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.

My Lockdown Books: Thirty Four

Tally Hamilton is furious to hear she is being sent from London to a horrid, stuffy boarding school in the countryside. But Delderton Hall is a far more unusual and interesting place than Tally ever imagined and then there’s the exciting school trip to the kingdom of Bergania.

Prince Karil hates his life in the Berganian palace and is only truly happy when he escapes to the dragonfly pool, a remote spot in the forests. When Karil meets the feisty English girl who brings the promise of adventure, his life begins to feel better. But this is 1939 and the prince soon has to look to Tally for survival as well as friendship . . .

If asked for my favourite children’s book by Eva Ibbotson, I will always give The Star of Kazan as my response.  But The Dragonfly Pool is also excellent.  In spite of its subject, it has a lighter feel to it than The Star of Kazan; perhaps it has an element of fairytale to it.  Whatever the reason, I enjoy it and would recommend it to you.



My Lockdown Books: Twelve

The time has come, as you surely knew it would, for me to share this one from my collection.  There’s nothing random about Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce.  It’s one of my all-time favourite books.  In fact, it’s possibly the one I’d choose if I could only rescue one of my collection of old children’s books.  The other contender is Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery.

Although written in very different times and places, they have some similarities.  And it’s what they have in common that makes me love Nancy Calls the Tune so much.  I’ve written about this before so I’ll cut to the chase: it’s the description of a small community.  Easterbraes (possibly Blairgowrie in real life) is a small Scottish town that we move to with Nancy Caird early in the Second World War.

Nancy moves to Easterbraes to take up the position of organist at the South Kirk, having met the minister, Angus Macrae, at the home of mutual friends along with his friend Nick Vossaryck.  Already there is her friend Desda, known to us from earlier books in the series.  These four form one level of community, their group being added to by Desda’s sister Rosalind as the story moves on.  The other community prominent in the novel is the congregation – anyone who’s anyone in the town seems to belong to it!

Everyone who has read this book knows that there are issues to be taken with it but I’m happy to look past those and just enjoy the warmth of the friendships and sense of the community pulling together – not always harmoniously – to promote strength and security.

My Lockdown Books: One

Around half of the books I own in hard copy (so about 1000) were published for children and teenagers.  They’re an odd mixture of the books I seriously collect, books from my own childhood, books I’ve been sent to review and contemporary children’s books I’ve come across either personally or professionally.  The one thing they all have in common is that I like them!  Lack of  bookshelf space (and however much space I had, there wouldn’t be enough) means that I have to choose carefully what I will keep and I do have periodic clear-outs.

The ongoing self-isolation situation has curtailed my work somewhat.  Very few publishers are able to send out review copies and authors are not looking for help with tours!  So I thought I’d indulge myself and share a book a day from my collection.  It’ll be a random selection.  I’m not planning this out; I’m just going to choose one book each day.

My first choice is Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes.  As you can tell from the image, I received a proof of this and I went on to select it for my round-up in The Scotsman.  It’s the first novel that Shirley, who is of course best known for her picture books and illustrations, wrote for older readers.  When working as a young people’s librarian I’d recommend it to upper primary and lower secondary kids.

The book is set in Florence in 1944 during the German occupation of the city.  It’s an aspect of the Second World War that I knew very little about when I first read the book so I found that interesting and Shirley Hughes’ characters engaging.  I’ve always enjoyed novels with a wartime setting or backdrop.  I think it’s the element of society standing together against a common enemy.  Perhaps, then, it’s an appropriate choice for just now.

20th December

The book I most associate Judith Kerr with is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and it’s another of the very few primary school class books I actually enjoyed.  It’s a fictionalised autobiography, describing how Judith’s (Anna in the book) family leaves Germany as Hitler comes into power.  Her father (actually the Jewish drama critic and journalist Alfred Kerr) was a noted opponent of the Nazi party and the family escaped Berlin with little time to spare. Pink Rabbit, the first in a trilogy, ends as the family arrives in England as hopeful refugees.  This was the first novel I read set in this time period and is one of the most impactful books I read as a child.

A Hidden Beauty by Tessa Barclay covers a great swathe of time, sweeping through the fifties and early sixties in the wake of Corie Duggan. Corie is a photographer and through her job is present at many of the major events of the period.  I love this kind of book with a long look at the main character.  Tessa Barclay is a great storyteller and this epic example of her work keeps moving along at a cracking pace.  London life in the early fifties, Grace Kelly’s Monaco wedding, war-torn Korea, Cuba in turmoil and the Berlin Wall all feature and are surrounded by a fascinating supporting cast including the up-and-coming politician Jack Kennedy and his PR man, German-American Drew Richter.

10th December

Trudy Takes Charge is the first of ten books about the eponymous heroine. They were published over the course of twenty-one years, from the late forties on, by Pickering & Inglis, a Scottish publishing house well-known for its overtly Christian books.  I know nothing about the author, Mary Alice Faid, but I believe she also wrote adult novels.  My copy of Trudy Takes Charge is actually my Mum’s, a Sunday School prize.  I read it when I was maybe about ten and over the years acquired the rest of the series, mostly from McCall Barbour’s bookshop on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh.  Fifteen year-old Trudy is recalled from her boarding school and left in charge of the family in her parents’ absence due to illness. It’s unashamedly evangelistic but it is also (and this makes it sadly unusual) a great story.  Everything does not go well and being a Christian brings Trudy trials as well as triumphs.

Something completely different is Once by Morris Gleitzman.  It’s also the first book in a series but there the similarity ends. It is the story of Felix and Zelda, two children living in Poland in the 1940s, trying to escape from the Nazi regime. Once is a good book – maybe a great one – and it’s deceptively simple.  The language is simple and the plot is simple but there’s nothing simple about the story.  It deals with horrific situations and dreadful choices and real-life history.  The power of the book lies in its matter-of-fact description, and some of the scenes will haunt readers of any age for a long time.  Because of that it is a challenging, but ultimately worthwhile, read.

5th December

Of all the children’s authors I collect, Dorita Fairlie Bruce is my favourite. In a large part I think it’s because she’s a Scot and so writes sensibly about my country and its people.  Whatever you might have read in children’s books of the twentieth century, we’re not all red-haired lasses from Glasgow or shy Highlanders!  Nancy Calls the Tune is the almost obligatory final book in a school story series where the heroine is now grown up and embarking on adult life.  For Nancy that means becoming a Church organist!  It’s not a perfect story and other people have pointed out that there are inaccuracies. But it is a story after all, not a factual account of life during the Second World War.  What it does have is a strong sense of community and wonderful camaraderie.  Being a small-town girl myself, I can relate to life in Easterbraes (almost certainly Blairgowrie in real life) and, to a daughter of the manse, the Church setting is extremely familiar and the characters completely believable.  And I like Angus – even though I’ve spent my adult life making sure not to get involved with divinity students or ministers…

My personal favourite of Elizabeth Laird’s many wonderful books is probably still The Garbage King (although I could be swayed in favour of her recent book Welcome to Nowhere, set in a refugee camp…).  It’s one of her many books to have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, having been shortlisted a few years ago.  Set in Ethiopia, it tells the story of two boys from very different backgrounds who find themselves living on the streets.  It’s powerful and moving and heart-breaking and life-enhancing – and it stayed with me long after I’d finished reading.  One of its major strengths, something it shares with many of Liz’s books, is that it doesn’t have an unrealistically happy-ever-after ending but it does have hope.