Category Archives: History

Thrilling Fiction

They fought about who would sit on the middle chair, Michelle Paver or Peter Høeg, and while they did, their chair Daniel Hahn quickly sat down on the shiny red chair on the far side. In the end Michelle won, and Peter’s fame got him the chair between her and Danny.

I’d never thought about this before, but when Son pointed out earlier this summer that Peter Høeg hardly ever does events, it sort of made sense. So we made sure we were there to hear him speak, sparingly, about his new book The Susan Effect. (Everyone knows him for Miss Smilla.) And as I said last week in my review, I loved Michelle’s Thin Air.

Daniel began by saying they’d discovered they had one scientist and one mountaineer between them, and one book about science and one on climbing. But the trouble was that the ‘wrong’ person wrote the books; with Michelle covering the climbing and Peter the physics.

Describing Thin Air as a ‘thrilling, intense, really scary book’ that he shouldn’t have read alone late at night, Daniel asked Michelle how it came about. This story about the frozen world of Kangchenjunga began with her suffering from a frozen shoulder and when she couldn’t sleep, she got up and read something from her shelf of mountaineering books. Originally it was to be set in South America (she fancied making a research trip there), but in the end it had to be Kangchenjunga, with God at the top and the abominable snowman further down. And ghosts.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

Peter usually gets his ideas during a ‘fleeting short moment’ in the middle of another book; this time about a woman who makes people speak the truth. He’s got a couple of such people in his own family, so knows what it’s like. It’s important how the character speaks. It has to be someone the reader can spend a week with, and the author maybe two years.

Like many Scandinavians, Peter speaks English well, slowly and with a marked Danish accent, but quite competently. He said Michelle ruined his reading of Thin Air, but Danny pointed out that this is what book festivals are for; having your illusions destroyed.

For her children’s series Wolf Brother she felt it important that children could like the characters, but for her adult books she’s quite happy to ‘be’ her new character, however unpleasant, or racist, they might be.

Peter tries to create something new each time, feeling it’s dangerous to repeat yourself. He was surprised by the humour in this new book. It’s warmer and more fun, and that makes him happy. Michelle mentioned that his line about a raisin made her laugh out loud when reading.

Peter Høeg

They both read from their books, with Peter apologising for his bad English as he read a short piece from the beginning of The Susan Effect. Michelle read the bit where her character wakes up in the tent, and how there might be someone out there…

As the middle of three sisters, she felt she had the necessary experience to write about sibling rivalry, and she mentioned the background of ‘beating the Hun’ and the public school ethos, and how men couldn’t admit to things like altitude sickness, which might affect a whole group.

Both authors admired each other’s books, and spoke about different – non-literary – genres, and how you need all kinds of books. The Danes, like other Nordics, read crime in the summer, a bit like porn. Michelle said that YA is good, because it tends to have a plot, and it doesn’t need to be literary.

Peter writes his first draft by hand, from beginning to end, and then he types it up, editing as he goes along. And if a day feels as if it won’t be a writing day, then he doesn’t force it. According to him, there are no books, only reading. We all read differently and there are as many versions of a book as there are readers.

Question time made a slow start, with Danny saying that if this had been a children’s event, all hands would be in the air. He mentioned one very important aspect about Peter’s book, which is that none of the words are his, but those chosen by his English translator (Martin Aitken). Peter said how grateful he is to him, and how all of Denmark relies on people to translate their small language. Daniel described the translating process as the translator first reads the book, then has to become arrogant – in a positive way – in order to rewrite the words so the book reads as though it is English. ‘Little Denmark’ likes this.

Michelle likes MR James, likes ghost stories, and she recognises that it’s unusual with ghosts somewhere empty like Svalbard (Dark Matter). Daniel said first you are scared because you are on your own, and then a stone moves, and you think ‘oh my god, I’m not on my own!’ And that is worse.

She does a fair bit of research, travelling to the places she sets her stories, and looking into things like illnesses and reading up on what others have already written, like the early climbers on Kangchenjunga.

Peter did research the first twenty years. And then the internet happened and he lost interest in old style research. He has a love for both science and music, but neither loves him back.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

At the signing afterwards, I was delighted to discover that Michelle never travels without her paw print stamp for when fans bring copies of Wolf Brother. And she let me have a paw print in Thin Air. After all, we don’t know what’s out there on that mountain. Could be anything.

Little White Lies

Much to Offspring’s disgust and shame I am [was] the only person in the country who had no idea who Reginald D Hunter is. On that basis I had decided to approach his event with Tanya Landman completely cold and unresearched. I understood he’s famous, and on getting out my copy of Tanya’s Passing for White the night before, I discovered she had dedicated the book to him.

I believe breaths had been held as to whether Reginald was going to arrive on time, but he did. In a wheelchair, and I’m only saying this because I don’t know if that is permanent. I’m guessing not.

Anyway, there we all were at this sold out event called Little White Lies, which as the chair Daniel Hahn said is a ‘subject disappointingly relevant’ just now. You keep hoping it won’t be, but ‘this problem doesn’t go away.’ Telling Tanya that she’s white – she agreed – he asked why we were there. She told us the background to writing Buffalo Soldier a few years ago. She asked herself what she was doing, as a white, British, middleclass woman, writing from the point of view of a black, recently freed slave in 19th century America.

Tanya Landman

She felt she had no right, but had to write this. No one had to want to publish the book, or to read it, or to like it. (They did, though, and we did.) She based her character’s voice on Reginald’s, and now feels she simply can’t do readings from her books, because it doesn’t sound right. Tanya ‘stalked’ him on Twitter for long enough, saying that appearing with him like this was her fantasy Edinburgh event.

Asked what he thinks of white people writing about black people, Reginald replied that if it weren’t for certain white authors, then some stories would never be told, and compared it with how black music survives because white people fill the clubs, wanting to hear this kind of music. Authenticity matters; and he wouldn’t want a story seen through white eyes, but ‘we all bring some cultural bias.’ According to Reg’s dad, good food or good music is always good.

You need to think yourself into someone’s head, which you can do with a book. Films are generally less authentic; often whitewashed. Reg joked about a white version of the Martin Luther King story.

If you are used to privilege, then equality could seem like discrimination, and other people are seen as bad because they take something away from us. We are all the same; human. Intellectualism is a true interest, and the stories have chosen Tanya to tell them. The middle classes are dangerous because they are in the middle, close enough to both lower and upper classes.

Tanya Landman

Reginald said he never learned much black history at school, but got most of it from his family. Blacks are still not truly free, and the main difference from slavery is that now you have to get your own food. Unlike WWII (there were comparisons between Robert E Lee and Hitler), the Civil War never really ended. The blacks didn’t win.

For Tanya Reg is the perfect person to read her books aloud, but Daniel forced her to read a bit first, which is fine bcause we are ‘used to hearing authors read’ from their books. And then Reg read in the voice she loved so much from Songs of the South on BBC, when he told us he had mostly worried about snakes and mosquitoes…

At this point Daniel was told to get on with questions from the audience, because it was rather ‘toasty’ in the tent, and Reg had had someone faint on him the day before. He considered black remakes of white roles, but felt that there was only a limited amount of undercover work a black James Bond would be able to do.

A question for Tanya was how current affairs influence her writing. It’s her way of looking at history. There was a question on why having black Shakespearean actors works, but it’s so much harder to see black actors playing other than black characters. And there was much joking about how several of the Americans in the audience had also managed to escape the US.

Tanya Landman

The question, of course, is whether Reginald can answer for all black Americans. Maybe what he thinks is OK – or not – is merely his opinion. He used the n-word a couple of times, which felt refreshing, but I understand it offends a lot.

But it does sound as if Tanya can continue writing from non-white points of view. Some readers will always be offended, but these stories must out.

Meg as Mal

Jake Hope began his chairing of Meg Rosoff’s event on Tuesday evening by saying so many nice things about her writing, that she felt the need to pat him on the arm and explain to us that he had to say those things.

Either that, or he really meant them. The trouble with Meg is that she doesn’t understand that Jake and I and everyone else quite like her writing and occasionally feel compelled to mention this. And where better than in a tent full of her fans?

Meg Rosoff

Meg had new hair, and the red chair she was sitting on (I don’t mean Jake) went well with her black and grey outfit. (See, I’m managing to steer clear of the writing!) Jake wore a new pair of colourful boots.

This event was about how Meg finished writing Mal Peet’s book Beck after he died, and she explained how offering to do this was the one thing she could say when Mal phoned her with the unwanted news of his illness. You know, the time when you desperately want to say something nice or kind, but you can’t, because there is nothing that will make it better.

After reading what Mal had written so far, Meg felt she could definitely adopt this book. She read a lot of Canadian literature to get a feel for the country Beck ends up being ‘deported’ to as a teenager.

Mal Peet

The end was in place, but she felt the story arc needed pushing for a special ending. She made Beck’s love interest a little younger, and Beck had to be made more attractive [to an older woman].

At Jake’s request Meg’s reading from Beck was the [beginning of the] abuse chapter, which she felt was all right to have in a book for young adults, as long as it was made terrible enough, with no chance of the reader finding it the slightest bit exciting. That is the important thing about what might be taboo; it mustn’t appear tempting in any way.

Despite the beginning of the book being great, Meg reckons she started changing things from about page three, to make it fit in with what she wanted it to be, and now she can barely remember who wrote what in some cases.

The discussion then moved on to politics and her belief that the 45th President has never read a book, so is ‘entirely unshaped by other people’s views of the world.’ Cultural appropriation was next, and Meg feels that children don’t need mirrors in fiction, so much as doors. She said she’s part of the generation who thought things were going to get better… That makes two of us.

Early favourites were A Wrinkle in Time, as well as Hamlet and Lear. We need a mix. One book that inspired her was The Cat in the Hat, which she used to scare her daughter by reading in a funny voice. Then there were pony books, dog books, her parents’ books, books about spies and finally reading le Carré aged nine and not getting it. And why did no one ask Meg to write one of the new Bonds? She liked literature like The Secret Garden, and she read trash, for the good bits.

Meg Rosoff

She knew she could never be an author because she could never write as well as the writers she liked. But when she realised she didn’t want to be run over by a bus, having only worked in advertising, she still wrote a book. And she says she really wrote it for her agent (Catherine Clarke), to please someone difficult to please.

Meg’s well-known inability to plot surfaced a lot. For her the characters come first, and as there are no rules for how you are an adult, hers are weird, singing rabbits and invisible greyhounds. Writing Beck didn’t change her way of writing, but she tended to ask herself ‘what would Mal do?’ And she toned the sex down.

Asked if she wanted to cooperate with others, she said ‘not really.’ Although she does discuss plots with Sally Gardner, and recently disagreed with Sally on rewriting Romeo and Juliet as old people; because she didn’t make them old enough. And ‘I’ll have that idea if you’re not using it.’ She admits to getting weirder as she grows older.

‘How does she plot?’ ‘Haha, I wonder that too.’ The best thing is stealing a plot. For instance, Jonathan is really Lucky Jim. And if she waits a while after she’s written something, ‘a bit of plot creeps in.’

We can be satisfied with that.

The Rasputin Dagger

In memory of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Theresa Breslin has written a wonderful historical novel, filled with fear and violence, starvation and romance.

Theresa Breslin, The Rasputin Dagger

The title might be The Rasputin Dagger, and Rasputin and the Tsar family do feature in the book, but this is mainly a story about normal people – brave, normal people – during a time of great upheaval and danger.

16-year-old Nina has recently been orphaned and must leave her home to go to St Petersburg to seek a new life. There she meets medical student Stefan, as well as the Royal Romanov family and the charismatic Rasputin, who seems to be running the show.

There is a war on with Germany, and there is serious unrest at home. Lenin wishes to return to Russia and the soldiers want to survive so they can return home too. The Tsar is weak, and the people hate Rasputin.

By some strange coincidence, Nina owns a jewel-encrusted dagger, which is the twin of one belonging to Rasputin. One of the daggers is said to carry a curse.

The readers feel the cold, and we can imagine ourselves in the early morning queue for bread. The poor need medical help they can’t afford, and the soldiers who return are in a bad shape and require more than the doctors can give them.

This is a lovely, historical, romantic adventure, with nice (yes, nice) people doing the best they can under appalling circumstances. And even though you know that both Rasputin and the Royal family will soon be dead, and Lenin will take power (and you know how that worked out, too), you still wonder how it all will end.

Memorial

The trouble with time is that it passes. When I was younger I felt it completely natural that soldiers from WWI were still alive. Now it is the people who fought in WWII who are barely still with us. What was once very big, ceases to have relevance to new generations. Whatever it is, it feels hard for those who do remember; that the thing that changed their lives so completely gets relegated to the history books.

Gary Crew and Shaun Tan, Memorial

In Gary Crew’s book Memorial, with illustrations by Shaun Tan, this is evident. It is not a new book, but a re-issued classic, almost. First published in 1999 it shows us a young boy who visits his (Australian) town’s memorial to The Big War with his great grandfather, and the personal memories this man still has, of those who fought with him, and those who didn’t come home. And of the planting of a tree next to the statue.

Then we meet his son, the boy’s grandfather, with his own memories of the next war. And the boy’s father, who was in Vietnam. A lot has happened under the tree; at the various homecomings, but also in everyday life.

The trouble is that the tree has grown quite big, and its are roots damaging the road, which by now is much busier than it was. And the council wants to remove it.

Can you remove a Shrine of Remembrance?

Or is there something else that people remember you by?


Reading this book now, another 18 years have passed, and the kind of family continuity it describes is no longer possible. Soon this boy will be able to tell the story to another generation, but it will be someone who hasn’t met the former soldiers.

The Roman Quests – Death in the Arena

To be honest, I was afraid the death count might be bigger than I wanted it to be. Caroline Lawrence has been known to kill in the past, and people I didn’t want to see dead, too. And let’s face it; to make Roman Britain realistic, you can’t have too many lucky escapes, can you?

Well, I’m obviously not going to tell you if they live or not. There is quite a bit of blood. There are dangerous beasts, and at times even domestic cats can be life threatening.

Caroline Lawrence, Death in the Arena

The third Roman Quests and the turn has come to Ursula to have her tale. She loves her animals, and she loves being a Druid, which is all good apart from the fact that Druids are to be executed if found. The three siblings from Rome are then given a task by Flavia Gemina, which involves our old friends Lupus and Jonathan. Always nice to catch up with old friends.

There is the tricky task of attempting to reunite separated twins Castor and Raven, and getting rid of the Emperor Domitian while also staying alive is a big job.

And romance! These young people fall in love at the drop of a hat. It can be hard to know who you really, really love, and maybe it’s more than one? The modern reader has to keep in mind that the children are of an age to justifiably be thinking of who to marry.

Death in the Arena shows us what sort of entertainment they had back in AD 95. Audiences wanted to see blood from fights between beasts or ritual sacrifice, but also more normal fun, such as music and comedy. Mixed up in the one show, it feels rather over-powering. But nice to know that Lupus is now a superstar with fans! I always liked that boy.

Caroline continues to educate as she entertains. And I do like the long line of continuity from the early days of the Roman Mysteries. Carpe Diem.

How to fit a school in

I was nine years old, and I was standing by the front door of the school where Mother-of-witch taught. I’d got it into my head to walk there and meet her after school. I remember watching the traffic on the bridge for quite some time (maybe I’d mis-timed her classes?), and all the students pass me as they left for the day. I knew a lot of them.

The school was for post-16s and taught commerce and office skills and that sort of thing. Many of the students, including all four of our landlord’s children, lived near us. Later on, we’d find them in banks and offices, because in those days people got jobs.

But the memory of that long-ago day has surfaced to help me find the school. I know, it was right there. But where there? I saw the bridge clearly. And the small hotel in front. In recent years I have tried to place the school building – which was demolished in the late 1960s – somewhere in the Town Hall car park. But I could never manage to squeeze it in.

So I tried Google images for help, and came up with exactly one. The one below. And it tells me my problem was that I couldn’t visualise the school in the middle of the road. Because that’s where it was. Where traffic swerved to the side and round the school, it now goes in a straight line from the bridge towards the ‘highrise’ in the back right corner.

Old Halmstad

Funny how you don’t remember. But we didn’t drive in those days. It was perfectly normal for this nine-year-old to have walked the 20-25 minute walk from home, on her own, and with no prior arrangement to meet.

And the school had wooden staircases, with the wood worn into rounded dips on each tread. I remember that. And where the headmaster’s office was. The rest is a blank.