Category Archives: Reading

Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

Rilla of Ingleside

I’d read L M Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside before. A long time ago. It was the one I remembered well but couldn’t get hold of as I bought all the Green Gables books in English, thirty years ago, so I’m particularly pleased it’s one of the ones re-issued by Virago. It’s also the first book to bring the reality – for normal people – of WWI to my attention.

L M Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

I mean, if L M Montgomery couldn’t even fictionally keep Anne Shirley’s family safe from the war, then no one was safe. Which, obviously, was the truth. Before Rilla I had callously imagined that people back then were used to it and that it was a long time ago. And anyway, Anne lived in Canada, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the trenches.

Rilla of Ingleside is a sweet book, for all that it features the war so much that there is barely room for any romantic nostalgia for life on Prince Edward Island. Anne and Gilbert are growing old, and back then 50 was probably a lot older than it is now. So we concentrate on 15-year-old Rilla as war breaks out, and her brothers and friends go off to fight, one after the other, or at least to do their bit for the war closer to home.

The years between 15 and 19 were meant to be the best of her life. Instead they changed her completely; making her someone who could quite capably knit socks for the soldiers by the end of those four years. And a few other things, too.

Like what you can use a soup tureen for, and that it is possible to love an ugly baby that isn’t even yours.

There were just two things that made me cry, though. It was the neighbours’ little boy, Bruce, picking flowers for Anne (stupid Witch, crying again, now), and Jem’s dog, waiting all those years for his master to come back on the train. (Get me a hanky!)

You presumably know all this already, but when you love Anne and all those she loves, you do tend to go on about it a little.

The Lost and the Blind

Declan Burke writes thrillers like he does crime novels, seemingly just taking what’s around him, turning it into the most exciting of novels. Not every author can put him or herself into a book and get away with it. Less still their child, but what’s a thriller without your small girl’s Barbie?

Declan Burke, The Lost and the Blind

In The Lost and the Blind we have the separated Irish journalist Tom, who makes ends meet by reviewing films. Tom is hired by a wealthy American who wants him to ghostwrite a book about the killing of some young children during WWII, something which eventually causes Tom to run for his life in the company of a lovely female; his six-year-old daughter Emily.

Tom is a nice, peace-loving man, but he is no fool. On the other hand, as it’s his turn to have his daughter, and he needs to make sure he is a good dad so he stands a chance of getting custody of Emily, he can’t go off on the usual macho hunts for bad guys. As in some of Declan’s crime novels, I was enjoying reading a thriller which does all the right things, but with rather less bloodshed than you tend to expect.

Although that only works up to a point. Just warning you.

This is an interesting mix of ordinary Irish life from the days of the country’s economic collapse, and flashbacks to WWII in neutral Eire, featuring German soldiers and the IRA, as well as an English spy.

And none of it went in the direction I would have guessed, had I been capable of guessing. Very, very good.

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.

Thank you, Jackson

Being polite never hurt anyone. That is the lesson for the farmer who owns a donkey called Jackson.

The farmer needs Jackson to walk to market with him, carrying all the food the farmer has to sell. He does so, until the day when he’s had enough and refuses to move, no matter what the farmer says or does.

Niki and Jude Daly, Thank you, Jackson

His wife Beauty sends their son Goodwill after the pair to help. And she has truly brought up a lovely and thoughtful boy, because Goodwill knows what Jackson needs.

He wants his owner to be polite.

‘It’s the little things, like saying please and thank you, that make a big difference in the world.’

Middle grade, YA or New Adult?

Can we make our minds up, please? What is a YA book? In my post on 22nd March, which was based on an excellent list of YA novels, someone left a comment saying that despite being of almost YA age, she doesn’t read many YA books because they are all the same and mainly romances.

I’m thinking she’s only found the Twilight brigade. Even the publicity emails I get from publishers, trying to interest me in yet another one, tend to be a little same-y. But mostly those books have moved on and turned into New Adult books. Or I think they have. Basically they are today’s Mills & Boon but cooler. And M&B were (are?) read by young people as well as elderly ladies.

And then you could go the other way, and complain that YA books are far too childish. In that case you’ve been sold another middle grade book. Which is a shame, as the words middle grade describes a certain kind of age group very well, even if it sounds a little American to some of us.

But whatever you think, you’re – probably – not going to want sexy vampires if you are ten years old, and whereas you never grow too old for a really good middle grade story, some readers will not find enough action or ‘sex’ in a book by Eva Ibbotson or Rebecca Stead, say.

Publicists are there to sell books, so will to some extent say what they need to sell a book, whether or not it is true. But I feel they are doing the books a disservice by giving them the wrong label. Calling everything YA, when it isn’t, will turn readers off.

The Ibbotson fan may grow up to like dystopian romances a few years later, but the 20+ reader who is already too old for those, will assume YA is not for them, when there is a whole host of ‘ageless’ YA books out there.

YA is not the only attractive term for a good book. At least it shouldn’t be. I feel it’s a shame that readers miss out because of labelling.

Good Colours

Aino-Maija Metsola’s Colours may well be the most perfect ‘educational’ boardbook in existence.

Let me make a confession here. I have a thing about colours. I like to load glasses and mugs and similar into the dishwasher in a pleasing way, colour-wise. Same with hanging the washing. If I can, I will put things that look good next to each other. Likewise wardrobe contents. And so on.

Aino-Maija Metsola, Colours

So it stands to reason that a book about colour, which has a double page for each colour is very near perfect. If things are to be orange, they are all orange together. The yellows are the pages before the oranges. Each double page also has one ‘wrong’ colour which doesn’t belong, for the young reader to find the odd one out.

I don’t mind this so much, as the cuckoos in the nest are fairly small and in no way ruin the beautiful arrangement of reds or blues or purples. And there are flaps to lift, which is always fun.

Aino-Maija is Finnish, with a Marimekko past, which explains the colour sorting. I don’t usually hang on to boardbooks once I’ve ‘read’ them, but this time I’m tempted. Orderly colours are really very soothing.