Category Archives: War

The Reluctant Rebel, A Jacobite Adventure

Like ‘most’ people, I have known ‘all’ about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald and ‘over the sea to Skye’. Thanks to Barbara Henderson and her new historical novel The Reluctant Rebel, I now actually ‘know’ something. Lots more, in fact.

I raced through the book, to find out what happened and how. Even when you might know the ending, and how the bonnie Prince never became King, it’s exciting.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Archie MacDonald – who lost his father at Prestonpans in 1745 – beginning just before Culloden in 1746. Which I knew to have been a disaster, but you don’t learn so much from history books. Well, I don’t.

His master’s three sons are fighting, and not everyone returns home. At least as important, if not more, is Archie’s cousin Meg, a maid at Borrodale. She’s brave and intelligent, even if she does seem to have a crush on the Prince.

Their paths cross the Prince’s, several times, and they are called on to help him escape. Just staying alive is difficult. Because of his father and because of the shock of the bloodiness of Culloden, Archie isn’t sure he supports the Prince’s cause any longer. Soon there is a price on his head as well, which can be tempting for someone who is hungry.

This is a terribly exciting historical adventure, set beautifully to fit in with the real story, and feeling all the better for it.

Displaced

It’s hard to know what to think these days. Having read and loved so many children’s books about the Kindertransport and all the other schemes from WWII to get people, children and adults, to safety, I have been proud of what Britain did. With hindsight I realise that not everything was quite like in the books. But still, people arrived here, and many remained and many did well. So apart from the awful reason for them coming, the end result seems to have been OK a lot of the time.

And now we are ashamed of what Britain is not doing. Most of us have the Ukraine in mind, but I don’t mind casting wider and will mention Syria and Afghanistan among many other crisis-laden nations. And that other countries are receiving refugees more generously and with greater ease than seems to be possible here.

One night recently I came to think of ‘my’ first lot of refugees. Not counting the girl from Hungary I was friendly with in my first year at school, because that happened before I was aware, ‘my’ displaced people came from Chile.

Well, they arrived from there, but they were frequently from some other Latin American country, having already fled to Chile from their place of birth. I encountered many of them where I lived, which was a small town. I suspect one reason for their appearance there was that the then head of Amnesty International in Sweden lived nearby. But as is often the case, they moved on, and congregated in the bigger cities, where they could be with others from the same background.

When I moved to Gothenburg, I met Chilean refugees there. And I know many of them are still there, with children and grandchildren born in this other country at the opposite end of the world. Such a lot of them ended up there because one night they clambered over the wall to the Swedish embassy, where the ambassador temporarily achieved hero status for saving so many individuals fleeing for their lives.

So, that night I mentioned, I began wondering if the person whose full name I for some reason still remember, might still be there. He is. That’s the beauty of computerised, publicly available records. Back then he was a political student leader, not from Chile, but from one of the neighbouring countries. I have no idea what he’s done in the nearly fifty years since then, but he’s now ‘old’ and still living in the city that took him in. I wonder what his life has been like. Still marooned at the other end of the world. But I dare say it beats the alternative.

‘Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves?’

Those words came from Alf Dubs; a man with experience of fleeing your country, but luckily for us, being welcomed, or at least allowed, in when he arrived in Britain all those years ago.

I don’t always enjoy Marina Hyde in the Guardian, but Wednesday’s column was one of the good ones. One of the columns that makes one feel ashamed, even when the fault is not one’s own. And her comments about photographs in colour or black and white, and the difference it makes when you look at them, set me thinking about the shoe being on the other foot.

What if ‘nice English people’ were to be stopped at a border somewhere, in desperate need of help, having to queue, and possibly not be allowed in. Because the receiving country is not being friendly. But I don’t believe that our ‘leading politicians’ are capable of seeing themselves, or anyone they care about, in such a situation.

Fiction is good at making you see things that are not necessarily real. Yet. It’s almost exactly nine years since I reviewed After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross. It’s still bone-chillingly current. And it’s five years since I felt I had to publish the review again, because of what was happening.

There are probably other novels about poor British people throwing themselves on the mercies of their European neighbours, but this is my go-to example. I’m just so sorry that it has to be.

And even if we, in this country, don’t ever have to escape to some other place, surely we could welcome [quite] a few from elsewhere? They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have to. It’s especially telling that not even these nice white, and similar to us, refugees are welcomed with open arms, after the discussions in the media about why ‘we’ like them so much better than the Syrians, say, or anyone else fleeing from a more distant country.

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’.