My Lockdown Books: Fifty Four

I have five books by Gordon Cooper.  As far as I have been able to find out that’s all he wrote.  A Time in a City, like all the others in my collection, is an ex-library book (although I did once have a paperback edition of An Hour in the Morning) which is fitting as that’s how I first read them.

Kate Bassett, a young teenager, has left her first post as general maid in a farm house and is now working in the nearest town to her home.  She’s the kitchen maid and, as such, a person of little account,  However, supported by the cook and the parlour maid, she settles in to life in the home of the Bourne family.  Set in the early days of the First World War, we also see Kate working in a soldiers’ canteen on her day off.

I can’t say that Gordon Cooper is the world’s best writer but I loved these books as a child and I have been known to read them still.  He has an engaging way of bringing history to life for young people  I suspect that might have been his brief from the Oxford University Press.  If anyone can tell me anything about Gordon Cooper, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

My Lockdown Books: Fifty One

David Almond is a deceptively brilliant writer.  His syntax is simple, although his vocabulary is not, but sentence upon sentence it builds up to an unexpected crescendo before you are hit by an explosion, the impact of which leaves you overwhelmed by emotion.

War is Over is set in 1918 as the Great War is coming to an end.  It’s the story of John, a boy whose father is fighting in France and whose mother is working in a munitions factory.  The plot is slight but it raises complex questions of right and wrong, war and peace.  When John finds a picture of a German boy his own age, he is forced to question the war itself.  The Germans, he begins to feel, are people like him and his family – but can he like people who are trying to kill his father?  Is Gordon, the conscientious objector, right?

The book is illustrated by David Litchfield and the power of his drawings is immense.  Somehow, using only black and white, he is able to depict aggression and gentleness, to conjure up changing seasons and moods.

My Lockdown Books: Twenty Three

You were expecting Anne of the Island, weren’t you?  I’m not surprised as I’ve cited it as one of my favourite books, never mind my favourite book by LM Montgomery.  That remains true but Rilla of Ingleside is a book that’s fascinated me since I first read it as a child.  And, of course, there’s so much of interest in it that it stands reading again and again (in common with much of Lucy Maud’s output).

First and foremost for me as an adult reader, it’s a Great War story and I have a particular fondness for those.  What I love especially about it is that it’s a home front story.  And it’s the Canadian home front which makes it unlike novels depicting the British home front which is what appears in most books I’ve read.  The war isn’t just over there; it’s on another continent.  There’s no chance of soldiers or nurses coming home on leave.  So there is distance, both geographically and in the perception of what is taking place in Europe.

It’s also a coming-of-age novel.  Rilla is the youngest child of Anne and Gilbert Blythe.  She’s a bit spoilt, certainly immature and desperate to be grown up and taken seriously.  She’s fifteen at the outbreak of war and the most important thing in her life is what Kenneth Ford thinks of her.  By the end of the war and book she has changed as most teenagers will but some of that change is due to the personal and national impact of the Great War.

First published in 1921, Rilla of Ingleside was written very soon after the war ended when Canada, as other countries, was coming to terms with the conflict and dealing with the after effects.  I’m not a historian but I think that gives us a less revisionist view of life and sentiment on the home front.  LM Montgomery was, of course, to some extent limited by what her publisher would accept in a novel for young people.  But she does show some of the different ways the war was viewed in a small community.  The book is layered and I know that I read it differently now than I did when I acquired my first copy (with Kim Braden on the front cover) in 1981.

Lily and the Rockets by Rebecca Stevens

I understand that some women are playing in a football competition somewhere. Honestly, I do know what the competition is but I genuinely have no idea where it’s being played. It’s fair to say that I am pretty disinterested in football irrespective of the gender of the teams. So it’s a mark of my appreciation of Rebecca Stevens’ other books that I chose to read Lily and the Rockets.

The novel is set towards the end of the Great War and revolves around Lily Dodd, a teenager working at the Woolwich Arsenal making weapons destined for the Western Front. Lily is also passionate about playing football, something women had the opportunity to do whilst the professional men’s game was suspended for the duration.

This is not a complex novel but it is engaging and it shines a light on the women’s game as well as on a little-mentioned aspect of the First World War. In truth it matters not at all whether or not the reader is interested in football. Lily is a believable and likeable character and the story clips along.

Christmas Eve

If you’ve been reading this blog of mine for any length of time you’ll be familiar with my panegyrics on LM Montgomery. I make no apologies for these; she’s a great writer. I recently had the chance to purchase a first edition of my favourite, Anne of the Island, but had to decline due to the ridiculous (albeit realistic) cost. However, I did avail myself of the opportunity to buy a first edition of Rilla of Ingleside, the last in the Anne sequence. For a whole raft of reasons it’s another of my favourite books. It’s the story of four years in the life of Anne and Gilbert’s youngest child, years that see her develop and change from a somewhat spoiled, self-absorbed fifteen-year-old into a fairly mature young woman. I think it’s a wonderful character study. But, as the story begins in 1914, it is also an account of life on the home front of the Great War, the Canadian home front of course. Looking back I realise that it’s the first First World War novel I read. I can’t honestly say that it’s what sparked my interest in the period but it may well have contributed to it.

As I’ve commented on elsewhere I’ve recently started reading detective fiction having eschewed it all my life. One of my favourite newly discovered authors is Jill McGown, author of the Lloyd and Hill series. I’ve read and re-read these a number of times and love the developing relationship between Lloyd and Judy as well as the murder mysteries. I chose Murder at the Old Vicarage (originally entitled Redemption), the second in the series, fairly randomly. It’s set during a snowy Christmas and the descriptive writing is evocative. As well as great characterisation and an engrossing mystery, there are some interesting side issues to consider. It’s an ideal Christmas read, I’d say: involving and gripping without being too complex.

19th December

Mum tried for years to interest me in O Douglas’ books but it took a lot of persuading before I finally delved in. Of course, once I’d taken the plunge, I couldn’t understand why I’d hesitated.  The books are a real surprise: they look like they’ll be a bit saccharine and old-fashioned even for their time (mostly the inter-war period) but Anna Buchan was no-one’s fool and she had a firm grasp of what her world was really like.  I love them all and chose The Setons after some thought.  Elizabeth Seton is an engrossing companion, one I don’t tire of.  She’s a minister’s daughter living on the south side of Glasgow, looking after her widowed father and much younger brother.  In many ways it’s a domestic tale of its time but it’s not at all stuffy and is peopled by some wonderful characters.  It’s set just before, and in the early days of, the First World War and was published in 1917; thus it honestly captures the feeling of the day and has no happy ending but only unanswerable questions.

Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn is set just after the War but was published this century. It is the fourth in the series about Daisy Dalrymple, scion of the nobility trying to earn her own living as a writer in London.  Daisy has an unbelievable tendency to become involved in murders – merely as a witness I should point out!  In the course of the first book she meets Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of the Met, and their relationship is a feature of the series. Murder on the Flying Scotsman introduces his daughter Belinda into the action and she plays a prominent part.  I’ve read my way through the whole series now, having discovered them this year, but I particularly like this one both for its murder mystery and Daisy and Alec’s developing relationship.

9th December

Busman’s Honeymoon is the last of Dorothy L Sayers’ novels about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. If I had to pick one of the series as my favourite this would be it. In fact, I did choose it as one of the books in my extravaganza of a birthday cake earlier this year. Why do I like it so much? At least partly it’s because it is unusual in following a fictional relationship through the wedding into married life. So many series of novels end with the impending marriage or resolved relationship of the hero and heroine. But Busman’s Honeymoon explores the complexities of a developing committed relationship. As far as I’m concerned the murder is simply a backdrop to the profound mystery of Peter and Harriet’s marriage and their growing awareness of each other’s multi-faceted personalities, vulnerabilities and sensitivities. The Lord Peter Wimsey of this novel is so far removed from the man we first meet in Whose Body? that they might as well be two different characters. Interestingly, his constant companion, Bunter, has changed not at all. It would take Jill Paton Walsh to alter that – but that’s a post for another time!

If you want excellence in historical storytelling for young people, Theresa Breslin’s novels are a good place to start. Perhaps because of this year’s centenary commemorations of the Armistice it is Remembrance that jumped to mind in compiling my list of favourite books, although, in fact, I will usually cite Saskia’s Journey as my favourite of her novels. Remembrance is a study of the First World War as seen through the eyes of two families in a small Scottish community. It’s a superb piece of writing and tells the story of this cataclysmic event in a beautifully understated and very personal way. There are dramatic scenes of course but the plot and characters are grounded in the real world of the time. It’s a compelling and rewarding book.