Category Archives: History

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

The Nowhere Emporium

The blurb on the back of Ross MacKenzie’s The Nowhere Emporium – and what a gorgeous cover this book has! – suggests it’s for fans of Pullman, Funke and Gaiman. I think it’s more Harry Potter than any of those, though I obviously won’t rule out that others will also enjoy The Nowhere Emporium. Simplified Harry Potter, I hasten to add, but you can tell that Ross has been influenced by JK, as she in turn had been influenced by a few others.

Ross MacKenzie, The Nowhere Emporium

This Tardis-like emporium is nowhere, in that it moves about. It changes where it is, and also when it is. Daniel Holmes is an orphan, and his life could be better. One day when chased yet again by some bullies, he finds a shop to escape into, which is where he encounters the mysterious Mr Silver who runs it.

He goes back a second time, and Mr Silver is rather surprised to find Daniel can remember his first visit. You’re not supposed to. His emporium is intended to entertain people, but he also makes sure he arranges for some suitable memory loss as they leave.

Daniel is clearly different, so Mr Silver lets him stay, just as when he was a young boy, he had a mysterious ‘benefactor’ who took him in and taught him magic. This was a very long time ago.

Soon after Daniel is apprenticed, things begin to change. Mr Silver seems different and then he disappears. Another mysterious man turns up instead and it’s for Daniel to try and sort things out and make emporium life normal again. If he’s got enough magic in him to do so.

Well, what do you think?

A reading update

Let me see.., so after my lovely glow from reading about the horrors of war in Abyssinia, I moved swiftly on to Helen Grant’s Urban Legends, her third book about teenagers in Belgium who break into people’s homes, or climb up onto the rooftops of Ghent, encountering murderers and dead bodies galore.

I thought the first one – Silent Saturday – was quite cosy, for a thrillery, horror novel.

Let me tell you how I am doing so far. I have read 24 pages. Seven of those I’d already read (I don’t think it’s déjà vu, but more that the first chapter was printed at the end of book two) and it came back to me quite how scary I felt they seemed last year.

Well this year, my dears, I am scared witless, and I’m only on p 24. As I said.

I hope things will turn rosier as I go along. Because I’m never going to get braver or more fond of horror. I mean, how could those characters just walk with you-know-who, or let someone into their home like that, or go and live all alone, or anything else which Helen no doubt will have written, but which I have not as yet encountered?

I’ll be fine. Really.

But please leave the lights on.

And please tell me he’s not behind me.

Black Dove, White Raven

I was left with a warm glow of contentment on finishing Elizabeth Wein’s Black Dove, White Raven, and I would have started re-reading the book at that point if I could have. While the first pages didn’t set me off quite like Code Name Verity did, I was soon lost in the magic of flying, friendship and adventure.

Elizabeth Wein, Black Dove, White Raven

Like CNV it’s a story told through diary entries and flight log books, as well as the odd attempt at writing adventure stories by and about Black Dove and White Raven. I had imagined that they were the flying mothers of Em and Teo, but it’s really the children themselves who are telling this tale. Mainly Em, and sometimes her adopted brother Teo. Em’s voice is almost that of Verity’s. Almost.

Their mothers Delia and Rhoda are soulmates; they fly together, have babies together, live and work together, until the day Delia dies. This is America in the 1920s, so friendship between a white woman and a black woman was never going to be straightforward. Nor is the situation where Rhoda simply takes over as Teo’s mother, or when they all move to Ethiopia to live Delia’s dream.

As the book begins, Em has a problem, and the novel is her way of describing to Emperor Haile Selassie what has happened and why he must help her.

I knew very little about Ethiopia, and even less about the war in Abyssinia. It’s easy to think of that war as merely being far away and a long time ago, and almost unimportant, but Black Dove, White Raven brings it to life in a scary way. We simply have had no idea what Italy did in Africa back then.

It’s easy to say that you should write about what you know, or that fiction is about making things up, so you don’t have to. But if Elizabeth didn’t know Ethiopia, and more importantly, didn’t know how to fly, this story wouldn’t get off the ground. And it’s as well that she practised flying on the outside of planes too, or you wouldn’t believe what goes on in this book.

Black Dove, White Raven is a seductive mix of nostalgia and reality, with courage and friendship at its core. It leaves me wanting more.

Women and war

On International Women’s Day, let’s think back to what they used to do. We finally made it to see the film based on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which is a favourite of mine. I was pleased to see the other week that the appearance of the film made the book pop – temporarily – back into the top ten in book sales. The power of movies.

It was a lovely looking film, even accounting for the gore, which was most realistic. My younger self would not have enjoyed it. I’d worried about the cringe-factor of having a non-native speaker play Vera, but Alicia Vikander was perfect. (I might have to dislike her a little for that.) What people who haven’t read the book make of the film, I have no idea. It must be like Harry Potter. You run past the highlights and you will hopefully make some sense of it.

The plot which remained when all the ‘excess’ pages had been dealt with made the whole thing out to be mostly about the romance, and less about years of hard work, nursing in the war. And I suppose the romantic twist at the end was to appease viewers who had cried too much when everyone died. At least they didn’t resurrect those who died in real life.

While romantic, this film did portray WWI as far more traumatising and downright incomprehensibly awful than most war films I’ve seen. And that’s good. We need the negative propaganda. It’s also worth remembering that being allowed to go to university is a relatively new thing. If you’re a woman, I mean.

Kathryn J Atwood, Women Heroes of World War I

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, and that is also about the dreadfulness of war and what women can do. (More about that another day.)

And through Elizabeth, I had another well timed book in my letterbox yesterday. It’s Kathryn J Atwood’s Women Heroes of World War I. I haven’t read it yet, obviously, but it looks very promising. Kathryn features the lives of 16 women and what they did in the war. So watch this space.

Daughter liked Testament of Youth, the movie, but I have high hopes of her giving the book a go, too. It is far superior to the film, and everyone ought to read it.

Seeing the sewing

I managed to mislay a week so I nearly missed it. First I forgot to make a note of the start date for The Great Tapestry of Scotland in my diary, so I missed the beginning. And then I went and believed I had another week. But everything is fine, I discovered my error, and we went off to admire the tapestry yesterday, with all of two days left to run [at Stirling Castle].

So if you’re here, you can go today, or tomorrow. If not, you can go to Ayr in April and May. Or Kirkcaldy in the summer.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland at Stirling Castle

It was good. It was impressive. All those stitches to show the history of Scotland. I just wanted to reach out and stroke it, but you weren’t allowed.

There were quite a few books in there, and authors. Lots of other things, and people, including Elvis. The landscapes were breathtaking, and I found I quite liked the Cumbernauld panel, motorway junction and everything. Charles Rennie Macintosh and his roses. Scientists and other clever Scots. Sean Connery.

Suffragettes and witches and Vikings, kings and queens and murderers (not all at the same time). Education and golf, mines and car factories. I reckon it’s all there.

Ideally you should see it many, many times. Preferably without lots of other people to fight over the space with. But it’s good. We had two hours before closing. After an hour I noticed that the Resident IT Consultant had only managed to wheel the Grandmother round one third of the panels, so I told him to speed up, or we’d be thrown out before they got to the end.

So he did. And then we bumped the Grandmother along the steep cobbles outside back to the car, teeth rattling.

How to Fly with Broken Wings

‘Jump!’ Now, that’s a horrible thing to tell, or force, someone else to do. But we know it happens, and it happens a lot in Jane Elson’s book How to Fly with Broken Wings. It’s worth considering why someone would say it, though. Things are never totally straightforward.

Jane Elson, How to Fly with Broken Wings

Friendship is a difficult concept. Not only can making friends be rather hard, but even to understand what a friend is, could be close to impossible. Twelve-year-old Willem Edward Smith has Asperger Syndrome. His maths teacher gives him homework, which is to make two new friends; real friends, rather than a relative or a friendly shopkeeper.

So poor Willem tries to make friends, and ends up with Sasha from school, who is the (girl)friend of Willem’s bully, Finn. And he befriends Finn. Maybe.

What with the friendship issues, and gang warfare on the estate where he lives with his gran, and rioting, things are never going to be easy for Willem. And this story is not a happy ever after story. There is a lot of bad stuff, mixed in with the good.

Sasha and Finn are not going to change completely. Willem will probably always display aspie traits and be easily led. Staff at his school seem to be particularly stupid.

But there is Archie, the elderly man who moves in, and whose mission it is to change the estate. There are the memories of Archie’s parents, especially his mother, who flew planes in the war. There is a Spitfire, a living, breathing Spitfire, so to speak.

If it doesn’t kill them, then maybe Archie and the dreams of flying can help this troubled estate. Expect to cry, though.