Category Archives: History

Return to the Easy

To the best of my knowledge, this is ‘my’ only book about New Orleans. It’s a good one. This review originally appeared in March 2013.

“I enjoyed this book so much! Out of the Easy is the new book by Ruta Sepetys, published this week. In her first book Ruta proved how much she knew about being a starving Lithuanian, whereas here she is a right madam.

Is it OK to feature a brothel in a YA novel? I mean as the main thing the book is actually about. I think it is. Ruta writes awfully knowledgeably about it, too.

Set in 1950 in New Orleans, Out of the Easy feels really fresh. By that I mean it’s in no way a standard story for young readers, either in setting or in plot. The first chapter where we meet 7-year-old Josie and her hooker mother is one of the more captivating first chapters I’ve come across in a long time.

And the rest of the story, set ten years later, keeps the pace and the promise. Josie has long looked after herself, since her mother is incapable of doing so, or even caring that she doesn’t. There are no regrets at all. Instead Josie has a makeshift, but well functioning family around her, from the local madam and her driver, to the author and owner of the bookshop where Josie sleeps.

She is hoping to rise from all this and make something of herself, when she gets caught up in the murder of a rich tourist.

This is James Dean and Tennessee Williams, and we might have met the characters before. But the story is new, and it’s crying out to be turned into a film. I loved it!”

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Launching those Kings and Queens

I was standing on the pavement outside the National Library of Scotland yesterday, waiting for Daughter to join me, when someone prodded the back of my arm. I couldn’t work out how she could have snuck up from behind, so turned round and discovered a very yellow Kirkland Ciccone. One could almost have imagined it was Easter. But he was a pleasure to behold.

Almost eight years to the day from when we first met, at a Theresa Breslin event, here we were, for a Theresa Breslin event. She spent lockdown writing about some of Scotland’s many Kings and Queens, and the time had come to launch this gorgeous, historical picture book, with illustrations by Liza Tretyakova.

We started off watching Kirkie having tea and half a strawberry tart. (I mean Daughter and me. Not the whole audience.) Then we launched ourselves at the drinks table for some water. Although it’s hard to event and handle a wineglass at the same time. Said hello to Mr B, who was wearing his latest book creation t-shirt and looking great as ever. It had been too long.

Were informed we were too old for a goodie bag, so settled for saying hello to all the involved publisher people, who we’d not seen for years, either. And there was the wineglass of water, living a precarious life among people who might need to applaud.

As always, Theresa had attracted a large crowd. She began by reading one of the stories in Illustrated Legends of Scotland’s Kings and Queens. It was about Margaret in Dunfermline, and I was grateful to learn how Queensferry, both North and South, came about. This is the thing about Theresa and her many historical tales; you learn a bit of history in a very painless way. Nice story, and history.

After some Q&A it was time for book buying and book signing. Kirkie had already had to steal away to his train home, and Daughter and I crossed the George IV Bridge in search of almost invisible pizza.

It was all fine. But my foot hurt. And I managed to hurl my spectacles all over the pavement. (It seems to be all about glasses and pavements these days…) It’s very hard to see glasses on a dark pavement. Especially without your glasses on. But it all ended well, with no treading of feet on anything.

Sally Jones and the False Rose

Sally Jones and The Chief travel to Glasgow! Here is Jakob Wegelius’s new story about our favourite ape and her beloved chief, and it’s a good one. Glasgow offers up all manner of horrendous characters, and one or two good ones. And, I hadn’t thought this through before, but for the purposes of the story Sally Jones needs to be left alone and like so many parent figures in fiction, The Chief has to be temporarily removed.

They are both honourable creatures and that’s why they travelled to Scotland. While renovating their old ship, the Hudson Queen, they came upon something valuable, which they are determined to return to its rightful owner. If only they could find her.

The low lifes of Glasgow quickly send The Chief off on bad business, holding our dear ape hostage. But Sally Jones is no ordinary victim, so she manages to move ahead, towards some sort of solution. Old Glasgow is an interesting place, and so are the crooks you find there (although their names could in some cases have been a little more Scottish).

I won’t tell you more though. You will want to read and discover for yourselves how some decent people are not decent at all, and how some bad ones are not all rotten. But which ones?

(Translation, as before, by Peter Graves.)

Resist

It’s the tulip bulbs I’ve never forgotten. Even as a child, learning that Audrey Hepburn had to eat tulip bulbs to survive during the war, it seemed both fantastic – in a bad way – and hard to believe. Just as I couldn’t really get my head round what Audrey was doing in the Netherlands.

If you read Tom Palmer’s new book Resist, you will find out, and it will probably leave you with tears in your eyes. Unlike many novels about the resistance in the war, in whatever country the story might be set, this one is a little more – dare I say it? – ordinary. Because it is based so much on what actually happened to Audrey and her family, rather than what an author has simply made up.

You meet Audrey – called Edda here, for her own safety – in her home village of Velp, near Arnhem, as she is setting out on helping the local resistance. It’s the kind of thing you need to keep secret, because the less anyone else knows, the safer you all are. Edda’s family have had bad things happen to them, and lying low is the way forward.

Covering the last two years of WWII, we learn much about ordinary Dutch people. Except, they are not ordinary; they are brave, albeit often in a quiet, life-saving way. I learned more about Arnhem, which to me was ‘just’ a place name connected with the war, in a bad way. And the tulips.

The same age as Anne Frank, we have to be grateful Audrey survived, if only just. It’s hard to believe that starvation can be so much more of a threat than being hit by bombs, say. And people fleeing their old homes has become much more of a current thing than we could ever have thought, until recently.

This is the latest of many thoughtful books from Tom Palmer about WWII and its effects. Its brevity adds to its seriousness. And the cover art from Tom Clohosy Cole is stunning.

The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown

We have almost forgotten about polio, haven’t we? These days we fear other illnesses, even if we are still given protection against polio; both the baby and its parents. In Elizabeth Laird’s new book about Charity Brown, her heroine has been held captive by polio. This is soon after WWII. But thinking back on what happens in this semi-autobiographical novel, I reckon it’s religion that holds Charity back more.

Her deeply religious family are poor, and when she returns home after a long spell in hospital, it is to a very cold house. For her father it is more important to seek new members for their little church, than to earn money to keep his wife and four children comfortable. They are always warned what not to do, and Charity remembers it all, and heeds it even when she’d rather not.

And then, all of a sudden, they have inherited a large house, and the parents intend to use it to do good [to others].

Their new life is puzzling, but ultimately both interesting and promising. Charity makes a friend. Maybe. Religion so easily gets in the way of everything. Her older siblings want new things in life. Visitors from other countries turn up, and it’s not always the ones you trust who deserve that trust. War enemies are also people.

This is a heart-warming and lovely story. Not your standard postwar tale, but a new look on what might have been.

Escape to the River Sea

It is always very nice meeting favourite characters again. Especially those from a really good novel; people you’ve perhaps wondered about after reading their story. You want more, and if someone other than the original author has written ‘more’ then you might be quite happy with that as a solution as well.(I remember finding Ben Gunn in the library when I was a child. Never mind who wrote it. There was more!)

Here is Emma Carroll’s take on what might have happened to the characters in Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. They really were characters you wanted to meet again.

I was pleased to see what happened to Clovis, who is now a proper adult, seeing as it’s just after WWII. He has taken in 11-year-old Rosa from Austria, along with other evacuees. The arrival of Yara, a young and quite unusual woman, eventually takes Rosa to the Amazon, following in the footsteps of Maia, all those years ago.

WWII has had an effect in Brazil as well, so it’s no longer the same. Neither are Finn and Maia, who are now also proper adults. In my opinion, perhaps too much of properness. (But then, Anne Shirley grew more sensible with age, so perhaps this is inevitable.)

What follows is an Amazonian, post-war adventure, featuring new children in recognisable surroundings. As a story it is fine, and fun, albeit lacking Eva Ibbotson’s magic.

The Outlander Effect

It’s Jacobite blog tour time! Here’s Barbara Henderson with some Outlanderish thoughts:

‘The Americans are back’, my husband remarked drily on his return from Inverness High Street, ten minutes away from our home. Don’t get the wrong impression – this was no disapproving comment. It was dry humour, tinged with relief. He might as well have said ‘Things are finally getting back to normal’.
The devastating effect of the pandemic on international tourism in our area had been acutely felt, particularly as a certain franchise had previously supercharged the tourist economy in these parts. A book, film and fandom feat like no other (perhaps Harry Potter aside).

Can you hear it? The distant and mournful version of the Skye Boat Song, now a major theme tune? I am (of course!) talking about Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic time travel romance which features the Highlands during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

Why do some things catch on while others do not? I often find myself bemused by what hits the popularity jackpot. But speaking as an interested observer rather than an Outlander superfan, I can absolutely see the appeal here: standing stones and ancient cairns, a doomed cause, heroism and healing – it’s a compelling mix. As the phenomenon grew, the Highlands changed all around me. Tourist gift shops began to replace their usual stock with Outlander merchandise. Busloads and busloads of Outlander themed tours arrived at key locations like Culloden Battlefield. Fans found each other, both online and in person. Gaelic-learning became fashionable again, and consultant herbalists and craftspeople were hired for the television series. From time to time, adverts for extras would appear in the local papers. I recently attended a creative industries conference. Half a day was given over to figuring it out: How can we as artists and writers and heritage professionals tap into the Outlander Effect? It’s the million-dollar question! That way profit lies.

As a children’s writer, I was well aware of Gabaldon’s books and the huge success of the television series. However, I thought all this had very little to do with me. When I was lucky enough to be published for the first time with my Highland Clearances novel Fir for Luck, I realised: It had everything to do with me.

Let me introduce you to the InverOutlanders, a local Outlander fan organisation. Full of likeable ladies, I have grown very fond of the group. They have been wonderfully supportive of me and of other writers, too. After all, they have already read every word that Gabaldon has written – and they are interested in more Scottish history of that time period. Fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t seem to matter. It certainly didn’t seem to matter that mine was a children’s book – Scottish history, a time of peril – tell us no more, we’re in!

I began to see them at some of my events. When my own Jacobite novel was ready to submit to publishers, I didn’t have to explain to the publishing world what this Jacobite rebellion was. They already knew. I began to pitch the novel as ‘Outlander for kids’ which was a convenient shortcut to what the book was about.

When The Reluctant Rebel was published on 18th May, the InverOutlanders were first to the microphone, shouting to their 14.6k followers about my book. I can never thank them enough.

I don’t know if I’ll ever meet Diana Gabaldon in real life. But if I do, I am determined to thank her for creating millions of readers who are now interested in Scottish history, culture and heritage. She didn’t mean to, but in some small way, the author of the mighty Outlander series has put my books on the map too.

The Reluctant Rebel, A Jacobite Adventure

Like ‘most’ people, I have known ‘all’ about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald and ‘over the sea to Skye’. Thanks to Barbara Henderson and her new historical novel The Reluctant Rebel, I now actually ‘know’ something. Lots more, in fact.

I raced through the book, to find out what happened and how. Even when you might know the ending, and how the bonnie Prince never became King, it’s exciting.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Archie MacDonald – who lost his father at Prestonpans in 1745 – beginning just before Culloden in 1746. Which I knew to have been a disaster, but you don’t learn so much from history books. Well, I don’t.

His master’s three sons are fighting, and not everyone returns home. At least as important, if not more, is Archie’s cousin Meg, a maid at Borrodale. She’s brave and intelligent, even if she does seem to have a crush on the Prince.

Their paths cross the Prince’s, several times, and they are called on to help him escape. Just staying alive is difficult. Because of his father and because of the shock of the bloodiness of Culloden, Archie isn’t sure he supports the Prince’s cause any longer. Soon there is a price on his head as well, which can be tempting for someone who is hungry.

This is a terribly exciting historical adventure, set beautifully to fit in with the real story, and feeling all the better for it.

A Kind of Spark

It is worse than I had expected.

No, not the book. The situation in general, in this life.

As a witch with an interest in autism, Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark has been on my wish list for a couple of years.

I had not stopped to think at all. That is perhaps the mistake we so often make. Witch hunts and the dislike of people who are different, people who are autistic, have a lot in common.

Addie is an 11-year-old autistic girl, currently being bullied by her teacher, having lost her best friend, and feeling utterly alone. Well, she does have her family. Her older twin sisters, one of whom is also autistic. Probably Dad, too, a little bit, and I’m guessing his father as well.

Addie likes sharks. And when the witch trials in the past, which happened in their own village, become known to her, she feels it strongly. So strongly that Addie wants, needs, to do something about it.

But then there are the bullies. And the bystanders. Those who do nothing, or not enough. I kept feeling that even if the book has a happy ending – which it does – it has opened up a totally new way of looking at things. One that is not comforting.

This is a new way of looking at autistic children’s fiction. It’s necessary, but it is also bloody scary, if you’ll pardon my French.

Displaced

It’s hard to know what to think these days. Having read and loved so many children’s books about the Kindertransport and all the other schemes from WWII to get people, children and adults, to safety, I have been proud of what Britain did. With hindsight I realise that not everything was quite like in the books. But still, people arrived here, and many remained and many did well. So apart from the awful reason for them coming, the end result seems to have been OK a lot of the time.

And now we are ashamed of what Britain is not doing. Most of us have the Ukraine in mind, but I don’t mind casting wider and will mention Syria and Afghanistan among many other crisis-laden nations. And that other countries are receiving refugees more generously and with greater ease than seems to be possible here.

One night recently I came to think of ‘my’ first lot of refugees. Not counting the girl from Hungary I was friendly with in my first year at school, because that happened before I was aware, ‘my’ displaced people came from Chile.

Well, they arrived from there, but they were frequently from some other Latin American country, having already fled to Chile from their place of birth. I encountered many of them where I lived, which was a small town. I suspect one reason for their appearance there was that the then head of Amnesty International in Sweden lived nearby. But as is often the case, they moved on, and congregated in the bigger cities, where they could be with others from the same background.

When I moved to Gothenburg, I met Chilean refugees there. And I know many of them are still there, with children and grandchildren born in this other country at the opposite end of the world. Such a lot of them ended up there because one night they clambered over the wall to the Swedish embassy, where the ambassador temporarily achieved hero status for saving so many individuals fleeing for their lives.

So, that night I mentioned, I began wondering if the person whose full name I for some reason still remember, might still be there. He is. That’s the beauty of computerised, publicly available records. Back then he was a political student leader, not from Chile, but from one of the neighbouring countries. I have no idea what he’s done in the nearly fifty years since then, but he’s now ‘old’ and still living in the city that took him in. I wonder what his life has been like. Still marooned at the other end of the world. But I dare say it beats the alternative.