The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe cover

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively is the first of her many books for children that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. It was first published in 1973.

It’s the story of the Harrison family who have recently moved into an old cottage in Oxfordshire. There’s mum and dad and two children James and Helen and Tim the dog. James and Helen have a typical brother/sister relationship, often at loggerheads but occasionally united.

The house had needed a few repairs to be done to it before they moved in, James’s attic bedroom hadn’t been used for years, in fact the workmen had had to remove nails from the door to get in, it had been well blocked up.

James likes his bedroom but strange things happen in it. Things move and get broken, there are often cold draughts, and old fashioned writing appears in various places and Tim barks at thin air. With his reputation of being a bit naughty it’s not surprising that James’s parents blame him for all the nonsense that’s been going on. He’s in trouble and knows that there’s a poltergeist which has travelled from his room and is broadening its horizons, beginning to cause trouble in the village too.

It seems that the poltergeist is the spirit of a 17th century sorcerer called Thomas Kempe and he wants James to be his apprentice, but Thomas is not happy with the way modern life has evolved since he was last on the loose.

I would have loved this book as a child but like all well written children’s books it’s just as enjoyable a read for adults too. Lively won the Carnegie Medal for this book. I think the only other of her children’s books I have is The House in Norham Gardens. Have any of you read any of her books for youngsters?

The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden

The Dragon of Og cover

I read The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden ages ago but I’m so behind with some book thoughts that I’m only getting around to it now. It was published in 1981, it’s only the second or third children’s book by Godden that I’ve read and I must admit that it was the book cover that attracted me to it although I’m quite a fan of her books for adults. Pauline Baynes illustrated the book in colour and black and white and the cover. I’ve always liked her designs, she designed C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books in the 1960s.

Anyway, I was particularly delighted when I started to read this one as the setting is the Scottish Borders at a time when the castles were made of wood. The Castle of Tundergarth stands high on a hill overlooking broad meadows and forests through which flows the Water of Milk which isn’t as benign as it sounds as beneath its pools lies a deep cave where a dragon lives.

This isn’t an ordinary dragon though, he’s a lonely soul as his mother left him at the cave as a youngster and he has no friends, and no idea of what it means to be a dragon. The young wife of the new laird befriends him, but the laird isn’t pleased with that as Og the Dragon occasionally eats one of his bullocks and the laird is determined that Og must die. Matilda and the locals villager are up in arms about that. The story is based on an old legend of the Scottish Lowlands.

What amazed me about this book is that Godden writes quite a lot of the dialogue in Scots, using a fair few Scots words and ways of speech. She even uses correctly amn’t I instead of the less grammatical English aren’t I. That is a big bugbear of mine as editors often wrongly anglicise it and even directors have Scottish actots saying it the English way when they definitely shouldn’t be as they are speaking Scots.

I always thought of Rumer Godden as being one of those very English women – in the way that a woman who had grown up in the Indian Raj always was. But after a teeny bit of research I discovered that in her old age she moved to the Scottish Lowlands to be close to her daughter. She certainly soaked up all of the atmosphere of the area, she must have enjoyed living here I think.

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison

The Land the Ravens Found cover

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison was published in 1955 it is a children’s book and I’ve given it three stars on Goodreads. It’s the story of how some people in a Viking community based in Caithness, the far north of Scotland, decide that they are tired of the violent life in Caithness. There’s constant fighting and raiding going on. It’s decided that Iceland is the place to travel to and some of the people who are chosen to go are thralls, Scots and Irish who have been taken prisoner on earlier raids. They’ll be doing a lot of the rowing.

It’s a time when Christianity was beginning to get a toehold on the people and some were giving up the Norse gods for the new religion, causing some tension between those who wanted to keep to the old ways.

Aud the Deep Minded is a wise and respected woman, wealthy too, she’s one of the older women and is a Christian, she decides to organise the building of a ship that will sail them across the sea to Iceland where she hopes to settle down to a more peaceful way of life in her old age. After a scary voyage with the boat piled high with cattle and everything needed to build a new community, they reach Iceland and in time everyone is allotted some land and people pair up to start families. The few Icelandic people seem happy to have the incomers moving in, life has been harder for them and they have very little in the way of luxuries. It seems that their way of life might be improved by the foreigners and they can learn from each other.

My copy of this book is really nice, I suspect that it has never been read as the pages are pristine, lovely thick paper and I think that might be because at the beginning of the book the author throws so many characters at the reader, all with outlandish names, it makes it quite a confusing read to begin with.

However , this book has made me think that I would really like to read the original Icelandic sagas that Naomi Mitchison based this book on.

This is another book read for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge, number 22.

Naomi Mitchison was an amazing woman who lived to the age of 101. You can read an obituary by Elizabeth Longford here. This one is more personal than the Guardian one below.

You can read her Guardian obituary here.

I’ve had a Virago copy of her book The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) for years and it’s about time I got around to reading it. Elizabeth Longford describes it as possibly the best historical novel of the 20th century. What an amazing thing to say, I’m now really looking forward to reading it and hoping I won’t be disappointed.

Blackie’s Children’s Annual

I have a lot of collections of ‘stuff’, often completely useless and worthless but just pretty, such as shells and stones and there are the books and china of course, old brooches and boxes, old postcards… the list goes on and on. But I’m absolutely not going to start a collection of Blackie’s Annuals although I believe they are collected by a lot of people.

Blackie's Children's Annual

I just came across this one at the weekend whilst looking for something completely different – a set of pine shelves which I want for the kitchen but am having no luck finding. In fact today I just bought wood to have a go at making them myself, with Jack’s help. I wish I had been able to take woodworking classes when I was at school, I would have loved that.

Anyway, I’m rambling, back to Blackie’s Children’s Annual, I couldn’t resist buying this one but unfortunately it doesn’t have any clue inside it as to when it was published. It must have been sometime during World War 1 because of the endpapers, beautiful wee soldiers, in kilts too albeit rather short ones.

Front Endpapers

Back Endpapers

Also the very first story in the book is about a father going to war, he’s in the Special Reserves and the family’s ‘fraulein’ is having to return to Germany. So I’m plumping for Christmas 1914 for the publication date although Jack thinks they wouldn’t have had time to get it published in time for Christmas 1914. I think it was probably all ready long before Christmas and they just added the first story about the war and the endpapers to catch the spirit of the times. After all – the war was going to be finished soon wasn’t it?!

Actually I’ve just realised that the front cover was almost certainly designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh as he did a lot of work for Blackie’s books as well as designing Hill House in Helensburgh for him.

If you’re interested there are more images of Blackie’s books here.

Not Bad for a Bad Lad by Michael Morpurgo

I swithered with the idea of NOT signing up for the Goodreads Challenge this year, the last two years I signed up to read 100 books and in 2014 I just managed it, but it did mean that I was concentrating on quick reads towards the end of the year, just to get that 100 under my belt. Anyway, I decided to sign up for 75 this year as I do like being able to see at a glance what I’ve read on Goodreads and this should mean that I’ll have more time for classics which tend to be fairly hefty.

So to Not Bad for a Bad Lad by Michael Morpurgo, this book was published in 2010 and is obviously aimed at children but I bought it for the Michael Foreman illustrations, I don’t think I had ever read anything by Morpurgo before.

This is a very quick read, the story is told by a young boy who was born in 1943, one of six children with no father figure around. His mother isn’t able to cope with his bad behaviour which gets worse and worse as he gets older. The upshot is that as a teenager he ends up being sent to a borstal for a year, borstals are now called young offenders institutions.

There are horses at the borstal and he eventually gets a job looking after them and that’s the beginning of a big change in his life. He is trusted to befriend a nervous horse, a Suffolk Punch (like small versions of Clydesdales) called Dombey and the relationship which he builds up with him and the respect which he gets from Mr Alfie, the head of the stables, lead to good behaviour and getting released early from the borstal.

It’s a tale which shows that young people who have lost their way in life can get back on track again if just a few adults like teachers are willing to give them another chance.

There are a few pages and photographs at the end of the story which tell about the history of borstals and horses in the military and also the Suffolk Punch horses which came so close to dying out completely, in fact at the time of publication there were only 410 of them and they are on the critical list of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Morpurgo is obviously very fond of animals and horses in particular and he and his wife have set up a charity called Farms for City Children. You can also take a look at the Suffolk Punch Trust if you’re interested. You can see images of Suffolk Punch horses here.

You can see some Michael Foreman illustrations here some of them are from the book.

A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart

A Walk in Wolf Wood cover

A Walk in Wolf Wood is one of Mary Stewart’s children’s books and features some of the themes which often turn up in her adult books, magical fantasy and mystery. It was first published in 1980 and this paperback in 1981. I don’t know about you but I like the fairy tale castle on the cover. I read this as part of the Scotland 2014 challenge. This has been my sixteenth book.

John and Margaret Begbie were having a picnic in the Black Forest with their parents. The parents were drowsy after their meal and when a weeping man walked past John and Margaret they decided to follow him to see if they could help him. So begins an adventure into the past, featuring a duke and his household and a werewolf.

It reads like an updated fairy tale and is an enjoyable story, I think I would have loved it if I had read it as a 10 year old but it wasn’t bad reading as an adult.


Flambards cover

I loved the TV adaptation of K.M.Peyton‘s Flambards which I watched way back in 1979. It doesn’t seem to have been repeated since then. Anyway for some reason Flambards popped into my head just before I went to a local library book sale earlier in the year and I was quite amazed to see a copy of the first book in the series sitting unloved and unwanted in the children’s section. It was still there at the end so I decided that it must have been meant for me and I bought it. It was first published in 1967 and the Flambards quartet was the runner-up for the Carnegie Medal.

The story begins in 1908 and Christina who is an orphan has been sent to live at Flambards, the home of her widowed uncle. He has two sons the eldest being Mark who is arrogant and selfish like his father and they are both obsessed with horses and fox-hunting. I know, the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. Christina’s uncle is an invalid and unable to walk and ride due to a riding accident and they are obviously a lot poorer than they used to be. It’s supposed that he plans to get Christina to marry his son and heir Mark so that they can get their hands on Christina’s money when she comes of age. The younger son Will is completely different from his brother, he has no interest in horses. Machinery is his obsession and in particular, flying machines!

Will is bullied and beaten by his father because he isn’t the sort of son that he wants and a close friendship grows between Christina and her cousin Will, despite the fact that Christina has caught the horse obsession.

There’s a lot of horsey stuff in the shape of hunting and point-to-points so this series is bound to be of interest to the many girls around who are into horse riding. I never was but my schoolfriends Vivian and Lorna just lived for horses.

This book takes us up to 1912 so there isn’t much about flying in it but I’m going to be seeking out the other three books in this series which, if they’re anything like the TV series will feature the estate of Flambards as a First World War flying base.