’m hoping to get to know all of you much better once this wretched move is over and done with. Unless you see me coming and make a swift exit, following Julia Donaldson south. Or anywhere else. I think Scotland has a great bunch of writers for children. (And also those lovely people who write adult crime, and who are not allowed on this list, even by me.)

Sorry for just listing names, but there are so many authors! One day I will do much more. Cinnamon buns, for starters. With tea. Or coffee. Irn Bru if absolutely necessary.

Theresa Breslin's boot

*For anyone who can’t access the Herald’s list, here are the other nine names: Mairi Hedderwick, Barry Hutchison, Chae Strathie, Claire McFall, Daniela Sacerdoti, Debi Gliori, Caroline Clough, Janis MacKay and Diana Hendry.

Numbers and meat cleavers

This is for people with a fondness for ‘interesting’ dates. And even for people who couldn’t care less. Today is the 11th day of the 12th month in the 13th year (well, you know what I mean!). But I will not now provide a list of the year’s best ten books. Or best 14.

I need to slim these lists down, but when I looked at the possible contenders for best Bookwitch book 2013, there were so many wonderful reads that it’s as hard as giving up cake and cheese and go on a diet.

Cough.

Let’s continue.

I have a bunch of six books, where I can’t say that one is an overall winner. I would like to, but can’t. One thing that has made me pick these over some others, is that they provided that special glow of happiness. Scary and good is obviously good, but happy and good wins every time. (Apologies for excessive soppiness.)

I’ll list them in first name alphabetical order:

Anthony McGowan, Brock

Debi Gliori, Dragon Loves Penguin

Hilary McKay, Binny for Short

Jonathan Stroud, Lockwood & Co – The Screaming Staircase

Marcus Sedgwick, She’s Not Invisible

Sam Hepburn, Chasing the Dark

If you – or your favourite book – are not on the list, please be gentle with that meat cleaver! Let’s face it; there are lots of wonderful books out there.

Something Worth Doing

I have a cunning plan. I will go to Elizabeth Wein’s house and by some nifty use of force I will make her write some more about those girls – young women – who flew planes so bravely in WWII. I need more, and I need it now, but am prepared to wait. A little.

What convinced me of this (even more than before, I mean) was reading Elizabeth’s short story Something Worth Doing. It is set in the same world as Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Its main character is someone who popped up in CNV, although I barely noticed him. Her. Both of them.

Theo (who is a girl) takes her dead younger brother’s identity and goes off to war to fly Spitfires, because that is the kind of thing girls in Elizabeth’s stories do. She does it well – naturally – and she is as loveable as Maddie and Queenie and Rose.

This story came to me in a roundabout sort of way (technical trouble occurred) and I am actually a little hazy as to how it is available. I think that if you buy CNV as an ebook now, you get it as an extra. Along with videos of Elizabeth, and her war memorabilia. Nah, maybe not an ebook. Something more like an iBook, perhaps. (I’ll have to get back to you on this…)

Anyway, I reckoned with my technical hiccough that the story was what mattered, because I have met Elizabeth and I have seen some of her collection. (Interview here.)

So, actually, I am in difficulties here, because I don’t know how to get this story to you, or you to it. But if you loved CNV, you will love this. Small, but perfectly formed.

(OK, I found this: ‘enhanced ebook, available on the iBook store for £6.99′ and that almost explains it.)

The EIBF 2013 programme

It’s not exactly a bad programme this year. It’s not exactly short on authors, either. I’ve probably missed a few, seeing as I have only browsed the pdf  in a hasty fashion, but even so, were it not for the fact that I actually know I am unable to cover the full two and a half weeks of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I’d sign up for the complete works. Again.

I’d been thinking a weekend. Maybe a longish weekend, but no more than four days. But which longish weekend? And what about the fantastic midweek offerings?

This is going to be an easy post to write! I could simply list authors, one after the other. But that would be boring.

For the time being I will not cover the adult writers, although I noticed Salman Rushdie is coming. Roddy Doyle. And Patrick Ness is an adult this time.

So, first weekend ‘as usual’ we have Meg Rosoff, as well as her stable (yeah, right…) mates Eoin Colfer and Cathy Cassidy. Anne Fine, Tommy Donbavand, Helena Pielichaty, Linda Strachan, Andy Mulligan. Carnegie winner Sally Gardner. Obvious choice. First weekend it will be.

Meg Rosoff

On the other hand, during the week when it grows a little quieter we have Elizabeth Wein. Hmm. Debi Gliori with Tobermory Cat. Nicola Morgan. Lari Don and Vivian French. Damien M Love. Well, that would be good!

But Elen Caldecott is someone I’ve always missed. She’s there the second weekend. It will have to be the middle weekend. Charlie Fletcher, Teresa Breslin and Eleanor Updale, Jon Mayhew and Darren Shan. Need I say more? OK, Tom Palmer, Chae Strathie. Melvin Burgess. Keith Gray.

Jonathan Stroud has a new book coming, which I like the look of. And he’s there the second week. So are Julie Bertagna and Teri Terry, and Daniel Hahn is talking translation. That is interesting.

Having said that, the last, extra long weekend looks by far the best. Doesn’t it? Judit Kerr. Neil Gaiman. Our new children’s laureate, Malorie Blackman. Our own Liz Kessler, and Tim Bowler. Philip Caveney from ‘home’ and Derek Landy, whom I’ve not seen for a long time… Jo Nadin and Spideyman himself, Steve Cole.

Yes. No competition there. Except maybe all the other days.

What do the rest of you think?

(Sorry. I see I have done a list after all.)

A Winter’s Day in 1939

It’s more than that. It’s most of the war, but the story began on that winter’s day in Poland in 1939, when WWII was new and people hoped it might soon be over.

Melinda Szymanik’s book brings home the sheer pointlessness of much that happened in the war. The fighting itself is not good, but it at least has a purpose, however bad. But it’s the putting people into concentration camps or carting them across half a continent, simply because they are ‘unwanted’ and no one can think what to do with them, that really gets to me.

After American Rose’s internment in Ravensbrück in Rose Under Fire, and the interminable travels of all those Lithuanians in Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray, as they are shunted from place to place, I have read more of the same. Only now it’s Poles who are taken on a strange journey where no one wants them. They are to be kept out of the way.

The story about Adam and his family is based closely on the real experiences of Melinda’s father Leszek. First the Russians come and take thousands of Polish families through Russia because they are somehow the enemy. After enduring a couple of years of cold winters and unbearable summers doing hard, but pointless work, including seeing members of their family die; when Germany invaded Russia ‘they were transformed from being an inconvenience into something useful.’

After more politics the British take over and the Polish soldiers end up fighting for them instead. They are taken from the cold north to the warm Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and ultimately to Persia. But it’s not only war that kills the new soldiers. Illness spreads even before they have fought. More people die.

Mercifully the descriptions in A Winter’s Day are sketchy at times, and there actually is no need to go into excrutiating detail. It is grim, and it becomes quite clear what made this a world war. It wasn’t merely that many countries fought, but that people ended up fighting in the most unexpected places, where they didn’t belong, for armies other than their own.

And afterwards they are in many cases displaced forever, needing or wanting to start new lives somewhere else. That’s why Melinda is a New Zealander.

Rose Under Fire

The mountains made me cry. But the really hard facts of a WWII concentration camp left me dead calm, despite their awfulness. It was so atrocious that I simply read on, while trying to ignore some of the details. If you stop and think, you couldn’t go on.

The same as for the inmates of Ravensbrück in Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, Rose Under Fire. They just got on with it, in an almost unbelieveable manner. That way, some of them survived until the end of the war.

Starting with a funeral, and going on to a wedding, this story revisits some people and places from Code Name Verity. I like knowing what happened later. (Ideally you should read CNV before embarking on Rose Under Fire. You don’t have to, but you would be cheating yourself out of a most marvellous book if you begin at the end.)

Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire

Although, we know Rose survives the war, because her tale about how she ended up at Ravensbrück actually does start at the end. This is another journal, both similar to and very different from Julie’s diary in CNV. Rose is an 18-year-old American ATA pilot, and her voice is very much that of the surprised American girl who wonders how she ended up starving in a German concentration camp.

Rose is a lovely character, but it is perhaps the European girls and women at Ravensbrück who impress the most. It’s easy to think of them as mere victims, dirty and hungry and looking like walking skeletons. Here you find university professors, continuing their work by educating fellow inmates. The solidarity as people go without (impressive, since there is so little, that to go with less should be impossible) in order to assist with the current plans for helping someone escape, or hide, or any other desperate action forced on them.

This is no Code Name Verity. It would have been impossible to repeat. Rose Under Fire is a very well researched ‘inside a concentration camp’ story. People have to die, or disappear, because it’s what people did. I had heard of the operations performed, but had had no inkling as to what it really meant. I almost prefer not to think about what I’ve learned.

Rose Under Fire is a must read. Elizabeth’s done a great job creating another girl pilot, letting us see war torn Germany from the inside, not to mention the inside of the hole under the floor in the toilets at Ravensbrück.

It’s a love story, even if not in the traditional sense.

Bringing it down to 40

The idea for some kind of Desert Island Books has been with me for years, but I’ve not got round to doing anything about it. Yet. Relax, I’m not going to start now, either.

But as the panic over pruning my library was beginning to slosh around in my brain, someone posted a link to a rather interesting article. Geoffrey Best in History Today mused about his book collecting, and then the reverse; the process where he’s had to get rid of one category after the other.

It makes for sad reading, actually. (Much sadder than the chap in the paper the other day who sold off his wine collection…) On re-reading the article I noticed two things. One was that as this was a collection, Geoffrey had not read all the books. That made me feel less inadequate. I sometimes believe I’m the only one who can’t keep up.

The other was that his potential final goal wasn’t for five books. It was for one.

Shudder.

His first awful ambition was which books to choose for when you can only keep 40 books. He arrived at this figure when visiting someone in a home, where he looked around and worked out that 40 might be the limit.

I reckon 40 might be possible. Hard, but doable. You’d need good criteria for how you pick, and that probably depends on who you are. I’ve always marvelled at the choice of the Bible and Shakespeare on Desert Island Discs. Obviously they had to become standard issue once almost everyone felt they had to ask for them, whether because they genuinely loved them that much, or felt they wouldn’t be seen on a desert island without them…

Yes. Quite.

While I don’t know what I’d choose, I’m fairly certain it would be neither of those.

And while I thought the end goal was five books, I toyed with the idea of How I Live Now and Code Name Verity. Both favourites, both quite short. So perhaps you can’t do it that way?

Right now I am also having some problems with working out if I’m going to be sitting on an island or in some old people’s home. Would it be more of a blessing if – when the time comes – I am past reading, to save me doing the final prune, or am I better off with any small pile of books?

Will the grandchildren visit the old witch and bring books?

Best of Scottish 2012, or ‘An awfy dreich day in Dundee’

In the end it didn’t matter that I went to Dundee the wrong week. I was able to ‘sort of’ be there yesterday, anyway. It was WBD. It was time for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards at Caird Hall, filled with a thousand children (so there might not have been room for me). And they very kindly filmed the whole shebang and made it available online. Thus I watched it all from the comfort of my own desk.

They had that Chae Strathie in to do the host stuff. Apparently when he didn’t win last year he sulked until they offered him this job instead. He was very noisy, but he was a competent MC. Perhaps a few too many ‘yoohoos.’ That’s all.

Scottish Children's Book Awards

The shortlisted authors were lined up on stage and then sent off again. Seems they have some kind of authors’ enclosure where they are kept. There was a band with such an odd name I can’t tell you what they were called.

For the Younger readers category they had written little theatre sketches based on the three shortlisted books, which were performed by school children. I am fairly intolerant of this type of thing, but have to admit this was first class stuff. Very well done.

Jonathan Meres won with The World of Norm: May Contain Nuts. His thank you speech turned out to be his shopping list; tea, milk, etc. (But at least he was English… I was beginning to think you had to have a beautiful Scottish accent to even make it onto that shortlist.)

Scotland has a minister for children! Aileen Campbell was there, and made a good speech about the importance of books and reading. I suspect the Scottish government might have more sense than Westminster.

John Fardell

For the Bookbug category we got story time, and then the Children’s Laureate sang her book, and finally John Fardell drew pictures of scary monsters. He finished with a giant rabbit with horrible teeth, before winning the Bookbug prize for The Day Louis Got Eaten.

To make life easier for the Older readers category, Barry Hutchison became Elizabeth Hutchison, so he wouldn’t feel like the odd one out, sitting as he did, between Elizabeths Laird and Wein. They had to answer questions. Ms Hutchison has no shed, which is sad. (S)he likes horsepie best. (Dundee delicacy?) Ms Laird told us to run downhill if ever attacked by elephants, which is something that has kept me awake at night, so I’m very grateful. Ms Wein opted to go to the South Pole in the company of a ‘Norwegian who knows what he’s doing.’ Sensible woman.

Elizabeth Laird, Barry Hutchison, Elizabeth Wein and Chae Strathie

While this was happening, Chae wore an outlandish gold jacket, two sizes too small. And then they danced, Gangnam style. I’d have to say Ms Wein did that far better than her namesakes. (She is an American, so clearly you don’t have to be Scottish to be there.)

But it helps, because Barry Hutchison won that category for The 13th Horseman. His speech was mercifully short. (He’d had a busy day the day before. Maybe he was worn out.)

Chae finished off by saying he loves us all.

Love you too, Chae. Great event!

*I borrowed that dreich quote from Barry. I’m sure it wasn’t really dreich, but I just love that word! Maybe the weather cried because I wasn’t there?