Monthly Archives: May 2021

Travelling to Narnia

My first memory from meeting Katherine Langrish seventeen years ago, is that at the age of nine she wrote her own instalment of the Narnia books, because to her mind there weren’t enough of them. I was glad, because I used to feel like that about some of my childhood books, but I never got past page two. That was in 2004 and she was in our neck of the woods to talk about her first children’s book, Troll Fell, a Norwegian style fairytale. In fact, the days of Katherine are all Before Bookwitch, since the third book in the Troll trilogy was published on February 5th 2007, one day BB, making Katherine a very early author acquaintance of mine.

Anyway, back to Narnia. While I believe she might have shown us her childhood book then, I have now seen pages two and three up close, being used for the endpapers of her brand new book From Spare Oom to War Drobe, Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self (isn’t that a glorious title?). This is a book I’ve been looking forward to so much, despite it being about books I have not read and firmly believe I wouldn’t like, just because, well because I am convinced this is a really great book (with a quote from Neil Gaiman on the front cover), and because we say that you should write about what you know best. And I believe Katherine has arrived in Narnia, where she belongs.

It’s a gorgeous-looking volume, and one I’m very tempted to read, if only to learn more about Narnia. Half the population can’t be wrong, and in her online launch this evening Katherine mentioned Philip Pullman and his dislike of the C S Lewis stories, not totally disagreeing with him. The way I understand it is that it’s a pretty academic look at Narnia and its creator. It’s got footnotes. And the support of many literary names.

One of them, Amanda Craig, talked to Katherine about her book, as one big fan to another. It was quite enlightening and I really enjoyed their chat. I like people who like things that much. It’s good to look at stuff in-depth and to have sensible comments to make. I understand Amanda encouraged Katherine to write this book, after having read her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, which is mostly about fairytales, and which has left me in awe of all Katherine’s knowledge.

This could have been a great launch in real life, but as it was, online made for a different great event, with many of Katherine’s peers peering out from behind their respective Zoom cameras. And the sun shone on her, forcing her to keep shifting her position.

The #28 profile – Barbara Henderson

It’s time to learn more about Barbara Henderson, the whirlwind behind The Chessmen Thief. This resident of Inverness has an unusual favourite Swede. I approve. And she clearly never gets tired. I’d approve of that too, if only I had the energy. Here she is, with answers and chessmen and everything:

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How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?
It was my sixth book – although more if you count shorter books for younger readers. I am quite open about my 121 rejections before publication 😊. Not that I’m proud of those, but I am a little bit proud of persevering.

Best place for inspiration?
Anywhere outside, ideally next to some crumbling ruin which can fire up the imagination. Also, my bed, the twilight moments where conscious and subconscious ebb and flow. Some of my best ideas come then – I just need to whip myself out of bed to write it down, because by morning, it’ll all be gone.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?
The honest answer is that I didn’t even think about it. It takes all my effort to maintain one identity – I just don’t think I have it in me to juggle another! Alhough sometimes I wonder if I missed a trick there – I could have given myself a really interesting pen name like Diamanda or Cwenhild…

What would you never write about? The World Wars, as they have been done really well by others. Sci-Fi, Crime and Legal Drama are also not my genres.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in? I was once approached by TRT World, kind of the Turkish version of News24, to do an interview about being an author and World Book Day, which I did. To this day, I am convinced they got the wrong person – I had two books out by then, with a small independent Scottish publisher, no agent, no foreign deals (so none of my books in Turkish bookshops). I was definitely not the person who would spring to mind if you are trying to think of a children’s author to feature in a flagship programme, with a famous anchorwoman. Bizarre, but a great buzz.

Which of your characters would you most like to be? In The Chessmen Thief, I’d love to be Margret hin haga – imagine being renowned across the whole known world for your carving skill! She was a real person, of course, and definitely a woman making her mark on a man’s world.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing? I’d LOVE it, but I suppose I’d want it to be a fairly faithful adaptation!

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event? I was timidly asked if I was okay once. But that was immediately after I had walked backwards during a particularly tense reading, fallen over my crate of books, landed in an undignified heap on the ground and sent books and shards of plastic flying everywhere. It was in front of a whole school assembly…

Do you have any unexpected skills? I can play the violin. Sort of. And according to my son, I am the best waffle-maker in the known universe. Does that count?

The Famous Five or Narnia? Narnia! I chose to write my university dissertation about C.S.Lewis!

Who is your most favourite Swede? Can I have two, please? Astrid Lindgren’s stories shaped my childhood. And as a teenager in the eighties, all my friends fancied Boris Becker, so as the resident rebel, I preferred Stefan Edberg!

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically? Books are everywhere, but most of my children’s books occupy two large bookshelves in the living room. In an attempt to occupy my locked-down teen, I asked him to colour-arrange them for a change. It looks good, but the real benefit was that he stumbled across all his favourites from years gone by with sqeals of ‘I’d forgotten about this!’

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader? Probably You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum, or How to Train Your Dragon

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?
Reading is for relaxing; writing is for feeling productive. So, due to my natural laziness: reading. 😊

OK, mine is a waffle with cream and jam, please!

Arctic Star

Tom Palmer just gets better and better. Have I mentioned this before? Anyway, he does. His latest book for Barrington Stoke is called Arctic Star, and it will leave you shivering (the cold) and reaching for a hanky. I’m not sure what age it’s aimed at, but I would say teens and adult. It’s WWII and mature in its handling of the war.

We meet three friends from Plymouth, on their first posting with the Royal Navy in 1943, in a convoy en route for Murmansk, protecting the ships carrying tanks to the Russians. It’s cold, to an extent you can’t even imagine, but think of it as hacking away at your freezer, but while you’re actually in it. And worse.

There’s the first convoy, followed by shore leave in Murmansk, the second convoy and finally the third convoy. You know people will have to die, but that – probably – at least one of our three young men will survive. They are scared, and cold, but in the end they know that to drop out of the war is not an option.

It’s just awful. And it makes me even more grateful that there were so many, perfectly ordinary people going through this kind of thing so that the rest of us could have a world to live in. We need to remind ourselves, too, that everyone on those ships had families at home, be it in Germany or in Britain.

You learn a lot in these short pages about life in Plymouth, life in the Navy, and life in the Soviet Union. Tom has done plenty of research as usual, and so much of the story is true. I knew what would happen to the HMS Belfast, seeing as I have actually visited, so it’s not a spoiler to say that she’s not sunk.

I’m very grateful for these books.

War and other plagues

When our [insert adjective of your choice here] Prime Minister last year kind of suggested that Covid was like fighting a war, we mostly felt he was wrong. Because a virus is not like a human being with a gun. The ‘fight’ is not the same. But he wanted to be Churchill, leading his people to victory, while forgetting that this would mean actually leading, which is a job.

So for me to write about war on this Bank Holiday Monday, is not the most cheerful of things. But more than once I have been gripped by a sense of déjà vu, how war-like Covid actually is. After all.

It started when I read Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift after Christmas. Set largely in 1938 and 1939 we know the whole time what is coming. So do they. The war, I mean, not how many years it would take out of their lives, or who would be victorious, or if they would even be alive at the end. [SPOILER] Most of the main characters are still there in 1945. But they have had to put their normal lives on hold.

When your husband’s away fighting, your hopes for a baby will have to take a back seat. Maybe there won’t/can’t be a baby after, perhaps because he didn’t come back, or because you perished in a bomb raid. Or something more sedate. Six years seem short seen from a distance, and when you know the outcome. But back then, you couldn’t just say you’d had enough and you would jolly well enjoy life as though there wasn’t a war on. Just because you want to, or feel you need to.

A similar thought appears in a book I will review later this week, where the young man in the Navy in 1943 thinks that surely by next Christmas he will be able to spend it at home, with his mother. Not an unreasonable thing to wish for at all. He’s already had a long wait for normality, and really wants for there to be no more fighting or being in danger, or living away from those who matter most. Still not a case of ‘I want it so I will have it.’

Almost fourteen months into the pandemic (longer if you count the true beginning, ignored by the PM), we are all fed up. We’ve had enough. It’s ‘unreasonable’ that we should have to put whatever it is we wish for on hold for even longer. But it’s interesting how the predicted three weeks of lockdown appeared to be such a very long period when we went into it last March, and how – relatively – quick it’s been, fourteen months on.

We’re tired. Maybe unwell. Many have died. Jobs have been lost and society is not the same as before. People have had to wait to do a great many things. Perhaps they are still waiting. Some want to go to Ibiza so badly they can’t wait. Or just to the pub. Maybe you want to go and see someone important to you, a long way away. Perhaps you have the wrong passport. If you have a passport.

I’d like to go to my other place. Technically I am allowed to. I mean, I would be allowed in. But not everyone in the Bookwitch family would be. So I wouldn’t go for fun. Not even to see if the house is still standing. It’s the people I miss. I’m in no hurry. Now that it’s been this long, I will just wait some more. The most surprising thing has been that it’s so hard to read. Or to watch anything at all worthy. But puppies on the small screen are a good distraction.

The Chessmen Thief

I reckon this is Barbara Henderson’s best book [to date]. I didn’t want to pause my reading, but I had to. And I wasn’t even all that interested in the famous Lewis chessmen, but this was a pretty exciting tale, featuring suitably bloodthirsty ‘Norwegians’ and brave and pious early Christians, travelling the world hoping to save people.

As she admits, Barbara obviously made most of this up, apart from the chessmen and the guesswork of where they were carved and by whom. But I’m sold.

Kylan is a 12-year-old slave from Lewis, sold to a violent, but skilled craftsman in Trondheim, which is where he becomes part of the carving of the famous chess pieces. All he wants, though, is to escape so he can return to Lewis and hopefully find his mother, who at the same time was sold as a slave into another household.

He learns to carve, he talks his way into a perilous boat trip across the North Sea, there is danger and illness and a hard life in general. There are more than one lot of properly bad baddies, and knives are not merely used on the chessmen, but on mortal men as well.

It’s very much a men’s world, but Barbara manages to get the lots of women, and girls, into her story too. It makes you think. And her version of how the chessmen ended up where they did, is as plausible as the next one.

Now I want to travel to Lewis. No I don’t. It’s not the travel I’m keen on. But some aspects of Lewis appeal.