Category Archives: War

White Eagles

This relatively short – because it’s for Barrington Stoke – novel by Elizabeth Wein, featuring a Polish teenager at the outbreak of WWII, is as wonderful and, yes, life affirming, as you’d want it to be.

Elizabeth Wein, White Eagles

I would obviously have welcomed a much longer novel, but White Eagles confirmed that you can have a full grown novel with few words. It’s as heartrending as Code Name Verity, as exciting and as sweet, as well.

Again, it’s worth being reminded that war didn’t only start in Britain. It broke out all over Europe, and it was equally devastating, or possibly more so. It’s easy to forget. And reading White Eagles I realised that there may well be an outbreak of fiction to ‘celebrate’ that it’s now 80 years since the war began. Unless one doesn’t mark the start?

18-year-old Kristina is a flying instructor in Warsaw, but when the Germans invade, she soon finds herself having to escape, with her plane, and before long nothing is as she’s known it.

Kristina is another young pilot in the mould of Maddie from Code Name Verity. I can read any number of stories about these early female pilots.

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Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if the can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.

The Partisan Heart

Gordon Kerr’s fiction debut – The Partisan Heart – reminded me a lot of the books I used to read in the 1970s. That’s perhaps fitting, as it’s a crime thriller set alternately in Italy during the end of WWII and also over fifty years later, at the end of the 1990s.

Bad things happened in the war, and quite a few of the actions taken back then reverberate in the lives of some of the characters 55 years on. Englishman Michael has just lost his Italian wife in a car accident in Italy, and his life seems to be falling to pieces.

In true fiction hero style, discovering that she had some unexpected secrets, he decides to find out who his late wife’s lover was.

We also meet young Sandro, who was a partisan fighter in the war, in the same area that Michael’s wife came from. You can tell that some of the people from those times will still be around in the later story, but you’re not quite sure which ones, or how what they did influences later actions.

Wartime Italy seems to have become more popular, and this two-period kind of mystery/thriller is not unique. But Italy during the war is still unusual enough that I feel it merits more books.

The characters are mostly not all that likeable, with the exception of the barmaid in Scotland. But then, war did terrible things to ordinary people, and even worse to those who were already bad. I wouldn’t have minded not ever reading about some of the ways to kill other human beings. Even if it was in the war.

Gordon Kerr, The Partisan Heart

Owen and the Soldier

I’ve never considered talking to statues, or even those waxwork figures you might find yourself sharing a bench with, at first believing they are real.

But of course they are real! In some sense.

Lisa Thompson, Owen and the Soldier

In Lisa Thompson’s Owen and the Soldier, 13-year-old Owen talks to a stone soldier in the nearby park’s war memorial corner. His life isn’t great, and it helps to chat to this soldier who seems so good at listening.

And then he discovers that the council are going to make ‘improvements’ to the park and the old soldier is due to be removed. In the midst of trying to deal with his problems at home and the demands of school, he needs to save his soldier friend.

This story could empower readers both to tackle problems and to seek a conversation partner for when they need to talk. Brief, but lovely.

Respect

Some time ago I read a newspaper review of a book I myself had not only read and thoroughly enjoyed, but reviewed on Bookwitch.

The reviewer, whom I respect, had also liked the book, but puzzled me by describing it, using a direct untruth. It wasn’t even the borrowing from the blurb on the back thing. It was stating something about the story that was a lie.

Had the reviewer in this case not read the book, but caught an idea from something they’d seen? Or had they read and enjoyed the book, but still managed to misunderstand the context? Or plain forgotten, by the time they came to write the review?

I’m just curious.

For anyone seeing this and deciding to give the book a go because of what was claimed, it could be a disappointment, despite the book being so marvellous. Or they’d feel they were glad they were tempted, as they had now been introduced to a lovely book.

Many years ago – 15, in fact – I read a mention of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now in the Guardian. I ordered the book on the strength of me understanding it was about WWI. But that was me not reading properly; nothing to do with the Guardian. It caused me to read the first chapter of HILN several times while my head tried to make sense of the lack of WWI or the early twentieth century.

But once I’d done that, I was happy to have found the best book I’ve ever read. And all because of a misunderstanding, by me.

I’m still curious regarding this other book. Did a respected reviewer in a respected newspaper forget to read?

Embarrassingly out-of-date. Or an antique?

Can’t remember what made me get the old atlas out. We were talking about something or other.

At some point in the mid-1960s Mother-of-witch bought a new atlas. It was about time. She’d had an absolutely ancient one for about 25 years or so. It was all brown and generally embarrassing. The old one, I mean.

I was very pleased with the new atlas, even if it wasn’t mine but hers. I could still study it. And study it I did. Aren’t atlases great?

It is now being held together with brown parcel tape, mostly due to excessive crossword-puzzling by Mother-of-witch. It was one of her reliable sources, so no wonder the spine died.

But last week we got out the old brown one. I think maybe we’d been talking about Berlin and train lines, and I felt that they could surely be found in the 19th edition, published in 1940?

Ancient atlas and holiday crime

It’s fascinating! The railways, yes, but also all the dated stuff from 1940, where they had simply over-printed some information from the 18th edition three years earlier. I’m guessing that school pupils understood about the changing maps of Europe right then.

And it’s no longer embarrassing. There’s so much to see and think about. Besides, it’s in far better condition!

Judith Kerr

With the death of Judith Kerr on Wednesday, we have lost another star in the children’s books world. When the great ones like Judith reach such a high age, I always want to wrap them in cotton wool, to protect them and make them last longer, while being very grateful they have made it this far.

But by all accounts Judith didn’t need the cotton wool, continuing to live life as she always had, getting about on her own. I first saw her in Edinburgh ten years ago, and found her seemingly frail, but most entertaining. Then when I discovered I was sitting behind her in the audience at Waterstones Piccadilly five years ago, I was astounded to realise that she was just like anybody else, going to events she wanted to go to and mixing with people.

Judith was one of the ‘older greats’ that I would have loved to meet and maybe interview, but somehow I never felt quite grown-up enough.

I hoped she would go on for much longer, but 95 is a respectable age. Especially if you’re not ill or needing looking after.

I very much hope her end was like that of Mog, and that they are together in some magical place.