Category Archives: History

Witch Child – 20 years on

Today sees the publication of the 20th anniversary edition of Witch Child by Celia Rees, as well as its sequel, Sorceress.

I don’t know where to start. There is no review on Bookwitch, because the books seriously predate her appearance in the book world. But the thing is, these books, and Witch Child especially, have loomed so large for so many years in this witch’s life. (I think you can assume I ‘quite liked’ them.)

Celia Rees herself, has always been a formidable force in the world of YA, as far as I’m concerned. She occasionally goes all modest and reckons no one will remember her old books (except me). But they must! They should!

Searching to see what I have written about Witch Child, I discovered an old post where Daughter was in a bookshop, desperately wanting to urge the mother with the daughter to let her buy the book, seeing as the girl had picked it off the shelf in what seemed a meaningful way. But no, mum did not allow it, and this mum’s daughter was too polite to burst in between perfect strangers.

What could it be the mum didn’t like? I’m guessing there are more strong feelings around, still, regarding the burning of women as witches hundreds of years ago. But that’s why you should read this book! It’s important, as well as tremendously good entertainment. And Sorceress continues this vein of importance, looking at the way women and girls have been treated over the centuries.


Unusually for anniversary editions the publishers have kept the original covers (which I gather were always considered successful), and added some gold, just to celebrate.

As for this witch, I will always put Celia and her books on the top rung of YA. The best books are not always those published in the last few months.

Voices from the Past

Wednesday’s YA event was live, which meant that the audience could email questions. Chaired by Hannah Lavery, we met Patrice Lawrence and Bali Rai, both sitting at home in their respective houses.

Patrice’s book, Diver’s Daughter: A Tudor Story, was, as you may have guessed, set in Tudor times. You might think there would have been no black people in Britain back then, but you’d be wrong. Patrice’s main character is the daughter of a former slave from Mozambique, and she’s done a lot of research. Some of that appears to have been started by her own mother, who learned to drive, and then took her family round stately homes all over southern England. Patrice read a chapter about a dangerous crossing of the Thames by boat. And she told us how the Tudors would have cleaned their porridge pans without the help of Brillo pads. That’s the kind of thing we want to know.

Bali’s book, Now or Never: A Dunkirk Story, features a young boy from Rawalpindi, who having lied about his age, came over with the donkeys needed to help shift stuff in the mud in Flanders. Or possibly France. Bali wanted to let the world know that there were non-whites in WWII, unlike some claims he came across when young. He read chapter two, which mentioned a real person, John Ashdown, father of Paddy Ashdown, and who seems to have been rather special. Plus there was Tommy Smith, a communist from Tooting, whose task it was to show that the war wasn’t only fought by white upper class soldiers.

Both Patrice and Bali reckoned they’d never been properly taught about the war. They didn’t know that people like them had also been part of the history of WWII. They had even been told that this had not been the case. Besides, ‘all our ancestors came from somewhere’, as Bali pointed out. People don’t just happen. And people always change things. Patrice regretted not having known about Mary Seacole when she was young.

Asked who they’d like to write about in future, Bali said Bob Marley as a child. Patrice looks up old cases from the Old Bailey online, and is fascinated by the voices of women in Georgian times.

There’s a question about deep diving for Patrice, who says she can’t even swim. Bali talks about the second lockdown in his part of Leicester, and Patrice has fun with the exhausted Italian dogs, expected to exercise with several ‘owners’. It was reading Leicester’s Sue Townsend, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that made Bali a writer. And he discovered Fleur Hitchcock’s books in the darkest corner of a bookshop, and continues to recommend them to everyone.

A final question from Ferelith – who can only be the Ferelith so well known in book circles – and Bali says he’s planning a sequel to City of Ghosts. So, we’re looking forward to that!

Having live questions really made a difference. (If only I’d watched live…)

Midnight at Malabar House

Vaseem Khan has left his baby elephant and moved back in time to New Year’s Eve 1949 where Persis Wadia is India’s first female police detective in a new crime series. Persis is on night duty at Malabar House when called to the scene of the murder of a British diplomat.

It’s not easy being a woman in such a role where most people want to speak to ‘the man’. Persis is not afraid, however, and as the mystery unravelled she struck me as quite possibly being autistic. If so, it helps her persist in doing a good job, but also alienates others, including potential suitors. Not that she needs a boyfriend. She has a job.

Set soon after Partition, this is an fascinating period to learn more about, regardless of the crime solving. Admittedly, Vaseem isn’t old enough to have been there at the time, nor is he a woman. But he writes his female detective surprisingly well. And he gives her a sidekick in the shape of a white English male; someone who seems to suit Persis really well.

I suppose it’s unavoidable that this is still a pretty white [British] story, with lots of strings being pulled from London. I liked learning more about this side of India; the established Indians and their British counterparts, rather than poverty-stricken villages and people hoping to emigrate.

Persis and her sidekick show a lot of promise. As does the young nation. Hopefully we’ll see more of them.

The Siege of Caerlaverock

Barbara Henderson’s short novel about the [real] siege of the castle of Caerlaverock, near Dumfries in southern Scotland, is a fabulous adventure for any age. Once I’d started, I could barely put the book aside.

The year is 1300, and Ada, a 12-year-old laundress, is about to do something she shouldn’t. This act causes her to get to know the new Page boy Godfrey, and it brings both of them to the attention of the castle commander, who is not a nice man.

The Lord of the castle has gone away, looking for support, leaving his young Lady wife in charge. And then the English King turns up, with 3000 men, against the 60 or so left at Caerlaverock.

We learn much about how a castle like this was run, and how hard it was to be poor and powerless like Ada and her father. But this is a story about personal bravery and the fight both against the villainous commander and the King of England.

It gets very exciting, and it’s good to see female leadership and that eight-year-old page boys are first and foremost only eight years old, but with the courage to become a brave Knight one day.

And Kings, well, they never last long, do they?

Zooming in on Caerlaverock

I sat right at the front at the launch of Barbara Henderson’s new book, The Siege of Caerlaverock. Not like me at all, you might think, but I was in front of my laptop, with people zooming in from all over Scotland. Mostly Scotland, I think. The beauty of these online events is that anyone can attend, and I doubt that half of us would have made the trek to Inverness for a traditional bookshop launch.

I could see most of the others, but due to me eating my way through salad and bread and cheese, I kept my camera off. More dignified that way. There seemed to be 33 of us, which is pretty good for a bookshop gathering.

Introduced by Cranachan’s Anne Glennie, we had Lindsay Littleson interviewing Barbara, and Anne shared photos of everything from the ancient tower in Germany near where Barbara grew up, to pictures of Caerlaverock castle where the story happened in real life, in 1300.

Barbara described how she – almost by accident – forced her family to visit the castle on a short holiday, and how she was bewitched by the story of the siege, and photographed every inch of the surrounding area as well as the displays in the museum. She was especially happy when she discovered there could be a female lead, both in the laundress girl Ada, but also the Lady of the castle because the Lord was away. (Did you know castle cooks were always men?)

She created the really evil villain, and perhaps there were one or two spoilers, but luckily I had read past the relevant bits. Just in case you’d rather not hear, I won’t tell you how Barbara redesigned the castle…

Barbara read to us from chapter one, and a bit about the villain, and she knows just when to stop!

After some questions from the audience, it was time for us to gather up our salad bowls and put our slippers back on, taking the lead from Anne. And they won’t mind at all if anyone who reads the book leaves a review on ‘you-know-where’.

After the War

The tears started falling right from the start of Tom Palmer’s new book, After the War. I missed The Windermere Children on television in January, so had been looking forward to Tom’s book. To say it’s an enjoyable book would be wrong. It’s very good, as always with Tom, and so important, especially now.

We meet three Jewish, teenage boys, who along with three hundred other children came to the Lake District in the summer of 1945, straight from the concentration camps.

The automatic reaction for the modern reader is how lucky these boys are, and how they must know that things will be OK from now on. But what you tend to overlook is what has been done to them during the war. Yes, we know about the camps and the loss of their families and the general awfulness of everything.

But here the boys are worrying whether they can really trust these people, whether they will really be all right now. Because being transported in large groups to somewhere new, where they are being promised better lives, food, and so on, has been done to them already. And we know what happened then.

When they arrive, the many buildings they see look a bit like the concentration camps. They have to remove their clothes, for obvious reasons, and they are told to wash, and they are deloused, etc. But this too rings a bell for the children. It has all happened before.

On the other hand, they have been given a piece of chocolate, for the first time since before the war. Maybe things will be OK?

To begin with they hoard the food they are given, in case they aren’t fed again. They even steal potato peelings, just in case.

But slowly, slowly, they learn to trust, they stop being hungry, they learn English. In fact, they are allowed lessons, which is something they’ve not been permitted for six years.

This is a beautiful book, telling us about something real. Until quite recently we would have taken this kind and decent behaviour by the British for granted. But whatever our future holds, I am so glad these children were given a future after all they went through in the war. And I hope there was much chocolate for them.

The Time Travel Diaries – Adventure in Athens

Every time I ask myself whether I might have grown a little tired of this, and how many fictional trips can a witch make to Roman times, or whenever, and still enjoy it?

‘Hvergang,’ as the Danes say, or every time, as I say [every time].

In Caroline Lawrence’s second time traveller book, Adventure in Athens, I knew how things were likely to happen, and they did, and it was still just as much fun. And once you get going, those old Greeks really are fascinating. Not to mention smelly.

Here Alex and Dinu and their families travel to modern Athens as a reward for last time. And, well, there is a portal through to ancient Athens, and their task is to find Socrates. Because that should be easy.

I have to say, I grew quite fond of old Socrates. He was a wise man, and from now on I will remember this.

Not only did they smell back then, but many people were really quite violent. And I do not want to meet their dogs. Plus, the important thing for our young time tourists is to avoid interacting in such a way that the future changes, possibly meaning that they won’t actually exist, if they go kerpluff.

This is fun, and while it’s light adventure, you learn so much without really noticing. Perhaps our heroes are a tad unrealistically proficient in ancient languages, but this is fiction. They’re allowed. And so are we.

The Short Knife

How hard are you willing to work for a carrot?

You couldn’t accuse the characters in Elen Caldecott’s The Short Knife of being lazy. This surprisingly topical historical novel is quite a thing. And by surprising I mean that Elen couldn’t possibly have foreseen the slavery business making the front pages as the publication date for her book grew near.

These slaves are white, and British, and their owners are also white, and more Saxon than British, but everyone has a bad side, whatever their nationality. In AD 454 the Romans have left Britain, and the Saxons have made the move to take over.

Mai and her sister Haf and their dad are poor, but live peacefully (in or near Wales), when their lives are interrupted, and ruined, by a few Saxon men. Much hardship and sadness follow, and the girls can’t be sure what will happen to them.

The story is told from two time perspectives; mostly from autumn AD 454 when the Saxons come, slowly leading up to the second one, where someone is giving birth at the same time as something vague but horrific has happened. So the reader both knows, and does not know.

You see both nationalities with all their faults, and some good sides. Having more than a measly carrot to eat is one of the good things about what might otherwise be considered pretty bad.

You feel you know what is happening, when Elen suddenly switches the truth of what we are seeing. And then again.

This is good writing, and a truly good story.

See you again, Vera

The first of several versions of We’ll Meet Again was recorded in 1939, when the 22-year-old Vera Lynn ‘really does not know where or when a reunion will be possible. British war nostalgia derives from the knowledge of victory. It’s the possibility of defeat that distances the 1939 version from Churchill kitsch and Blitz cosplay and represents something truly worth remembering: resilience in the face of the unknown.’

The above is by Dorian Lynskey in the New Statesman, stating the very obvious, but probably also mostly overlooked, fact, that no one knew how WWII would end. Not when it was happening. And still Vera Lynn sang, keeping up morale.

I’d begun to believe that she would live forever. Hearing the Queen mention Vera in her speech at Easter brought home to me the fact that Her Majesty is younger than the Forces’ Sweetheart. I wonder how that feels; to be so old yourself and then have someone else who is older still and who has sort of matched your every step in the public eye.

In the end Vera Lynn didn’t live forever, but 103 is pretty good going. We’ll meet again, but hopefully not too soon.

Mohinder’s War

Bali Rai’s short novel set in France during WWII is in one way an ordinary war adventure, showing the courage so many displayed while fighting the enemy and hoping to survive.

But the hero here is Mohinder Singh, a Sikh pilot with the RAF, who crash-lands his plane somewhere in occupied France. He is found by 13-year-old Joelle, who with her parents feed and shelter people who need help, be they members of the Resistance or as in this case, a foreign soldier.

This is what’s important. You learn, if you didn’t already know, that Indians fought for Britain in the war, flying from England. And you discover that the hero of a story like this can be a Sikh pilot, which will feel good for not just young Sikhs, but for anyone who might believe that the British don’t take ‘immigrants’ seriously, and who don’t know that many of them died for what was someone else’s country.

Mo is as brave as any RAF hero, and he brings with him his Sikh values, which he teaches to Joelle, as they run from the Germans.

The book begins with Mohinder’s funeral, at the grand old age of 105, and Joelle is there too. This helps, because at least you know that the two of them survived the war. The bad things they encountered were bad enough, and you don’t want to worry about whether they will make it.

I could do with more stories like this one. We might know that all sorts of people fought in the war, while not really understanding, unless it’s spelled out to us.