Category Archives: War

There were bests in 2021 too

I worried. But then I nearly always worry. What did I read? Was it any good?

As always, I read. And yes, it was good, even in 2021. I read fewer books than usual, and with a larger proportion being old, adult or a translation, I have left those out. It’s handy that I make my own rules here.

I’ll put you out of your misery right now. The book standing head and shoulders above all the other really great books is Hilary McKay’s The Swallows’ Flight. Set in WWII, it’s a story I can’t forget (and these days I forget a lot).

Hilary’s is not alone in being a WWII story, as 50% of my 2021 winners are. I don’t know if this is proof that many more such books have been published recently, or if it just shows how much I like them.

The other five are Phil Earle’s When the Sky Falls, Morris Gleitzman’s Always, Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, and Elizabeth Wein’s The Last Hawk. The latter two are dyslexia-friendly books.

Debi Gliori’s A Cat Called Waverley also features a war, but a more modern one. The illustration below makes me cry every time, and it has that thing which makes a picture book truly great.

Waverley is Scottish, as are C J Dunford’s Fake News, Barbara Henderson’s The Chessmen Thief and Roy Peachey’s The Race.

Last but not least, we have an animal story from Gill Lewis, A Street Dog Named Pup, and a ‘historical futuristic fantasy’ in The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud.

These twelve gave me much pleasure, and they were not in the slightest hard to choose. If the publishing world continues to give me books like these, I will have no reason to give up [reading].

Always

I was all right. It was fine me not having read two of the books in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. This one – Always – is the last. And it really is the last. Because several of the books have turned up in random order, it doesn’t actually matter at all. But it does help if you have met and know Felix.

He is an old man now. Granted, he was old before as well, in modern Australia. But when Once began he was a child, and that childlike way of being has remained with both Felix, and the current child in the book. The world is full of sweet and lovely people.

But I suspect that when Morris saw what was going on in Europe today, he needed to write one more book about Felix. Because there are also many rather nasty people, and perhaps a book won’t help change that, but it will help the reader to believe in courage and goodness.

Wassim is the latest – last – child and he is as kind and thoughtful as all the others have been, especially not forgetting Zelda. Either of the Zeldas, but mostly Zelda the first, who died. (I’m sorry if you didn’t know that, but it’s very much part of the story.)

We’re back in, not quite Poland, but somewhere a bit like it, and Wassim is having a hard time, with dead parents and Uncle Otto, who can be harsh sometimes but who took him in, and the Iron Weasels who are very bad. In other words, we and Wassim are looking at a Europe that hates foreigners and coloured people and anyone else who is different; Jews, Muslims. You get the picture.

I’m grateful to Morris for wanting to write about this, which I believe both he and I thought was part of the past, the past where Felix was a child and WWII happened.

Wassim knows he needs help, and he learns about Felix, and he looks him up online. Although it could be worth noting that public libraries ‘can be more dangerous than they look.’

Anyway, he finds Felix and Felix agrees to help him. This is where you need to start worrying. But with these two very sweet people working together, you know some good will come of it. Even if you also know, or suspect, that some bad is unavoidable. Remember Zelda.

Now is very much a time when we need a Felix.

Miss Graham’s [Cold] War [Cookbook]

We’ve got used to books where we are all terribly pleased the Allies won WWII. And it’s quite obvious, really – isn’t it? – that the victors take over and they run things, while the losers put up with it. Especially if you are the victorious one. And the British were quite decent and everything worked out for the best.

Well, there’s much that’s wrong with this picture, and I’m glad to report that Celia Rees deals with these tired clichés in her adult book about Miss Graham and her cookbook, back in Germany in 1946. To begin with, I found it refreshing to have a heroine – neither young, nor old – who drinks and has sex, in a way that we’ve got used to female heroines not doing [back then]. In fact, Edith Graham is quite normal, in a way that fits in with both modern thinking, but also doesn’t feel wrong for the 1940s.

And the British… well. They ‘know’ they are right and the Germans ‘had it coming.’ But they are not very nice. Nor are the Americans, and it goes without saying that the Russians are all wrong. We see the victors eating and drinking really well, while the Germans are quietly starving on the sides. Perhaps not those who ‘had it coming’ but more the normal civilians.

Edith is in Lübeck to look after education, but she has also been involved in a couple of sidelines, doing bits of minor (?) spying for the Military, and also for someone else. She does this with the help of her recipe collection, which turns out to be a useful hobby.

She makes friends, but also plenty of enemies. Above all, she learns that all is not simple and that even close friends are doing the wrong thing and not always for the right reason.

In a way I already knew this, but I still feel my eyes have been opened. And the book has probably forever ruined similarly set books where the Allies are the heroes.

There are a couple of unusual twists to the story, at least one of which I could sense from the beginning, while not quite sure how it would work out. I’ll leave you to enjoy the book, and to see what you think will happen.

(I believe the words ‘cold’ and ‘cookbook’ have been dropped from the paperback edition. I would like to think that they have also edited the surplus of ‘Teirgartens’ I was disturbed by. Or not. German is a foreign language, after all.)

Charcoal magic

Debi Gliori’s short event was just the right thing to appear online. Live is fine, but here we could see every last picture of her book A Cat Called Waverley, close up, and with an explanation for every image. And Debi reads so softly, that to have the whole story read to us, with extra explanations as to what we were seeing, or what might be going on, was pure bliss.

This is the way to help young readers understand that the world can be rather different from what we think, or want it to be, but without being too scary. Some scary is necessary, and personally I believe it’s best demonstrated by my favourite illustration from the book. It has everything; the sad cat left behind, the train disappearing into the tunnel, and the sheer beauty of the railway station itself.

The sentence ‘home was where Donald was’ is enough to make anyone a bit teary. It describes what most of us feel at some time or other. It’s only home if our someone is there.

Debi wrote this story about Darren – Donald in the book – who became ‘the man who belongs to Waverley’. He used to sit at the top of the very high, and the almost impossible to draw, station steps. But as Debi put it, we don’t care if she got the steps right. All we wanted was the cat and its man. They are both there.

And I’ll leave you with this view of Waverley [the station], its station hotel [as was] and the exit from the park across the road. All this is Very Edinburgh to so many of us.

Where I listen listen listen

to Michael Rosen, the Master of Repetition.

I surprised myself and ‘went’ to watch the bookfest event where Michael talked to Dean Atta. I’m very glad I did.

Michael is a born entertainer, albeit now perhaps slightly less vigorous than he was. I’m just so very grateful we still have him. I believe he used to be louder, but I like him like this.

He read some of the poems from the new book with Quentin Blake, talking about the background to his poems. And he talked about his other book about his lost great uncles in France. The two books sort of became one the way Michael talked about his relatives; the ones who survived the war and the ones who didn’t.

We learned how his mother used to tell him off, mixing English with Yiddish. And while we’re on the subject of languages, Michael is also a Master of French. He could have spoken a lot more French. It would have been a pleasure to listen to.

We learned about ‘interiority’, which is learning to see things through someone else’s eyes, by thinking yourself into their situation. He did this with his cousin Michael. The one whose parents sent him away and who therefore survived.

This was such a beautiful event! Michael doesn’t really require any steering, but what steering there was, was done very nicely by Dean.

And we now know he has numb toes. There could be a poem in this. He knows what rhymes with numb…

While not forgetting the bagel sock situation.

The Race

There was more to Eric Liddell than running along the beach in St Andrews in the film, or the famous swap of races in the 1924 Olympics to help him keep his Sunday clear for God.

In his new book The Race, Roy Peachey has found out more about this early sports hero, and we meet Eric both as a small child in China with his missionary parents, and we see him as a student back in England and as a medical student in Edinburgh. He has three passions; rugby, running and the church. It’s the church that takes him back to China after the Olympics; this time as a missionary himself.

Eric’s running is described in parallel with modern day school girl Lili, who like Eric lives for running, and who is both Chinese and British, having been adopted from China by British parents.

Lili usually wins every race at school, but with the announcement that the Queen is coming to watch their school race, she finds she has an annoying competitor for fastest runner.

So we follow Lili’s training sessions and her family life, alongside learning about Eric Liddell, China’s first Olympic medallist.

The Race is a fabulous tale; Lili’s story interwoven with Eric Liddell’s. I loved every minute of this fairly short book, and would have liked to read more, especially about Eric. It’s this kind of surprise find that makes reading such a great pleasure.

How I Live Now

It’s not going to win Most Beautiful Book Cover in the World, but the cover of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff carries so much meaning to me, that its looks are just fine. More than fine.

All of it came as a surprise to me. The look of the book. The content; which turned out not to be another WWI story. The fact that it was the best book I’d read. The fact that it changed my life.

It genuinely caused ‘how I live now’.

When the Sky Falls

Being Billy meets Goodnight Mister Tom. And you could certainly have two worse books than those, for angry young boy in WWII. Phil Earle’s new book When the Sky Falls is full of anger and full of falling bombs.

Joseph arrives in London, just as London’s children are evacuated. He’s to stay with Mrs F, because his grandmother can’t cope any longer. His mother left long ago and his father’s just off to the war. He’s angry.

So is Mrs F, or at least, she’s hardened herself, and between them it takes a gorilla to make a difference. This is the huge ape at the family zoo Mrs F still looks after, with only a few starved animals left in it. When the planes come in the night, she stands guard outside Adonis’s cage, ready to shoot if the cage takes a hit, to keep people safe from this large and potentially dangerous animal.

Joseph hates school, and it hates him back. Dyslexia wasn’t ‘invented’ back then, so neither he nor anyone else knows what he’s got. He’s just ‘lazy’. He hates the hard work at the zoo as well. At least to begin with. He almost hates the chirpy Syd, the girl who also works there.

This is emotionally draining stuff, but invigorating at the same time.

Someone will have to die, and something else will have to give. But who and how and when?

I can see how this is Phil’s favourite book.

The virtual Phil Earle

One has some great looking string lights and the other a colour coordinated bookcase. And it really does improve things when someone with a new book to launch – Phil Earle – gets to do the launching with a good friend – Sarah Crossan, or two – Charlie Sheppard. The always enthusiastic Charlie, who is Phil’s editor, introduced everyone and pointed out that the best thing is to be friends with authors, followed by free food and wine.

Sarah Crossan, who is a great friend, took over the chatting with Phil. She knew what to ask and which direction to go, even if she was having to get used to not chatting as privately as usual. Although, no secret was made of the fact that Phil has had some personal problems, when ‘everything went wrong’, in the last five years or so. It had made him worry that he was ‘done’ with his idea for the new book – When the Sky Falls – but in the end he channelled all his pain and wrote it.

According to everyone who has provided a quote for the book, and I do mean literally everyone, this is not just Phil’s best work but really great stuff in general. (I can’t wait to read it.) It has been compared to Goodnight Mister Tom, The Machine Gunners, Kes, and so on. Set in WWII it’s about a boy who is so badly behaved that he is packed off to London, in a reverse evacuee kind of way.

The idea appears to have come from Phil’s ex father-in-law’s father and what he did in the war. (Basically, if there was a bomb threat to the local zoo, he was to shoot the lion.) Phil read to us – from page 30 – about when his main character meets a different animal at a different zoo. It’s the kind of reading that makes you want to know more.

He put his own feelings into this book, and as Phil said, ‘I can only write like I can’. He’d been afraid he was too old, in a world of publishers obsessed with debut authors, but judging by what everyone has said, he’s done all right. There was a lot of emotion, for a book launch. And contrary to what most authors say when asked about their favourite of the books they’ve written, Phil really does love When the Sky Falls best of all his. And he has written some seriously great books.

Interestingly, both Phil and Sarah, are currently reading Hilary McKay’s new book, and Phil also praised Elizabeth Wein’s war stories. He likes to read about ‘the small stuff’, rather than official war history.

He’s now off to visit sixty bookshops to sign books. ‘I have waited for this!’

You’d better watch out, for Phil and his book.

The Swallows’ Flight

I need to offer up even more and bigger thanks to Hilary McKay and her writing. It seemed impossible that there could be a book as great as, or greater than, The Skylarks’ War, but with The Swallows’ Flight I would say Hilary has done the impossible.

Thank you from the bottom of my tear-drenched hankie.

This time it’s about the children born between the two wars, whose turn it is to fight when WWII begins. Although, as with Skylarks, we learn most of what we need to know in the twenty years before. The war is ‘skirted past’ reasonably briefly. Unlike its predecessor, Swallows features not only a group of children in England, but we are introduced to two German boys and their families in Berlin.

And it works. We get to know Hans and Erik as human beings, and we see the changes to life in Germany alongside the boys. We find out what they want to do with their lives until developments mean they end up doing totally different things; in this case the boys become pilots in the Luftwaffe.

At ‘home’ we meet the generation after Clarry, Peter and Rupert from Skylarks. Peter and Vanessa have six children, and Clarry is godmother both to her niece Kate and to her best friend Violet’s daughter Ruby. We all need a Clarry godmother!

While we wait for the war that lumbers towards the families, we mostly learn about normal stuff like sibling rivalry, being bullied at school or being unwell and almost forgotten about by others. It is all this that forms the characters of these children, soon to be adults. Even Clarry’s and Peter’s rather unsatisfactory father has a role to play. There are cats, including a very random one, and there is a – smelly – dog.

There is much over the years to be sad about, but also many small and humorous incidents. I won’t spoil your reading.

My tears were partly over the inevitable deaths, but more for all those moments that simply make you cry. They rather bunch up towards the end of the story. There is much humanity here, and Hilary’s touch is lighter than ever.