Category Archives: Historical

Doodlebug Summer

Alison Prince

A & C Black


Mar 2006

‘We know what the things are now. Doodlebugs, people call them. Flying bombs’ They’re packed with explosive, and they work on a rocket motor that stops when it runs out of fuel. Sometimes they nose-dive and blow up at once, other times they glide for a long way, you never know.’

It is the paradoxical sense of knowledge and yet of malignant uncertainty that Alison Prince has captured so well in ‘Doodlebug Summer’. Set in Blitz-ravaged London environs in 1944, this deceptively complex, short novel pulls together narrative threads that provide an astute look at familial concern, the resultant impact of advancements in technological warfare upon civilians and a sensitive portrayal of the horrors imbued within themechanics of conflict rather than the villification of a set of people, or of an abject construct of ‘nationhood’ wholesale.

‘…the great, glossy concert grand pianos are made in Germany, the country we are fighting. There must be people there who like us, sick of the war.’

There’s a beautiful fullness in the symmetry between the opening and close of this novel as Katie and her friend Pauline climb their tree. The tree itself is grounded in the presents with far-reaching roots… from the boughs of the tree is a standpoint with an enviable panorama into the future.
‘Flash Backs’, the series within which ‘Doodlebug Summer’ sits is a collection of historical novels published by A & C Black with the aim of expounding key historical moments through strong short pacy reads. Useful historical notes are provided towards the rear of the novel, as too is a glossary of more speciailised areas of diction used in telling the story.


Sarah Singleton

Simon and Schuster


Feb 2006

‘Look at me, Elizabeth. Do you think I’m wicked? Do you think I’m a devil? In my time everyone was a Catholic, because there was only one Church, but even then I was different from the others because of the shadow land. Don’t let your mind be clouded by what other people have told you. Judge me with your heart.’
So speaks the strange green child that twelve-year-old Elizabeth finds in the forest as she secretly tends a ruined Catholic shrine. The year is 1586 and Protestant England is an unforgiving place for Catholics. But mindless blame, fear and persecution are nothing new, as the green child, Isabella, can testify. She herself was born more than three hundred years ago, the child of a wise woman and midwife. Her mother was executed as a witch, a scapegoat when a rich family’s baby was born with a faulty heart, and since then Isabella has hidden mostly in the land of faeries, leaving her bones hidden in a hollow tree awaiting her return.
Yes, this all sounds a little strange, but Sarah Singleton has a gift for blending the seen and the unseen, the matter-of-fact and the magical, into a convincing whole. After all, what is the magical other than something we are not used to or don’t understand? And that is what this book deals with; the problem of how the different (in this case the spiritually different) can be demonised by the unthinking mob. Set against the hounding of Ruth Leland (Isabella’s mother) and the sixteenth century persecution of Catholics is the simple and powerful friendship that develops between the two girls. For Isabella her tragedy is done, and yet she berates herself for not having stayed at her mother’s side until the bitter end. For Elizabeth the fear has just begun: the Queen has sent the brutal Christopher Merrivale to hunt for the priest that her family is sheltering. Perhaps here there is a chance for the two girls to help each other: for Isabella to gain ‘closure’ and a second chance with a loving family, whilst Elizabeth gains safety and escape.
A powerful tale against a strong historical backdrop, this book introduces many themes but works most of all because of the focus on the girls’ fears and hopes and needs. In comparison, the sinister Merrivale, the dogmatic and ecstatic priest, even the cold-hearted faeries, seem unimportant, no matter what their schemes and desires. The writing, too, is mostly first rate, with a great feel for visual detail:
‘As the men whispered one to another, light and shadows slid over their faces, alternately revealing and hiding eyes, noses, mouths moist with wine and words. They looked like demons, leering and grimacing.’
A highly appealing, multi-dimensional historical adventure. Check it out.

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes by Caroline Lawrence

Dolphin Paperbacks


Oct 2005

Having read about a forthcoming television series to be made of Caroline Lawrence’s popular Roman Mysteries series by the BBC, I was compelled to catch up with the antics of Flavia and friends. The most recent paperback, The Colossus of Rhodes, takes to the sea, with the usual appealing mix of mystery, history, humour, myth and adventure. Each of the Roman Mysteries tends to focus on one of the four main characters – and this is Lupus’s story. Setting sail from Ostia in Lupus’s ship, with Flavia’s father as Captain, the friends embark on their latest mission – to find and free the children kidnapped into slavery by the evil Venalicius the slave-dealer. Lupus also has his own agenda – to fulfil a sacred oath to himself to find his long-lost mother.
Lawrence’s skill at mixing humour and tragedy is once again demonstrated as Lupus’s dream is dangled in front of him in an emotive, frantic but ultimately abortive quest. There is some resolution as far as the kidnapping strand to the story goes – but only after Flavia and co have run the gauntlet of obstacles and red-herrings, as always ducking out of mortal danger just in the nick of time. The journey from Ostia to Rhodes entails some wonderful descriptions of the Mediterranean and Greek Islands, conjuring an atmospheric backdrop and a vivid sense of time and place. Perfect entertainment for any families heading to the Greek Islands this holiday season, The Colossus of Rhodes keeps up the momentum of this excellent series, making you eager to read the next one. Visit for more information about the BBC adaptation and details of forthcoming books in the series.

Whispers in the Woods

Mark Bartholomew ill. by Jan Evans

Educational Printing Services Limited


Jan 2006

It is exciting stumbling unexpectedly upon a book that catches one unaware, making one both think and feel in a different way than before. Whispers in the Woods is such a book. It is a traditional and at once quiet tale that looks back to medieval life and traditions, in so doing offering peace and solace from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Taking the legendary green children of Woolpit as its inspiration, Whispers in the Woods deftly takes its child protagonists Fern and Hickory on a quest for ultimate self-knowledge and acceptance. What is so admirable in this is the way the tale captures the mood, music, movement and motions of medieval English life whilst covertly questioning issues of nurture and nature in the two children’s development.
The gentle narration and the endearing depiction of Fern and Hickory make this a likeable and comforting story. That is not to say the tale is not also resonant. The children’s persecution by witchfinder Silas of Wickham draws parallels with race issues of the present day. Similarly, the children’s relationship with nature stimulates thinking about our contemporary relationship with the environment. Interwoven into the tale are legends, folk-lore, a brief grounding in the origins of surnames and etymology, and an overview of mediaeval castle life.
On a purely practical level, production values on some of the illustrations are low, preventing them from properly complementing the text. The inclusion of a glossary is useful in providing an understanding of some of the more specialised language.
A welcome addition to the bookshelf.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

John Boyne

David Fickling Books


Jan 2006

It’s important ‘ crucially important ‘ not to lose sight of the dual function of historical fiction. It is not its sole preserve to document historically accurate fact ‘ that position is held, to lesser or greater degrees, by history books. Historical fiction aims to make an artistic statement brought into rapid relief alongside the backdrop of history. It’s indisputable value then is that it triggers within readers a shift in perspective.
The ambivalence that surrounds much of the criticism about John Boyne’s first novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, seems to arise from an inability to suspend one’s disbelief. As Kellaway asserts in the Observer, ‘(t)he Holocaust as a subject insists on respect, precludes criticism, prefers silence.’ The danger here is respectful silence has an unnerving ability to marginalise the Holocaust from mainstream historical discourse. This can be evidenced by BBC research findings that less than 40% of young people had heard of Auschwitz. Research on the streets of Minsk resulted in similar findings: ‘I think Auschwitz is a type of hoofed animal’.
Clearly historical treatment of the Holocaust for young people in the main has not resulted in even basic comprehension. The question arises then as to whether fiction has a role to play here and it can easily be argued that it does’ Successful fiction captures the imagination, it allows us to live lives that are extraordinary to us. The story of Bruno and Shmuel within ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ does exactly that, through it we gain a fresh and new perspective on the Holocaust allowing us to invest our emotional economies, should we divest our interaction with history of this then historiography becomes the realm of arbitrary facts and figures.
This novel is one whose success is grounded within the naivety of its voice. To criticise that and to dismiss Bruno as ‘thick and unobservant’ as Saunders does within The Times is to radically misalign the premise upon which ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ operates. As publisher David Fickling comments, ‘This is a book about innocence walking into darkness’, the at-once emotional and artistic impact of the book occurs as the reader moves through from disbelief to an awareness of the true capacity for humanity to dispossess itself from all respect and compassion. This is not, as Saunders suggests, a novel of ‘absolutely blush-making vulgarity’, neither is it as Kellaway claims ‘the first novel ever written for children about the Holocaust’, it is a novel whose ending remains with readers long after the paper pages are finished, it is a novel that inspires thought and difference of opinion, it is a book that deserves to be read, to be discussed, to be held close to the heart’

Chance of a Lifetime

Deborah Kent



Nov 2005

Set in the American Civil War, Chance of a Lifetime opens with protagonist Jacquetta May Logan staying with relatives Aunt Clem and her ‘unbearably lonely’ cousin Mattie. Jacquetta’s genial life of deportment, sewing and riding is shattered by the advancement of the Union army and its seizure of her family’s plantation. Together with her trusty steed Chance, Jacquetta escapes by cover of darkness and embarks upon a series of adventures, daring and intrigue that lead to the eventual liberation of her family’s Morgan horses’
It is easy to see how this novel could have been both unique and superb. Throughout the narrative trots along at a steady pace and in places it picks up speed and truly begins to gallop. This works best when Chance and Jacquetta are together feeling the winds of freedom and liberation rush through their respective manes and hair, the power of the writing at such times sweeps the reader along and makes the book a genuine pleasure. The marrying of a fairly traditional equine-focused tale together with the American civil war is not wholly comfortable however. Despite a somewhat sentimental scene whereby Jacquetta learns of the death of her brother Marcus, for a large portion of the novel the impact of war’s emotional focus is directed most heavily upon horses. As such the reader is left with an after-taste that the story would perhaps have felt more satisfactory had it not have placed the mortality of human kind and horses together.


Geraldine McCaughrean

Oxford University Press


January 2006

Cyrano de Bergerac and his cousin Roxane are a couple of literature’s most frustrated lovers. Fifteen years after the death of Roxane’s late husband, Christian de Neuvillette, their relationship remains constrained by his memory.
Cyrano explains how the pair ended up in this situation. It’s the story of how Roxane was seduced by Christian’s words both written and spoken and how de Bergerac wrote those enticing entreaties to win the heart of the woman he loved for another.
Add in Cyrano’s embarrassment about his rather prominent protuberance, dashing heroism and a sneaky rival in the shape of the Comte de Guiche and all the elements are in place for a classic historical romance.
This is not a tale that has hidden its light under a bushel. Movies in the shape of Cyrano, staring G’rard Depardieu, and Roxanne, Steve Martin, have brought this story to life in traditional and updated environments.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s version is based on the original play by Edmond Rostand and opts for the traditional setting of seventeenth France. It has all the lyrical richness that the tale demands, Cyrano’s swagger is admirably conveyed, Christian is suitably eager and dumb.
The machinations of the Comte provide a darker background for some of the more pantomime moments and everything floats along effortlessly.
It is also book that opens up the debate about the merits of retelling a classic tale: is such a work more valuable than the more ‘full-on’ challenge of inventing your own characters, setting and plot? Is it merely a buswoman’s holiday for McCaughrean?
The marketing team at Oxford University Press won’t care about such writerly concerns, however. They will simply be delighted with the January publication date.
After all, any young beau who wants to convince the object of his affections that he is in touch with his sensitive side on Valentine’s day will find this volume far more effective than a box of chocolates.

Greater Gains

K.M. Peyton

David Fickling Books


Oct 2005

[Yet again I must follow the ministerial code and declare an interest. K.M. Peyton very kindly helped me with my writing and with general advice when I was just getting started. I’ve always been in awe of her writing ability.]
Another from the David Fickling YA collection, this book is the sequel to Small Gains, and continues the story of the Garland family, Norfolk farming folk in the early nineteenth century, beset by a fair selection of woes and challenges. The Enclosure movement, agricultural mechanisation, rural unemployment and depopulation, disease and the harsh social and penal systems of the time all rear their heads as historical backdrop to the two books. Even as this story begins, in first person narration by youngest daughter Ellen, we get a fair taste of the uncertain nature of existence’

My name is Ellen Garland. I am the youngest of four. The eldest, Margaret, died of the wasting disease when she was sixteen. My brother Jack, a year younger, had to flee from home to escape hanging after he fired Mr. Grover’s hayricks, and my other sister Clara, now fifteen, is pregnant and still at home at Small Gains. I don’t know who by, but I can guess. To give the baby a decent name she married the vicar’s son, Nicholas Bywater, just before he too died of the wasting disease. To give Clara her due, she loved Nicholas dearly, as did we all. But the baby isn’t Nicholas’s.
You can see this is a strange kettle of fish for a very ordinary farming family to be in, and our father is very depressed.

‘ and Ellen herself is, within a few pages, to be involved in a prank that leads to her imprisonment and subsequent transportation to Australia.
The heroine, however, and the dynamo driving force of the family, is Clara, and for her parts of the story we move into the third person. Clara is not pretty, she is the practical one, the hands-on daughter, tough and passionate. She is her father’s anchor, not least because, like him, she is born to the land and (more than anything) to understand horses, disdaining the conventions of the time to train her champion trotter Rattler for his gruelling twenty-mile races. Serious money can be made for the family from racing and from Rattler’s stud services.
In both the previous book and this volume, Clara receives her fair selection of knocks, and often fate seems to be against her. Her baby and her unwanted marriage are both the result of blackmail, in order to benefit or protect her family: yet although her heart screams at the shackles that hold her, her courage and willingness to meet circumstances head on without losing anything of herself allows her to thrive. And yes, there’s some romantic interest here, for Clara is in love with the son of another farmer, Prosper Mayes, currently in India.
I can imagine some readers finding these books too muddled ‘ the switches in narration, the uneven jumble of events, frequent repetition of characters’ thoughts and utterances and self-searching ‘ whilst others might not like the almost melodramatic quality of Clara’s romantic rollercoaster. For me, however, Peyton tells it like it is. Practical realities to be met with grit and compassion, dreams that one should not let go of, conflicts and confusions (Clara has to acknowledge her sexual attraction to her arrogant, blackmailing husband but recognises that this is not the love she feels for Prosper)’ and yes, a Philip Glass kind of repetition in what we say and think and question as we vary our human theme toward greater self-knowledge.
This is not quite Kathleen Peyton’s best work, but it is still streets ahead of most of the field, and very moving, as ever. The writing style is relaxed, direct and appealing, the historical detail full of life and passion, and the emotional questions blisteringly relevant. She is, in the words of The Times, a ‘born storyteller’.

Charley Feather

Kate Pennington

Hodder Children’s Books


Oct 2005

Think Moll Flanders for the younger reader, but if that description puts you off, then consider this simply as an exciting story about thieves, highwaymen, gang warfare and disguise. It is 1739 and Charley Feather has just seen Dick Turpin hanged. This is a salutary experience as thirteen-year old Charley is a highwayman too, a member of a gang led by the notorious Jack Wild. When Wild is captured, Charley has to run and ends up heading for London with the suave ‘Frenchy’. He has a plan for survival which involves playing a dangerous game of trickery, and Charley is caught up in it.
This adventure story is an exciting and evocative tale of loyalty, betrayal and characters who are not what they seem. There is a real historic feel to the book, enhanced by chapter headings in the style of the mid-eighteenth century. Chapter Two for instance is subtitled: ‘In which I find a poor billet for the night, reflect on my murky past and ponder my uncertain future.’ While details like this add to the atmosphere, they do not get in the way of a fast-paced story. The many twists and turns of Charley’s fortune draw the reader on and the setting is sketched with a light, sure touch. Very convincing and a thoroughly enjoyable read.


Adele Geras

David Fickling Books


Oct 2005

Anything from the David Fickling YA stable is likely to be substantial, well-written and worth a lot more than a glance. The 400-page Ithaka lives up to these expectations: and yet, for all the brain fodder it offers, all the drama, the big human questions and the beautifully-crafted language, one can’t help wondering how many teenagers will really go for this.
The story is one of waiting. Long years of waiting for Odysseus, who left to fight the war against Troy, to find his way back home, via Cyclops, sirens and the rest. (I hadn’t read Troy, the first of these two volumes, and it’s many years since any scanty contact with The Odyssey, but that didn’t prove significant). Penelope, Odysseus’ wife and queen of Ithaka, is struggling to remain true to her husband, to believe in his survival, and to keep all ready – herself most of all – for his eventual return. To a greater or lesser extent, the royal servants and the whole of the island do likewise. Clearly the memory of Odysseus, the tales of his heroism and the need for a king have left a long shadow over the island, even affecting those who were no more than babies when their lord left. The goddess Pallas Athene adds to Penelope’s straitjacket of duty and faith by telling her that ‘as long as you are here, unchanged and unchanging, he will come to no harm’. To this end, the queen spends endless hours at her loom, weaving the images of her husband’s adventures and of his ship always heading for home. Meanwhile the hero’s ancient dog, Argos, pads around the place and dreams also of his master returning, whilst Telemachus, Odysseus’ son returns again and again to the armoury to take down his father’s massive hunting bow and marvel at it.
Yet the nature of life is change, and as time goes on, the strain of the waiting becomes a curse to the islanders. Soon, many are arguing that Penelope should declare her husband dead and marry again. The queen herself is emotionally and physically unfulfilled and restless, and the palace starts to fill up with a rabble of violent and unsavoury suitors, bringing chaos and disorder. As with a Shakespearean comedy, the idyll of Ithaka becomes tainted and corrupted by misunderstanding, deception, doubt: the reader can only wonder whether order is ever to be restored.
Much of the tale is told through the eyes and the growing pains of Klymene, the queen’s maidservant, and this is its strength, for the loves and losses of the younger characters around the palace are often the most touching and immediate. As a whole, however, there is a distance, a lack of either an emotional hook or a compelling, urgent story, that mars the narrative. Add that to the air of gloom that prevails ‘ ‘How much wickedness there was in the world. It was a wonder people found even a small amount of happiness in the midst of all the anguish’ – and we are firmly in the realm of Greek tragedy, where the gods have their sport of poor mortals. For those who desire such a read, you couldn’t do better.