Category Archives: History

Hear Candy here

There is a nice interview with Candy Gourlay on YouTube. If you haven’t heard her at an event for Bone Talk, you’ll find this fascinating. There is so much a reader never realises about the journey the author made to be able to write that wonderful book you’ve just enjoyed.

While it all makes sense when you hear it, I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work it out for myself. Unless I was brave enough to start writing a book, thus discovering how you need to change how you look at everything.

And I had no idea that rice paddies are noisy.

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Another Costa for Hilary!

I sensed that Hilary McKay was most probably going to be this year’s winner of the children’s Costa award. But I didn’t want to say so, since it’s so hard to deny things in a believable way if cornered.

“Children’s writer Hilary McKay collects the Costa Children’s Book Award for the second time for The Skylarks’ War, a story following the loves and losses of a family growing up against the backdrop of World War One which the judges called ‘as perfect a novel as you could ever want to read’.”

How right that judge is.

And Hilary was up against some good ones, so it’s never easy predicting. Or for that matter – I imagine – to judge.

Yippee for Hilary and her Skylarks!

Hilary McKay, The Skylarks' War

Our Castle by the Sea

This novel by Lucy Strange, about the outbreak of WWII, was more painful to read than I’d expected. Or, indeed, felt before. It also made me harbour quite unpleasant thoughts about Mr Churchill.

Lucy Strange, Our Castle by the Sea

12-year-old Petra and her older sister Magda live in a Kent coast lighthouse, with their lighthouse-keeper father, and their German mother. Yes, German. Never popular with local people, it seems the outbreak of war freed up any inhibitions they may have had about what you can say and do towards the wrong kind of foreigner.

The children are also tainted by their semi-foreignness and life becomes quite hard for the whole family. This is more than a war time story, however, and veers more towards crime fiction as the story grows.

It’s fascinating; no question about that. But you read it with your heart in your throat, thinking about what internment might have meant. Or treason. And then there is the case of evacuating children.

But it’s the lack of human warmth from some of the people you perhaps thought were friends and neighbours that really got to me. And more so, what it reminded me of.

Have we learned nothing?

Satisfaction

There are different schools of thought for how to do Christmas. To do what you grew up with. Or to do anything but.

I try to relive my childhood Christmases as much as is possible, considering I am surrounded by people who didn’t share my experiences – so haven’t got a clue. And it doesn’t snow as much as it did.

Thank goodness for that.

But what strikes me when I think about this harking back to the past, is that for a generation who now wants so much from life, that what I had then can be remembered as so attractive that I feel the need to copy what we had.

We weren’t wealthy at all. Presents were fairly limited by today’s standards. Space must have been an issue when we all got together. And I’m guessing the cooking of all that food and the adults ‘having to’ get on with each other wasn’t as seamless as it appeared to us little ones.

But I was very happy with my lot. A bit frightened that time I ran to answer the door and the real Father Christmas was standing there, but he brought gifts, so I could be persuaded not to be scared after a while.

I think that’s all I wanted for Offspring too. Not an expensively magical time. Just some of our own magic.

Mare’s War

What do you know about black American women in WWII? Probably as much as I did, and that wasn’t a lot. Award-winning Mare’s War, by Tanita S Davis, is about the women of the 6888th, the only Women’s Army Corps sent to Europe.

Mare arrived aged almost 17 – you had to be 20 to join up – from her small home town in Alabama, where being coloured was to be a second class citizen. She needed to escape her mother’s abusive boyfriend, and the WAC seemed like a different planet.

Tanita S Davis, Mare's War

Much of the military training and the friendships formed, brought me straight back to Michael Grant’s Front Lines, but unlike his trilogy, these women were not armed and ‘all’ they did was deal with a serious backlog of military post, letters and parcels needed to lift morale among those fighting.

Telling her story to her two teenage granddaughters during a long drive across America, one hot summer, Mare shocks and surprises the girls with how it was, in what seems to be not all that long ago.

This is a fantastic book, which will entertain and educate at the same time. You might know more than Tali and Octavia do, and you might not find Mare as embarrassing as they do [at first], but you will love seeing what it was like for these pioneering women, and what they’ve become.

While seemingly a story about WWII, it is mostly about how far black women in America have come, even if it isn’t anywhere near far enough. At least Mare lived to see her granddaughters taking for granted a life she could never have imagined, and which wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for her flight away from the farm where she grew up.

Read this and be inspired.

A thought for our time

Before we look too deeply into our mince pies, I want to share the quote Lucy Mangan shares in her Bookworm. It’s from one of her ‘older’ children’s books, Summer of my German Soldier, by Bette Greene.

Set in the American deep south, the quote comes from a [hidden] German soldier, who’s made friends with a young Jewish girl, and his explanation of ‘how Hitler succeeded is still my go-to reference as I’m reading the headlines about the rise of whichever new (or ancient) evil is dominating the news cycle that day.

“His first layer is an undeniable truth, such as: the German worker is poor. The second layer is divided equally between flattery and truth: the German worker deserves to be prosperous. The third layer is total fabrication: the Jews and the Communists have stolen what is rightfully yours.”

Evil builds in increments. Your understanding of this basic truth may grow in sophistication and detail over the years, but the earlier and harder you grasp the simple, unchanging bastard fundamental, the better off you’ll be.’

Needless to say, I want to read this book.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading

I want to be Lucy Mangan. We are so alike in many ways, but I haven’t read all the books she has, nor can I write like she does. I want to [be able to] write like Lucy Mangan!

I don’t expect that will happen.

I also want to know what her house/library/bookshelves look like. I can’t conceive how you can keep that many books – in a findable way – in a normal house. Assuming she lives in a normal house.

Lucy Mangan, Bookworm

After reading Lucy’s Bookworm, I now love her parents, too. I especially feel I’ve got to know Mrs Mangan better – and that’s without the letter to the Guardian stating that the Mangans were happy to have their daughter adopted by some other Guardian letter writer.

A friend of mine often mentions the fear induced in millions of people by the four minute warning so ‘popular’ in the 1980s. I’d almost forgotten about it, and never really worried all that much. Little Lucy was extremely concerned, but was reassured by her mother, who clearly knew what the child needed to hear. Basically, it would be in the news, so they would be prepared. They’d not send her to school if the end seemed imminent, and they would all die together at home. Problem solved.

Bookworm is about what one bookworm has read – so far – in her life of loving children’s books. She is not repentant (I must try harder), and will keep reading what she wants, as well as keep not doing all those ghastly things other people like, if she doesn’t want to. That’s my kind of bookworm!

This reading memoir is full of the same books we have all read, or decided not to read, as well as some real secret gems I’d never heard of and will need to look for. Lucy rereads books regularly, but doesn’t mention how she finds the time for all this.

It’s been such a relief to discover that she dislikes some of the same books I’d never consider reading, and even more of a relief to understand how acceptable, and necessary this is. Lucy even has the right opinions on clothes. Very useful to know there are sensible women in this world.

I had to read Bookworm slowly. I needed to savour what I could sense wouldn’t last forever. Although one can obviously reread Bookworm, just as one can other books. (Where to find the extra time, though?)

Growing up a generation – not to mention a North Sea – apart, we didn’t always read the same books. But by now we sort of meet in the here and now, and Lucy ends her book by listing a number of today’s must-read authors, and her judgement is almost completely spot on and correct.

So to summarise; I can read the same books. I can probably not store as many in my house. But I will never be able to write as well. (And I rather mind that.)

(According to Lucy, she loves her young son more than she loves books. Bookworm was given to me – after some hinting – by Daughter, whom I happen to love more than books too.)