Category Archives: War

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

Advertisements

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.

D-Day Dog

It’s possible to like war too much. Maybe you don’t stop to think about what war really means, or you get carried away by the excitement of weapons and explosions. And there is that idea of patriotism, duty to your country.

Tom Palmer, D-Day Dog

In Tom Palmer’s D-Day Dog 11-year-old Jack loves all things to do with war, as does his Reserve soldier father. They play war games at home, and Jack just knows that to serve your country is the greatest honour.

Then comes the school trip to the battlefields, and his father is called up, and life turns upside down. The children are told to find a dead soldier to read up on; someone whose grave they can visit. Because Jack has a dog, Finn, which he loves more than anything, he is pointed in the direction of a paratrooper who served in the war with his dog.

And suddenly it all becomes too real and Jack begins hating war.

There are probably many boys who love the idea of war and violence, and this book will be a good way of finding out what’s important in life – and death – and why people do what they do. It also brings attention to the Falkland war, Afghanistan, and Syria, where one of the girls in Jack’s class comes from.

Behind everything on the trip we see Jack’s love for Finn, for his dad, and his fear of what might happen to his family. For anyone unfamiliar with the details of D-Day, or with any war for that matter, this is a powerful little story.

And you know, they have dogs in Syria too. It’s just that Jack had no idea.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria

Do you like Ballet Shoes? And When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit? Then you will love Catherine Bruton’s No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria

Aya is eleven and has arrived in Britain with her mother and her little brother Moosa. They’ve been here three weeks and queue most days just to see their caseworker and to get food and nappies. Her mother speaks very little English, and is not well. It falls to Aya to do the talking, and the looking after.

At the community centre somewhere in Manchester Aya suddenly hears music, and feels compelled to see where it is coming from. This is how she discovers a ballet class, and having loved her ballet classes back in Aleppo she is drawn to the room.

But can someone like her ever dance here in England?

Set mostly in Manchester, there are flashbacks to Aya’s story of what happened in Syria, and how she and her family ended up in England. Most of her family. In a way it’s the standard refugee tale, but every such story has real individuals in it, and this is Aya’s.

Catherine has got everything right here. It’s exciting, but reassuring. It’s sweet, but not too sweet. And we need to be reminded of all this right now. The dreadful past. The dreadful present. We need to make things better.

I hope you will love this book as much as I did.