Category Archives: History

One Shot

The grief in Tanya Landman’s latest book is almost tangible. One Shot, for Barrington Stoke, is nearly about Annie Oakley, but not quite. Tanya has her own brave and determined girl called Maggie.

Tanya Landman, One Shot

When she was born it seemed as if no one but her father cared. He taught her about living off the land, and how to shoot, but when he dies, far too early, she’s not allowed to do any of that. Instead Maggie is sent away, with her grief, and life goes from bad to worse and then to quite appalling.

Maggie is a strong girl, and she survives this, and eventually she is allowed to use her skills with a rifle. But it’s not what a girl should do.

One Shot might well be Tanya’s best.

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She Wolf

In She Wolf we go back 1200 years, to the Northumbria of Saxons and Vikings. Dan Smith has written this story about Ylva, recently arrived in England with her mother. Times are rough and almost immediately Ylva’s mother is murdered, and Ylva sets off after the killer to exact revenge. Because it’s what you did.

Dan Smith, She Wolf

There are wolves, and bears, and it is cold. She meets various people on her hunt for the three-fingered man who killed her mother. Some she can – probably – trust; others she shouldn’t. But it can be hard to know who is dangerous and who isn’t.

Ylva is brave, but also young and naïve and doesn’t always get it right. In fact, she gets it wrong a lot of the time. The Vikings are dangerous people, but as Ylva is a Dane, she is wary of getting too close to the Saxons as well.

This is exciting stuff, and you learn a lot about what it could have been like. Bleak. Not much in the way of creature comforts.

(Great cover illustration by Jill Calder)

More family women

Hindsight often makes me worry I shouldn’t have done that, whatever it was. Like two years ago, when instead of reviewing some suitably woman-ish books on International Women’s Day, I rambled on about Mother-of-witch. But with more hindsight, and a rereading, I came to the conclusion it was OK. As for her, she was more than OK.

Another two years earlier I wrote about her mother, my grandmother, whom I never met. It was the fact that she embroidered five identical stars for Christmas one year. I realise they probably made for fairly affordable Christmas gifts, but it’s still a lot of work, alongside all the day-to-day stuff women do. Mothers. She had five children, this grandmother I never knew.

While we’re on the subject of sewing, her second daughter, my Aunt Motta, was a pro, by which I mean she made a living sewing. And when she didn’t make her living by it, she sewed for the rest of us, plus a little hobby sewing, like the cushion you see here. It was made from the cut-off corners of the lace that edged 18 table cloths. Obvious, when you think about it.

The thrifty cushion

They could all sew. Well, perhaps not Uncle. But then not every uncle wore two red paper napkins tied round his waist (and nothing else). Careful what you get up to, as impressionable 9-year-olds remember the most astonishing things.

But this is International Women’s Day, so let’s move on from Uncle, however much fun he was. He was the one who got the education. Not because he was the eldest, or the cleverest, but because he was the boy.

The eldest child, another girl, my Favourite Aunt, was very intelligent and very capable. She left school at fourteen and started working in her home town’s textile industry. By the time I knew her she was 47 and worked for the textile union, where she ‘looked after the money,’ and rubbed shoulders with future Prime Ministers and other bigwigs in the leading political party. What might have become of her if she’d been able to continue at school?

The baby aunt quite possibly didn’t sew so much, but she certainly knitted, and brought up three cousins for me, and worked nights so she wouldn’t need a babysitter. And when Mother-of-witch needed childcare, she was there. She helped admit half the town’s teenagers to see films at the cinema where she worked, recognising friends of friends. Plus there were all the discounted coats I wore as a child and in my teens.

The thing about these four sisters is that had they got more of an education, they’d definitely have gone further. Not that there was ever anything wrong with where they did end up. We need people who make winter overalls for their nieces – especially if purple – and who has connections in the world of film, or who helps you wee by the side of the road. This kind of assistance should not be underestimated.

Summer of My German Soldier

It became necessary to take plenty of breaks. Usually this is a sign of a not very captivating book, but with Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier, it was imperative not to read too much in one go, and not because I wanted the book to last longer, either. It was ‘just’ too strong stuff. I needed to brace myself, somehow.

I’d already forgotten that that is what Lucy Mangan says in her Bookworm memoir; ‘when I reread it now, I have to put it down every few pages and walk around for a bit to let it all bed down before I am ready for the next chapter.’ Because it was on her recommendation that I bought a second hand copy of the book.

Bette Greene, Summer of My German Soldier

And if I only have one of her favourites, this has to be the one. Rarely have I come across anything quite like this WWII story about a 12-year-old Jewish girl in Arkansas, who ends up sheltering an escaped German soldier.

Patty is an unusual girl, not loved by her family, but very intelligent, except perhaps when it comes to understanding when not to say some things. Beaten often by her father, it’s hardly surprising she laps up the kindness and politeness Anton Reiker has to offer. They have intellectual conversations and Patty learns about his home in Göttingen.

You know this can’t end well, and it doesn’t. But this must be the best really bad ending to a children’s novel I’ve ever read. Whether I could have coped with reading it in my early teens is another question entirely. Probably not, would be my guess.

Written thirty years after it’s set, I don’t know if Bette describes the American south correctly, but it does feel like it. German soldiers were obviously bad. So were Jews, and also all black people, whose job it was to clean and cook for everyone else. There is unexpected goodness in places, but otherwise this is harsh.

If it was difficult to read for any length of time, then it is harder still to work out what to read next.

I suppose I could reread it…

Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur

Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur

I’ve come to the end of Joan Aiken’s short books about Mortimer, the slightly naughty raven, and his Arabel Jones. As I have probably said before, these books are a lovely piece of time travel, back to that underestimated period that was the 1970s. It shows that anything you write about ‘now’ will one day mean travelling back in history, if you are only truthful enough about what it’s like now.

I suppose the title gives it away somewhat, but this is a story with an Arthurian flavour. Mortimer shows an unsuitable amount of enthusiasm for the neighbour’s lawnmower, and that is pretty much it. I can see where Arabel’s mother, Mrs Jones, gets annoyed with the family’s pet raven.

Arabel herself is being ‘threatened’ with a new dress. Pink. What’s so fascinating about that is that this is how it was; the making your own clothes, and how you made them, showing Joan Aiken knew a bit about dressmaking, which is now rather a lost art.

As for that sword, well…

(Mortimer-ish illustrations by Quentin Blake)

Hello Lighthouse

Sophie Blackall’s new picture book Hello Lighthouse is a work of art. It’s a story, too, of life in a lighthouse, but you could very easily just drool over the pictures.

Sophie Blackall, Hello Lighthouse

There is something very special about lighthouses. I adore them. It’s the architecture, and the fact that they stand so alone, either by the sea or in the sea. They’re romantic, too, but probably more so for those of us who don’t live there.

I suppose this is a children’s book… It’s all quite grown-up, beginning with a new lighthouse keeper arriving, seeing him work and how lonely he is. Then he is joined by a wife, who shares in all the hard work. The dangers, the isolation, the heroic saving of people in emergencies, the heroic giving birth to a lighthouse baby. Family life at sea.

It’s beautiful. And if it weren’t for all the stairs, I’d live in a lighthouse.

I Used To Know That

Yeah, so Christmas was a while ago. But the order from our hosts, Dodo and Son, was to buy lots of non-targeted stocking-filler type presents. These were to sit in a basket and could be opened by anyone at any time during Christmas Day. You know, for when you got bored…

They said they’d started by buying some cheap books from charity shops.

This one – I Used To Know That – was probably one of them. I have to admit to having picked book-shaped parcels. Not that I needed books, but I felt I needed silly gadgets or socks even less.

It’s quite fun, actually. Caroline Taggart has gathered ‘stuff you forgot from school’ in a short, humorous and easy to read format.

The Resident IT Consultant and I discussed whether we’d forgotten the same things, and I pointed out that to some extent we would have been given sufficiently different material from which to forget. So, no, we have blissfully put different stuff behind us. Me more than him. I have always been the type to learn for the moment (=exam) and forget quickly to leave room for more like that. And so it went on.

Maths might have been ‘the same’ were it not for the two countries (languages?) having different ways of describing it. Grammar is both the same, and not. Classic authors? Not the same. Well, a bit. The more foreign, the likelier. Science? Hmm, not always easy wherever you do it.

History; I had my kings and he had his. US Presidents were the same, but we didn’t feel they were all that important. Dates to remember… well, I knew some of his, and him being special, he clearly knows about Freden i Knäred – as do I – but do you?

Then there are the planets, and they depend entirely on how old you are. How many did you learn, that you could later forget?

I had never come across litotes, but now that I have – thank you, dear book – I can tell you it’s something I use a lot. Whereas all I recall about anapaest is that it is one.

So there you have it.