Category Archives: History

Master Will and the Spanish Spy

You can learn new things, even in the short 80 pages of a Barrington Stokes book. Here is Tony Bradman with another brief Shakespeare tale. This time it’s set while Will lives at home with his parents and siblings, going to school and getting bored and skiving off to go and see the theatre company come all the way from London.

He meets Mr Burbage, and although we can’t know what actually happened back then, it feels like true history is taking shape as Will gets to know the travelling actors, and meets ‘real’ people. The way he falls in love with the theatre is truly inspiring, and feels like it could have happened that way, and it would explain all those famous dramas we still have to enjoy.

Tony Bradman, Master Will and the Spanish Spy

The Shakespeare parents have their troubles, and life isn’t always easy or safe. Will sees something odd when he’s out and about, and feels it needs dealing with, just in case. Sensibly, he speaks to the older generation, and something can be worked out.

I had no idea that Spanish Spies could have such a devastating effect on both themselves and on others. And then there’s the plague…

Lit hotel

Take one old(ish) communist millionaire, allow him to have quite a lot of opinions about a lot of things, and you can work out that he will make enemies as he goes about his daily business. Which includes running a couple of hotels.

I have known [about] this owner of Hotell Gästis in Varberg for many years, and been vaguely acquainted with him since that literature module at university nearly forty years ago, but haven’t seen him except for a couple of years ago at Uncle’s funeral.

I have been aware of the hotel all my life, as it’s opposite the block of flats where GP Cousin grew up. But this was my first stay there, and I was intrigued to find owner Lasse Diding sharing his latest feud on facebook only a day before I travelled.

Hotell Gästis - wall art

He likes books, so is well suited to host a Bookwitch. The rooms are stuffed with books to read (and if you haven’t finished when you leave you can take it with you), and the corridors and the bar and the restaurant are even more stuffed. With books.

Hotell Gästis - book cover poster and books

So, the feud. I gather Lasse doesn’t get on with the leader writer on the local paper Hallands Nyheter. The latest trick is to uninvite him to sponsor the annual Book Day in town, where visiting authors have been put up in the hotel. It seems a shame, as this centrally placed book-hotel couldn’t be more ideal. (Well, perhaps anyone similarly afflicted to your Bookwitch might have opinions on the outlandish arrangements for ablutions in the bathroom, but we are not all like that.)

Hotell Gästis - the bath, shower?

(There is also a Lenin spa. Obviously.)

An earlier feud was over the statue Lasse bought and donated to the town. Some twenty years ago a woman somewhere in Sweden witnessed a neo-nazi march and got so furious that she hit them with her handbag. This has now been made into a statue, and not everyone is keen on it. It’s a shame, since we need more of this kind of courage.

Hotell Gästis - books

What I personally needed as I arrived, was plenty of tea. Lasse is not a member of the kettle in your room brigade, which I’m afraid I feel is a service that cannot ever be over-rated. There is a fridge. Books. Lovely period armchairs. Old-fashioned desk, and broadband. (The password is a literary one.) Books. Shoehorn. Magazines. Art on the walls. Fan. Outlandish bath/shower arrangement. Books. ‘Oriental’ rugs everywhere.

He does, however, include a buffet dinner in the room price. I drank a large cup of Earl Grey after dinner. Then another. Whoever chose that blend of Earl Grey should have a statue made of them.

Hotell Gästis - armchair

And if the coffee is as good, I can – almost – understand the local conservative politician who regularly calls in to steal cups of coffee and biscuits. I believe this is now in the hands of the law. I’d just about be prepared to nick some tea when passing through town. Except I wouldn’t. Just because someone is well off, and a communist, doesn’t mean we should steal from them.

But we could accept their statues.

There is obviously no way I will be helping myself to a book for the onward journey.

Fir for Luck

I decided to start reading Barbara Henderson’s Fir for Luck just before setting off travelling last week. I was going to see what it was like, and if it seemed promising, I’d continue reading it on my return, because I wasn’t going to add another book to my travel pile.

Well, you can guess what happened, of course. It was really quite promising, and I came to the conclusion that there was ‘plenty of room’ in my handluggage for Barbara’s book, so I could read it on the plane. Before the other planned books.

Barbara Henderson, Fir for Luck

Barbara has based her debut novel on real events from the Highland Clearances, and it is both exciting and terrifying and upsetting. Even when you know roughly what happened then, it still becomes more serious and real when you meet people and see exactly what was done to them. As with most things, you feel more when it’s someone you know.

The main character is 12-year-old Janet, who accidentally ends up the heroine of her village as it’s about to be demolished and everyone in it sent packing, with hardly any notice. What makes it more powerful is the fact that Janet’s grandmother has already had this happen to her once before, when Janet’s father was a little boy.

In the midst of the dreadful threats to Janet’s village, we learn what life there is like, and what sort of people live in it, and what they do for a living. There are grades of importance within the little community, and having a better house doesn’t necessarily save you when the day comes.

You know there can’t be a happily ever after solution, but you wish that some good will come of the fight to stay, which Janet starts.

It’s fascinating, and really so very exciting that you simply can’t go on a trip mid-book and leave it behind.

Wave

Set on the 1st of July in 1916, and also in 2016, the adult reader can work out what happens. At first I regretted not having read it on the day, so to speak, but am glad I didn’t. It’s such a loaded kind of date.

Paul Dowswell, Wave

Paul Dowswell has come up with two pairs of brothers – Eddie and Charlie Taylor. One pair for each century. Today’s boys are the great grandsons of one of the soldiers in 1916. Their grandmother is Rose, as was the girlfriend of one of the young men in 1916. The modern Rose is the daughter of the older Rose.

Clearing out their great grandparents’ house in Hastings, they find a photo of the older two, taken at the Somme on that fateful morning, as they waited to be part of the First Wave. Today’s Eddie wants to join up, unlike the older Eddie who only went to war in order to do the same as his big brother Charlie.

This short and sad story shows us the same day, one hundred years apart, and how the two sets of brothers handle the war, and the memories of it.

Very powerful, and it is yet more proof of the horrors of war, and how easily persuaded young men can be.

Maya Angelou

I knew nothing about Maya Angelou when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, back in my teens. Rather mistakenly I assumed it’d be boring. But it wasn’t, and I went on to read the other two books about Maya’s life. I was mostly surprised that it could seem so modern and ‘with it’ for being set as long ago [then] as over thirty years before.

As an adult I kept track of what became of the marvellous Maya, until the day she read her poetry in public, next to the new President, thus proving how much a black girl from the American South can do.

Lisbeth Kaiser and Leire Salaberria, Maya Angelou

There is a new picture book about Maya, by Lisbeth Kaiser, with illustrations by Leire Salaberria.

To be truthful I do feel it is a little bit sugary sweet, but probably aimed at really quite young children, so I suppose it has to be. They have to skirt over what really was done to Maya by men, and by society.

But it’s important that young children can read success stories like hers, as well as finding a small black girl in a book like this. Whether that’s more important if you are black, or white, I can’t say. We all have our needs, and we must be educated.

Hopefully this book will inspire young children to learn more about Maya, once they are a little older. She was truly a great role model.

Is it safe out there?

Do we need our adults dead, and was everything safer in the past?

When I was reading Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale earlier this year, what I was thinking was how nice it is when the adults can remain alive. The children can go about their adventures anyway, because the adults will let them. Or won’t think to worry.

Just like in the past. Perhaps. Debi Gliori was saying in Edinburgh last month that her publisher required her to put her alphabet book in more historical times, just so the two children could go out on their own and have alphabet adventures all over the place.

So is it a modern problem?

In books contemporary with me, characters in boooks did what I did; they went out as and when they felt like it. More or less. In books set in much older times, characters have even more freedom, unless they are enslaved by the need to work for a living.

The question I have is how do today’s readers know? Do they think ‘hey, I could do that’ just because it’s a new book set in the here and now, or do they automatically think that they won’t, because the book is old and they can tell the difference? If I’m ten, do I know that a book is old? Do I look at dates for different editions, and change my behaviour accordingly? Or do I simply decide that climbing down a well seems like a really fun thing to do?

In Debi’s book they were not allowed to go kayaking, even if we pretended it was in the olden days. It had to be a pretend kayak on dry land. (The mind boggles were you to apply this to the Famous Five.)

I’m just back from Sweden, where children are a little freer than British children. I read a manuscript while there, featuring a girl, aged about ten, who goes out on her own when visiting her grandparents (OK, so the parents have been partially removed), and she ends up in the 1600s. She returns safely, but still. Had granny come along she probably would have stayed put in the 21st century.

And there would have been no story.

What year is the cut-off point for unaccompanied children, and is it a moving point? Is it realistic to have a year before which normal children were out alone, and after which they are accompanied at all times?

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.