Category Archives: Reading

Written in Bones

Someone please get Tony McLean a winter coat! With a hood. And gloves. The man’s useless and he’s forever going out on murder hunts freezing, slipping from unsuitable footwear. It’s not good for him.

James Oswald, Written in Bones

It is already time for the seventh McLean mystery, and this one is surprisingly normal, apart from the issue with the dragon. But you don’t need the supernatural when you can have one cold, and only recently unsuspended, Detective Inspector out on the streets of Edinburgh.

As is customary with James Oswald’s crime novels, you first meet the murder victim and can hear their thoughts as the end comes closer. This one is spectacular. Think ‘tree in the Meadows taking the place of your kebab skewer’ and there you have it.

McLean has the same unpleasant boss as before, plus some new and promising looking constables to help solve the latest of the many puzzling crimes he always seems to find. Emma is back, but will it last?

Between many turns in and out of hospital for almost everyone, Tony looks for the reason the corpse was skewered, and if there really was a dragon.

Maresi

Maresi, The Red Abbey Chronicles, is one of the most feminist books I’ve read. It’s perhaps not surprising, as Maria Turtschaninoff – despite the name – is a Swedish speaking Finn. I don’t think you could easily publish a book in the UK with some of the content you find in Maresi.

Maria Turtschaninoff, Maresi

I’d heard about it before it appeared in English translation, and I’d had this irrational thought I wouldn’t read the Pushkin Press version, but go for the original instead. And then, of course, I didn’t.

The Red Abbey is a kind of nunnery, on an island, somewhere. Most of the character names and all the place names are made up ones, so it’s hard to place the abbey geographically, but I sort of imagine it in the Baltic. Contrary to so many set-ups in fiction where you have adults teaching younger ones, and it tends to be a cruel place with much punishment, as well as bad feeling between the ‘children.’

Not here. It seems to be an ideal place in what is a strange world, where the women teach the girls how to become like them; wise and strong. You hardly ever get that in books.

12-year-old Maresi is the narrator, and she tells of their island from when Jai turns up one day. Jai has escaped a bad past, and unfortunately she brings her past to the island, as they are invaded by a group of bad men. (This is all surprisingly anti-men, even though they acknowledge that some men are all right.)

You suspect the worst, but matters go in a different way from what you’d think, and the women’s strength grows and impresses.

In a way, this isn’t the kind of story I tend to go for, but once started I couldn’t leave it. Very interesting. And there are more to come.

Please enter

The other week I got so furious with everything to do with immigrants not being wanted, that I hunted out a book I’ve had lying around for about seven years and read it.

The book was Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, which was first published twenty years ago, and tells the story of what it was like for her when she came to England in 1960 at the age of eleven.

Floella Benjamin, Coming to England

At first I was afraid it was going to turn out that Trinidad had been paradise and England was not, but their idyllic life in Trinidad turned sour when Floella’s parents had to leave four of their six children behind, as they didn’t have enough money for all at once. Life for those left behind quickly became hell, which presumably made the reality of England less bad, even if it was cold and grey and unwelcoming.

Through hard work and love they prospered and did well, and as we know, Floella has been very successful. But it wasn’t for England opening its arms and being friendly and giving things away freely, even then.

The facts of this book are more pertinent than ever. The style is rather wooden and boring, but that is outweighed by how important it is to read.


And then, I’d not had time to read the Guardian Weekend two weeks ago, so first picked it up a week late, to find Floella Benjamin the subject of their Q&A page. And the reason she was, was that the book has been republished again.

If that’s not witchy, I don’t know what is.

Mårbacka

It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.

The Liar’s Handbook

To be perfectly honest, I was a bit reluctant to read The Liar’s Handbook, even though it’s written by the excellent Keren David, for the equally excellent Barrington Stoke. I think I didn’t want to face any liars, just at the moment. Who does?

Keren David, The Liar's Handbook

River – yes, really – is a boy who lies. He seems unable to stop the fantastic lies from falling out of his mouth and into the ears of people who are getting a little tired of all the lies. There is trouble with school, but he has a cool mum.

The trouble with mum is she has a new boyfriend called Jason, and he is someone River really doesn’t trust.

I could tell early on what the plot was likely to be. It’s one you’ve come across in the news in the last few years, and I’m surprised no one else has written a novel based on this. Maybe someone has, but not like this; about living a lie.

This is about Jason, mum, River and his long time disappeared dad, River’s friend Kai, football, and saving the world in general. The stupid things adults do.

The Liar’s Handbook is absolutely marvellous, and once again I’m so happy to find another great book that is also dyslexia friendly. More please!

(And the physical book has beautifully rounded corners…)

The Borrowers

Let me bore you with some irrelevant facts.

Back in July 2000 I was standing in a Stockport bookshop. I can’t tell you which one, and by that I mean I can’t recall what name it was trading under at the time. It kept changing, as chains bought each other. It was the one near Sainsbury’s, and I was at the back of the shop, in the children’s books department. I know when, because I was there with my visitors from Sweden, who desperately needed new books. As you do.

They had a table featuring books from one publisher, with a two for one offer. I’m terribly ‘economical’, so felt this was a good offer and I should make the most of it. I seem to recall buying eight books, paying for four. Most of them I had no idea what they were, and simply picked the ones that looked the least bad.

I know. How very negative of me.

Mary Norton, The Borrowers

And one of the books was The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Being somewhat foreign, I’d never heard of either her or the book. But I did like it when I came to read it. I also realised that the story about these tiny people, living somewhere near you, is a bit of a classic.

The things you find out.

It’s been reissued again, and now comes as a lovely clothbound hardback, looking precisely as you’d expect an old classic to look like. It has the original Diana Stanley illustrations, and is simply an attractive little book. And this time I know about it, too.

Until We Win

Linda Newbery’s new book title for Barrington Stoke – Until We Win – takes on even more meaning than perhaps was intended when she wrote her short but engaging story about the suffragette movement. We keep being reminded of how important it is not to waste the vote, that so many women worked so hard to win for us.

Don’t be complacent and stay at home, in the belief that voting doesn’t matter. It does, and we are seeing the effects in spades these days.

Linda Newbery, Until We Win

Lizzy works in an office when she meets a couple of suffragettes and is taken on by their group. At last there is something vital that she can do! Lizzy marches and ends up in jail, where she goes on hunger strike.

At work Lizzy befriends another young girl, whose life also changes with the help of the older suffragettes. And in the midst of their campaign for votes, war breaks out and they have other work to do.

Linda’s story is fairly low key, but all the more powerful for it. We need fairness more than ever, and those who are looked down on must be given equality.

(Another gorgeous embroidered cover by Stewart Easton, in purple, white and green.)