Category Archives: War

Mr Godley’s Phantom

I so loved this book, and the fact that although Mal Peet is no longer with us, he left behind writing to be turned into new books for us, who loved him and his writing. Described as a ‘haunting novella’ by David Fickling, I’d say that this [adult] retro story is a full length novel, if you apply the measurements for books as they were then, shortly after WWII.

Martin Heath returns from the war, and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. His nerves aren’t good, and he drinks too much. Eventually he is interviewed by the mysterious Mr Godley and given a job at his home on Dartmoor. The job description is a little vague, and we’re not quite sure what Martin’s employer really wants or why he chose Martin.

Mal Peet, Mr Godley's Phantom

It’s hard to describe the story without spoilers, but Mr Godley’s house hides secrets, and the local women who work for him also have their own unusual histories. And then there is Martin, shaking, looking for drugs.

Mal has hit the head on the nail perfectly, both as regards the period – or so it seems from here – and in creating a strange little plot that doesn’t really take you where you expected to go.

It’s a wonderful book.

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Armistice Runner

Tom Palmer doesn’t usually make me cry. Yes, I enjoy his books, which are thoughtful and deal with a mix of children today and people from the past, with a sports element, and the reader learns through them. But this one, Armistice Runner, was something else. Published in the Conkers series by Barrington Stoke, it’s a little longer than the usual dyslexia friendly books.

Tom Palmer, Armistice Runner

It’s about Lily who is a fell runner, practising for an important run near her grandparents’ house in the Lake District. She worries about her gran who has Alzheimer’s, and she fights with her younger brother.

In one of her more lucid moments, Lily’s gran brings out an old box for Lily. It used to belong to Lily’s great-great-grandfather Ernest, who was a fell runner before he went to war in 1918. Lily reads his log book, which is almost like a long letter to his dead brother Fred; about running and about the war.

It’s so gripping, and as the reader along with Lily herself desperately wants to discover if someone will be all right or not, Tom does a very naughty thing and interrupts both us and Lily with something much more urgent, and there was a wait to find out what happened.

Even if you’ve read countless other WWI stories, and this obviously has overlaps with many other tales, it also has something that belongs only to this book. It’s very good. And sad.

But also inspiring.

(As long as I don’t have to do any fell running. I’m still out of breath.)

Gorgeous cover by Tom Clohosy Cole.

The Skylarks’ War

I frequently give thanks for the writing of Hilary McKay, but never more so than now, on the publication of The Skylarks’ War. This story, which we got a sideways introduction to in Binny in Secret, the middle book about Binny, is an absolute delight, even though it’s about WWI and there will be tears, and you weep with happiness as well as that awful sadness that accompanies war stories. Who will die?

Born soon after the turn of the century, Clarry has always felt guilt over killing her mother in the process. But she has her older brother Peter and their cousin Rupert, and the three of them have their summers at the grandparents’ house in Cornwall. That’s a good thing, as Clarry and Peter’s father is a sad example of parent; one who is neither horrible, nor kind and loving.

Hilary McKay, The Skylarks' War

It is Clarry’s good nature and positive outlook on life, despite being a murderess, which make this book. The boys have to be boys, go to boarding school, be manly, and go to war, while Clarry is expected to stay at home and attend the Miss Pinkses’ Academy where nothing useful is taught.

As always there are many unusual and interesting characters, and they are what make the book, and it is they who help Clarry develop. And still, someone has to die. There is a war on. There is much on feminism, in a quiet sort of way, and you finish the book determined to do as well as Clarry. Except you know you can’t.

Did you know that back then it wasn’t too difficult to transport a horse from one part of the country to another? Trains had horse boxes and you simply put the horse on the train.

Excuse me for a moment. There seems to be something in my eye.

In the Mouth of the Wolf

Michael Morpurgo’s latest book, In the Mouth of the Wolf, is beautiful in every way. Based on the lives of his two uncles, we learn what it was like for them in WWII, as well as their lives leading up to that dreadful time. Illustrated by Barroux, this is a gorgeous volume, and I would advise you to be equipped with tissues so you don’t ruin the book when you cry. Because there will be tears.

Michael Morpurgo and Barroux, In the Mouth of the Wolf

Francis was a pacifist who worked on a farm, while his younger brother Pieter enlisted and joined the Air Force. Instead of merely being told this as a fact, we get to know them as they grow up, and that helps our understanding of why they acted as they did. And also why Francis ended up joining the fighting after all.

Seen through his eyes as an old man, we learn much about his family and about the war. While nothing is truly surprising, we still see things in a new light, and it leaves you humbled to learn what others went through, so that we can live the way we do now.

(And I’m not going to say more about that.)

I obviously thought this book would be good. I just underestimated quite how wonderful it would turn out to be. Michael can still make me cry, and Barroux’s pictures are very special.

Firebird

My interest in the female Russian pilots from WWII has finally been met. Well, I’d happily read more, but Elizabeth Wein’s dyslexia friendly novel Firebird goes some way to satisfying me. It’s a start.

Elizabeth Wein, Firebird

I knew the British and American female pilots had a tough war, even without fighting. But the young Soviet girls who flew planes had a completely different war. More was asked of them, and then it seems Comrade Stalin had the bright idea to suggest that if they ended up behind enemy lines and survived, they’d be shot for treason when they got back home.

The mind boggles.

Anastasia in Firebird has flown for as long as she can remember, and it makes sense to volunteer on the day her country joins the war. But even though she flies well, they make her stay on as a flying instructor to begin with, rather than join her male friends.

That would have been a different story, whereas this one, where Anastasia and many others form a women’s unit of pilots is infinitely better. I’d read about them, and after this taster, I’d like to read more.

It was a cruel war for everyone, but I’m fairly sure the Russians had it worse (unless it was the Germans who froze as much on their side of the line), and there was never much in the way of good news.

They were skilled, and they were brave.

Banished

Another holiday; another Selma Lagerlöf for the Resident IT Consultant to read. Though it has to be said that he had to take a break, because it wasn’t always all that pleasant. I know that sounds  unkind, but as you will see from his review below, Banished was a bit of a mouthful, and even Selma suffered.

“Banished is the latest product of Norvik Press’s initiative to publish new translations of the work of Selma Lagerlöf. Bannlyst (its Swedish title) was originally published in 1918 and first appeared in English translation (as The Outcast), in 1922.  This edition is translated by Linda Schenck, translator of  Lagerlöf’s Löwensköld Ring trilogy and five of Kerstin Ekman’s novels.

Lagerlöf, the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, was a committed feminist and pacifist and was horrified by the violence of the First World War. After personally having seen the bodies of thousands of dead soldiers floating in the sea after the Battle of Jutland she was inspired to write a novel that explores the double standard that allows people to hold death sacrosanct and yet neglects the sanctity of life.

Banished tells the story of Sven Elversson, a member of a failed polar expedition on which the survivors are forced the eat the flesh of one of their comrades in order to avoid perishing. He is a brave and kind man but is rejected by those around him and banished from their company. Banished is a thought-provoking tale of love, death and survival that grapples with moral dilemmas as relevant today as they were a century ago.

By the end all those who have found Sven reprehensible realize that human life is worth far more than human death and that during the ongoing war the same people who vilified an explorer for doing what he had to do to survive were prepared to disregard daily mass murders and to glorify those who carry them out.”

Selma Lagerlöf, Banished

The Resident IT Consultant is now recuperating with something a wee bit lighter. But I’d say, keep them coming! He – sort of – enjoys them.

Das Schiff ohne Hafen

Aquarius. Reading about this ship, full of people who have left their homes and countries, and that turned out not to be welcome anywhere, until it was finally permitted to land in Spain. It’s an appalling situation, and one which reminded me of a book I’ve mentioned here several times. I’ve just not gone into detail, or reviewed it, because it’s not available in English, and now I suspect it never will be.

It is Lisa Tetzner’s Das Schiff ohne Hafen, or Skepp utan hamn, in Swedish. Ship with no harbour. Part of a series of books about the children of a tenement in 1930s Berlin, Mirjam and her aunt Mathilde have travelled through western Europe to join a ship that will take them to a new life in South America. They are Jewish, so know they need to leave Europe.

The Garibaldi is not a regular passenger ship, but is now full of paying, desperate people, hoping to escape. There are all sorts of passengers, from the wealthy and successful to the destitute, who have already suffered greatly. The children on board make friends with each other, as far as they can, due to class differences and personality.

Lisa Tetzner, Skepp utan hamn

The journey is eventful in various ways, but it’s not until they reach Brazil that it becomes obvious that things are not going to end well. There is illness on board, which means the ship is not given permission to land in some places. And where they do get to land, immigration officials are strict and refuse to accept many of them, sometimes because their papers aren’t ‘in order.’ Or they are ‘too old,’ or the single women ‘too single.’

The reasons given are the same we hear today for today’s unwanted. So the ship sails on, along the coast, with a few passengers allowed to enter their new home countries, but the rest have to stay and the ship gets all the way round to Peru before disaster strikes, and only a few of the children make it out alive, [conveniently] finding a desert island [where, in the next book, they try to live and survive].

Rich or poor, no one escaped this fate, and they have to make the best of things. Because this is a series of books shaped by WWII, there is much that is bad in them. But because the series ends after the war, Lisa Tetzner also lets there be much hope and friendship and belief in a new future for all. The last book is an inspiration, like a miniature United Nations.

Now, of course, we know a bit more about that as well. But when I first read it, my heart swelled with happiness and pride.

Just goes to show how the world works. If I’d written more about this series earlier, it would have been possible to still believe. I left it, hoping that someone, somewhere, would translate and publish the books. I also stupidly believed in a basic level of decency among people. Well, it exists, but the waves of hating your neighbour seem to be a necessary evil too.