Category Archives: History

Carnegie medal for Tanya Landman

Three months ago I said I’d be rooting for Tanya Landman and her Buffalo Soldier to win the Carnegie medal. And what good rooting that must have been! Yesterday Tanya did win and I’m very, very pleased. For her. Not because I was right. Although I do like being right.

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier

It’s not surprising, as this was the book so many of her peers were enthusing about on social media. This does happen for some books every now and then, but in Tanya’s case I felt the admiration was more widespread than usual.

Buffalo Soldier is about a recently freed female slave, who dresses as a man and becomes a soldier in the American Civil War. It’s a hard life, and it’s a hard book, but it is truly wonderful and I can thoroughly recommend it.

(Strangely enough I’m just now reading another book set in the same period and in a similar place, so I’m guessing I sensed it was time to return to this war and to the slavery issues.)

Congratulations, Tanya!

The Last Soldier

That collection of ‘marvels’ at the small travelling carnival visiting your small town. You know, the bearded lady and a scary creature of some sort. Maybe something else. You pay and you marvel.

Keith Gray, The Last Soldier

In Keith Gray’s latest book for Barrington Stoke we meet two brothers in a small American town in the early 1920s. It’s Joe’s 15th birthday and he has been given his father’s shoes for his present. Because it’s fairly likely his father won’t need them again, and the family is so poor that Wade covets his older brother’s second hand shoes.

Their dad went to war and didn’t come back, but they are still hoping. When the carnival arrives, they beg their poor mother for permission to go and she gives them some of her last coins. Things are bad between Joe and the local bully Caleb, as there have been fights in the past.

Wade loved the ‘Marvels’ last time, so is eager to go and look at them again. The newest exhibit is The Last Soldier; supposedly the last one killed before armistice in 1918. And from the moment he sees the soldier, things don’t go well.

This is a lovely (yes, really) tale of innocence and war and poverty. It will make you think.

Binny in Secret

Hilary McKay knows how to write exactly the kind of book I, and many more, want to read. Need to read. I can’t tell you how happy I was to find there was going to be a sequel to Binny for Short. Although that ended in such a perfect way that it was hard to see how you could revisit Binny and her family and improve on things.

Hilary McKay, Binny in Secret

But you know, it is possible, and Binny in Secret is the proof.

Reluctance to going to school is something many of us have experienced, and here we meet it in two very different, but also similar, ways. Hilary has written not only about Binny in the present day, but has woven the tale about three children who spent their holidays in the area exactly a hundred years earlier, into the book as well.

Binny ‘only’ has current-day troubles at school, although that can be more than enough. The story about the Penrose cousins features school, sexism and that awful thing that happened in 1914, the War. The reader knows it’s coming, while the Penrose children don’t.

The family’s roof blows off, but that doesn’t save Binny from having to go to school. She thought it would, but things get even worse. And something eats James’s chicken Gertie, and the children’s mother has to work longer hours to pay for the new roof. So how can Binny share her troubles with her family?

She discovers the local wildlife, and she discusses it at length with her long-distance friend Gareth. There is a puzzle to be solved, and there is bullying to be dealt with, as well as a 100-year-old museum that the Penrose children began.

As always with Hilary’s books, you know this will end in a satisfying way. But you can’t predict how.

If you haven’t read this book yet (and how could you, seeing as it’s only out today?), you have such a treat in store! And there is Binny for Short first, if you didn’t get round to reading that.

Hanging out with Shakespeare

Just as I did with Dickens, I have now got to know William Shakespeare a bit better. It’s a funny thing with Shakespeare; we all of us ‘know’ him so well, except we don’t necessarily. We go and see his plays, maybe read a sonnet, and perhaps visit Stratford or The Globe.

As with Dickens my introduction comes via Brita Granström and Mick Manning, who do this so well. Mick, I assume, reads up on the person, and Brita then gets going on illustrating that person’s life. With Shakespeare I imagine it will have been harder, because we don’t actually know all that much.

Part of William Shakespeare, Scenes from the life of the world’s greatest writer, is supposition. Someone has to make an educated guess as to what Will did or where he went and how things happened. But this is good guesswork.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, William Shakespeare

Having seen what Will’s childhood might have been like, and his siblings, and hearing about him – possibly – carving his initials on his school desk, makes him come alive. Learning what he learned at school makes it easier to see where his plays came from.

And speaking of plays, they are here in this book. Not all of them, but many of his best known dramas, complete with summaries of what happens in them, with illustrations.

These books by Brita and Mick are better than any other way I can think of to learn about people. They may be famous, but not so much that we can’t learn more about them. Give me the illustrated childhood of anyone and I’ll feel as if we are old friends.

Cleo

This long awaited novel by Lucy Coats has a most tantalising end. She claims she could only end it like this, and she’s probably right. Probably.

Whatever. You will love this story about the young Cleopatra. At first I thought Lucy seemed very well informed, but it turns out she is only guessing, building her story round what little is known about Cleo. And this is absolutely fine. Fantastic. Wonderful. You know, all those words.

Lucy Coats, Cleo

We meet Cleo at the age of ten as she watches her mother die, and her ghastly half sisters turn on her. Seems it was the expected behaviour in those days. Fast forward to four years later, and it’s time for Cleo to ‘do something about it.’

Cleo is a marvellous girl, very capable, and thinks on her feet. She’s also surrounded by a great gang of helpers, and I do like competent co-characters. Some of Cleo’s are among the best I’ve met for a while.

Once you rid yourself – a little – of the image of Liz Taylor, you can move more properly in the right circles in Alexandria. There’s a lot of bad stuff happening. There are gods on different sides, and people can be killed on a whim. Crocodiles, hippos; all the usual weapons.

This is the first of three books, which is logical, as Cleo’s sisters are so bad they will need plenty of time to be sorted out (I hope), and any romance will need to mature, and characters have to be brave in the face of so many hippos, or worse.

The importance of libraries should not be under-estimated even for so long ago. We’re in Alexandria, after all. As for Cleo and her friends, I’d like to say everything will be fine once we’ve got all three books. The question is, will it? I’m sure whatever happens, that the journey will have been worth it.

Stars Shall Be Bright

Catherine MacPhail, Stars Shall Be Bright

In memory of the lost children of Maryhill, who died in the Quintinshill Rail Disaster exactly one hundred years ago today. We don’t know their names or what they were doing on a train full of soldiers going off to war.

Catherine MacPhail has a theory, which she shares with us in this Barrington Stoke story, Stars Shall Be Bright. She reckons they were siblings James, Belle and William, who set off to find their dad who was a soldier.

Their mum has just died and to avoid being taken into a home, James decides to take his brother and sister on a trek to find their dad, lying in order to get away from a ‘well meaning’ neighbour.

They hide on a stationary train, which soon fills up with over 500 soldiers, travelling from Larbert to Liverpool, on their way to Gallipoli. Near Gretna Green the train was involved in a three train crash, with 225 soldiers dead, 246 injured, and 65 walking wounded.

And then there were the bodies of three children.

Lovely (yes really) story, but awfully sad.

The book-launching mug

‘That doesn’t look like a book’ said the Resident IT Consultant as he brought in the post.

I looked at the square box and concluded he was right. ‘It’s a mug,’ I said. I knew this because Lucy Coats had very generously said she’d send me one of her special mugs to celebrate the publication of her new novel Cleo. And a witch can easily use a fabulous mug like this one. (Quite handy, actually. I don’t believe there is a single non-sawdusty drinking vessel in the whole house.)

Lucy Coats, Cleo & mug

Once I had negotiated all that parcel tape, however, I could see I had been both right and wrong. There was a book as well.

Very much looking forward to a read and some tea.