Category Archives: Books

Old books

When Mother-of-witch died, Offspring were young and needed looking after when I went off to be with her. There was a complete lack of available relatives at the time, so anyone who happened to be standing near when the Resident IT Consultant asked for assistance was roped in for after-school care. For six weeks! I can never thank them enough.

Yesterday morning Helen Grant took one look at this blog – or what tried to pass itself off as Bookwitch – and told me she would write it herself, if I’d let her. It feels particularly appropriate to accept her kind offer, since she is just about the only author who did meet the Grandmother, and about whom the Grandmother always asked questions, once they had met. And seeing as the Grandmother not only dealt in Oxfam books, but was known to have culled her own books rather enthusiastically, this post about old books fits right in:

‘Our household has finally obtained its first eReader. It’s not mine; whenever anyone asks me whether I have one, I always reply (truthfully) that since I do most of my reading in the bath, it probably isn’t a good idea. A paperback may survive an unexpected plunge into the water (as the crinkled pages of a number of my books will testify) but I don’t think an electronic gadget would cope.

I can imagine, however, that the day will come when I will cave in and buy one of these things for myself. At present we live in a family home whose walls are lined with bookshelves, but when I look into the distant future and imagine myself as an empty nester, I’d like to think I shall be travelling the world – and travelling light. When I went overlanding from London to Kathmandu in 1992, I took all six of Trollope’s Barchester novels with me; nowdays I could take along ten or a hundred times as many books in digital format. I suppose, too, that when we downsize from our family house I shall have to cull some of my books. (Writing this, I went to take a critical look at my bookshelves and could not see a single one I was prepared to part with. Hmmmm.)

There are some books, however, that I could never replace with a digital version. I have quite a few old books, the oldest dating to the eighteenth century, many more to the nineteenth. I have three children’s anthologies which appeared in the 1940s and belonged to my mother when she was a child. When I was a teenager, my mother had her own book cull and took those to the local charity shop; outraged, I marched down there and bought them back. They are still on my bookshelves. One of them includes one of the best fairy tales in existence, Melisande by E.Nesbit, in which the wicked fairy excluded from the christening wishes that the baby princess shall be bald.

Other treasures include The Silver Fairy Book, which I also remember from my childhood (I have failed to extract my parents’ copy from their clutches so I ordered my own from Abebooks), The Lady Ivie’s Trial by Sir John Fox, some beautiful Victorian translations of Homer, and an extensive collection of old editions of H.Rider Haggard’s adventure novels.

Leighton Library

All of these are old books, some of them centenarians, with yellowing pages and the dusty scent of age lingering about them. To replace them with eBooks would be a minor act of barbarism.

Because I treasure old books, I love antiquarian libraries. The corner of Scotland shared by the Bookwitch and myself is fortunate to have two: Innerpeffray Library near Crieff, and the Leighton Library in Dunblane. Both seventeenth century libraries created by local noblemen, each of these is very well worth a visit. One of the truly marvellous things about these libraries is that you are allowed to handle the books (respectfully, of course). I recently spent a happy half hour in the Leighton Library leafing through the pages of Buffon’s Natural History and marvelling at the engravings of animals. At Innerpeffray my pet book is The Treatise of Specters, which is crammed with spine tingling material, lovingly collected and printed in 1658. A visit to Innerpeffray also offers the opportunity to look at the chapel adjoining the library, which has, amongst other attractions, a leper squint – a small window allowing lepers (who were excluded from church) to watch the services from outside.

Library of Innerpeffray

There is, I think, a kind of magic in very old volumes. Bookwitchery, you might say…’

Katie and the Starry Night

Here is Katie, back in the art gallery, back causing mayhem, in James Mayhew’s Katie and the Starry Night. Which, as any old person will know, is about Vincent van Gogh, and you probably know all the words to the song as well.

Katie’s Grandma feels sleepy, so ‘rests’ on a bench while Katie looks at a painting with lots of stars in. And she helps herself to one of them. After which mayhem breaks loose, as the stars float away, out of the picture, with Katie in hot pursuit.

James Mayhew, Katie and the Starry Night

In order to catch them she needs the help of various people from some other of Vincent’s paintings, as well as implements such as chairs and ladders and fishing nets. Luckily the people in the paintings are helpful and up for anything, so those stars are eventually caught and returned to where they belong.

In turn, Katie and every reader now knows these works of art rather intimately.

I know I say this every time, but I felt especially close to this story. I used to be very fond of van Gogh. In fact, during my year as a student in Brighton, there was a van Gogh in my bedroom, and for a while I was awfully worried it was the genuine deal.

James Oswald, but no cake

If I caused  a couple of chapters of James Oswald’s next novel not to be written yesterday afternoon, I apologise. I’m not sorry, but this is what has to happen sometimes.

James Oswald

I’d been meaning to ask James for an interview for quite a while, and now that I’m so close to losing my photographer, I simply had to make it happen. The interview, I mean.

To allow James enough time with his cattle, or whatever it is he does in the mornings, I suggested meeting in Perth, which is the town closest to him, and in the afternoon, because I had researched a café with gorgeous looking cakes online, but in the end hayfever prompted us to step no further from the railway station than the Station Hotel. So no cake.

It’s a clean hotel, though. Especially after it was hoovered to within an inch of its life during the interview. I may have to make up most of what James said, which went along the lines of writing, cattle, dogs, killing builders, that kind of thing. We also agreed that Allan Guthrie writes the most noir of crime.

Towards the end I felt pleased as I assumed the woman coming towards us was a fan, happy to see him. And in a way she was, since she is James’s partner. The one who provided his detective with the name of McLean.

I’m – almost – glad that Eoin Colfer fell ill, that time James replaced him at Bloody Scotland two years ago. Silver lining, and all that. But James will never again let Colin Bateman read first.

Here but not there

Well, they seem to have fun even without me, don’t they? And it’s not as if I begrudge them that. Some other summer I will be there, rather than here.

Liz Kessler

On Monday evening Liz Kessler presented her Read Me Like a Book at the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, which makes so much sense for a former MMU writing student done good.

Amir Khan at Manchester Children's Book Festival

And this star studded photo of the mcbf people with Amir Khan looks very nice. I have to admit to having to look him up. I don’t know these things, but it appears he is a famous boxer. He’s also patron of mcbf’s multilingual poetry competition Mother Tongue Other Tongue. So that’s one boxer, one poet laureate and one poetry competition.

Steve Hartley

Finally, Steve Hartley and his giant pants. You just can’t have pants that are too large.

I was slightly mollified by the arrival of a local author and her daughter, bearing cake yesterday afternoon. Bookwitch Towers cheered up, and so did I. Especially as the daughter lost herself in Simon Mason’s Running Girl, which is A Very Good Book.

(Photos somewhat pilfered from mcbf.)

Women Heroes of World War I

Kathryn J Atwood, Women Heroes of World War I

Here is another book that has taught me things I didn’t know. I’m far too used to looking at WWI either from my neutral standpoint, or from Britain, and Kathryn J Atwood – as an American – looks at it both from her ‘over there’ point of view, but mostly from inside Europe, and mostly as seen by the women who lived there in 1914.

Those women didn’t necessarily want to stand there and do nothing. Many felt the need to do their bit for the war or for their country, or they simply hoped for some adventure in their lives. For some it was relatively easy to get involved, while for others it took a lot of deceit or at least time to get the men to see sense and allow them to join in.

This book tells the brief stories of 16 women who did something, either as resisters and spies, soldiers, medics or journalists. Some of them were poor and uneducated, while others were part of the nobility. Some were of more mature age, and some were only teenagers. Some went looking for war duties, while others had it thrust upon them.

But they all did good and important work, and some of them died doing it. In fact, so dangerous did it seem to me that I was almost surprised any of them lived to a good old age.

This is very fascinating, and in a way it’s infuriating that each woman only gets around ten pages to tell her story. On the other hand, with the bibliography for each entry, you could continue reading on your own, although as Kathryn says, not all books are available in English, which is a shame.

Women Heroes of World War I is an inspiration to girls everywhere. Not necessarily to join wars, but to stand up and do something.

My Name’s not Friday

Samuel has a strong belief in God, and he loves his younger brother Joshua. I was actually left wondering why, in both cases. What did God ever do for Samuel, or for Joshua, come to that? Also, Joshua almost goes out of his way to be a bad little boy. On the other hand, we know that circumstances will make a child or person something that deep down they are not.

Jon Walter, My Name's not Friday

And Samuel is not called Friday.

He has been brought up in an orphanage as a free black boy, and given an education, of sorts. But then circumstances conspire to have him sold as a slave, and he has to learn to live a whole new kind of life, as the 12-year-old property of a young white boy in the American south.

At times I wondered how Jon Walter could know what it was like back then, in a different country, but this is what writers do. They make stuff up, and I don’t suppose that a modern American author would know any more about what it was like to be a slave during the Civil War.

We learn about three different periods of Samuel’s life; the orphanage with all that is good and bad, his life as Friday, who isn’t even allowed to show he can read and write, and what came after the Union soldiers arrived.

It’s very interesting, and at times I was afraid it would turn out to be like Roots, where you never once could know what happened in the first place after someone had moved on, because being real, there was no all-knowing author to let you know about the people and places left behind. Which I found very frustrating. Here we do get to see more than just the time and place in history where Samuel is, and that’s good.

The characters are allowed to change and grow, which makes the story deeper. And the whole book is one big history lesson about slavery, like how you are powerless when your owner sells a member of your family to someone else.

To be truthful, Samuel took a while to win me over, but in the end he did.

Creatures Great and Small

It said in the paper that colouring in is good for the soul. For adults. Not that it isn’t good for children, but they already know this. It’s us old ones who need reminding of the good things in life, yet again.

And colouring in is it.

Many of us would like to be able to draw beautifully, or even just draw passably, but find we can’t. So the ‘cheating’ you do as you colour in what someone else has already drawn, can feel quite good.

In this book it’s Lucy Engelman who has done most of the hard work, and all you need to do is bring paint or pencils, plus your ragged soul. The book has been filled with drawings of animals of every kind. You want frogs? You can have lots of different ones, and they needn’t even be painted green.

Lucy Engelman, Creatures Great and Small

The book is also ready for framing or gifting, in that each page is perforated to be torn out. On the back of each page there are facts about the frogs, or whatever other creature it is you have chosen.

Go on, grab those felt tips. You know you want to.