My Lockdown Books: Fifty Nine

In 1914, a year of significant anniversaries, Flying Eye Books chose to mark a less heralded one in Shackleton’s Journey. This beautiful book, written and illustrated by William Grill, tells the story of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to cross Antarctica from its early planning to final failure. In between are accounts of individual bravery, the stores on board, the men’s hobbies, the rescue of the main party and the support team. This concentration on the seemingly unimportant minutiae alongside the heroic feats humanises the expedition and causes the reader to live it. And the illustrations in mainly cold blues and white have the feel of an expedition sketch book. The whole is a fascinating account of a relatively unremembered slice of modern history.

That’s what I wrote in The Scotsman.  I fell in love with this book when I first saw it.  It touched something in me and I actually found it hard to review as I didn’t feel I could see it objectively.  What I actually wanted to say was: I really love this book!  But The Scotsman has higher standards than that so I tried to analyse what I felt made it such an excellent book. I hope I achieved that.

My Lockdown Books: Fifty Six

Yes, I know that I’ve already written about one of LM Montgomery’s books but it’s my birthday so I’m indulging myself. No-one is surprised that this appears on my list of all-time favourite books. It was one in the stack of nine that formed my birthday cake a couple of years ago after all!

Birthday Book Stack

I first read Anne of the Island when I was about eight, which was ridiculously young, but it means that whenever I re-read it (and I do), there’s something new to discover. LM Montgomery was a brilliant writer and is much under-rated. There’s a general impression that her books, especially the series about Anne, are all sweetness and light but, if you dig slightly beneath the surface, you’ll see that there are some very dark elements in them.

In spite of the title, this is the only one of all the Anne books not really set on Prince Edward Island but it has long been my favourite of LM Montgomery’s books. I think it’s the best of the series and the one where Anne’s character is most fully explored. There’s a strong sense of community – off, but particularly on, the island – which Anne finally appreciates fully by the end of the novel, thus the title.

This third story about Anne, the world’s most famous red-haired orphan, sees her leave Prince Edward Island to go to college. She enjoys life in Kingsport, studying and making new friends including, she thinks, the man of her dreams. But her heart always remains on the Island – and so, it turns out, do her dreams. A book about discovering where you belong, this is LM Montgomery at her very best.

My Lockdown Books: Forty Seven

My childhood was filled with books published by Pickering & Inglis, purveyors of Christian literature.  As a daughter of the manse the basic premise of these books (to introduce and encourage a life of faith) felt perfectly normal to me and as a Christian adult that hasn’t changed.  But I recognised at an early age that some of the output was truly dreadful in terms of storytelling and that hasn’t changed either.

However some of the books do stand up to scrutiny and I have kept a few, including the Trudy series by Mary Alice Faid.  The first book, Trudy Takes Charge, about which I have written elsewhere, was published in 1949.  It’s important to remember that, and to accept that the series was written for middle class girls.  By the time I read them in the late seventies and early eighties the world was a different place but, used as I was to books from different eras, middle class 1950s Scotland was fairly easy to accept.

Trudy On Her Own is the sixth book of ten and sees the heroine move back to Martonbury, the town where she trained, to teach English at a private girls’ school.  She is on her own in the sense that she rents a room in a refurbished castle where she hopes she will have time and space to write.  Naturally the demands of life encroach and, having an over-developed sense of responsibility, Trudy finds herself pulled in all directions.

As a footnote, I’m interested in the locations in the book.  The series is clearly set in Scotland and I have puzzled over whether or not the places mentioned are based on real towns.  If anyone has thoughts on this I’d be glad to hear them.  Could Martonbury be Glasgow?  And what about Drumleigh, Trudy’s home town?  I wondered off and on if it might be Dumfries…

My Lockdown Books: Forty Five

Every so often, but not often enough, a book comes across my desk that makes me laugh and laugh. Cue: Weasels by Elys Dolan and published by the always wonderful people at Nosy Crow.

Have you ever wondered what weasels do all day? Wonder no more.  It turns out that they plot, and prepare for, world domination! The book takes us inside their HQ on the day they have arranged to take over the world. But as the countdown begins something happens to derail their plans. I guarantee that you will laugh out loud as you read this complex, absurd, utterly engaging picture book.

Who’s it for? Well, everyone!

My Lockdown Books: Forty Four

Eleanor Updale is an intelligent, imaginative and beguiling writer and I have enjoyed all her books.  I’ve been fortunate enough to work with her a couple of times and that’s been a joy.  This is my favourite of her books and I was delighted to be able to introduce others to it in The Scotsman.

Right from the Prologue of The Last Minute the reader knows that an explosion has taken place on Heathwick High Street. The rest of the novel recounts the events of the minute before the explosion. We are introduced to a diverse selection of people and competing explanations for the coming explosion with a creeping sense of horror for what lies in wait. In a few sentences Eleanor Updale makes us care about the characters’ fate and hope passionately that our favourites will be spared. I found myself willing some of them to move more or less quickly to ensure their survival. This is an outstanding novel for mature readers of any age and adds lustre to Eleanor Updale’s established brilliance.

My Lockdown Books: Thirty Eight

I have come to the conclusion that Meg Rosoff is a genius. I’ve been reading her books since How I Live Now which I really didn’t like. I thought it was flawed and convoluted and generally an unsatisfying read. I was part of the Carnegie Medal judging panel that controversially didn’t short leet it. Perhaps it was the controversy that made me carry on reading Meg’s books.

Because, in spite of everything and even with hindsight, I still don’t think that How I Live Now is a brilliant book. But many other people did. So maybe I needed to find out what I was missing in her books. Now, I have read everything she has written since then as though I can’t help myself. I don’t watch out for her books, counting the days until a new one appears, but somehow they impinge themselves upon my consciousness.

When I picked up Picture Me Gone, I could hardly put it down. As much as it’s a story at all, it’s the story of Mila and her father and their journey to find his oldest friend who has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, son and dog.

But, of course, it’s not really about the story; it’s about ideas just as all of Meg’s books are. And this time it’s about truth and how well one person can ever really know another. And it’s brilliant. Written in Meg’s distinctive low-key style, it wraps itself around you and doesn’t let you go until you reach the end.

My Lockdown Books: Thirty Five

My favourite of the late Mal Peet’s superlative novels without any shadow of a doubt is Tamar.  The review below has appeared elsewhere but I stand by it and encourage you to read the book.

Think of resistance fighters of the Second World War and you will almost certainly have France in mind. Mal Peet’s novel, however, focuses on the intertwined and inter-dependant lives of one cell of the Dutch resistance during the cold, hungry winter of 1944. Tamar tells two stories: that of the eponymous present-day heroine alongside her SOE agent grandfather’s. The shift between the two is skilful and unobtrusive, the one often coming as a relief from the other. For this book is not an easy or undemanding read. It is powerful and shocking but it is also memorable and compelling. I guarantee that, as Tamar uncovers her grandfather’s tragic and terrible story, you will be as surprised and horrified as she is.