My Lockdown Books: Fifteen

Och, you must have known it was coming.  I don’t really know how I’ve managed to hold out for so long.  Of course there would be a book by Linda Newbery in my lockdown selection.  There will always be one of Linda’s books in a selection I compile.  The trick, as ever, is which to choose.

Normally I’d go for Sisterland and, even though there’s nothing normal about these days, that’s exactly what I’ve done!  Oh, I know; I’ve written about it many times before.  But I can’t help it.  Of all Linda’s books it’s the one that stays with me most.  For a really complex novel, I’d point you to Set in Stone.  If you want a wonderful evocation of place, go to The Shell House.  If, like me, early twentieth century is your historical setting, read Some Other War or Until We Win.

But Sisterland is the book that feels as though it were written for me.  (It wasn’t.)  It’s the book I keep on badgering Linda to write a sequel to.  (She won’t.)  Is it her best book?  Wearing my objective critic’s hat, I’d be forced to say that it possibly isn’t.  But as a reader, it got me.

It’s Hilly’s story, a coming of age one intellectually and emotionally.  It’s full of prejudice, misunderstanding and family stress; acceptance, hope and fresh starts.  The characters are perfectly drawn and flawed.  And the ending is a new beginning.  Linda once said to me that I could write the sequel (not actually, you understand, but in my imagination).  But I can’t because I might not get it right.

Christmas Day

DE Stevenson was a best-selling author of her day, the mid-twentieth century. She wrote romances and family stories often with a bit of an edge. A number of different publishers have re-issued her titles recently but it’s also possible to buy first editions of many of the books. She’s another author that Mum read and collected; I read them intermittently over the years and kept Mum’s collection after her death. I have lots of favourites: Charlotte Fairlie, The Blue Sapphire and Katherine Wentworth spring easily to mind. But my choice for this list settled on Listening Valley. I like the settings, the heroine and the meandering story without any real plot. I feel as though I’ve just stepped into someone else’s life when I read it.

And finally we come to Until We Win. It has so much going for it: written by Linda Newbery, published by Barrington Stoke and with a plot about the campaign for votes for women, it ticks loads of boxes. But actually it’s a self-indulgent choice as it’s dedicated to me. I never ever imagined that an author, a well-respected, prize-winning one at that, would even consider dedicating a book to me. And on days when I feel disheartened by my impending redundancy it helps me to remember that maybe I have made a difference through my work.

6th December

It was The Edge of the Cloud by KM Peyton that first made me aware of the Carnegie Medal.  I borrowed it from Lossiemouth Library back in the day and the front cover had an image of the Medal on it.  I didn’t know what it was at that point but it was clear that this book had won it and it was significant. The Edge of the Cloud is still one of my favourite books – and I now have a signed copy, a treasured possession.  Set in the run-up to the First World War, it’s the story of Will and Christina and Will’s passion for flying.  It’s also the second book in Flambards quartet, to which, I might add in passing, has now been added The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery (written with Kathy Peyton’s approval).

Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel is the concluding book in Michael Gerard Bauer’s trilogy revolving around Ishmael and his friends. It had me by turns hysterical with laughter, deep in thought and in floods of tears.  When I finished it I was devastated because I knew there was no more.  Readers who don’t know Ishmael will want to start at the beginning (Don’t Call Me Ishmael and Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs) in order to get to know the boys and live with them as they progress through high school in Australia.  Bauer’s writing is deceptively simple, easy to read and dialogue driven.  He meets difficult issues head on and allows his characters to deal with them.  The characterisation is truly outstanding; even the fringe characters leap off the page as they interact, grow and develop.  The plot twists and turns entirely believably, creating a world that even I, a middle-aged, female Scot, would like to inhabit.

1st December

As it happens, the first two books in my Advent selection are the books I would describe as my favourite children’s books, one of my childhood and the other discovered as an adult. I say children’s books but really they’re teenage novels.

Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery was first published in 1915 and is the third in the series about Anne Shirley. It is the only one of the series not to be set entirely on Prince Edward Island. I first read it when I was about eight, which was ridiculously young, but it means that whenever I re-read it, 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. This third story about Anne 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.

Hilly Craig, the heroine of Sisterland by Linda Newbery uncovers completely unexpected family history which influences how she sees herself and how her future might unfold. Like Anne, she has to investigate her past but Linda Newbery, unlike LM Montgomery, does not tell us the direction her heroine’s future takes (and I know, because I’ve asked, that she has no intention of writing more about Hilly). Sisterland is a contemporary novel and it considers community and prejudice, family life and secrets. Linda creates memorable characters and depicts a variety of relationships, some of them overlapping and all containing an element of tension.

The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery

Flambards by KM Peyton was published just before I was born.  I discovered it twelve years later when it was still the first in a trilogy although that trilogy would develop into a quartet a year or so later.  I enjoyed Flambards, although I was not then, and am not now, at all horsey!  The hunting and horse-riding and mucking out stables was all very well but I was really grabbed by two things: the house and the heroine.

Christina, an orphan, arrives at Flambards at the age of twelve to live with her unsympathetic Uncle Russell and his two sons, Mark and Will.  She realises that her uncle would like to marry her off to Mark, the elder, favoured son, so that her inheritance could be used to preserve Flambards.  But Christina dislikes her cousin as much as she loves the house.  It is Will, who has a passion for flying, to whom Christina is attracted.  And so the scene is set for the struggle between old and new, tradition and modernity.

The second book remains my favourite.  In fact, it is one of my favourite books of all.  The Edge of the Cloud, which won the Carnegie Medal, is Christina and Will’s story and is set away from Flambards although the house and all it stands for looms over their lives.  And to my mind it is this book that Linda Newbery has written a follow-up to.

The Key to Flambards is not a sequel to the quartet; it is a modern story with new characters but it is set in the house and it revisits some of the action and characters from KM Peyton’s novels.  It is important to say that Linda had Kathy Peyton’s blessing in writing her book and I am sure that the latter is pleased with the result.  Grace, the main character, is Christina’s descendant.  She and her mother arrive at Flambards, now a residential centre, for the summer and Grace is captivated by the house and her family history some of which the centre manager has unearthed.

As everyone who has read Linda Newbery’s books would expect, Flambards leaps off the page.  Linda’s settings are always wonderfully evoked and this is no exception.  As I read, a picture grew in my mind and I could see the action very clearly set in a definite environment.  And her characters are her other strength.  This is not a plot-driven novel.  It’s the story of a house and some of the people associated with it.  It is an exploration of family, friendship and love, and a consideration of the concept of continuity.  Perhaps that makes it sound too worthy, though.  I should point out that I read it in one sitting, finishing at two in the morning!  It was properly a page-turner.

Anyway it’s here now, published today (with a beautiful dust wrapper by Katie Harnett)  and it’s a real treat.  It’s an excellent book in its own right whether or not you’ve ever heard of the Flambards quartet.  You certainly don’t need to have read KM Peyton’s books to enjoy or understand Linda’s, although, if you have met them before,  you’ll get a kick out of hearing about Christina and Will again.

 

Until We Win by Linda Newbery

There are few things I look forward to more than a new novel by Linda Newbery or a novel set around the campaign for women’s suffrage so I was pretty excited to receive this.  However, I was beyond excited when I read the dedication!

Until We Win is Lizzy’s story, set in the run-up to the First World War but detailing a different conflict. The fight for the right to vote for women is at its height with the Suffragettes, led by the redoubtable Emmeline Pankhurst, prepared to do and risk anything to win.  By chance Lizzy meets Julia and Elsie and is drawn into the campaign.  Linda Newbery has a wonderful ability to get under the skin of her characters and she demonstrates that here.  This may be a short novel but it is engrossing and compelling.

Until We Win is a short novel.  It was commissioned by Barrington Stoke the superb Edinburgh publishing house that specialises in books for young people with reading difficulties.  They only commission the best contemporary authors to write for them and their production values are as high as you could wish.  I am always delighted when a book from them arrives on my desk.  You can find them online at http://www.barringtonstoke.co.uk

 

Back Beside the Sea

As I write, it is a beautiful autumn day: the sun is shining, the sky is blue and there is scarcely a breeze.  The view from my windows is glorious: the trees still have their autumn colours, there are swans swimming in the pond and I can just catch a glimpse of the cathedral.  Where am I?  In my new office in Elgin.

I’ve just recently been fortunate enough to be given the post of Senior Librarian in Moray.  I have a varied remit including, I’m pleased to say, services to young people.  It’s a great job and I’m working with friendly and helpful people.  But, best of all, I’ve moved back to Lossiemouth after an absence of over twenty years.  From my house I can see the sea and the view is wonderful!

As yet, I don’t have all my books with me which is clearly not a good thing.  Deciding which titles to bring was tough and, in the end, I went for a random selection.  I do work in a library after all!  It’s been fun, though, reading my way through the books I brought.  I’d forgotten all about some of them and they’d got hidden away in my collection.  Maybe less really is more.

What did I bring?  Well, some are books I can’t be without.  Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery, Sisterland by Linda Newbery and Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce for example.  I also brought some short series: the Carol books by Helen Dore Boylston and the Merry titles by Clare Mallory.  And then there are some that I’ve acquired since moving.  I love Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell and Big Bear, Little Brother by Carl Norac and beautifully illustrated by Kristin Oftedal.

I have others, too, some of them even for grown-ups, but to feel completely at home I’ll need all my books with me.  The day can’t come fast enough!