Category Archives: War

Cover Your Eyes

There’s not as much romance in my life as there used to be. By that I mean I don’t read romance as frequently as I once did. (Nothing else. What did you imagine?)

But when I do, there is no one I trust as much as Adèle Geras. She gives me romance the way it’s meant to be. And here, specially for Valentine’s Day, I give you Adèle’s latest, Cover Your Eyes.

Adèle Geras, Cover Your Eyes

There are several love stories interwoven here. We have a new – failed – one for journalist Megan. She has interviewed elderly fashion designer Eva, who came to England on the Kindertransport in 1938. Eva’s heyday was in the 1960s, when she also loved, and also not as wisely as she should have.

These days Eva mainly cares about her beloved home, Salix House, which her daughter is wanting to sell. That’s her tragedy. That, and the ghost who stalks the house and makes her think back to 1938 and what she did…

Megan can sense the ghost, and she has her own tragedy, and not just the newly broken affair. These two women meet again and their lives are shared briefly, and things happen. There is more love and more possibilities. And we eventually learn about what four-year-old Eva did, and what the ghost wants.

Me, I quite fancy the ramshackle Salix House.

Out of the Dark

It’s Quick Reads time again this week. And I have a horrible suspicion I’ve not read one since 2007… Which was also a book by Adèle Geras, just like this one.

Adèle Geras, Out of the Dark

Out of the Dark sent me back to WWI, and the return home by a wounded soldier. Rob has lost his face, which really sounds far worse than many other war injuries we read about. Back then they didn’t have much to offer, so the formerly handsome young man walks round London wearing a metal mask, scaring women and children, and grown men, too.

But at least he can walk, and he has a home, and a loving mother. His girlfriend didn’t last, though.

One unexpected companion Rob has is the ghost of his dead Captain, who was very good to him, and who continues to look after him. The one thing Rob can do, is look for the Captain’s family, to return his Bible to his widow.

This is sad and romantic, and just what you expect from Adèle. I believe the Quick Reads are intended for adults, but this will suit teen readers as well. And at just £1 it’s pretty good value, even for a shortish book. I’m all for Quick Reads.

War Girls

Another irresistible collection of short stories for you. This time to mark the anniversary of WWI, and it’s all about girls. In War Girls nine of our best authors get together to tell the stories of the young females left behind. And there are so many ways to do that.

War Girls

I loved Theresa Breslin’s tale of the young artist who took her crayons with her as she went to France as a nurse. Matt Whyman looks at the war from the point of view of ‘the enemy’ in the form of a female sniper in Turkey. Very powerful story.

Mary Hooper has spies in a teashop, and you can never be too careful who you speak to or who you help. I found Rowena House’s story about geese in France both touching, and also quite chilling. I’d never heard about the theories for the outbreak of the Spanish flu before.

Melvin Burgess tells us about a strong heroine, who can’t abide cowardice, even in those close to her. Berlie Doherty’s young lady can sing, and that’s what she does to help the war effort. And singing isn’t necessarily safer or easier than being in the trenches.

Anne Fine deals with hope, and whether it’s all right to lie to make someone’s suffering less heavy. Adèle Geras has updated her story The Green Behind the Glass, which I’ve read several times before. It’s still one of my favourites and can easily be read again and again.

Sally Nicholls may be young, but she can still imagine what it was like to be old and to have survived as one of the spare women of the war; one of those who could never hope to marry. I don’t believe there is enough written about them, and Going Spare is a fantastic offering on the subject.

Best of 2014

I was about to say that whereas I had told myself I’d go for fewer books on my best list of the year (best books, not best list) this time, it has proved too hard to do. But then I discovered I managed to slim the list last year, so I have a bit of credit and I can let the list swell. Because I must.

Can’t even offer you a photogenic pile of best books, with most of them still hiding in boxes. Besides, one of the best comes on Kindle, and the Resident IT Consultant’s e-reader isn’t the prettiest of things to take a picture of.

2014 was a good year for series of books coming to an end, be it the two-pack type or the trilogy or the ten-pack. I decided not to put those on The List, but I am happy to mention them.

They are Timothée de Fombelle with Vango 2, Caroline Lawrence with the fourth book about Detective Pinkerton, Derek Landy at the end of his ten book Skulduggery Pleasant marathon, Lucy Hawking and the fourth book about George in space, Gennifer Choldenko and the last Al Capone story, Deborah Ellis about Parvana again, Teri Terry’s dystopia had as satisfying an end as you could hope for, Gillian Philip finally finished her faeries in Icefall, and Che Golden sorted her fairies out too.

Helen Grant and Eoin Colfer did beautifully with their second books from Belgium and time travel London, so there is more to look forward to there.

Two authors are standing shoulder to shoulder on my awards stand this year; Michelle Magorian and Nick Green. Michelle for Impossible! and Nick with his Firebird ebook trilogy.

The runners-up are – in no particular order – Ali Sparkes and Destination Earth, Sally Nicholls and Shadow Girl, Cliff McNish and Going Home, Tanya Landman and Buffalo Soldier, Ellen Renner and Tribute, Simon Mason and Running Girl, Carl Hiaasen and Skink No Surrender, Robin Talley and Lies We tell Ourselves.

Thank you everyone, for hours and hours of good company, and please keep up the good work!

Vango – A Prince Without a Kingdom

The title of Timothée de Fombelle’s Vango, Book 2 – A Prince Without a Kingdom, more than hints at who the lovely Vango might be. Born in 1915 and chased by Russians, you can guess. A prince he may well be, but what matters is what kind of man he has become. The answer to that is a very honourable one; someone who doesn’t choose the easy way, or what is best for himself.

Like Book 1, this is a wonderful, warm story. All Vango wants is to know who he is. He wants to be with the people he really loves and who matter to him, and more than anything he wants those people to be safe. Of necessity this means it’s a long book, set over six or seven years, with flashbacks to much earlier and with an ending a bit later still. It’s primarily set in the pre-WWII years and the first half of the war.

Timothée de Fombelle, Vango, Book 2 - A Prince Without a Kingdom

You have to love books like these. They are so rare, and so beautiful, as well as truly exciting. Nothing boring about it at all. It’s fascinating to see how the various plot strands are woven into the finished tale, and how it all works. I have to admit to having enjoyed myself so much that I forgot to look out for some little hints, which I ought to have noticed.

Vango goes to America, searching for the man who killed his parents. His old friend Padre Zefiro is also in America, wanting to kill another – bad – man. Their paths meet evey now and then, and Zefiro’s ‘gang’ do their bit, and Vango’s friends do theirs. Occasionally these paths also converge. And then there is Stalin, and there are the Germans, and the war.

I said about Book 1 that it was a little like I Am David. It still is, and for Book 2 I’d like to add that it’s also like Lisa Tetzner’s Die Kinder aus Nr. 67, especially the post-war  development.

Plenty of humour in the midst of the drama and agony. And I suppose Timothée is young and male and won’t know that blow dries were fairly unlikely in 1937. But he makes good use of other real life events from those days, to the extent that you sit there thinking that maybe this is what really happened?

Do read!

(Translation by Sarah Ardizzone)

Michelle Magorian in the limelight

If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be able to put together a few questions for Michelle Magorian, and that she’d actually answer them for me, and take the time to check that she hadn’t written too much (too much? – Impossible!), would have seemed close to unbelievable.

There is a love and respect for Michelle both among ‘ordinary’ readers and among her peers, which stands out. She’s not the most famous author in the world, nor the richest, but there is something about the way people have a special room in their hearts for her and Mister Tom.

I loved her new novel Impossible! and I felt I wanted to ask her about it, and why it took so much longer to appear in print than you’d expect from a ‘Michelle Magorian novel.’ Why didn’t publishers tear it from her hands? Here is Michelle with – nearly all – the answers:

  1. You must be the same age as Josie. What things do/did you have in common? Were you in the Girl Guides?

I was in the Girl Guides. It was the only way I could go camping. Like Josie I was also a tomboy and went to ballet classes and I loved acting. In my teens I used to hide in our local theatre and watch new companies set up the scenery and lights. I was discovered by the man who ran the theatre who said, ‘you naughty girl!’ He directed to me to his office where he promptly gave me fliers to hand out to people to advertise the new show.

  1. And did you watch ITV? You must have got those commercials from somewhere.

Yes. My family watched some of the programmes mentioned in Impossible! Other commercial jingles around at the time were:

            Don’t forget the fruit gums Mum, You’re never alone with a strand and You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  1. Were you too young to have seen a Joan Littlewood production back then, or is this told from experience? If not then, did you see one later?

I was too young but when I was a drama student I knew of her and I assumed most people did. It was only later when I was carrying out research that I discovered how badly the Arts Council in this country had treated her and how she was fêted abroad. At a time when new playwrights in England were being hailed as angry young men, girls and women were told that they must never show their anger as it would make them appear ugly. Joan Littlewood did not follow this advice!

During my research I also began to have the most extraordinary coincidences. I remember looking at my October 1959 calendar and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if Joan Littlewood was directing a production that had crowd scenes in it so that Josie could be one of the crowd’. To my astonishment I discovered that at that exact time she was directing a new musical called Make Me an Offer and that there were market scenes in the Portobello Road. I couldn’t believe it. Then I discovered that one of the cast was a young Sheila Hancock.

  1. And for the celebrity question; do you know Sheila Hancock?

I had met her briefly at award ceremonies and then later when she was made Chancellor of Portsmouth University. I received a doctorate there and try to attend at least one ceremony a year to show my support to the students who are receiving their degrees. She very kindly allowed me to interview her and shared her memories with me.

And then, before one of the summer ceremonies, when I was standing in the waiting area in my robe she suddenly walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve been offered the part of the grandmother in Just Henry.’ I was stunned having only just received the script the previous evening. After we had chatted I realised that the vice-chancellor was standing nearby. ‘This is all under wraps, ‘ I exclaimed. ‘I haven’t heard a word,’ he said.

  1. Who actually were Scowler and Moustache? Just a couple of crooks?

If I answer this question it will give away some of the Just Henry plot. So – and this is for your eyes only…

(Sorry!)

  1. I know you researched things, but were there really that many police available to solve crimes and rescue people even then?

The River Police were fantastic. As I mentioned many of them were ex-Navy. One of their many jobs (which I haven’t mentioned in the book) is that they had to keep an eye out for ‘jumpers’ (people who committed suicide). In Impossible! the extremely nasty piece of work who is after Josie has been known to Scotland Yard for some time, which is why they are using extra man power. Although he has been responsible for a number of crimes they have never had enough evidence to pin him down as he always has other people to do his dirty work and if those ‘hired helps’ don’t do a good job they ‘disappear’ until their bodies are found. Naturally I haven’t put those details in the story as it is a book for young people but I have hinted at it in a conversation between DI Gallaway and Auntie Win. They are also convinced that Josie’s life is in danger.

  1. Five years ago you reckoned the book could be out in a year. What slowed things down?

When I delivered it to my publisher I was extremely shocked to be told that she wanted me to cut most of it and make it more of a stage school story, and for it to be no more than 60,000 words but the book was mainly about a child actor working professionally in an adult world and how those experiences changed her. I looked for ways I could cut it but realised that she was telling me that it was not the kind of book she wanted to publish. In other words it was a rejection.

The literary agent representing me offered it to other publishers but she told me that they had rejected it too because it was historical fiction and that my way of writing was too traditional. She suggested I find a publisher for it myself but as you know publishers won’t look at a book unless it comes through a literary agent.

I decided to ask Martin West for advice. He had been my editor for Goodnight Mister Tom. It was then that I discovered that he had started an independent publishing company called Troika Books. He asked me to send him the manuscript and loved it. He said it had him laughing one moment and then wondering how the hell Josie was going to get out of trouble the next, which was exactly what I had intended, a mixture of comedy and drama.

He also knew of Joan Littlewood and had actually been and seen the original performance of Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was later that I began to wonder if some of those publishers who had rejected the manuscript had thought that Joan Littlewood was a character I had invented as I have discovered since then that there are many people who have never heard of her.

By the way, they loved her in Sweden! And in France and in Russia and…

  1. Do you think people and publishers see you mainly as a writer of WW11 fiction? More of your novels are about the theatre, although Cuckoo In the Nest obviously shares some wartime experiences.

Perhaps they do. I don’t know. Most of my books contain the seeds of later books. Goodnight Mister Tom and A Little Love Song are the only novels I have written set in the second world war although Back Home, Cuckoo In the Nest, A Spoonful of Jam and Just Henry are about families finding ways to adjust to living together and cope with post war problems.

In 1947 there was a baby boom as demobbed men returned to England and families took to their beds to keep warm as electricity was rationed during the coldest winter since the 1880s so even Josie’s existence is influenced by the second world war.

  1. Do you have any thoughts on publishing today (that you are willing to share?)

I think thoughts about publishing today would be better coming from someone inside the industry. I have noticed a lot of moving around of staff from one publisher to another.

  1. Might you return to these characters in another book? Or have they suffered enough?

I will be returning to some minor characters for another children’s novel for Troika Books but I have to confess that I would also like to write an adult book about one of the people who is in Impossible!

Witch and Michelle Magorian

Coincidences are good. They show that something was meant to be. Michelle’s writing is ‘too traditional?’ And they don’t want historical fiction? What’s wrong with people? God bless Troika Books.

I’m already looking forward to both these books. Take your time, though, Michelle. I can wait.

And I can’t resist this: ‘Den gula hinnan det är känt, den borstas bort med Pepsodent!’ It’s the only jingle I can recite, and try and visualise it delivered by Björn Borg if you can.

So who’s Danny Weston?

After all he put me through reading The Piper, I decided I needed to know more about Danny Weston. I suspect there’s some funny business going on here. I just wonder what?

Anyway, I sent over some searching questions, and this is what came back:

Danny Weston

Danny Weston… the name sounds awfully familiar. I can’t believe this is your first book.

I’m a late developer, Witch. I’ve had ideas for books kicking around in my head for a very long time and finally one of them has popped to the surface.

I note that you live in Manchester. Have we met? No, I’d remember that face. (Somehow your name makes me think you’d look like Johnny Depp. I don’t know why.)

Some people have occasionally mistaken me for another author of children’s fiction, which is a mystery to me, as I’m far better looking than him.

The Piper is rather a scary story. Do you enjoy frightening little children?

It is great fun – and very therapeutic.

I’m guessing you said ‘yes.’ I‘d like to know why.

I think children enjoy being frightened by stories. It’s hardly a surprise. What are the first stories we give them to read? Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are horror stories, pure and simple. It always amuses me when parents wonder why their children have such dark imaginations!

Do you have personal experience of Romney Marsh?

Romney Marsh is one of the bleakest wildernesses in the British Isles. I have spent many happy hours there. St Leonard’s church in Hythe, for instance, has thousands of human skulls stored in the crypt. What’s not to like?

What about quicksand?

Dreadful stuff. Tends to get underfoot…

And what’s the thing with those dolls? (We obviously don’t want any spoilers here.)

I don’t know about you but I do find china dolls rather terrifying… even when they don’t talk to you.

I can see The Piper as a film. Can you?

Yes, please! I think it would make a splendid movie, though it certainly wouldn’t be what they call a ‘feel-good’ film. I have actually written a screenplay for it, just in case anybody should be interested in pursuing the idea.

Have you got plans for any more books?

My next book is already written and should arrive some time in 2015. It’s called Mr Sparks and concerns the adventures of a psychotic ventriloquist’s dummy. Happy days!

Will you be doing events? If so, any near me? (I’ll have to make sure I’m away.)

I will find you anyway, Witch. You can run but you can’t hide. As for events, I’m planning to be haunting schools up and down the UK. Anybody who is interested can get in touch via my good friend Philip Caveney’s website –

philip-caveney.co.uk (He won’t mind.)

Finally, I have thought a great deal about this: Where do you get your inspiration?

That question! I hate that question! Wait… come back! Why are you running away?

Is he gone yet? The man’s crazy. Skulls. That’s sick. Ventriloquist’s dummy! It’s probably going to be worse than those dolls near Romney Marsh. Aarrgghhh!!