A Secret Diary of the First World War by Gill Arbuthnott

These past five years or so have been excellent for me.  Over the years I have collected up as much fiction as I could set during and around the First World War.  It’s a period of history that has long fascinated me and I have been interested to see how novelists deal with it.  As we have marked the War’s centenary publishers have fallen over themselves issuing and re-issuing books that tie in.  Some are good, some not.  But I have added many titles to my collection.

One of the things I have particularly enjoyed is reading books that give a Scottish perspective and I was fortunate enough to receive one such last week from Floris Books.  A Secret Diary of the First World War is inspired by an actual account of a teenager who fought on the Western Front.  Gill Arbuthnott has used his story to make the Great War more accessible to younger readers.  James Marchbank really existed and, as a fourteen year old Territorial, was legitimately called up at the beginning of the War and sent to France (although regulations changed soon after meaning that men had to be 18 to serve abroad).  He kept a diary and Gill has used it as the basis for her book which also includes blocks of explanation to help modern readers.  The book is illustrated by Darren Gate in a very engaging style.

I’m very glad to have this book and I’ll certainly add it to my collection.  The only problem I have with it is knowing where to shelve it.  It seems to me that it’s more fact than fiction but it reads as a story.  I guess it’s not a huge problem.  I could just buy another copy!  But wherever libraries and bookshops decide to shelve it, I hope that they draw it to the attention of young people as this is a book that deserves to be read.

Book Festivals and Book Launches

Over the last few weeks I’ve met and listened to about as many authors as I could cope with!  Without exception they’ve been lovely people and have had interesting books to talk about but I have to say that, when Friday came and went, I was glad to think that I had a whole week before I had another book event to attend.  It seems you can have too much of a genuinely good thing!

The main reason for my being authored out is the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  On my own account I heard a whole raft of great authors.  Some of them (whisper it!) were even talking about books written for adults.  Alexander McCall Smith was as seemingly random and entertaining as ever although I suspect his performance was more planned that it appeared.  Menzies Campbell was Raj Persaud’s guest – and a fine one he was too.  A politician with opinions he was willing to share, no less.  Waving my chair’s pass, I sneaked in to hear Margaret Drabble.  I have to confess that I’ve never read any of her work but she was fascinating.  And, trying to keep up my knowledge of Norwegian culture, I went to hear Lars Saabye Christensen, talking about Beatles.  One of the most popular Norwegian books of the last quarter century, it’s just been translated into English. 

And then there were all the children’s authors.   I was chairing some events which meant I heard people I might not have chosen myself.  And what a good thing that was!  I enjoyed all the events I was involved in but I have to make special mention of two.  I was delighted to be chairing Elizabeth Laird.  As I’ve said before I have a very high opinion of her books.  It was a joy to hear her talk about The Witching Hour and to listen to all the questions the young people had.  The other mention goes to Michelle Paver, author of The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.  I had read the first book, Wolf Brother, when it came out about five years ago but hadn’t bothered to read the rest of the series.  However, before meeting her in Edinburgh, I read Ghost Hunter, the final book.  I’m still not hugely interested in the historical setting but I found myself engrossed by the book and involved with the characters.  And Michelle really brought the books to life in her excellent session where she expertly fielded some inspired questions.  Both of these authors signed copies of their books for ages afterwards and I stayed around to talk to the young people as they queued.  So-called experts who love to suggest that young people don’t read anything (worthwhile) these days should have been there.  A special mention here to the staff and pupils from Nairn Academy who left at 5.30am to be at the festival.

I chose to go and hear some children’s authors too.  I’ve heard Keith Gray speak a number of times but always at events I’ve organised so it was a pleasure to hear him in Edinburgh where, whatever happened, it wasn’t my responsibility.  He was as funny and interesting as ever, although I have had to take him to task for suggesting that librarians and dragons might appear in the same sentence!  I’ve been reading Joan Lingard’s books for thirty years and enjoying them for as long.  Her latest book was launched at this year’s festival.  What to Do about Holly is a good read and somehow reminded me of the Maggie quartet.  The story is completely different so it must be the atmosphere that is reminiscent.  The Maggie books remain my favourite of Joan’s and I was pleased to have a faint echo of them as I read about Holly.  I’ve saved the best till last, though.  I mean no disrespect to the other authors I heard when I say that this year’s Edinburgh book festival was made for me by the appearance of Judith Kerr.  As a child, I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and loved it.  When I was older, I read the other two books in the trilogy and, for me, these are her best books.  Yes, The Tiger who Came to Tea is good fun and Mog is a lovely cat but there is something special about Pink Rabbit.  Please go and read it if you haven’t already.  When I heard that Judith was appearing at the festival, I got very excited and bought a ticket as soon as they were available.  And she didn’t disappoint.  I am so pleased to have met her.

My last book event was on Friday evening when I went to the launch of The Keepers’ Daughter by Gill Arbuthnot.  I’d been sent a copy of the book by Gill’s agent, Kathryn Ross of Fraser Ross Associates, and I’m grateful for that as it was a great book.  It’s a sort of fantasy but set in a world which is completely recognisable.  The characters step immediately off the page and are people whose fate I can care about.  And in my head I have a map of the islands on which much of the action takes place.  Altogther this is a book I can heartly recommend.

So that’s it: my book-filled three weeks.  Actually, there was one other event but more of that later.  Ahead of me (less than a week ahead) is Stirling Council Libraries’ book festival, Off the Page.  Being responsible for the children’s programme, I’m approaching it with more trepidation than anticipation but I’m sure the authors at it will be just as good as those I’ve heard recently.  Full details can be found at www.stirling.gov.uk/offthepage but just let me mention here that we have this year’s winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal appearing – Catherine Rayner.  Now there’s a coup!