Category Archives: History

Apache

Well, wow! That’s not all I have to say about Tanya Landman’s Apache (a very long overdue read for me; the details of which I won’t bore you with), but it’s a good start.

Tanya Landman, Apache

I wonder what it is about the 19th century United States that fascinates me so? Tanya is obviously drawn to write about it, and I like reading it. If I say it’s a relic of watching Westerns as a child, I’m probably going to upset someone, but I suspect it is.

Siki is Apache, and an orphan. Aged 14 when the story begins, she has just watched her 4-year-old brother killed by Mexicans, and she swears she will avenge his death. Siki has never been interested in women’s work, and strives to be accepted as a warrior, along with the young males.

Set in Arizona near the Mexican border, life as the Apache have known it is swiftly disappearing. It’s not only the Mexicans who are a threat, but the white settlers arrive in vast numbers, seemingly trampling on all that Siki and her people value.

Tanya mixes Apache daily life and rituals with the thriller that is their quest for revenge for the massacre of mostly women and children. Siki is skilled and brave, and for this she attracts both admiration as well as hate from various members of her tribe.

In one way you could decribe this as a fairly low-key story, were it not for the sheer horror of what happens to the Apache in their own country. And then there is the thrill of the skills they use against their enemies, not to mention the almost-not-there love story. It’s incredibly powerful.

I learned things I didn’t know before but should have, and I was thoroughly entertained by this history lesson. Both sides in this story can be seen to be right – and wrong – at the same time. If you are white, you can see why the white people behaved as they did, even if you feel shame over it. And the Apache are simultaneously both sensitive and seemingly callous, but because you’ve read what has happened to them, you can more than see their point.

Apache is really a very marvellous book. Tanya is hard on her readers, but rightly so.

Dot & Anton

Erich Kästner, Dot & Anton

This is another feelgood story by Erich Kästner, with iconical illustrations by Walter Trier. I settled in with this as a special Easter reading treat, thinking how ‘idyllic’ that period between the wars in Germany seems in literature. No sooner had I thought this, but I realised that it’s not true. There was a lot of poverty, as well as riches. Rather like now.

It’s about little rich girl Dot, who is quite an unusual child. When we meet her she appears, to her bemused father, to be selling matchboxes to the wall in her room. There is obviously a reason for this. Dot’s father is rich, her mother is a woman who shops and ‘has migraines,’ and they have several staff; a chauffeur, a maid and a governess.

Somewhere, some time, Dot has met Anton, who is a poor boy with a sick mother, trying to make ends meet while still going to school.

It’s fascinating to see how the two children get on, despite the differences in their lives. And in a fairy tale sort of way there are wicked crooks and brave children, policemen who do what policemen are supposed to do, and everything works out in the end.

It’s the moral happy ending which proves this is historical fiction and not set now. It would be less likely to happen today. Unfortunately.

The child in me wishes it could still be like this.

Dot & Anton is a quietly humorous story, and the moral musings by Erich Kästner at the end of each chapter make for a different style of book. He tells the reader what he believes, and then invites the reader to consider what their opinion might be.

Journey to the River Sea

When I came upon the audiobook of Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, as I was unpacking the children’s books a few weeks ago, I looked around, wondering where the ‘real’ book was. And then it hit me; I didn’t actually own a copy. I had borrowed it from the library to read (you can tell this was a long time ago, can’t you?), and returned it when I was done.

But I did buy the audiobook, because I thought it was such a marvellous story that Daughter might want to read it. This was when she was still a reluctant reader, while fully enjoying audio books. And Son was in full audiobook mode as well, although he did read too. We had a few years during which we as a family consumed an awful lot of cassette books, including the odd chewed-up tape. I remember this, as Eva Ibbotson’s book was one that got entangled, much to my horror. (Luckily the people who made it were happy to supply a spare cassette, meaning I didn’t have to buy it all over again.)

I remember buying a copy of the book to give away, too, so it’s not as if I was being particularly economical about it.

So there I was, filling my shelves with books, and no Journey to the River Sea. I looked at the cassettes, and I looked at the empty gap among my Eva Ibbotson books, and knew I needed to own this one.

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea

What’s more, I felt it needed to be the original cover; the cover of the book I had read, and none of the newer looks. But now that you can buy used books online, it is at least possible to choose your edition, and for a reasonable price.

The gap has been filled.

(As a matter of interest, has anyone who knows this book come across an ‘adult version’ of it? Some time after I’d first read it, I discovered an adult novel by Eva that sounded similar, so I read that too, and realised she must have written it first, since it had practically the same plot, only a little more grown-up. I’m glad she re-wrote it, as the children’s story is far superior.)

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

The Nowhere Emporium

The blurb on the back of Ross MacKenzie’s The Nowhere Emporium – and what a gorgeous cover this book has! – suggests it’s for fans of Pullman, Funke and Gaiman. I think it’s more Harry Potter than any of those, though I obviously won’t rule out that others will also enjoy The Nowhere Emporium. Simplified Harry Potter, I hasten to add, but you can tell that Ross has been influenced by JK, as she in turn had been influenced by a few others.

Ross MacKenzie, The Nowhere Emporium

This Tardis-like emporium is nowhere, in that it moves about. It changes where it is, and also when it is. Daniel Holmes is an orphan, and his life could be better. One day when chased yet again by some bullies, he finds a shop to escape into, which is where he encounters the mysterious Mr Silver who runs it.

He goes back a second time, and Mr Silver is rather surprised to find Daniel can remember his first visit. You’re not supposed to. His emporium is intended to entertain people, but he also makes sure he arranges for some suitable memory loss as they leave.

Daniel is clearly different, so Mr Silver lets him stay, just as when he was a young boy, he had a mysterious ‘benefactor’ who took him in and taught him magic. This was a very long time ago.

Soon after Daniel is apprenticed, things begin to change. Mr Silver seems different and then he disappears. Another mysterious man turns up instead and it’s for Daniel to try and sort things out and make emporium life normal again. If he’s got enough magic in him to do so.

Well, what do you think?

A reading update

Let me see.., so after my lovely glow from reading about the horrors of war in Abyssinia, I moved swiftly on to Helen Grant’s Urban Legends, her third book about teenagers in Belgium who break into people’s homes, or climb up onto the rooftops of Ghent, encountering murderers and dead bodies galore.

I thought the first one – Silent Saturday – was quite cosy, for a thrillery, horror novel.

Let me tell you how I am doing so far. I have read 24 pages. Seven of those I’d already read (I don’t think it’s déjà vu, but more that the first chapter was printed at the end of book two) and it came back to me quite how scary I felt they seemed last year.

Well this year, my dears, I am scared witless, and I’m only on p 24. As I said.

I hope things will turn rosier as I go along. Because I’m never going to get braver or more fond of horror. I mean, how could those characters just walk with you-know-who, or let someone into their home like that, or go and live all alone, or anything else which Helen no doubt will have written, but which I have not as yet encountered?

I’ll be fine. Really.

But please leave the lights on.

And please tell me he’s not behind me.

Black Dove, White Raven

I was left with a warm glow of contentment on finishing Elizabeth Wein’s Black Dove, White Raven, and I would have started re-reading the book at that point if I could have. While the first pages didn’t set me off quite like Code Name Verity did, I was soon lost in the magic of flying, friendship and adventure.

Elizabeth Wein, Black Dove, White Raven

Like CNV it’s a story told through diary entries and flight log books, as well as the odd attempt at writing adventure stories by and about Black Dove and White Raven. I had imagined that they were the flying mothers of Em and Teo, but it’s really the children themselves who are telling this tale. Mainly Em, and sometimes her adopted brother Teo. Em’s voice is almost that of Verity’s. Almost.

Their mothers Delia and Rhoda are soulmates; they fly together, have babies together, live and work together, until the day Delia dies. This is America in the 1920s, so friendship between a white woman and a black woman was never going to be straightforward. Nor is the situation where Rhoda simply takes over as Teo’s mother, or when they all move to Ethiopia to live Delia’s dream.

As the book begins, Em has a problem, and the novel is her way of describing to Emperor Haile Selassie what has happened and why he must help her.

I knew very little about Ethiopia, and even less about the war in Abyssinia. It’s easy to think of that war as merely being far away and a long time ago, and almost unimportant, but Black Dove, White Raven brings it to life in a scary way. We simply have had no idea what Italy did in Africa back then.

It’s easy to say that you should write about what you know, or that fiction is about making things up, so you don’t have to. But if Elizabeth didn’t know Ethiopia, and more importantly, didn’t know how to fly, this story wouldn’t get off the ground. And it’s as well that she practised flying on the outside of planes too, or you wouldn’t believe what goes on in this book.

Black Dove, White Raven is a seductive mix of nostalgia and reality, with courage and friendship at its core. It leaves me wanting more.