Category Archives: History

The Race

There was more to Eric Liddell than running along the beach in St Andrews in the film, or the famous swap of races in the 1924 Olympics to help him keep his Sunday clear for God.

In his new book The Race, Roy Peachey has found out more about this early sports hero, and we meet Eric both as a small child in China with his missionary parents, and we see him as a student back in England and as a medical student in Edinburgh. He has three passions; rugby, running and the church. It’s the church that takes him back to China after the Olympics; this time as a missionary himself.

Eric’s running is described in parallel with modern day school girl Lili, who like Eric lives for running, and who is both Chinese and British, having been adopted from China by British parents.

Lili usually wins every race at school, but with the announcement that the Queen is coming to watch their school race, she finds she has an annoying competitor for fastest runner.

So we follow Lili’s training sessions and her family life, alongside learning about Eric Liddell, China’s first Olympic medallist.

The Race is a fabulous tale; Lili’s story interwoven with Eric Liddell’s. I loved every minute of this fairly short book, and would have liked to read more, especially about Eric. It’s this kind of surprise find that makes reading such a great pleasure.

Adapting

I know which layby it would be. Just as I know which house is Mr Micawber’s.

It’s funny how you picture things in a way that clearly has nothing to do with what’s in a book, or how it’s been described.

The Swedish book business newsletter Boktugg mentioned one debut author’s solution to having a book launch when bookshops were not available. And I rather approve. She invited prospective book buyers to come to a certain layby – and this being Sweden, I imagine somewhere deep in the woods – one afternoon, and there she was, sitting in her car, signing copies of her new book.

Not that I have a book to sign, but I could immediately visualise which layby I would use, should it ever come to this. ‘My’ one even has a snack van stationed there, although I suppose if it were a real lockdown, it would have to be shut, instead of open for business. And perhaps one would need permission from the authorities. But as an idea I like it.

So that’s my layby sorted.

Mr Micawber’s house is obviously nothing at all like the ‘real’ Mr Micawber’s abode, which I imagine would be brick or stone and somewhere in civilisation. My Micawber house is a ramshackle, wooden, 20th century house in the Swedish countryside. I decided many years ago, as we travelled past it every day, that that’s what it was. And to this day I can’t unthink the label as a most unlikely Dickensian house. With a smoked salmon shop across the road…

When the Sky Falls

Being Billy meets Goodnight Mister Tom. And you could certainly have two worse books than those, for angry young boy in WWII. Phil Earle’s new book When the Sky Falls is full of anger and full of falling bombs.

Joseph arrives in London, just as London’s children are evacuated. He’s to stay with Mrs F, because his grandmother can’t cope any longer. His mother left long ago and his father’s just off to the war. He’s angry.

So is Mrs F, or at least, she’s hardened herself, and between them it takes a gorilla to make a difference. This is the huge ape at the family zoo Mrs F still looks after, with only a few starved animals left in it. When the planes come in the night, she stands guard outside Adonis’s cage, ready to shoot if the cage takes a hit, to keep people safe from this large and potentially dangerous animal.

Joseph hates school, and it hates him back. Dyslexia wasn’t ‘invented’ back then, so neither he nor anyone else knows what he’s got. He’s just ‘lazy’. He hates the hard work at the zoo as well. At least to begin with. He almost hates the chirpy Syd, the girl who also works there.

This is emotionally draining stuff, but invigorating at the same time.

Someone will have to die, and something else will have to give. But who and how and when?

I can see how this is Phil’s favourite book.

The virtual Phil Earle

One has some great looking string lights and the other a colour coordinated bookcase. And it really does improve things when someone with a new book to launch – Phil Earle – gets to do the launching with a good friend – Sarah Crossan, or two – Charlie Sheppard. The always enthusiastic Charlie, who is Phil’s editor, introduced everyone and pointed out that the best thing is to be friends with authors, followed by free food and wine.

Sarah Crossan, who is a great friend, took over the chatting with Phil. She knew what to ask and which direction to go, even if she was having to get used to not chatting as privately as usual. Although, no secret was made of the fact that Phil has had some personal problems, when ‘everything went wrong’, in the last five years or so. It had made him worry that he was ‘done’ with his idea for the new book – When the Sky Falls – but in the end he channelled all his pain and wrote it.

According to everyone who has provided a quote for the book, and I do mean literally everyone, this is not just Phil’s best work but really great stuff in general. (I can’t wait to read it.) It has been compared to Goodnight Mister Tom, The Machine Gunners, Kes, and so on. Set in WWII it’s about a boy who is so badly behaved that he is packed off to London, in a reverse evacuee kind of way.

The idea appears to have come from Phil’s ex father-in-law’s father and what he did in the war. (Basically, if there was a bomb threat to the local zoo, he was to shoot the lion.) Phil read to us – from page 30 – about when his main character meets a different animal at a different zoo. It’s the kind of reading that makes you want to know more.

He put his own feelings into this book, and as Phil said, ‘I can only write like I can’. He’d been afraid he was too old, in a world of publishers obsessed with debut authors, but judging by what everyone has said, he’s done all right. There was a lot of emotion, for a book launch. And contrary to what most authors say when asked about their favourite of the books they’ve written, Phil really does love When the Sky Falls best of all his. And he has written some seriously great books.

Interestingly, both Phil and Sarah, are currently reading Hilary McKay’s new book, and Phil also praised Elizabeth Wein’s war stories. He likes to read about ‘the small stuff’, rather than official war history.

He’s now off to visit sixty bookshops to sign books. ‘I have waited for this!’

You’d better watch out, for Phil and his book.

The Swallows’ Flight

I need to offer up even more and bigger thanks to Hilary McKay and her writing. It seemed impossible that there could be a book as great as, or greater than, The Skylarks’ War, but with The Swallows’ Flight I would say Hilary has done the impossible.

Thank you from the bottom of my tear-drenched hankie.

This time it’s about the children born between the two wars, whose turn it is to fight when WWII begins. Although, as with Skylarks, we learn most of what we need to know in the twenty years before. The war is ‘skirted past’ reasonably briefly. Unlike its predecessor, Swallows features not only a group of children in England, but we are introduced to two German boys and their families in Berlin.

And it works. We get to know Hans and Erik as human beings, and we see the changes to life in Germany alongside the boys. We find out what they want to do with their lives until developments mean they end up doing totally different things; in this case the boys become pilots in the Luftwaffe.

At ‘home’ we meet the generation after Clarry, Peter and Rupert from Skylarks. Peter and Vanessa have six children, and Clarry is godmother both to her niece Kate and to her best friend Violet’s daughter Ruby. We all need a Clarry godmother!

While we wait for the war that lumbers towards the families, we mostly learn about normal stuff like sibling rivalry, being bullied at school or being unwell and almost forgotten about by others. It is all this that forms the characters of these children, soon to be adults. Even Clarry’s and Peter’s rather unsatisfactory father has a role to play. There are cats, including a very random one, and there is a – smelly – dog.

There is much over the years to be sad about, but also many small and humorous incidents. I won’t spoil your reading.

My tears were partly over the inevitable deaths, but more for all those moments that simply make you cry. They rather bunch up towards the end of the story. There is much humanity here, and Hilary’s touch is lighter than ever.

An evening with Dan Smith and Tom Palmer

I can’t be sure, but I think Tom Palmer might have been sitting on his desk. His fellow author Dan Smith sat next to the requisite bookshelves, and their Barrington Stoke ‘boss’ Ailsa Bathgate had shelves behind her desk.

Thursday evening’s event with Tom and Dan was a comfortable sort of affair, where a few friends sat around chatting about books and writing. It was well worth rearranging dinner plans for.

They talked dogs when Zoom opened its doors. I got the impression that someone had been so smitten by Tom’s dog in D-Day Dog that they had got themselves a dog… Not all dogs are the same and real ones are not like their fictional peers. Tom apologised, saying he didn’t know he was influencing anyone to get a dog. He made it up.

According to Ailsa, Tom has written something like 17 books for Barrington Stoke, while Dan is a relative newcomer with two, and a third on the way. Tom read us the first chapter from Arctic Star, and it was nice to hear his voice again.

Then Dan read from somewhere in the middle of his Beast of Harwood Forest, and as far as I’m concerned I never want to see those creepy dolls’ eyes hanging from the trees. Or was it the dolls that were hanging? Anyway, they had eyes. Dan writes for himself, both the adult and his younger self. He read us a letter he’d sent to his parents from boarding school at the age of seven, when he was very much into ghost stories.

Tom got the idea for Arctic Star from his wife, who used to work on the HMS Belfast. He also felt there’s very little children’s fiction about the navy. To make sure he gets his books right, he ‘tests them on children’ which tickled Dan’s sense of humour. Now that Tom’s own children are older, he sees things differently than when they were small.

He also asked Dan if he ever dissuades fans from buying one of his books if it’s aimed at a much older age. Tom apparently has done this, but maybe because they are about ‘real’ things. Whereas Dan’s books are made up, and children like creepy stuff, ‘being scared in a safe way’.

Dan likes writing dyslexia friendly books. It lets him skip the boring bits, as he put it. Now he finds he shortens his ‘normal’ fiction for another publisher as well. He enjoys reading Barrington Stokes books, too, and has a shelf for them.

Having been a late reader himself, Tom knows the importance of short chapters. His have been known to be one page long. As Dan agreed, children often ask how many chapters a book has, rather than how many pages.

The next books are another one from Dan set in Crooked Oak again, and Tom has plans for a girl in WWII. I can’t wait. While Dan doesn’t worry too much about getting his chapter one right, or so he said, Tom works at getting a James Bond style first chapter to catch the reader’s attention.

For inspiration Dan recommends walking in the woods, smelling it, and preferably being alone. (Not with those dolls’ eyes!) It’s not surprising he likes Stephen King. Tom was more for watching WWII films when he grew up, which he reckons is why he is obsessed with war stories. And he loves the research.

The Book of Bok

To a Swede this is a very odd title, The Book of Bok. But why not? Bok is, apparently, a lump of rock. One of the ones dug up and taken ‘home’ by Neil Armstrong when he visited the Moon in 1969. Neil has written the words to this picture book about Bok, and Grahame Baker Smith illustrated.

It’s a mix of the history of the Earth and the Moon, as well as that of Neil Armstrong. If I’ve understood correctly, the words Neil wrote are mostly musings about what happened when Bok was out there, and which Grahame has adapted into pictures, showing what it might have looked like.

Space is always interesting and this story and its spacey pictures will suit budding astronomers.

The one thing I missed was the last line of the accompanying press release, where it usually offers the press the opportunity of interviewing the author. Wouldn’t it have been great if I could have?

The #28 profile – Barbara Henderson

It’s time to learn more about Barbara Henderson, the whirlwind behind The Chessmen Thief. This resident of Inverness has an unusual favourite Swede. I approve. And she clearly never gets tired. I’d approve of that too, if only I had the energy. Here she is, with answers and chessmen and everything:

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How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?
It was my sixth book – although more if you count shorter books for younger readers. I am quite open about my 121 rejections before publication 😊. Not that I’m proud of those, but I am a little bit proud of persevering.

Best place for inspiration?
Anywhere outside, ideally next to some crumbling ruin which can fire up the imagination. Also, my bed, the twilight moments where conscious and subconscious ebb and flow. Some of my best ideas come then – I just need to whip myself out of bed to write it down, because by morning, it’ll all be gone.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?
The honest answer is that I didn’t even think about it. It takes all my effort to maintain one identity – I just don’t think I have it in me to juggle another! Alhough sometimes I wonder if I missed a trick there – I could have given myself a really interesting pen name like Diamanda or Cwenhild…

What would you never write about? The World Wars, as they have been done really well by others. Sci-Fi, Crime and Legal Drama are also not my genres.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in? I was once approached by TRT World, kind of the Turkish version of News24, to do an interview about being an author and World Book Day, which I did. To this day, I am convinced they got the wrong person – I had two books out by then, with a small independent Scottish publisher, no agent, no foreign deals (so none of my books in Turkish bookshops). I was definitely not the person who would spring to mind if you are trying to think of a children’s author to feature in a flagship programme, with a famous anchorwoman. Bizarre, but a great buzz.

Which of your characters would you most like to be? In The Chessmen Thief, I’d love to be Margret hin haga – imagine being renowned across the whole known world for your carving skill! She was a real person, of course, and definitely a woman making her mark on a man’s world.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing? I’d LOVE it, but I suppose I’d want it to be a fairly faithful adaptation!

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event? I was timidly asked if I was okay once. But that was immediately after I had walked backwards during a particularly tense reading, fallen over my crate of books, landed in an undignified heap on the ground and sent books and shards of plastic flying everywhere. It was in front of a whole school assembly…

Do you have any unexpected skills? I can play the violin. Sort of. And according to my son, I am the best waffle-maker in the known universe. Does that count?

The Famous Five or Narnia? Narnia! I chose to write my university dissertation about C.S.Lewis!

Who is your most favourite Swede? Can I have two, please? Astrid Lindgren’s stories shaped my childhood. And as a teenager in the eighties, all my friends fancied Boris Becker, so as the resident rebel, I preferred Stefan Edberg!

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically? Books are everywhere, but most of my children’s books occupy two large bookshelves in the living room. In an attempt to occupy my locked-down teen, I asked him to colour-arrange them for a change. It looks good, but the real benefit was that he stumbled across all his favourites from years gone by with sqeals of ‘I’d forgotten about this!’

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader? Probably You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum, or How to Train Your Dragon

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?
Reading is for relaxing; writing is for feeling productive. So, due to my natural laziness: reading. 😊

OK, mine is a waffle with cream and jam, please!

Arctic Star

Tom Palmer just gets better and better. Have I mentioned this before? Anyway, he does. His latest book for Barrington Stoke is called Arctic Star, and it will leave you shivering (the cold) and reaching for a hanky. I’m not sure what age it’s aimed at, but I would say teens and adult. It’s WWII and mature in its handling of the war.

We meet three friends from Plymouth, on their first posting with the Royal Navy in 1943, in a convoy en route for Murmansk, protecting the ships carrying tanks to the Russians. It’s cold, to an extent you can’t even imagine, but think of it as hacking away at your freezer, but while you’re actually in it. And worse.

There’s the first convoy, followed by shore leave in Murmansk, the second convoy and finally the third convoy. You know people will have to die, but that – probably – at least one of our three young men will survive. They are scared, and cold, but in the end they know that to drop out of the war is not an option.

It’s just awful. And it makes me even more grateful that there were so many, perfectly ordinary people going through this kind of thing so that the rest of us could have a world to live in. We need to remind ourselves, too, that everyone on those ships had families at home, be it in Germany or in Britain.

You learn a lot in these short pages about life in Plymouth, life in the Navy, and life in the Soviet Union. Tom has done plenty of research as usual, and so much of the story is true. I knew what would happen to the HMS Belfast, seeing as I have actually visited, so it’s not a spoiler to say that she’s not sunk.

I’m very grateful for these books.

War and other plagues

When our [insert adjective of your choice here] Prime Minister last year kind of suggested that Covid was like fighting a war, we mostly felt he was wrong. Because a virus is not like a human being with a gun. The ‘fight’ is not the same. But he wanted to be Churchill, leading his people to victory, while forgetting that this would mean actually leading, which is a job.

So for me to write about war on this Bank Holiday Monday, is not the most cheerful of things. But more than once I have been gripped by a sense of déjà vu, how war-like Covid actually is. After all.

It started when I read Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift after Christmas. Set largely in 1938 and 1939 we know the whole time what is coming. So do they. The war, I mean, not how many years it would take out of their lives, or who would be victorious, or if they would even be alive at the end. [SPOILER] Most of the main characters are still there in 1945. But they have had to put their normal lives on hold.

When your husband’s away fighting, your hopes for a baby will have to take a back seat. Maybe there won’t/can’t be a baby after, perhaps because he didn’t come back, or because you perished in a bomb raid. Or something more sedate. Six years seem short seen from a distance, and when you know the outcome. But back then, you couldn’t just say you’d had enough and you would jolly well enjoy life as though there wasn’t a war on. Just because you want to, or feel you need to.

A similar thought appears in a book I will review later this week, where the young man in the Navy in 1943 thinks that surely by next Christmas he will be able to spend it at home, with his mother. Not an unreasonable thing to wish for at all. He’s already had a long wait for normality, and really wants for there to be no more fighting or being in danger, or living away from those who matter most. Still not a case of ‘I want it so I will have it.’

Almost fourteen months into the pandemic (longer if you count the true beginning, ignored by the PM), we are all fed up. We’ve had enough. It’s ‘unreasonable’ that we should have to put whatever it is we wish for on hold for even longer. But it’s interesting how the predicted three weeks of lockdown appeared to be such a very long period when we went into it last March, and how – relatively – quick it’s been, fourteen months on.

We’re tired. Maybe unwell. Many have died. Jobs have been lost and society is not the same as before. People have had to wait to do a great many things. Perhaps they are still waiting. Some want to go to Ibiza so badly they can’t wait. Or just to the pub. Maybe you want to go and see someone important to you, a long way away. Perhaps you have the wrong passport. If you have a passport.

I’d like to go to my other place. Technically I am allowed to. I mean, I would be allowed in. But not everyone in the Bookwitch family would be. So I wouldn’t go for fun. Not even to see if the house is still standing. It’s the people I miss. I’m in no hurry. Now that it’s been this long, I will just wait some more. The most surprising thing has been that it’s so hard to read. Or to watch anything at all worthy. But puppies on the small screen are a good distraction.