Category Archives: History

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].

Always

I was all right. It was fine me not having read two of the books in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. This one – Always – is the last. And it really is the last. Because several of the books have turned up in random order, it doesn’t actually matter at all. But it does help if you have met and know Felix.

He is an old man now. Granted, he was old before as well, in modern Australia. But when Once began he was a child, and that childlike way of being has remained with both Felix, and the current child in the book. The world is full of sweet and lovely people.

But I suspect that when Morris saw what was going on in Europe today, he needed to write one more book about Felix. Because there are also many rather nasty people, and perhaps a book won’t help change that, but it will help the reader to believe in courage and goodness.

Wassim is the latest – last – child and he is as kind and thoughtful as all the others have been, especially not forgetting Zelda. Either of the Zeldas, but mostly Zelda the first, who died. (I’m sorry if you didn’t know that, but it’s very much part of the story.)

We’re back in, not quite Poland, but somewhere a bit like it, and Wassim is having a hard time, with dead parents and Uncle Otto, who can be harsh sometimes but who took him in, and the Iron Weasels who are very bad. In other words, we and Wassim are looking at a Europe that hates foreigners and coloured people and anyone else who is different; Jews, Muslims. You get the picture.

I’m grateful to Morris for wanting to write about this, which I believe both he and I thought was part of the past, the past where Felix was a child and WWII happened.

Wassim knows he needs help, and he learns about Felix, and he looks him up online. Although it could be worth noting that public libraries ‘can be more dangerous than they look.’

Anyway, he finds Felix and Felix agrees to help him. This is where you need to start worrying. But with these two very sweet people working together, you know some good will come of it. Even if you also know, or suspect, that some bad is unavoidable. Remember Zelda.

Now is very much a time when we need a Felix.

Fortune Favours the Dead

Sometimes a witch has to retire a little bit, in order to get to some good new stuff to read. (I can recommend it.)

Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favours the Dead wasn’t new new, so much as lying in wait for me, because we both knew, the book and I, that I would get to it, if only I could. This debut crime novel came along as my guaranteed good read on that trip in October. And it was good.

It’s a Pentecost and Parker mystery, and both of them – Lillian and Willowjean – are female private eyes, in the kind of New York so many of us know quite well, because 1946 and New York feature a lot in films. This tale is told by Parker, the sidekick discovered by Pentecost just as the former was getting ready to bash her head in with a lead pipe.

I suppose it’s obvious that this could not have been written 75 years ago. Too much looking out for other women, too much same sex love, too much equality if you like. But that’s good. And it’s funny, and you like Willowjean, because she’s brave and capable, and you like Lillian, who is a great boss. There is also a more than useful cook, also female.

It’s a locked-room mystery. It had to be suicide, didn’t it? A dead woman’s dead husband’s ghost can’t really have murdered her. Can he? We’re moving in well-off circles, if not the exceptionally wealthy. But you know, featuring beautiful women wearing gorgeous clothes. (I look forward to the movie.)

With her background in the circus, Parker is no stranger to a bit of knife-throwing. It can come in handy. As do most of the other things she can do for Pentecost, who has multiple sclerosis, with better days and worse days.

It’s a very visual story; you have no trouble seeing these characters or the settings. Please bring on the film! Meanwhile, I’d usually say I can’t wait to get my hands on book no. two, but this time I can’t, because it arrived a couple of days ago. I really was quite late with this one, from just over a year ago. Won’t be late again.

Brown bear, pink bear

When I was a very small Bookwitch indeed, I travelled quite a lot. Mother-of-Witch travelled by train with me from when I was a week old.

At some point she got chatting to a kindly older lady who pointed out that she’d be much more comfortable if she didn’t drag my enormous brown bear with us. For travelling it’d be better to have a tiny bear, she said. Thus I became carer of a little pink bear, who was much more travel-appropriate.

I grew up with them both; the bigger brown bear and the travel-sized pink bear.

You will have gathered that I recently packed some of my belongings to come and join me at the current Bookwitch Towers. I told Daughter neither bear was coming. She was shocked. She said I should at least take pink bear. I decided I could do, and then I asked her to photograph the two bears together, one last time, to say goodbye.

When I looked at the photo I almost burst into tears. How could I do that to brown bear? He looked as if he’d understand, but still. It felt cruel. And separating them, too. Not kind.

So, well, instead of a picture of pink bear on his own, here they are, having travelled safely with The Hungarian.

Miss Graham’s [Cold] War [Cookbook]

We’ve got used to books where we are all terribly pleased the Allies won WWII. And it’s quite obvious, really – isn’t it? – that the victors take over and they run things, while the losers put up with it. Especially if you are the victorious one. And the British were quite decent and everything worked out for the best.

Well, there’s much that’s wrong with this picture, and I’m glad to report that Celia Rees deals with these tired clichés in her adult book about Miss Graham and her cookbook, back in Germany in 1946. To begin with, I found it refreshing to have a heroine – neither young, nor old – who drinks and has sex, in a way that we’ve got used to female heroines not doing [back then]. In fact, Edith Graham is quite normal, in a way that fits in with both modern thinking, but also doesn’t feel wrong for the 1940s.

And the British… well. They ‘know’ they are right and the Germans ‘had it coming.’ But they are not very nice. Nor are the Americans, and it goes without saying that the Russians are all wrong. We see the victors eating and drinking really well, while the Germans are quietly starving on the sides. Perhaps not those who ‘had it coming’ but more the normal civilians.

Edith is in Lübeck to look after education, but she has also been involved in a couple of sidelines, doing bits of minor (?) spying for the Military, and also for someone else. She does this with the help of her recipe collection, which turns out to be a useful hobby.

She makes friends, but also plenty of enemies. Above all, she learns that all is not simple and that even close friends are doing the wrong thing and not always for the right reason.

In a way I already knew this, but I still feel my eyes have been opened. And the book has probably forever ruined similarly set books where the Allies are the heroes.

There are a couple of unusual twists to the story, at least one of which I could sense from the beginning, while not quite sure how it would work out. I’ll leave you to enjoy the book, and to see what you think will happen.

(I believe the words ‘cold’ and ‘cookbook’ have been dropped from the paperback edition. I would like to think that they have also edited the surplus of ‘Teirgartens’ I was disturbed by. Or not. German is a foreign language, after all.)

The Dying Day

Persis Wadia is still as awkward as she was in Vaseem Khan’s first book about this pioneering female detective in 1950s Bombay. She shoots people (villains) and she solves the crime[s] put in front of her, despite ‘just being a woman’ in this man’s world. But Persis is also a little bit inept at romance. Which of course makes it all the more fun. Will they get there in the end, or is it going to be such slow going that they never do?

This time someone has stolen a book. But not just any book; Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which was being translated by a specialist, who has also disappeared. Possibly with the book, or it could be a coincidence.

Time is of the essence, and then Persis is handed another crime to solve. This one is a supposed suicide, which quickly becomes a murder case.

As in the first book, it’s fun to see Bombay as it was, shortly after independence, and to do so not through the eyes of a man, or a white person. We learn more about Persis, her past, her friends, even her lover. And her colleagues are growing, becoming more interesting, promising more books with more depth.

Not smelling us

Yes, Bernardine Evaristo really did regret not being able to smell us, as well as see us, and hear us, last night at the book festival. The audience was there for her Black Britain, Writing Back event with Judith Bryan, S I Martin and Nicola Williams, but the authors themselves were not.

Bernardine would be my ideal English professor and she can teach me anytime. Although, it seems not how to pronounce incomparable, which she admitted she’d been getting wrong until very recently when her husband pointed it out. She’s the one selecting the ‘black novels’ that are being republished by Hamish Hamilton, after first appearing in the 1990s.

I freely admit to never having heard of the authors she had invited yesterday. All three were interesting and had a lot to say, about themselves and other black authors, why they wrote what they did, and how they got there.

Judith sat in front of a nicely curated bookcase as she talked about her novel Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, and read a short piece from it, about a young couple meeting for the first time after getting to know each other by writing letters (!), after finding each other in a lonely hearts column. The book won her the Saga Prize, and she talked about attending writing classes at City Lit where she met Andrea Levy, among others.

[Steve] S I Martin sticks to writing about black Britain before 1948. He wants to show readers that this country has had black people living here for hundreds of years. His novel Incomparable World is set in the London of 1786, and whereas he’d hoped it would be discovered by black readers, he reckoned it mostly ended up on coffee tables in Hampstead. But that was fine, too. Bernardine said she feels his books would be perfect for becoming films, and Steve said he’s still waiting.

Barrister Nicola Williams wrote her legal thriller Without Prejudice about a black, female barrister, and she did so from midnight to four in the morning every night for nine months. (The audience question was when she slept. Between four and eight, apparently…) Nicola read the bit where her character goes back to her old, failing secondary school to give a talk about her success thanks to the school, but changing it to ‘despite’ her school. This went down well with the students. Nicola’s inspiration was reading John Grisham.

Asked who they grew up reading, the answer was mostly American authors. For closer to home now, two of the authors mentioned Luke Sutherland (from Blairgowrie) as their black Scottish inspiration, and Jackie Kay is much admired. And Judith managed a charmingly muddled senior moment when looking for a name and a place, and finding neither. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

This was another book festival event I most likely wouldn’t have chosen to go to in person in ‘the olden days’. Being able to sit at home and run the mouse down the list of events and picking – almost at random – yields some fantastic experiences. And when reading time becomes plentiful, I know what to look for.

Don’t drop those walrus tusks

Thursday morning’s bookfest event featured a talk between Barbara Henderson about her version of the Lewis chessmen and Dr Alice Blackwell from the ‘local’ museum who also knows a lot about them. The one keeping the ladies in order was dinosaur professor Steve Brusatte, who’s no dinosaur, but he knows about them, and they are even older than the chessmen.

It’s always good when grown-up academics can demonstrate so much enthusiasm for children’s fiction on a subject they might know a lot about. It’s not just me who rather liked The Chessmen Thief.

Barbara started off by reading from the beginning, where her hero does his best not to drop the walrus tusks. They will break into smithereens if you do.

She has long been fascinated by Vikings, and by board games, and the fact that not only did they carve these chess pieces nearly nine hundred years ago, but they actually played chess!

When it became impossible for Barbara to travel to Shetland for research, she re-routed to Orkney instead, which is why her characters stop by Orkney on their way from Norway to the Western Isles which they called the Southern Isles. It’s all relative. And when they got there, the much older Callanish stones were already waiting, although they were not necessarily as ancient as the dinosaurs…

Alice took over and talked about the chessmen in her museum. They have eleven of the 93 pieces found, and the British museum have some of the rest. Because we – they – don’t know everything about the chessmen, they lend themselves well to be used in fiction like this. They’re not all walrus; some pieces are carved from sperm whale teeth. Alice is their carer, and when some of the pieces are lent to other museums, she gets to travel with them.

There were questions, both from our dinosaur expert (on Skye, you should always keep your eyes open in case you find a bit of dinosaur) and from the audience. Barbara has plenty of new plans, with an eye on the Forth Bridge, and not forgetting Mary Queen of Scots.

Where I listen listen listen

to Michael Rosen, the Master of Repetition.

I surprised myself and ‘went’ to watch the bookfest event where Michael talked to Dean Atta. I’m very glad I did.

Michael is a born entertainer, albeit now perhaps slightly less vigorous than he was. I’m just so very grateful we still have him. I believe he used to be louder, but I like him like this.

He read some of the poems from the new book with Quentin Blake, talking about the background to his poems. And he talked about his other book about his lost great uncles in France. The two books sort of became one the way Michael talked about his relatives; the ones who survived the war and the ones who didn’t.

We learned how his mother used to tell him off, mixing English with Yiddish. And while we’re on the subject of languages, Michael is also a Master of French. He could have spoken a lot more French. It would have been a pleasure to listen to.

We learned about ‘interiority’, which is learning to see things through someone else’s eyes, by thinking yourself into their situation. He did this with his cousin Michael. The one whose parents sent him away and who therefore survived.

This was such a beautiful event! Michael doesn’t really require any steering, but what steering there was, was done very nicely by Dean.

And we now know he has numb toes. There could be a poem in this. He knows what rhymes with numb…

While not forgetting the bagel sock situation.

Summer

The last of Ali Smith’s four seasons. I read somewhere it’s the longest of the four books. For me, it could have been longer still. It turns mostly full circle, letting us spend more time with the characters from Autumn. And Winter. Less so from Spring.

I actually sat down and tried to draw a kind of family tree for the books. It’s quite satisfying meeting and re-meeting people like this. It feels real, rather than them being merely fictional characters. My favourite one from Autumn came back, which made me happy. She gave even more depth to this family tree.

And I’m not sure, but I imagine the reader knows more than the characters do. About how they tie in with each other, I mean. A typical book of fiction would explain who’s who in some way. But what you discover here is that it doesn’t matter. If receiving a small violin in the post makes a person happy, then it does. No matter how it all ties up.

There is much goodness in here, contrasting with all the bad stuff we are living through. Ali obviously intended for Brexit to feature, but she couldn’t know about Covid for Summer. It works, though.

If someone could enlighten me as to which Charlotte it is we are seeing in Summer, I’d be grateful. But perhaps this, too, does not really matter. Also, English speakers have a real problem with Elisabeth without a z, don’t they? Might also not matter.

I feel revived and slightly more cultured than I was at the beginning.

There is hope. If that’s enough, I don’t know. But one can hope.