Category Archives: History

The Children of Willesden Lane

This is not a fictional tale about WWII, but the memoirs of Lisa Jura, who at the age of 14 came to London from Vienna with the Kindertransport. Written by Lisa’s daughter Mona Golabek with Lee Cohen, it is a simplified version of what Lisa used to tell Mona about as she grew up.

It lacks a little of the good quality story that you come to expect from this topic, but in the end I found I just wanted to see what Lisa’s life would have been like in England during the war. And as with many other books about refugees in the past, the reader marvels at how differently [from today] the new arrivals were treated by the British. At how many opportunities were offered them, even during the war.

And it makes you feel ashamed.

Lisa was one of three sisters, chosen by her parents for her age – not too young and not too old – and for her skills in playing the piano. They hoped she would be able to make something of herself in a new country.

Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, The Children of Willesden Lane

Things didn’t always go to plan, but the new arrivals were looked after. In Lisa’s case in a house full of child refugees, in Willesden Lane in London. And that confirms my theory that when you lose someone, while no one can replace dear family members, if you have someone else, your life isn’t empty. The children of Willesden Lane had each other, and they were looked after and loved by Mrs Cohen.

While not unique, this is still a very heartwarming, true story. Bad things happened, but the good things carried people through.

I would like to hope for a few more Lisas today.


Finding Matt

I was getting rid of more books the other evening. After weeks of staring at flats for sale online, and admiring how nearly all of the owners have managed to prune their belongings to a ridiculous extent for the estate agent’s photographer, I felt that I would quite like my home to look as though it was for sale. Even when it isn’t. The empty surfaces appealed to me.

Hence the books facing the chop. Some were easy and some were keepers. And then there was one, which I didn’t immediately recognise from the spine, so pulled it out to look at. It turned out to be a short story collection from almost five years ago. Written by already authors as well as hopefuls, with a connection to MMU’s writing school, I remembered them sending me the anthology. I kept it because it looked good, and then I moved house and it sort of disappeared, until I found it this week.

And that was a good thing. Had it been much earlier, the name Matt Killeen would not have meant anything to me. (If you look back to the beginning of this week, you’ll see his debut novel reviewed by your Bookwitch.) I had seen in the press release that he was an MMU alumnus. And here he was, hiding in ‘the gym’ which is where my intermediate reading material rests.

Timelines (MMU)

In Lucky Hits the Skin, we meet a young drummer boy in the army, during the [I think] Napoleonic wars. It’s short, but those ten pages are at least as good as the WWII novel Orphan Monster Spy. It’s nice to see that so many of the people who enrol in the writing schools at our universities show so much promise, and that they go on to be published, and hopefully madly successful. (Liz Kessler is one of MMU’s.)

Now that it’s out of the gym, so to speak, I’ll have a go at some of the other stories, too. Coincidence is a funny thing.

Orphan Monster Spy

This page-turner debut thriller, set in Germany, gives a bleak view of a country about to take over the world. We see how the German people have been taught to think, and what is expected of them, whether schoolgirls or soldiers.

Matt Killeen, Orphan Monster Spy

Newly orphaned 15-year-old, but looking much younger, Sarah, finds herself alone in Berlin at the outbreak of WWII. Alone, apart from a British spy calling himself Helmut Haller. The thing about Sarah is that while she is Jewish, she is blonde and Aryan looking, so her ‘uncle’ Helmut sends her to a leading boarding school for young Nazi ladies.

The British want to find out about an invention for what sounds like an atomic bomb by a wealthy German scientist, and it is ‘Ursula Heller’s’ task to befriend his daughter to get close to the lab.

There are some lighthearted moments, but mostly it is grim; cold, muddy and with bad food, and as much peer bullying as you’d expect in certain British schools.

Sarah has many skills, and they come in handy during what turns into a horrific and increasingly bloody schoolgirl spy trip. Maybe those skills are a little on the unlikely side, but this is a fantastic wartime thriller, as seen from the inside of Germany. Only the fact that it is a YA novel made me feel that maybe everything – well, you know, most things – would be all right at the end.

If it is the end. I can see lots more happening here.


Belle and Sébastien

Feeling enthusiastic about Cécile Aubry’s Belle and Sébastien (newly translated by Gregory Norminton), and with the Resident IT Consultant claiming he’d watched it on television as a child (something he rarely admits to), I set about finding out why I only recognised it as a classic book title, but had no recollection of reading the book or being offered it as small screen entertainment.

It made me want to weep. First, because this mid-1960s French children’s novel shows up as a recent film; not even the 1967 television series. Second, because someone has changed the plot so much that they might as well have written a new script about a boy and his dog. And I can find no trace of the book having existed in Swedish translation. I could be wrong, but they are only enthusing about the 2013 film…

Cécile Aubry and Helen Stephens, Belle and Sébastien

This is a lovely book, with illustrations by Helen Stephens done with a real 1960s vibe. Maybe, just maybe, the story is set before the 1964 mentioned in the book, but there are no nazis or fleeing jews and Sébastien’s adopted grandfather does not want to kill the dog Belle. Any nastiness comes from the villagers in this southern Alps French community. That is what the book is about; a boy finding a dog to love, and the ignorant, and scared, villagers wanting to kill the dog they believe is dangerous.

I was thinking that this kind of group unpleasantness would be hard to have in a modern book, and that it clearly shows the passage of time. It works here, though. The period feel is similar to that of I Am David, except this is set almost exclusively in a quiet backwater where the Mayor and the Doctor are the men people listen to.

Sébastien was born in the mountains and his mother died giving birth, so the local gamekeeper brings him up, alongside his own grandchildren. Belle, the dog, was born at the same time, and ends up escaping into the wild when both are six years old. It’s as if they were meant for each other. It’s an easy love to understand. They ‘just’ have to win over the mistrustful villagers who don’t want their children eaten by this ‘beast.’

Really lovely story, which again goes to prove you can have lots of different tales about a boy and his dog.


Things a Bright Girl Can Do

We’ve recently celebrated the centenary of [some] British women winning the right to vote. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was a start.

Sally Nicholls has written a suffragette novel – Things a Bright Girl Can Do – and as we meet her three main female characters, well-off Evelyn, educated but threadbare May and working class Nell, many of us know that very soon there will be a war, and this won’t be exclusively about the rights for women to vote.

Sally Nicholls, Things a Bright Girl Can Do

We learn a lot about the suffragette movement – and I was reminded of why I always liked Sylvia Pankhurst the best – as our three girls go about campaigning for votes for women in their own different ways. What I particularly liked was that they have sympathetic people close to them; Evelyn’s young man, Teddy, May’s single mother, and Nell’s [literally] very poor parents.

And it’s not just votes for women. May and her mother are Quakers, and both Nell and May like girls best, discovering that they aren’t alone in this. Then there is the lovely Teddy, and the threat of the looming war.

After a quick march through protests and fasting in jail, war breaks out, and it’s much tougher than the way it’s usually described in fiction. Yes, young men go off to be slaughtered, but life in England is really hard, especially for people like Nell and her family, who have no money and little food, and someone is always unwell. Trying to remain a true Quaker is not easy, either, at a time when everyone seems to give up their principles for their country.

The novel is written in the same light style as Sally’s other books, and it works, despite the difficult topics of suffrage, war, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. In fact, I feel it works better for having this sweetness about it, as the reality of the war years hits home.

You come to love these characters, and you discover that death isn’t necessarily the worst thing that could happen.



Several things happened while I was reading Helen Grant’s new novel, Ghost.

I had an early e-version of this Gothic thriller, and I’d been describing to Helen how well it worked reading on the iPad. As I restarted, it sort of began scrolling the pages on its own. As I looked, I saw first a name, and soon after, a place. Both were familiar to me from what I’d been reading so far. ‘Damn,’ I thought. I didn’t want that to happen, and I didn’t want an accidental, electronic, spoiler.

But as I arrived at the end of Ghost, none of those things had appeared in the text, although something closely related to both had in fact happened. And as I got to the last line, there was a ghost of a flicker in my mind, reminding me of some other story. Except I can’t now think what, or even if. It was just rather ghost-like.

Helen Grant, Ghost

This is a beautifully written book. Not that I’d expect anything else from Helen Grant. It was hard to put down, and I did so as seldom as I could get away with. I wanted to bask in this quirky tale about the teenage Augusta – Ghost for short – who’d spent all her 17 years living with her grandmother, in secret, in a rambling but derelict house in Perthshire.

It’s a happy life, but frustrating and lonely, until the day Ghost’s grandmother goes shopping and never returns. And then 19-year-old Tom turns up. Both teenagers are equally shocked by the other, and together they have to try and make sense of Ghost’s strange existence.

Her quiet life in the Scottish countryside continues, while the reader waits for the bombshell that must surely come. What will it be, and when?

You’ll be surprised. At least I think you will be, if you have no unravelling pdf on your hands. Or, could it be that all copies of Ghost will have some kind of ghost inside? Not necessarily the same for all, but you know, some other-worldly hint.

Helen Grant is masterly at quietly worrying her readers.

I will – probably – be OK soon. I’m just not used to psychological thrillers.


The Roman Quests – Return to Rome

Who’d have thought, that time about 15 years ago, when I discovered the [first] three Roman Mysteries in The Book People’s catalogue (yes, sorry about that) and felt they’d be perfect for my young reader of crime, who also happened to love school subjects such as the Romans, the Egyptians, and so on, that there would be another 27 books from Caroline Lawrence (so far), or that my young crime-reader would meet her (after all, she was an American…), or anything else?

I certainly didn’t think.

But here we are, with the – surely – last of her Roman adventures, Return to Rome. I was glad to see my second generation Roman adventurers back home, and in the company of some of the older characters. I like things tied up, and I would say Caroline has tied pretty well, and I think she’d find it hard to untie and continue. It is very satisfying when you know what happens to all your beloved characters.

Caroline Lawrence, Return to Rome

And yes, this is a spoiler, but you didn’t think Caroline would kill everyone off, did you? What we get is more history, learning more about Roman times, both in Britain and on the continent, while seeing how our young friends act in the face of adversity, and how they discover who they are and what they want in life.

While Roman Britain was interesting – and I especially enjoyed seeing Caudex in his natural habitat – I’m sure we all agree that we like Rome, and Ostia. And luckily, not all emperors are bad. Even Domitian had some good points.

So, our ‘old’ Roman friends did what adults do, and our younger Roman heroes are growing up, falling in love. Personally I’m relieved that Miriam’s twins were found. But they will always be a reminder that Caroline does kill when she needs to.