Category Archives: Books

The Honorary Consul

No, not the novel by Graham Greene. I read that a long time ago.

This is about the kind of person you sometimes need when in another country, if only to hand out a new passport if that’s what you require. They are surprisingly often not the same nationality as you, nor do they speak your language.

Honorary means not paid, and I’m guessing the post is usually taken for the honour (hah) or for making your business cards look great. The one I have had most experience of said openly – to a very kind and well-meaning person – that they had no interest in things Swedish.

Well, then.

The good news is that the post of Swedish Honorary Consul in Edinburgh has just been given to a Swede. What’s more, he speaks Swedish. And he’s got a good way with people.

OK, so he’s called Mike, but that might work better in an English-speaking environment, the city where he runs a group of bars and restaurants. I’m thinking this is an improvement to the bored monolingual solicitor type.

They Called Us Enemy

Not being a trekkie I didn’t know who George Takei was when his interesting snippets turned up on social media. I simply liked them.

Now I have read his graphic, well, I suppose, autobiography, from WWII onwards, about the interning – imprisonment – of American citizens of Japanese background after Pearl Harbour. It is a great book about this atrocious and shameful history. (The only thing I knew about this before came from watching the film I’ll Remember April some years ago.)

George was four when his family were more or less removed from their beds in Los Angeles in the middle of the night, and taken on a long journey to Arkansas at the other end of the country, where they were to stay for most of the war.

I have deep admiration for George’s father, who worked hard, kept the peace and made himself useful to his fellow ‘prisoners’ for the duration of this wrongful treatment. His behaviour also meant that this whole period seemed like an adventure to George, and possibly as almost normal to his two younger siblings.

Through George’s later fame, some of this unfair treatment has reached more people than might otherwise have been possible.

And I was reminded of what I read on Normblog some years ago; something which made me want to cry again. But mostly good crying. In a world of many really very bad people, and leaders, there are good ones too.

(Almost as an afterthought, I have to comment on how easy it was to read this graphic novel. They aren’t always, but this one worked perfectly.)

World Refugee Day 2020

It’s worse than ever, isn’t it? For refugees, and for anyone who’s left their original home for a new one, not feeling at home or being accepted.

And usually it’s easier to feel something when World Refugee Day (or Week) comes round. But right now my softer feelings are worn so thin for so many reasons that it seems as if I almost don’t have them.

But I would like to tank the generous Debi Gliori for setting me on the road to – occasionally – donating money to The Scottish Refugee Council. She once did something very kind for me, and refused payment, instead suggesting I give the money to a refugee organisation. And then, when I suddenly had people asking what I wanted as payment for doing stuff, and it felt like ‘yes I did do this thing but money isn’t the way to deal with your gratitude’ I realised I could also do that; I could ask them to donate. So this has happened a few times now. If you feel the urge to give me money, think of the Scottish Refugee Council instead.

Because it’s Carnegie/Greenaway medal week, I will leave you with a reminder of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s such a beautiful book, showing a lone man arriving somewhere strange, to him. But not to all the people already there. And with time, he too gets used to his new home. The strange is no longer quite so strange, but on the other hand, it will never be ‘home’ as in the place you come from.

Jag vet varför burfågeln sjunger

Or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as you will know it.

There was a time when I read books simply because I had them to hand. Like all Swedes I subscribed to book parcels from Bra Böcker for a number of years. They published three volumes of an encyclopaedia a year. Along with it came a couple of novels. Usually they were not books I’d heard of, or they were oldish Swedish classics. But I was young and believed collecting books was a good thing.

It obviously is, but perhaps not this way. I suspect the Billy bookcases were born to deal with Bra Böcker.

One of those novels was Maya Angelou’s Jag vet varför burfågeln sjunger. As so often, I didn’t like the title, but read the book anyway. And what a book! I bought all of them in the end. Although, perhaps not. I see now there were seven, and in my day there were only three. They were the ones I read.

I was shocked by what happened to young Maya, believing abuse like that was a modern thing. But what an inspiration she was, and how far she went, and all in the face of a difficult start in life.

I wish I’d known then that she would go on to even greater things, reading her poems and launching Presidents, eventually being awarded the Medal of Freedom. She’s quite a role model.

And I’m thinking that those unsolicited books were indeed A Good Thing. They opened my eyes and my mind.

Medals for ‘my’ boys

It’s good to know the witch senses are working just fine. I could simply not see any other outcome regarding the Carnegie Medal than that Anthony McGowan would be awarded it for Lark. It could have happened sooner, but this way we got all four books of the trilogy in.

(And I’m saying this even keeping in mind the competition Tony was up against.)

For the Kate Greenaway medal it was Shaun Tan for his Tales From the Inner City (which I’ve yet to read). One of my most favourite illustrators, and I’m more than satisfied.

This year the proceedings were short and on Radio 4, on Front Row. They interviewed both Tony and Shaun and both read from their books, and explained the background to what they’d written. Tony got so excited he had to be interrupted in the middle of his ‘terrific’ answer…

According to Shaun ‘painting is really a way of exploring anxiety’. Plenty of that around.

Yep, very satisfied with this.

Anthony McGowan, Winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2020 from CILIP CKG Children’s Book Awards on Vimeo.

Stay at Home!

It’s not only sourdough bread that has happened over the last three months. Many authors have come up with online material to offer readers. In fact, there’s been such a glut that I’ve not been able to keep up. I just know there is much to find.

Small Scottish publisher Cranachan Publishing has a free ebook offering a wide variety of things to read. Their ‘Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children in Lockdown is a a free, illustrated anthology of poems and stories for children aged 8-12, comprising specially written lockdown-themed contributions by 40 writers based in Scotland.’

Try it! There are household names, and there are names you might not have heard of. Yet. But this is a nice collection, and what’s almost nicer still, is how people have pulled together to make it happen.

The ghost of a ghost boy

I almost wished I hadn’t gone back to look for my review of Jewell Parker Rhodes’ novel Ghost Boys. Almost.

But it’s always good to revisit the memory of a good book you’ve read before. But also sad because not only was the reason for the story a sad one, but I ended my review by expressing hope for a better future for black boys in America, even feeling this could extend to black people all over the world. Because surely the world is learning, is getting better and fairer?

You know it’s not. We are discovering that things are getting worse. But let’s hope that this time the unrest and the unhappiness will eventually lead to a better world. So that Jerome and all the other dead, black boys in this book weren’t killed in vain.

Music to your bears

Remember David Litchfield’s gorgeous picture book, The Bear and the Piano? It’s one of my long term favourites; one that needed no reminding when I heard of the new musically enhanced picture book video, with the story read by Joanna Lumley, and score by Daniel Whibley.

Here’s the trailer:

And now you’ll want to buy it. I know you will. First, because it’s a really lovely story. Second, because the music adds a certain something to this really lovely story. And third, because by buying this really lovely story you will help the World Health Organisation’s Covid 19 Solidarity Response Fund. Download the video from here.

In all fairness, I required Daughter’s assistance with the technical stuff (but that’s probably because they let me watch for free).

And when we’d caught the musical bear, we decided to move him over to the TV for some bear size enjoyment. The gorgeous illustrations were even better on a bigger screen. And the music was just right, as was Joanna’s reading. Daughter, who had not read the book, watched with rapt attention – and it’s not as if she’s a toddler – loving the music and getting caught up in the story of the bear who finds a piano in the woods. Almost crying when it looked a bit too sad, and then not, when it didn’t.

We ended up having to read the sequel as a bedtime read…

So why don’t you have a go, too?

Illustrations © David Litchfield, Joanna Lumley photo © Rankin 2020.

Clap When You Land

Cheating fathers is not an uncommon occurrence, although discovering that your beloved dad had another family, and another daughter, the same age as you, can be tough. Especially if your dad has to die for this to become apparent. That way you have just about lost him twice.

Clap when you land is the book Elizabeth Acevedo talked about last year in Edinburgh. It’s another poetic novel, set in New York and the Dominican Republic. Yahaira and Camino are at the relay changeover for the summer; i.e. early June when their dad leaves New York after nine months and goes to DR for the three months of summer. Except this time he dies in a plane crash just outside New York.

The girls take turns describing the news and how they feel and what their families and friends do, and while they both sense there is something else not quite right, it takes time for the secret to get out there. And as with all secrets, the question is how many people know about this?

Yahaira is an ace at chess. The way you play chess matches the way her father went from one square to the next; where it’s impossible to be in two squares at the same time.

Camino helps her healer aunt in their poor neighbourhood in DR, and dreams of studying in the US and becoming a doctor.

Both girls have been, or are, victims of men much older than themselves. Both keep all the bad stuff in, not telling anyone.

But there is much to be said for women power, and when Camino’s aunt gets her machete out, well…

New York and the Dominican Republic have good sides and bad sides to them. It’s not only the gloss of the big city, but there is plenty that’s good in the simple life as well. It’s easy to see why Señor Rios wanted to have his cake and eat it. Until he couldn’t.

This is a powerful story, told in few words, and it just sweeps you up.

The Black Flamingo

‘Phoebe is not
the Barbie I wanted
but she’s the Barbie I’ve got,
and I decide to take care of her.’

These lines from somewhere near the beginning of Dean Atta’s poetic debut, The Black Flamingo, are almost heartbreaking in their simplicity. Young Michael’s mother no doubt meant well, first getting her six-year-old a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, when he wants a Barbie, and later on, for Christmas, a Barbie, but not ‘the Goddess’ Barbie.*

This is a quick read, and you race through the story of Michael from birth to his first year at uni. Black – and non-present – father and Greek Cypriot mother, he never feels he quite belongs. The same goes with school, where he’s not sure what it is he needs. But he does strike gold with his friend Daisy.

Michael comes out as gay, which along with being black isn’t easy. At uni when he believes he’ll finally find his place, it takes a lot of searching before he finds it, as a drag artist.

While he encounters antagonistic people along the way, what is most interesting is how wrong kind and well-meaning people can be. It shows how hard it is to get things right for someone else. His Greek grandfather gets him, though. He is the one who tells him that the pink flamingoes don’t see the colour when the black flamingoes come.

So that’s what Michael becomes; a black flamingo.

*I got a Skipper. I really wanted a Barbie. And not the one with red hair, either.