Category Archives: History

After the First Death

Almost forty years on I’m guessing Robert Cormier couldn’t have imagined that his early YA novel After the First Death would feel so current. Or maybe he would. Perhaps his journalist’s instinct knew that the world wasn’t about to become a better place.

Robert Cormier, After the First Death

He certainly knew how to paint a dark picture of terror back in the 1970s. This was my first book by Robert, whose name I’ve heard mentioned by authors who have strived to write as well as him. And, you know, if someone you admire, admires someone, you need to have a look for yourself.

Reading After the First Death post-Manchester and during the next London terror attack, I couldn’t help but feel it’s always the same. My own mental image of terrorists forty years ago was not that which is in this story, which feels totally up-to-date as far as what we are witnessing today is concerned.

A bunch of unidentified terrorists have seized a bus carrying 16 five-year-old children, holding them and the teenage girl driving the bus hostage. One of the terrorists is also a teenager, as is the boy who ends up as a go-between. The naïve reader imagines a bond forming, somehow.

You learn much about how adults groom younger people to help do their dirty work. We discover that the bus driver is a normal human being from her helpless reactions to the situation; none of this fictional hero stuff. The go-between fares not much better. And the children…

The title suggests this won’t be easily solved. You know there has to be at least one death. You just can’t tell how bad it might get.

This excellent but chilling book is one of the recently re-issued classics from Penguin.

Local history

It’s a good friend who brings a Bookwitch more books. Admittedly muttering the Swedish equivalent of ‘coals to Newcastle’ under her breath as she offered her pile of books to me.

And whereas I don’t need gifts, I can’t think of better ones than books.

Albert Olsson trilogy

In this case it’s both what the books are, as well as how they were come by. She has searched for them secondhand, until she found a copy of each of the three volumes in this very local (holiday local) historical trilogy about the hardships and adventures of the people who [might have] lived here four or five hundred years ago, when life was tough.

Another old friend talked about them when we were both in our early teens, and while she loved the books, I thought they sounded dreadfully boring.

These days there are performances (in promenade form, I believe) near where we spend our holidays, most summers, and they are tremendously popular. It will come as no surprise to you that I’ve never been…

Last year when my book-bringing friend let me read her own book on a similar topic, she mentioned how much she liked Albert Olsson‘s trilogy about local farmer Tore Gudmarsson (there is a road near us named after him), so I admitted my ignorance again.

And now she has spent all winter looking for copies for me. She apologised for them not being matching, but that surely is the charm of used books? They needn’t match. They just are. Besides, I suspect the odd one out might be a first edition. The other interesting thing about the books is that they appear to be published by one of the local bookshops.

So far I have tried the beginning of book one, Sand, and I have to admit it’s like pickled herring. Much better than I’d imagined.

The poor Resident IT Consultant – always keener on history than his wife – eagerly had a go, only to give up because they are too hard for him to read. Now, where’s a translator when you need one?

Flesh and Blood

‘How scary can it be?’ I asked myself. ‘It’s a book for young children, after all.’ I was looking at the cover of Chris Priestley’s new book for Barrington Stoke, which shows a bandaged head, with just a hole for one eye. It’s an excellent cover. If you want to be scared witless.

Chris Priestley, Flesh and Blood

I took the precaution of not reading it at night, when the Resident IT Consultant was away. But I felt a bright afternoon would be OK. As OK as a book by Chris ever will be, I mean.

It’s really very nicely old-fashioned, in a way. Set during WWII Bill and his sister Jane seem like model children. If it weren’t for the fact that Bill would rather have a brother, which he wishes for during an air raid. And then, he sort of gets one, because they end up ‘adopting’ a young boy his own age who is found severely injured in a deserted and spooky house, and who seems to have no one.

Well, anyway, you know as well as I do that you should be careful what you wish for.

Bill feels uncomfortable, and so does his mother, and his sister. And then, one day those bandages come off…

Yeah, not sure that the bright afternoon was enough.

Bookwitch bites #142

It was nice to find myself in the company of Chris Riddell* and Judith Kerr for breakfast yesterday. Not for real, and it’s not as we were all in Hay or anything, but these two lovely people had dragged themselves into a radio studio ‘early’ on a Sunday morning to share their thoughts about Manchester and Hitler and whether to keep the truth from children.

Judit Kerr, stolen, borrowed from Chris Riddell

The downside to that, as Judith said, is that children think anyway and come up with the oddest ideas. So Hitler wasn’t actually hiding behind the hanging decoration in the toilet. But she sort of believed he might be. And Chris mentioned that his immediate reaction on hearing the Manchester news was to think of his daughter, recently graduated from University there. It’s how we function; we grab something close to ourselves.

In the Guardian Review we could read an extract from Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. It didn’t take more than a few sentences and I was back in Lyra’s world. I already like Malcolm and his suspicious mind.

Jonathan Stroud, The Empty Grave

Another book to look forward to is Jonathan Stroud’s last Lockwood – The Empty Grave – which had a cover reveal this week. I tend to sneer a bit at reveals like this, but I found myself quite taken with it. Lovely to see George at long last. And I’d say that whereas an empty grave could be seen as a positive thing, I don’t think we should have such sweet expectations here (because where is the corpse?).

Awards are good. Especially when given to the right people for the right books. Some favourites of mine have recently managed this. Simon Mason was awarded Best Crime Novel for Young Adults at CrimeFest for Kid Got Shot. Robin Stevens got the award for Best Crime Novel for Children. I’m simply pleased that the younger books are getting attention like this.

Adrian McKinty won the Edgar for Rain Dogs, which is no minor thing, and is well deserved. He seems quite pleased, judging by this blog post. At home in Australia minding the children, Adrian sent his wife to receive the prize.

(*I’m counting on Mr Riddell’s goodwill in not minding having his sketch stolen by me, as usual.)

Launching The Pearl Thief

Elizabeth Wein was clutching a bunch of flowers when I found her just inside the doors of the Perth Museum last night. (I hadn’t thought to get her anything…) She introduced me to a fellow American, whose name I immediately forgot. Sorry.

I said hello to Elizabeth’s publicist Lizz, and it is so nice to find that London-based people occasionally venture this far north. I mean, Perth is practically the North Pole. I stepped outside again to fortify myself with a sandwich, where Alex Nye found me. She had also braved the travel situation, but had to drive (trains stopped at her station going north but not south, which is no way to get home), unlike me who had the luxury of the London train. Very nicely timed.

Gavin Lindsay, Jess Smith and Elizabeth Wein

After bagging a seat on the back row, I was greeted by ‘Mr Wein’ who was doing his utmost not to pass on his cold. And five minutes past the starting time the museum’s lecture theatre was just about full.

Elizabeth was joined by Jess Smith, another local author with a traveller background, who’d been an early reader of The Pearl Thief. They were kept in order by Gavin Lindsay of the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust. We were treated to the first chapter in Elizabeth’s book, and she apologised for not being able to read with a Scottish accent. (That’s OK.) Then Jess read a long poem called Scotia’s Bairns, accompanied by a slideshow of old travellers, showing how they lived. She described it as a fading culture, that has to be grabbed before it disappears.

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth made her heroine Julie posh, so she could be educated and well-read in the 1930s. The reason the travellers are in the story is due to her PhD in folklore, having been introduced to them by her professor, and Jess was there to see to it that she described them properly. ‘Casting’ a pair of traveller siblings balanced Julie and her brother Jamie. Jess said she ‘lived’ in the story, but both she and the editors demanded more action. And apparently the villain was the wrong one.

Jess Smith

Jess spoke of writing her first book, about her life growing up in the travelling community, explaining how she could deal with the bullies. She just learned to run fast. She hopes that young people will read her books, and she spoke fondly of her mother. Both writers agreed there is a lot of freedom in fiction.

Gavin Lindsay, Jess Smith and Elizabeth Wein

‘A homecoming’ is how Elizabeth described The Pearl Thief. It’s the first book set where she lives. Lara, the librarian from Innerpeffray Library, was in the audience, and I wasn’t the only one to have visualised her as the librarian in the book. Asked when Elizabeth knew she wanted the library in her story, she said she’d always known it was a part of it.

The reason Elizabeth wanted to return to writing about Julie was that her voice is so easy, although in this book she needed to adapt because Julie is younger. And the back story had to be expanded, as Elizabeth only had a name for one of Julie’s five brothers. She doesn’t know whether it’s best to read The Pearl Thief before or after Code Name Verity, but said that the experience would be different, whichever of the books came second.

Jess had a cousin in the audience who’s read all her books and loves them, and Jess suggested she would like Elizabeth’s book as well, and that she’s not getting paid to say so.

Logboat

Before finishing Gavin Lindsay mentioned the museum’s archeology programme for 2017, which includes the logboat that features in The Pearl Thief. And as long as we didn’t bring drinks in, we were allowed to have a look at the boat, which was much larger than I had imagined. It was surrounded by notices not to touch, and I was overcome by this dreadful urge to disobey, but didn’t…

Elizabeth Wein and Jess Smith

People bought books, had books signed, had more to eat and drink, and chatted. I explained my conundrum to Elizabeth that I didn’t know which of my copies of The Pearl Thief I would like to have signed, so in the end I’d brought both. Yes, I know it’s greedy, but this is the prequel to the second best book in the world. A bit of greed is fine.

I helped myself to one of the free maps of Perth, having got there totally mapless (someone had left the printer without toner), and set off on the walk back to the station. Halfway there I was asked to rescue my new American friend, who felt a bit lost. I could do this, but I’m warning you; don’t ask if you actually want to catch your train. She had so much spare time that we talked about books and reading and she very nearly didn’t make it and had to run. Which was entirely my fault.

But it is good to meet other book fans.

After this I discovered that one route to my platform involved getting the lift up to a glass-fenced bridge over the station. Aarrgghhh.

Reader, I did it!

And the evening also solved a little problem I’d had. So it’s all good.

Perth Museum

Naondel

This sequel-prequel to Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff hits even harder for the feminist camp. Naondel makes you feel that – almost – all men are evil, but when you stop and think, you see it is mainly one, very bad, man who causes all that happens.

In Naondel the reader learns how the world we meet in Maresi came to exist, and why. At first I wondered if this was the right order to present the Red Abbey Chronicles; today, followed by 50-100 years earlier. But I feel it is. You need to know the world that was made possible through the sufferings of the seven women in Naondel. It’s not just their own escape that you come to root for, but that of all women.

And because you have read Maresi, you know they will escape. It just takes several hundred pages of back-story of suffering before they do.

Maria Turtschaninoff, Naondel

Told by all seven women, we first meet the women’s tormentor Iskan as a young man, when he is almost charming. Actually, he is always charming to begin with. We meet the girl who becomes his first wife, followed by many other women, slaves and more willing concubines. Iskan wants to, needs to, lead and will stop at nothing.

Naondel shows us how strong and resourceful women are, if you didn’t already know. The story also shows us how sisterhood can develop between women who have little reason to be friends.

It is actually quite hard to describe how inspiring these women are. You want to look away in horror at what is done to them. After a slow start, once it was clear how this was going to develop, I just had to read on and on.

I have no idea what the next book will be about, but I know I want to read it.

(Translated by A A Prime)

The route to permanent secretary

Meeting Sara Danuis’s predecessor Peter Englund didn’t make me feel we shared a background, especially. Apart from being Swedes. Reading about the current permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy I hoped Sara and I might have had more in common. She’s six years younger, but that’s nothing between peers. At our age, anyway.

And she looks familiar, but her name was completely new to me when she made the Bob Dylan announcement last autumn. Sara lived with her single mother, who wrote books in the bathroom. I lived with my single mother, but she definitely didn’t write books, anywhere. And it seems we had more books at home.

But when I read that Sara’s mother was Anna Wahlgren, the penny dropped. They might have been poor, and she might have written books in bathrooms, but Anna was famous and she and her children featured in countless magazine articles (which I read). Maybe that was where I ‘recognised’ her from.

Sara Danius in Vi Magazine

Her first own book that she bought was Ture Sventon, which wouldn’t have been my choice, but I can see where she’s coming from. Having a secretary who brings you Lent buns on demand is not a bad thing. All year round. Then, like me, Sara read what was available, which in her case was Sven Delblanc. I remember him too, including learning – like Sara – how to say his name. But I didn’t read his [adult] novels.

From there on my inferiority complex grows. While I did grapple with books typical for upper teens to read, I rarely enjoyed them, and I moved on, which in my case seems to have been backwards. Sara read Homer, Balzac, Sartre and Proust. And enjoyed them.

That‘s how you come to be permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy.