Category Archives: Reading

Star by Star

This was a book worth waiting for. It’s the one Sheena Wilkinson talked about in Oxford three years ago, on the topic of suffragettes. She also talked about the Spanish flu and WWI.

And now, a little over one hundred years after those times, we have our own pandemic and if I hadn’t known Sheena wrote Star by Star before Covid, I’d have nodded as she describes what measures they take and how people worry. As if she knew. I mean, she presumably did, because there is such a thing as research, but now we all know.

This book is about women, and for women. The heroine, the aptly named Stella, has travelled from her home in Manchester to Northern Ireland to live with her aunt after her mother very suddenly dies of the flu. Both fervent suffragettes, they had worked hard for the cause.

And now, a month after the end of the war, there is an election, and women – albeit only those over 30 and property owners – are allowed to vote for the first time. As are men of all ages, for the first time. It’s both a gender and a political issue, especially in Ireland.

Stella is only fifteen, but she has been trained well by her mother, and she thinks of the cause before anything else. This is just the right book for International Women’s Day. And it’s yet another reminder of how hard women worked for the right to have their say, which far too many are willing to ignore today.

Debi draws

I drew quite a passable rabbit, if I say so myself.

Thursday to Saturday this week Stirling libraries had a little online book festival, Smallprint 2021. You can find it on Facebook. That’s also where you can find (I don’t know how long for, possibly forever) the videos where several of our best author/illustrators showed off their skills, and read books to young fans.

Debi Gliori welcomed us to her International Shedquarters, just outside Edinburgh. She likes rabbits. So do I, as long as they leave my garden alone. Debi showed us all her rabbit books, and then she showed us her sketches of inspagination (her word) for rabbits, one of which went from being Alfie to being Pip, in The Scariest Thing of All.

Pip is so afraid that he makes long lists of everything that scares him. Debi read the whole book about Pip and the new big thing that scared him.

After that she showed us how to draw our own rabbit, and I absolutely aced it. And after that, Debi wanted us to draw our own very scariest thing, using our own items from around the house. She showed us her scariest, which was two pairs of scissors, the four-legged pest of Corona. Complete with eyeballs.

She finished off by reminding us that it’s the insides of our heads that are scariest of all.

Being rather professional, Debi had prepared proper end of movie slides, including the camera person’s name. By witchy coincidence I had been thinking of Katie Rose just the other day.

These two will go far.

The Last Hawk

I forced myself to take reading breaks so that Elizabeth Wein’s third book with Barrington Stoke, featuring female pilots during WWII, would last a little longer. The Last Hawk is really something; the same exciting flying war stories as we’ve come to expect, but as seen from inside Germany.

Ingrid is a 17-year-old German glider pilot. And she stutters. So not only is she at risk from the war in general, and flying in particular, but she faces having ‘her own’ turn on her, because she stutters. Faulty citizens are not something Hitler wanted to keep.

This is so chilling, even when in many ways it’s not news [to me], and it would have felt good to be able to look back to this time and know that it would never happen again. But we know this is not the case, don’t we?

Ingrid is recruited as an assistant to test pilot Hanna Reitsch, to show future Luftwaffe pilots how to fly. Plus some other, less attractive, tasks, which worries her. She needs to work out what to do, and if she has the courage to do it.

Perfect reading material for teenagers today. Enjoy the mix of fiction and real facts, and learn from it before it’s too late.

Down Memory Lane

I’ve been concerned with getting too grumpy. And I don’t want to be. So I thought I’d look out photos from the past; pictures that make me happy remembering what I was doing and who I was with.

In our first year of the Edinburgh International Book Festival we met lots of people, old [to us] and new. One event I was simply not going to miss was Anne Fine and Melvin Burgess, and those of you with good memories will know why I thought this could be especially interesting. The third author with them was going to be newbie Rachel Ward, whom I didn’t know anything about. I just felt a bit sorry for anyone caught in the crossfire.

Well, Melvin was Melvin and Anne was dignified and calm and they didn’t fight. And Rachel was all right. Both from the crossfire aspect, but also because she was a rewarding new author to meet. With good taste in necklaces.

Almost twelve years on and Rachel is someone  I ‘see’ just about every day – on social media – and she keeps us going with her photographs and her art. Lovely pictures from near her home, adorable dogs, and fun photos of her grandkittens.

And her art! I have a couple of Rachel’s paintings on my walls, and if I were to be miraculously furnished with plenty more walls, I know exactly what I’d hang on them. You can see some of her stuff on Instagram if you like (rachelwardart).

So that is a sunny memory.

You need five weeks between the squirrel columns

Some time back when things were normal, I wrote to the Guardian and asked them to send me Tim Dowling. They wrote back and said they would think about it.

Finally, last night Tim was in my living room! Admittedly only on screen, and he had Hadley Freeman with him. But it was good; two of my favourites at the same time.

The squirrels, as you will know, are his. But there’s a limit to how often even Tim can write a column about them. Not every week, that’s for certain. (But I did think it could be more frequently than every five…)

And he sounds so English! For an American, I mean. Almost like an Atlantic version of Colin Firth. I admired his living room (?), until it was suggested by someone that it might be Tim’s shed. Was it just a fake background, to fool me?

I knew Hadley’s ‘background’ was in fact her bedroom. I’ve been in her bedroom before. The bedroom with the wallpaper.

Apparently it’s hard writing a weekly column, although for Hadley it provides a break in her ‘parenting’ as she knows she should refer to the child care as.

For Tim the task is to make Mrs D laugh on Saturday mornings. She’s generally not ‘pissed off’ by what he writes, knowing full well she’s the funny one. Tim ‘only writes it down.’

If they were to write about last night, the first you would read about it – except on here, obviously – is Saturday next week. That’s as far in advance as they need to be. They both dread coming up with acceptable topics, and for Tim not much beats the squirrels. Or a hole in his sock. He started his writing career with a column [elsewhere] on ‘How to live off your girlfriend’. Because it’s what he did, having followed the future Mrs D to England. She has tried to send him back.

We all love Hadley’s interviews. When asked who her dream future interviewee would be, she said Eddie Murphy. Also a lot of already dead people. And apparently her recent piece on Angelina Jolie, which I enjoyed, caused very many readers to write in to defend Angelina…

Both Tim and Hadley have books on the go. To write, I mean. But Tim filled me with dread when he said he might need three months off to finish his novel. Don’t do it!

Who are the reviews for?

I realised I don’t actually know. It had always seemed that it was sort of obvious, but one day as I finished the Guardian Review, sighing over how few – or none – there were of children’s books, my mind turned to adult books. Because there were a ‘good’ number of them being reviewed.

But why would I read them? And what reason do other, proper adults, have for reading the reviews?

If I read a review of a book I most likely will not even consider getting or reading, it’s because it still sounds fairly interesting, but mostly because the review reads well.

So, I clearly read the reviews like anything else, which is to be entertained. Possibly informed, but what point is information if I don’t like the way it has been written?

Having got this far I realised that there was perhaps no difference to reviews of children’s books. They are not so much there to tell the reader to buy or borrow the book. It’s to entertain the adult as he or she reads the Guardian Review, or Bookwitch, or anything else like that. If so, it almost doesn’t matter how many, or which, books are reviewed.

Why do I review? Well, I like reading. And when I’ve read, and liked, I want to share my thoughts. That sharing is mostly done in the hope that the reader will enjoy it, and maybe take things further and buy or borrow the book. No, no maybe about it. That really excellent book I’ve just told you about; you simply must read it. And tell others.

Take the London Review of Books. To the best of my knowledge I’ve never read it. But my vivid imagination of it makes it into a magazine full of book reviews. It seems obvious. And then, in an article about its recently departed editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, someone wrote that Margaret Thatcher had been mentioned far more times than certain big literary names. And I thought, ‘why?’

She’s not all that literary, compared to old Shakespeare or new Amis, or any of all those famous writers in between. So first I learned that it’s not all reviews. Fine. But Thatcher makes it more into a political magazine [to my mind], and we have other ones for that.

This sent me back to Bookwitch. How often had I mentioned our former PM? Once. A year ago. And now, twice, counting this piece.

Back again to the Guardian Review, the children’s books bit. Had I been too naïve believing that the reviews are meant to send well-intentioned adults into bookshops to buy one of the recommended books for a little person in their life? Or, for themselves, perhaps, like when I discovered How I Live Now at the age of 48. I was then forced to look around for younger hands into which I could press copies of this marvellous book, so it mostly worked.

And then there is the other kind of review. Years later I still relish the review by Anthony McGowan of, let’s say, some other children’s author’s debut novel. He didn’t keep it in. At all. Not having read more than a page or so of the book in question, I felt he was right [in his opinions], if a bit rude. It was a fun read. But it wouldn’t have been fun had it been my book. I understand that when a year or so after the two of them did an event together, the author was dignified and charming. Anyway, Tony is very kind. He just got carried away. In a national broadsheet.

Kat Wolfe On Thin Ice

It was with some dismay I realised I’d missed the second Kat Wolfe mystery. But here, for both you and me, is Kat’s third adventure, Kat Wolfe On Thin Ice.

Kat and her co-detective Harper Lamb are on their way to the Adirondacks (I will never be able to say that right) for half term, along with Harper’s dad and Kat’s mother. And on the basis that parents always need to be lost before the fun starts, they mislay Professor Lamb before they even get on the plane, and Dr Wolfe somewhat later but also before they really arrive where they are going.

They learn there has been a diamond heist in New York, and the trial of the 91-year-old thief is about to start. The star witness for the trial manages to disappear near their Adirondack cabin, and Kat and Harper start detecting. There is a snow storm on the way, and there are huskies. And a raccoon. But that’s just fine because Kat is missing her pet leopard.

Harper misses the internet and computers, but she still manages to do some research for their detecting. And it’s quite astounding what the girls come up with, and how they tackle every problem. Because as I said, the parents are long gone, and what with the storm and everything…

Very exciting, just as I had hoped and expected. And maybe this is a little farfetched, but it’s so well plotted and researched that every step of the way seems believable. They even cook, which is just as well because that is one hungry raccoon.

The solution to the jewel heist mystery is just that bit different to what you might have thought, too.

The Deep-Sea Duke

This sequel to The Starlight Watchmaker, by Lauren James, is equally delightful. Science fiction, which still feels unusual for Barrington Stoke, but all the more welcome for it.

So if you like inter-species gay romance, this is the story for you. It was already hinted at in the first book, but here Hugo learns that he is not a lesser being for being an android. In fact, sometimes he is better suited for life than his – not human, because they are not – living friends. Even if one is a sort of rock.

Hugo and Ada have been invited to spend the school holidays with Dorian and his family, on a planet many weeks away. It’s a beautiful planet, but currently overrun by refugees and all the problems associated with that. Like large butterflies. Otters.

They all help in the end, but Hugo helps the most.

And as I said, there is romance. Very lovely.

When the World Was Ours

Her new novel, When the World Was Ours, is Liz Kessler’s best work. It stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that’s not saying a little.

I had heard about the background to this story set before and during WWII for several years, and always found the tale of Liz’s grandparents’ serendipitous encounter with a British couple on holiday in Europe, spine-tingling and hair-raising and all those other things you feel when something truly special happens. So I had been waiting for this book. Really waiting.

I have also, more recently, heard that many young people today don’t believe in WWII; don’t believe that it really happened. They need to read When the World Was Ours.

This story about how one young Jewish boy and his parents managed to escape from Hitler’s annexing of neighbouring countries before 1939, shares many aspects of what you can find in other children’s books set in the same period, most notably Lisa Tetzner’s Die Kinder aus Nr. 67. But I don’t believe I have seen the persecution of the Jews and the transport to the concentration camps, or the way someone might join the Hitler Jugend, from the inside, the same way as in this book.

Leo, Elsa and Max are three close friends in Vienna in the mid-1930s. We follow them from Leo’s ninth birthday until just after the end of the war. It starts in an idyllic enough fashion, but little by little, bad things enter their lives, and their relationship. Leo and Elsa are Jewish. Max is not.

This is realistic. It will not be a happy ever after for all of them. It can’t be, because that’s not how it was. But while reading about Leo’s route to England, based on Liz’s dad’s, we also learn much about what it was like if you were left in a Europe where things were quickly turning very serious.

As a hardened soul, I only cried towards the very end. But you can start much earlier if you want to. You will probably have to.

You will hopefully also want to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. I hope it’s not too late.

Winter

It certainly is. Here and now, but also in Ali Smith’s Winter. Although I’d almost have preferred to call it Christmas. It’s mostly set at Christmas, with flashbacks to older times, summer and winter, like we got in Autumn.

Instead of the seemingly interminable queueing for a passport application to go through, as we had in Autumn, Winter begins with Sophia visiting the optician. Unnamed, but recognisable as one of those High Street ones. I’m glad she was hard on them. But then her bank was hard on Sophia.

This wealthy – or is it formerly wealthy? – sixty-something woman, is seeing things. Even without the help of the optician. It’s a head. No body, just the head.

It’s Christmas Eve and Sophia’s thirty-something son Art is coming to stay, with his partner Charlotte. Except there is a problem. But problems can be dealt with.

There is also Sophia’s kind, but quirky, older sister Iris.

In the background we have the politics of the day, Christmas 2016. It’s only partly Brexit. Now there’s also the election of the 45th President to be concerned about. And the flood of refugees, who are not seen as human beings by our leaders. Iris cares. Sophia less so. And Art is confused. His new Charlotte is great, however, and she truly gets the Brexit conundrum.

Perhaps there is hope. I’d like to think there is.

I’m looking forward to Spring, in more ways than one.