My Lockdown Books: Eight

Paul Dowswell is one of the best writers I know of historical novels for young people.  There’s lots to like about his books but, for me, what stands out is his ability to write from an unusual perspective.  In Auslander he gave us a view of the Nazi regime from inside it – but an outsider’s inside view.  Eleven Eleven offers us a view of the First World War from the position of combatants of three nationalities, one of whom is conflicted about where he belongs.

My choice today, however, is Sektion 20, set in 1970s Berlin.  So within my lifetime.  I’m not quite as old as the protagonists in the novel but I’m old enough to remember quite clearly when Berlin was a city divided by a wall.  I was fascinated by this as a teenager and had a strange desire to visit.  At the end of 1989 I watched on television the fall of the barricade and, although I was hugely excited by the historic events unfolding in Germany, a part of me was disappointed that I’d never realise that desire.

Sektion 20 took me back to those days – bad old days, without a doubt – and showed me some of what it was actually like living in divided Berlin.  The novel is set in both East and West and doesn’t just point to the contrasting fortunes of the citizens; it shows that the reality was less than clear-cut.  I had a little more background knowledge by the time I read this book.  I visited Berlin twice in the aftermath of the Wall coming down and learned a lot from those visits and the people I met.  Paul Dowswell, however, researched meticulously before writing his story.  He doesn’t deave his readers with his knowledge, though; rather he allows his characters and plot to demonstrate the situation.

Politics, philosophy, action, suspense and human nature are thrown up in the air, caught and worked into a dramatic pattern in this fascinating novel.

7th December

It all starts when Alasdair is on the train from Glasgow to Mallaig en route for Skye, the birthplace of the father he scarcely remembers. On board he encounters two men, each chilling in his own way, who leave the train in dramatic fashion and Alasdair with a crumpled note saying ‘Hunt at the Hill of the Red Fox MI5’.  Allan Campbell McLean’s classic thriller is as exciting today as it was sixty odd years ago when it was first published. The Hill of the Red Fox is one of the very few class books I remember fondly from primary school and I recommend it often to children looking for a complex and engrossing adventure story.

Paul Dowswell came to widespread attention with the publication of Auslander, a stunning book set in Germany during the Second World War.  I’ve been reading him ever since and loving his writing.  I almost chose Sektion 20 for this list.  It also tells a historical story from a non-British point of view and is fascinating.  However, on to what I did choose!  Eleven Eleven is set on the last day of the First World War and tells of the meeting of two soldiers and an airman, one British, one German and one American.  How they come to meet and what happens to them in the few hours on either side of 11am make for compelling reading.  With every turn of the page readers will hold their breath, expecting the worst and hoping for the best.  Can the three survive until the Armistice?  Paul (in other books as well as this one) deals with war head on, leaving his readers in no doubt of its complexities and horrors.

Wave by Paul Dowswell

Following the highly successful Eleven Eleven, Paul Dowswell returns to the First World War with Wave, a novel set on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  Compelling and brutal, it is the story of the (imaginary) Hastings Pals and specifically of brothers Charlie and Eddie.  In the midst of the chaos of that notorious day the Pals’ home community is shattered.  The brothers’ lives are both changed and the repercussions of the summer morning echo down the years.  Paul Dowswell’s unflinching writing and eye for detail make this a gripping and haunting read.

This novel was commissioned and published by Barrington Stoke which specialises in books for young people who struggle with reading, particularly because of dyslexia.  I say that not to suggest anything other than that this is a book for any teenager.  And I’d whole-heartedly recommend it.

2012’s Bookshelf

The other day I was clearing out all the books I’ve received from publishers this year. Don’t worry; they all went to good homes. I dealt with the books for primary children first, as they were being given as prizes, and the picture books had already gone. So I was left with the teenage titles. One of my colleagues took them to pass on to a local organisation which is collecting gifts for young people who might not otherwise receive anything. Hopefully there will be lots of happy teenagers in Moray this Christmas.

But they’ll pretty much only be happy if they like dystopian novels or the paranormal/supernatural. Fairies, vampires, zombies, angels, werewolves and dark spirits of all kinds were clustered on my shelves. And I hate them all! I’ve never met one that I could enjoy reading about. I’m sure some of them are good books. In fact, I know they are. Take a bow, Joss Stirling. But I can’t get interested. Part of my problem is that I’m irritated by publishers jumping on the bandwagon and giving us more of the same – even when it’s badly written, plotted and populated. The dystopian novels aren’t quite as bad but I do think that they’re going the same way as authors run out of anything new to say. But Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy was interesting and I thought that Slated by Teri Terry was a great concept.

Once these genres were off my shelves, I was left with very little. Fortunately some of it was very good. Sophie McKenzie’s Missing trilogy was represented and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Similarly, I am loving Anne Cassidy’s Murder Notebooks. I’m surprised by both of these as I don’t particularly enjoy thrillers. But these are gripping without being a ridiculous strain on the nerves. More to my general taste were the historical novels by the likes of Mary Hoffman, Rosemary Sutcliff, Paul Dowswell and Marie-Louise Jensen, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine. And my small Australian collection: Garth Nix, Michael Gerard Bauer and Morris Gleitzman. I met the first two at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year and they were as lovely as their books. (I’ve met Morris Gleitzman previously and he is too!)

Clearly there are other brilliant books out there and I do understand that publishing is a business and it needs to be commercially viable. But my wish for 2013 is that more publishers will be brave and take risks – and that they’ll keep sending me their books!