Category Archives: History

How to be Shakespeare

This is such a brilliant idea! Here I have two books from the British Library, by Deborah Patterson, on how to be your own William Shakespeare. Or J K Rowling or Tolkien. Or if you want to set the bar really high, Jules Verne or Arthur Ransome.

We’re actually back in the territory of writing in books, which is so tempting, but which could also lead to some less legit scribbling in all sorts of other books than these two. But my fingers are itching, just looking at the – inviting – pages in Deborah’s two My Book of Stories books.

Deborah Patterson, Write your own Shakespearean tales

In ‘write your own Shakespearean tales,’ she introduces old Will’s plays, with quotes and pictures and All Those Lovely Designated Pages For Writing On! So read a bit about dear Hamlet and then see what you can do about beating Mr Shakespeare at his own game.

Deborah Patterson, Write your own adventures

Likewise, in ‘write your own Adventures,’ we meet some of the classics in children’s literature; Alice, Peter Pan, Dorothy, Toad, Harry Potter, the Hobbit and all those others.

And then there are word games and that kind of thing, so really, you are in for a treat, playing and writing, all in one go.

Why am I so old? I was made for these books!

Finding Winnie

From mother and baby bears to an orphaned bear. Lindsay Mattick’s – I believe entirely true – story about the young Canadian vet who went to war in Europe in 1914. Vet Harry lived in Winnipeg, so had a long way to go before he got to the war, where his job was to look after the horses.

When his train stopped in White River he saw a bear cub on the platform. A very special bear cub, or so he felt. He bought it for $20 from the trapper who had most probably killed the cub’s mother.

Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall, Finding Winnie

The bear came with Harry on the train, and all the soldiers helped look after the cub and find food for him. He was a very hungry bear cub. Winnie travelled with Harry and the others all the way to England. But before they went to the war in Europe, Harry brought his dearest friend to London Zoo, where he left him to be looked after.

A young boy called Christopher Robin used to come to the zoo with his father, and he loved playing with Winnie.

And you all know what happened then. (I cried a bit, for one thing. And those books we love got written.)

I think we have to assume Lindsay knows all about this, since it was her great grandfather who liberated our dear bear. The fantastic illustrations are by the very reliable Sophie Blackall.

The Greystones Press

It’s not every day that a new publishing company is born. The Greystones Press is a brand new publisher’s of quality books, started by Mary Hoffman and her husband Stephen Barber.

Very sensibly they are sticking to what they care about most, which is literature, art, music, history, mythology and fairy tales. This will sound silly, but I feel quite excited at the thought of this, in a world too full of publishing companies who concentrate on, well, other things. And it’s because they do, that people like Mary and Stephen are needed. They want to publish the kind of books that won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, or sell in vast numbers. (Although it’d obviously be nice if they did.)

We’ve got used to self-publishing by now. Authors who either can’t get commercially published, or who want to have some level of control over what happens to their books, publish either ebooks and/or print copies. But most of them don’t go all the way and start something that will publish other people’s books as well.

This is quite a brave thing to do, but then where would we be if no one tried something new occasionally? Mary clearly has a lot of experience after her years of writing over a hundred books. One of them, the one about David, is going to be part of their first list, and it’s a book that personifies what The Greystones Press stands for. They also have plans for translated novels later on, which I look forward to.

Among the other first books will be Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish, whose knowledge of fairy tales I have long been in awe of, and here she will expand on what she’s been writing about for several years on her blog with the same name.

Mary also has a YA/adult crossover book for The Greystones Press, called Shakespeare’s Ghost, which rather suitably will be published on April 23rd. Jules Cashford and Kate Snow complete the first list of books this spring.

Chosen

It’s International Women’s Day, so what more suitable book to review than Lucy Coats’s second novel about the young Cleopatra? Here we have a young woman who knows what she has to do, regardless of whether she believes she can, or what other people will think. She does her duty.

Lucy Coats, Chosen

Having been left hanging at the end of book one, you could only hope it would work out and that the characters would stay and survive. They do. Mostly.

Don’t misunderstand me; Chosen is both violent and bloody. Presumably that’s what life was like back then (although today’s not much better), and being chosen as a future Queen didn’t mean a smooth life, full of riches and comfort.

Cleo has a lot of travelling to do. At times it feels as if she does nothing but traipse back and forth in Egypt, whether by boat or through the desert, occasionally on a rather opininated camel. Having been chosen by the Goddess Isis doesn’t make for easy companionship with the others. Cleo stands out; she is different.

But I’ll say this for her, she really has some great people to help her with the task of uniting Egypt, and getting rid of her half-sister and finding her father, the disappeared Pharaoh. Personally I am quite partial to Captain Nail, although I can see that younger readers will have more interest in the gorgeous Khai, or the infamous Marcus Antonius. Lots of romantic scope.

There is more love among the supporting characters, and you really come to like them. I wouldn’t mind having a pair of diligent bodyguard soldiers like Cleo’s.

The future Pharaoh has her job cut out gathering enough soldiers to take on her sister and her supporters. When her camel days are over, Cleo needs to get to Rome to persuade her father to return to Egypt.

What this book does, apart from entertain and thrill, is teach you about Egypt and to some extent Rome. No amount of reading history books at school can make up for what’s in Lucy’s two novels about Cleo. It might not all be true or authentic (after all, how could anyone know for certain?), but it sets the scene so well, and learning through fiction for fun means you want to know, and you want to remember it. For yourself, and not for an exam.

Enjoy!

When Philip met Danny

It’s all my fault. I wanted to ask Danny Weston a few questions on his winning the Scottish Children’s Book Award last week. But then I had this – I thought – brilliant idea. So I asked Philip Caveney if he’d have a go and do the interview. I might get better questions that way.

I’m so sorry.

“The brief was very straightforward. ‘Get an interview with Danny Weston,’ she said. ‘Go to his house and get him to talk.’ It sounded easy enough.

But it wasn’t as simple as I might have imagined. For a start, it wasn’t to be at his apartment in Tollcross; that would have been too easy. No, it was to be recorded at his ancestral home in the Highlands, a big rambling Victorian construction out in the sticks and the only way to get there was to hire a pony and trap at the local station. There followed a long, slow ride across the moors and the aged driver, a grey bearded fellow with a wizened face, clearly wasn’t in the mood to make polite conservation.

‘Do you know Mr Weston?’ I asked him and he gave me a long, withering look.

‘Aye, I know him,’ he said darkly, and spoke no more.

When we finally arrived at the house, I asked the driver if he’d wait for me but he simply shook his head and set off back in the direction from which we had come, whipping up the horses into a near gallop. Charming, I thought. The ancient front door of the house was ajar. I pushed it open and stepped into the hallway. There were no lights on within and the place smelled of decay and neglect. I shouted Weston’s name and my voice seemed to echo throughout the house but there was no reply.

I was obliged to wander disconsolately from room to room until I finally found him sitting in what looked like a library, surrounded by shelves of mouldering books. ‘What kept you?’ he snarled and indicated a vacant seat in front of him. There was no offer of refreshment after my long journey so I settled myself down, thinking what a poor host this man was. Perhaps everything I’d heard about him was true.

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I switched on my voice recorder. ‘You must be pleased,’ I ventured. ‘After winning the Scottish Book Award and everything.’

‘Delirious,’ he said, but his expression remained grave.

‘But it must be nice, surely? After all, this is your first attempt at a novel…’

There was no reaction to that, so I decided to dispense with the niceties and asked him a few questions about his childhood. I was amazed to discover that the two of us had rather a lot in common – both of us had fathers in the Royal Air Force, we had spent much of our childhoods in boarding schools and both of us acquired the overpowering urge to write in our teens. Astonishingly, we were inspired by the very same book, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. ‘I’m not always banging on about it like you, though,’ he muttered ungraciously. I let that one go.

‘So what attracts you to such dark stories?’ I asked.

He looked annoyed at the question. ‘Your stories aren’t exactly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,’ he growled.

Fair point, I admitted, but… a vengeful ghost haunting two young evacuees on Romney Marsh? And the new book, Mr Sparks… a twisted ventriloquist’s dummy who outlives his operators? Where do these strange ideas come from?

He gave me a scornful look as though he thought I should have known better than to ask that question.

‘Is there anything new in the pipeline?’ I asked. I was floundering here.

‘There will be a new story along in September,’ he said. ‘The Haunting of Jessop Rise…’

‘See, right there,’ I interrupted him. ‘That’s clearly not going to be a laugh riot.’

‘Young readers love to be scared,’ he assured me. ‘And little wonder! What are the very first stories we give them? Little Red Riding Hood… Hansel and Gretel… These are horror stories and they are of course, thrilled by them, as soon as they’re old enough to understand words.’ He gestured to a shelf of books to his left. ‘It’s not as though you’re unfamiliar with the idea yourself, after all.’

I was astonished to see a whole row of my old titles residing there. ‘What about your Edinburgh trilogy?’ he asked me. ‘As I said before, your books are not all sweetness and light are they? In Crow Boy you deal with the bubonic plague. And Seventeen Coffins features the serial killers, Burke and Hare.’

I was frankly astonished. ‘I had no idea you were familiar with my work,’ I said.

‘My dear fellow, you are one of my biggest influences,’ he assured me. ‘After all, we have so much in common.’

‘Some of my books are lighter in tone,’ I protested. ‘The new book, The Calling, for instance, that’s about all the statues in Edinburgh, coming to life for one night a year. It’s quite funny in places…’

‘… and also features a brutal kidnapping,’ he interrupted. He raised his eyebrows. ‘The publishers sent me a proof copy,’ he added by way of explanation. Then his expression changed to one of annoyance. ‘Isn’t this supposed to be about me?’ he snapped.

‘Oh, er… yes. So… Jessop Rise. Tell me a bit about that.’

‘It features all my favourite things,’ he said, looking animated for the first time. ‘Ghosts. Children terrorized by things that go bump in the night. An ancient supernatural being. Oh yes, and a really cruel villain.’ He smirked. ‘There’s one scene where…’ He leaned closer and whispered something into my ear. I blanched. I’ve been writing for something like 40 years but that…. that was going too far.

He grinned at me, his face ghoulish in the already fading light. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked me. ‘Have I offended you? Are you shocked?’

‘Not at all,’ I said but I was beginning to feel distinctly nervous. I was uncomfortably aware that it was already getting late and I had no transport arranged. I glanced at my watch.’ ‘I er…. really should be getting back,’ I murmured. ‘I was wondering if you had a phone number for the coachman at the station.’

He smiled grimly, shook his head. ‘There are no phones in this house,’ he said. ‘And even if there were, the old man wouldn’t come all the way out here this late in the day. Not after what happened last time.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to walk back. Unless of course, you’d like to stay in the guest room for the night? The sheets haven’t been changed in several years and there’s been an invasion of slugs, but if you’d prefer to…’

‘No thanks,’ I said, a little too quickly. ‘I’ll walk. I… could do with the exercise.’

‘As you wish.’ He picked up an oil lamp from the table and handed it to me. ‘You’ll need this,’ he said. ‘To light your way. But a word of warning. Whatever you do, stay on the track. And make sure you keep your gaze fixed on the way ahead…’

It took me hours to get back to the station, by which time it was dark and the moon was up. The place was absolutely deserted. Sitting alone in the ancient waiting room by the light of the failing oil lamp, I wondered if I had got enough from Weston to actually write up the interview. I took out my recorder to listen back to what was on there.

There was nothing. Not a single word – only a deep rasping chuckle. And then, without any warning, the lamp went out.”

Monster mum

Beowulf for dyslexic readers. And for me. I’m not saying I couldn’t read the ‘normal’ Beowulf, but the fact remains I’ve never felt the urge to give him a go.

Here in Brian Patten’s short easy version, with irresistibly monsterous illustrations by Chris Riddell, you have it all. Well, most of it; the core of what matters.

Brian Patten and Chris Riddell, Monster Slayer

In Monster Slayer, we learn about the King’s party to which Grendel the monster wasn’t invited (a mistake, I believe), and how he discovers this and comes and eats some of the King’s best warriors. Which is not good.

Many try to kill Grendel, but he is one of the worst monsters around, and it’s not until Beowulf turns up that Grendel can be beaten. And then they have another party! (I can’t help but feel that they should party less.)

Even horrible monsters have mothers, and Grendel’s monster mum comes looking for revenge for her son’s death. Beowulf needs all his strength and cunning to deal with this furious mother.

This is the perfect way to read a classic, enabling you to be like everyone else, while also learning about Beowulf.

2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards

I encountered Elizabeth Wein at Stirling station as I caught the train to Glasgow yesterday morning. We were both heading to the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘I missed my train,’ she replied, which might have been true, but I wanted to know why she missed it in Stirling, seeing as Elizabeth has her own perfectly good railway station from which to miss trains. I met ‘Mr Wein’ who is very nice, but unfortunately I gave him the wet handshake. Sorry! I wasn’t expecting to be socialising that early.

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We made it to the Glasgow Central Hotel, along with 1000 children and most of the shortlisted authors for this year’s award. Not having missed ‘my’ train, I arrived just in time for the photoshoot, where school children posed with their favourite authors. We were only a little bit in the way of hotel staff and their drinks trolleys and things, and there was an umbrella in my way and my camera stopped working for a bit, and someone mistook Elizabeth’s lovely book for photographic support…

Black Dove, White Raven - 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

I repaired to the Green Room, managing to lose most of my marbles on the way. Apologies to anyone subjected to my complete lack of conversational skills. (Age and sleep deprivation, I reckon.) Chatted to ‘Mrs Danny Weston’ and Lindsey Fraser, who was there representing Joan Lingard. I turned down the kind offer of exclusive interviews in place of informal gossip. And not every event has someone whose job it is to go round hunting for The Blue Feather. (Never discovered if it was found.)

Refreshed by a cup of tea, I went to the awards ceremony for the Older Readers, where Danny talked of [non-pc] battleaxes, and of wanting to terrorise children, which he did very nicely with a picture of ‘those dolls.’ Elizabeth impressed the audience with a photo of herself on top of an airborne plane. Lindsey took a photo of us to show Joan, and described how Joan uses an iPad for all her research.

Two students did an interview with the authors and there was a Q&A session, which revealed how Danny runs after his characters with a notebook in his hand, to see what they will do, and Elizabeth said she always has to tell her book cover artist that they’ve got the wrong plane… There were prizes for best book reviews (they won an author!), and then there was the Scottish Children’s Book Award which went to Danny Weston for The Piper. He thanked his wife, his editor Charlie Sheppard and his ‘friend’ Philip Caveney who taught him everything he knows.

Elizabeth Wein at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

Having brought loads – well, five – books to be signed, I joined the queues and was given a model plane to make by Elizabeth. Danny’s queue was too long so I went for lunch instead. Found Gillian Philip tackling the sandwiches, and we talked about motherhood and kelpies. Elizabeth Laird asked who I was, so I explained that I’m the one who always emails her after every event. She wondered if she ever writes back, and I assured her she always does.

The other morning session, which I had to miss, was for the [youngest] Bookbug Readers, and the winners were Simon Puttock and Ali Pye. Simon will be carrying his prize around for a couple of days, until he gets home. While ‘Mrs Weston’ secured sandwiches for her hubby I went and joined his queue, which had shrunk a little. Elizabeth Wein was interviewed on camera by someone, and I had the pleasure of witnessing another wet handshake, so at least I’m not the only one.

Danny Weston at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

The Younger Readers award session started after lunch, with host Fergus introducing Gillian Philip, Liz Laird and Ross MacKenzie. When Fergus said they were going to read to us, they rebelled and said they were not. They’d decided to do things differently. (Good for them!)

Gillian talked about island holidays, cliffhangers, Saturday cinema and had a photo of the cutest puppy in a teacup. Her – very – early work consisted of many three-page books. Liz talked about Ethiopia and the running everyone does there, and mentioned the Emperor’s lion in 1968, and said she wasn’t guilty of that murder she was accused of. She also writes her books on the backs of used paper. (My kind of woman.) Ross described how you can find magic shops almost anywhere if you just look closely, and said an early reading memory was The Witches at school.

2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

After a very successful game of Consequences (it’s funny how funny those little stories always are), it was time for more prizes for reviews (another author), as well as a prize for best book trailer (most professional). And then Ross MacKenzie went and won his category of the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards for The Nowhere Emporium. He did the usual, thanking his parents and his wife and his children and all those other people he might have forgotten.

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The children queued up to have books signed, and I went to find a train to take me home. Which means I didn’t take any more of my failed photos of Liz. I suppose there’s always next time.