So many books, so little time

There’s an article on Medium.com about the number of books people read in a year, which prompted me to have a look at my records.

Since 2004, I’ve been keeping a list of the books I read in a spreadsheet. Yes, yes, I know, what a geek. But it’s interesting to look back and see, for example, what I was reading this time last year, or the balance of children’s books and adult fiction. Or the year I was addicted to manga and spent a fortune on Japanese comics.

It turns out there’s an enormous variation in the amount I read. Since 2004, I’ve averaged 63 books a year, with a minimum of 35 and a maximum of 113 (which was the year I was addicted to manga – you can read a lot of manga in a short time, but your wallet won’t thank you).

So far this year, I’ve read 43 books, which means I’m ahead of the average.

But does the number of books really matter? The year I read 113 books, 47 of them were manga. The year I read 35 included two Patrick Rothfuss, a George R.R. Martin, and a whopper of a Neal Stephenson book. Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White took me all of May to read in that year, but I was reading it every day and thoroughly enjoying it.

Does it matter if you read 50 books or a hundred, if you’re reading all the time, and enjoying the books you read?

Since I started keeping my records, I’ve noticed a slight reluctance to start longer books, because I know they’re going to take a long time – should I read the next Song of Ice and Fire book, or a Joan Aiken, a Michelle Paver, and the next Wells and Wong mystery by Robin Stevens?

You see, the problem is: there are so many books I want to read. I read a lot – it’s a rare day that I don’t read for at least half an hour in bed – but still, my “to be read” pile is tottering.

I suppose it means that my standards for long books have gone up. If it’s 250-300 pages, I’ll give it a shot – no harm done if it’s not that great. And I’ve taken a punt and discovered some brilliant books using that thinking. But if it’s 500 pages long, and it’s not particularly good, I start thinking about the other books I could have been reading in that time.

Neal Stephenson’s new book, Seveneves, is out soon, and it’s 880 pages long. Think of the number of books I could read in that time! Still, it’s not going to stop me. I’ve pre-ordered the Kindle edition.

I’m just going to have to accept that, despite the speedy start in the first five months, 2015 might be a bit of a below-average year.

Review: The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean by Lindsay Littleson

The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean

The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean, by Lindsay Littleson, was the winner of the 2014 Kelpies Prize. And no wonder. It has engaging characters and an exciting plot that zips along at a cracking pace – I read through it in one session last night after it automagically appeared on my Kindle a week earlier than I’d expected.

Lily McLean is a normal schoolgirl with the usual family dramas – annoying little brothers, a moody teenage older sister, and a baby sister who leaks from both ends. Her mum is on her own, with Lily’s dad dead and her step-dad out of the picture. Life in their little house is overcrowded and bad-tempered, so Lily finds refuge in a Harry Potter-like cupboard under the stairs. Only the prospect of getting away to Millport on the island of Cumbrae for a week, albeit in the company of her battleaxe Gran, keeps Lily sane.

But maybe not sane enough. She hears voices. Well, one voice. A ghostly voice giving her cryptic warnings. “Don’t go to Millport!” Is she being haunted? Why does the voice sound familiar? She wishes she could tell her friends (popular Rowan and geeky David) but how would you broach the subject?

She heads off to Millport with her Gran, meets up with the hyper-kinetic Aisha, and tries to have a good time, but the warnings become more specific, and the ghostly presence more solid. Who is the ghost? What’s so dangerous about going near the water?

At heart, this is a book about family and friendship, all tied together with a clever supernatural plot that resolves itself beautifully. Lily is an engaging narrator, very fond of lists that adorn the start of each chapter, and her friends and family are a diverse and interesting group. I loved geeky David and Lily’s ailment-obsessed Gran. Even baby Summer with her toy lion are packed with personality, despite their limited vocabulary.

This is an amazingly assured début novel. Lindsay Littleson is a terrific writer, and I for one can’t wait to see what she writes next.

Review: Othergirl by Nicole Burstein

Othergirl, by Nicole Burstein, is a superhero book. Superheroes – known as Vigils – are real, and can fly, or shoot flames out of their hands, or have superstrength, or any of the other usual comic-book powers. So far so conventional. For most people, the Vigils don’t have much of an effect of their daily lives, beyond watching YouTube clips of their latest exploits, collecting action figures, or arguing in the playground over who your favourite hero is.

For Louise, it’s different. She should be a normal schoolgirl, but for one thing – her best friend, Erica, is a superhero. What do you do when your best friend is a superhero? Well, you help make her costume, you patch it up when she uses her flame powers to burn through her own elbows, you help her choose a superhero name, and you help train her to get used to her powers before she’s called up to work with the rest of the Vigils. Oh, and you do her homework for her. Superheroes don’t have time for homework.

Turns out you also do all the usual things that best friends do. Argue about boys. Help them deal with parental drama. And keep their secrets.

The relationship of Louise and Erica in Othergirl is the heart of the book, and the story lives or dies by the success of this depiction – fortunately, they’re great, credible characters, and the juxtaposition of the mundane with the superpowered works perfectly. Of course Louise and Erica fall out over a boy! Best friends do that all the time. But it doesn’t normally end up with a showdown with a group of supervillains in an underground superhero base.

The backstory has just enough detail without bogging the reader down in superhero origin technobabble (and on a related note, I would like a prequel featuring The Amazing Clara, please).

Louise is the narrator of the book, and it also chronicles her growth from second fiddle to the hero of her own story. Because not everyone has superpowers, but that doesn’t stop you being a hero.

Fast-paced, engaging, and very satisfying.

Review: Julius Zebra Rumble with the Romans by Gary Northfield

Julius Zebra Rumble with the Romans

Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans is the latest book by Gary Northfield, the multi-talented cartoonist best known for Derek the Sheep, Gary’s Garden, and my personal favourite, The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs! which was one of my favourite books of 2013.

It’s the story of Julius, who’s definitely not a horse, and is definitely not called Debra, who is separated from his mother and brother at the stinky watering hole and captured by a strange man with a bird on his head. It turns out this strange man is a Roman centurion, and initially Julius and the other captured animals think they’re being taken to a circus (juggling monkeys!) but it turns out it’s some other kind of entertainment – and I think the cover provides enough clues that to say that Julius and pals end up as gladiators isn’t much of a spoiler.

The format works brilliantly – the book is heavily, heavily illustrated, with some sections containing what amounts to mini comic strips. The training scroll that Julius uses to record his journey to becoming a gladiator is an excellent insert, complete with Julius’ own illustrations.

The humour is exactly what you would expect from Gary Northfield. There’s a joke about poo on page 14. (Sorry, I meant page XIV – all the pages are numbered with Roman numerals, and there’s a handy guide at the back if your Roman arithmetic is a bit rusty.) There’s a lot of frenetic shouting and panic, some examples of blatant stupidity that cracked me up, but the book never forgets that it’s an adventure story, and the humour keeps the plot whizzing along. I read it in one session – I just couldn’t put it down.

One thing that struck me is how historically accurate the book is (talking zebras and vegetarian crocodiles aside).  The author has obviously done a significant amount of research on the period, and that makes the setting all the richer. Some of the pictures of sweeping Roman cityscapes are jaw-dropping in their detail.

Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert in the period. My degree in Classics was a very long time ago now, but there was nothing that struck me as inaccurate in the book. It’s educational!

Right up until the Glossary at the end. This section:

Battle of Alesia: A very important battle for the Roman General, Julius Caesar, which took place in 52BC. When he finally defeated the pesky Gauls, Julius strengthened his power in Rome, eventually becoming  Emperor six years later.

(Emphasis mine.)

Oh dear, Gary. No. No, he didn’t. Gaius Julius Caesar was never Emperor, only Dictator. The first Roman Emperor was Augustus, who was Julius Caesar’s heir.

Still, don’t let that one little slip worry you. It’s a fantastic book, full of humour and adventure, and heartily recommended. Sequel please!

My Dundee adventure – part two

(Part one here.)

We drove up to Dundee the day before the ceremony. It’s nearly 400 miles from Leicester to Dundee, but I’ve done the trip dozens of times before – Sandra’s family still live in Dundee, so we go up to visit them every year.

I didn’t get an awful lot of sleep that night. I was so nervous. I’d been working towards this moment for three years, but what if I didn’t win? Literary agent Gemma Cooper’s comments on my book at the Nosy Crow masterclass weighed on my mind. What if she was right? What if Harry was too old to be one of the main characters?

I’d been in touch with Joe Lamb and Lindsay Littleson, the other shortlisted authors, on Twitter in the run-up to the event. Lindsay had been through all this before, when she won the Kelpies prize for her book The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean, but Joe seemed as nervous as I felt.

The day dawned, bright and cold, with the raucous but strangely comforting sound of gulls on the Tay. I suppose living so far inland after spending my childhood by the sea makes me appreciate their unmusical calls more than I might otherwise, but they certainly brought a nervous smile to my face.

We made our way to the Central Library in the Wellgate, where we were made extremely welcome and the order of proceedings was explained. Everyone was so kind and friendly, but it didn’t stop me being extremely nervous.

Pupils from Braeview Academy were running the event. By strange coincidence, this is Sandra’s old school – although it wasn’t called Braeview in those days, but Whitfield High School. I don’t know exactly how much rehearsing they did, but it paid off – the presenters and the book champions did their jobs perfectly, and were extremely professional.

One by one, we got up on stage.

Shortlisted authors

Look at how nervous we were!

One by one, our champions described the plot of our books and why they enjoyed them. My champion did an amazing job, and made my book sound great, but as Joe and Lindsay’s champions described their books, I became more and more convinced that one of them would win. Joe’s coming-of-age, end-of-innocence story sounded the perfect treatment of childhood against the backdrop of the Great War. Lindsay’s timeslip allowed her a modern perspective onto historical events. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I love timeslips!

We each answered a question on our books from the champions, then announced the winners of the book jacket design competition. While older pupils had been actually reading and voting on the books, younger primary school pupils had been designing covers for the books. It was down to Joe, Lindsay and me each to decide on the winner for our respective books. This wasn’t easy, but in the end, the cover that grabbed me the most was Qynn Herd’s.

Qynn's cover design

The composition is really something special. The silhouette of the lighthouse, with the poppy and barbed wire motifs symbolising the connection with the Great War, against the amazing colours of the sky backdrop – I just loved it.

Qynn Herd - The Wreck of the Argyll

Then the fun and games were over. Theresa Breslin, one of the judges, and, more importantly, the Carnegie-winning author of books like Whispers in the Graveyard, took to the stage and introduced each of the shortlisted books.

By this point I was 100% convinced Joe or Lindsay would win. Absolutely, definitely, no doubt in my mind whatsoever. I was steeling myself for disappointment and reminding myself that getting onto the shortlist was the best thing I’d ever achieved with my writing, and it was a great omen for the future.

Then Theresa opened the golden envelope and announced my name.

Great War Dundee winner

The rest of the event is a blur. I remember standing up, accepting the envelope, and saying something, but I’m not really sure what it was. Then there were photographs. Lots of photographs. The lighting in the Steps Theatre is appalling! Those big spotlights just bounced right off my baldy head. Just as well I’ve never been vain about my appearance.

Theresa Breslin and me

After that, lunch at the Rep Theatre. The last time I was there was to see Iain Glen play Macbeth in 1993. Joe, Lindsay, and I had a good chat about writing – I really enjoyed meeting both of them, and I hope we keep in touch.

Now, all that remains is to work with Cargo Publishing to lick my book into shape for publication in September this year. That’s not long now.

Thanks to all at Dundee libraries and schools who were involved; thanks to Cargo Publishing for publishing the winning book; thanks to all the readers, artists, and presenters from Dundee schools who did such a brilliant job; thanks to Joe for not thumping me when I know he’d really have liked to; thanks to Lindsay for reminding me that her book is being published first; thanks to Theresa Breslin, Allan Burnett and Martha Payne for judging the competition; and most of all, thanks to Sandra, for believing I could do it even when I’d given up all hope.

Roll on September. I can’t wait to get my published book in my hands.

My Dundee adventure – part one

I’ve been writing for more years than I care to remember, but it’s really only been the last three years that I’ve applied myself wholeheartedly with the aim of seeing my work published. I’m not sure how many works-in-progress I’ve got cluttering up my hard drive – books I started, then came to a crashing halt at some point and never managed to get going again. It was only in early 2012 that I decided that I had to start actually finishing books if I ever wanted to see them in print.

I bought Scrivener, the world’s greatest novel-writing software, and got to work on The Chimney Rabbit. Like with so many of my previous projects, at one point I stalled – badly – and was stuck with writer’s block for months. Fortunately, the story kept nagging at my mind, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually, I got back to writing, and from there I ploughed on until I’d completed the first draft. I’d done it! I’d actually completed a full-length book! Next step, publication!

I knew nothing.

Twenty-seven rejections later, I finally realised that maybe, just maybe, my first book wasn’t quite good enough. One agent, Anne Clark, liked it enough to ask for the whole manuscript, but after reading that, she didn’t feel like she could take it any further. One thing she did say was that my book was too long – at 71,000 words, it was probably about twice as long as it needed to be to attract an agent’s attention. But I’d done my homework! There were tons of books for 8-12-year-olds that long! What I didn’t know was that my research didn’t matter – yes, books of that length are published all the time, but making your book longer than the generally-accepted 30,000 to 40,000 just gives it one more unnecessary hurdle to surmount.

By this point I’d completed the sequel. Which was even longer.

But no words are ever wasted. By that point I had nearly 150,000 words under my belt, and two completed novels. I now knew what worked and what didn’t in terms of planning the book and scheduling writing time. I knew that I could actually finish full-length novels – if I stuck at it.

The next book was a lot better, but more importantly, it was a lot shorter. It went through two major revisions, where I changed the setting and title, and in total it had fourteen rejections. But perhaps most encouragingly, it got onto the longlist for the Bloomsbury/National Literacy Trust New Children’s Author Prize 2015.

By this point I’d been scaling back my submissions to agents, and had been concentrating on competitions. The great thing about competitions is that there’s a winner – that may sound silly, but sometimes you can submit to an agent along with a thousand other aspiring authors, but not one of you is taken any further. At least with a competition, there’s going to be someone who gets published.

Great War Dundee

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about the competition – it was probably on Twitter – but the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize Competition came to my attention. Unlike many competitions, this had a very specific brief – the book had to be related to Dundee and the First World War. Now, obviously, I didn’t have a book ready-made for that competition, and I wasn’t sure I’d have time – especially when it would require research, as, while I know Dundee reasonably well, I wasn’t around in the First World War…

It was already June, and the closing date was the end of August. But I got an idea and it wouldn’t let go of me. A week of research, a few days planning, a month of writing, and I had my first draft. I got a couple of copies printed, and my partner Sandra read it through, as she does with everything I write. At this point, I had no idea – no idea at all – if it was any good. I’d just been focused on getting the words down. I can’t even say I enjoyed writing it – many evenings, it seemed like an awful lot of hard work. Was it all worth it? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to give up and spend my evenings on the Xbox or watching telly?

The email Sandra sent me included (along with a list of typos) the following:

This is by far the best thing you’ve written.

Well, that was encouraging! I gave my second printed copy to my friend, colleague, and fellow aspiring writer Colin Jones, and he came back with some cracking notes (including little historical fact checks like the lipstick that Nancy’s sister is wearing – yes, lipstick had just been invented, but would a lass from Dundee in 1915 have any?). I pushed on with the second draft, put together the submission package, and sent it off.

The day Fiona Macpherson sent me an email saying that I’d made it onto the shortlist was amazing.

But not quite as amazing as the day, four and a half months later, when I went to Dundee for the prize ceremony.

Still a bit wobbly

Great War Dundee winner

Yesterday, the winner of the Great War Dundee Childen’s Book Prize was announced at a ceremony in the Central Library in Dundee. There were dozens of children from schools across the city present, and the ceremony was presented by five pupils from Braeview Academy – two acting as masters of ceremonies, with one championing each of the three shortlisted books.

The pupils did an amazingly professional job – I loved the way my champion described The Wreck of the Argyll, my book – but as the other champions described Lindsay and Joe’s shortlisted entries Shell Hole and The God of All Small Boys, the more I became convinced that one of their books would win. They just sounded so good!

So when Theresa Breslin opened the golden envelope and announced that my book had won, my brain froze. I couldn’t believe it. I’d completely and utterly convinced myself that Joe or Lindsay would win.

Sandra, my partner, says that I managed to give an acceptance speech, but I’m just going to have to take her word for it. I spent the rest of the day in a bit of a daze, even after I’d got over the initial shock.

So my book is going to be published in September. I’m looking forward to working with Cargo Publishing to lick it into shape, but of course I’m nervous about the process too!

I’ve got more thoughts about this, of course, including how pleased I was with Qynn Herd’s winning cover design for my book (although all the covers, for all three shortlisted books, were amazing) but I’ll leave those for a later post.

In the meantime, I’d just like to thank all involved with the competition, especially Fiona, who’s been wonderful, and wish Joe and Lindsay every success in their writing. Lindsay’s first book is published next month, and I’ve every confidence we’ll see Joe’s work on bookshop shelves sooner rather than later.

It’s the final countdown

One week today, it’ll all be over, one way or another. The results of the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize are announced next Wednesday, the 25th of March, and either I’ll have won, or either Joe Lamb or Lindsay Littleson will be getting their book published by Cargo Publishing instead.

Great War Dundee

It’s all getting very close now. Dundee Libraries have started publishing Q&A sessions with me, Joe, and Lindsay on their Facebook page. Joe is posting song-a-day countdown videos on his Twitter account. (So far we’ve had Cloud 9, Eight Days a Week, and Seven Seas of Rhye.) Joe, Lindsay, and I have been judging the book cover competition, where Dundee primary school children have been designing covers for our books – that’s been hard!

In other writing news, I completed my third draft of My Dragon Has No Nose and submitted it for this year’s Kelpies prize. Joe’s also submitted an entry (although Murphy’s Law got the better of him and he sent off the wrong draft – disaster was averted when the nice folks at Floris Books told him he could submit a corrected version). Fortunately for our chances, Lindsay hasn’t entered this year – given that she won last year for The Mixed Up Summer of Lily MacLean (coming out next month) that can only be a good thing for me and Joe!

I’ve also done a bit of tweaking on a short story, and done a fair bit of planning on my next project. It’s going to be a bit tricky to decide what to do next – I’ve got three or four story ideas at various levels of detail in my notes, and also a good idea about how I could tackle a rewrite of my Pictish dragon book.

But all that is going to have to wait until after the results of the Dundee competition. Because if The Wreck of the Argyll doesn’t win, my top priority is going to be to do another draft and then send it out to agents, making sure to write at the very top of my cover letter that the book was one of three books shortlisted for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, so I’m not going to give up on it, even if it doesn’t win.

Fingers crossed, though.

Origin story

I could read and write before I went to school – my Mum taught me using comics, I seem to recall, and I remember writing my name in big bold capitals – JOHN – before my aunt, who was a teacher, told my mother off for not teaching me to write lower case letters first.

So when I went to school, I had a slight advantage, and was always treated as an advanced reader. I burned through school reading books faster than they could assign them to me, so my teachers used to have to dig out other books for me to read. When I was around seven years old, my teacher gave me a book that contained tales from mythology – Thor and his hammer from Norse mythology, Finn MacCoull from Celtic legend, and Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxons. How I loved those stories! The memory of that book stuck with me for decades, although of course I couldn’t remember what is was called, or who it was by.

It’s been nearly 40 years since I read that book, but even now I have a fascination for myths, legends, fantasy, and history. I studied Classics at university because I was obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology. Of the six books I’ve written, five have been fantasy, and one history. This book is my origin story – this is the bat bursting through young Bruce Wayne’s window; this is my radioactive spider-bite.

So of course it was extremely annoying that I couldn’t remember what the book was called. I tried searching on the Internet, but I didn’t have much to go on – it was a school reading book available in the early 1970s, and it had Beowulf, Finn and Thor in it.

Then I got lucky, and found a mention on a web page of a book that had similar myths – it was called They Were Brave and Bold. It didn’t sound quite right – it seemed very American, from an American publisher, and I recall the stories being very European – but I ordered a second-hand copy from Abebooks, just in case.

It wasn’t the right book. It didn’t have Beowulf, Finn, or Thor. All the stories were from North America. Further research suggested that this was a cut-down paperback version of a previously-published, much larger hardback. But I was pretty sure the book I’d read hadn’t been a big thick book at all.

More trawling through the listings at Abebooks brought another edition to light. Another paperback, but with a different selection of stories – and it was issued by a British publisher. James Nisbet published the Janet and John series of early reading books, so they definitely had a connection with British schools. This was looking promising!

I ordered a copy. It turned up:

Brave and Bold

It’s called Brave and Bold (note the omission of “They Were” from the title) and the authors (although I presume in this case, editors would be the more appropriate term) are listed as Miriam Blanton Huber, Frank Seely Salisbury, and Charlotte Huber (the same editors as the other, American, editions).

I pulled the book carefully from its envelope and checked the tablet of contents:

Brave and Bold TOC

Thor! Finn! Beowulf! There was just one more thing I needed to check. I remembered that the Thor story involved the theft of Thor’s wife’s hair, and its replacement by the dwarfs with a golden wig… was that in there? If that was included, there could be no doubt.

I turned to page 87 and started reading. Yes! There it was:

“[Loki] was determined to steal the golden hair. As noiselessly as he could, and more like a thief than a god, he crept into the palace, cut off the golden locks, and carried them away.”

I read through the rest of the book. The story of Finn disguising himself as his own baby and pretending to squeeze water out of a stone – that had stuck in my mind, too. Beowulf and the dragon – that was so familiar.

Beowulf and the dragon

I’d finally found it.

Strangely, I had no recollection of the Sinbad story, or The White Cat – although my Mum had a beautiful volume of The Arabian Nights with fantastic glossy colour plates in it that I read over and over when I was young, so that may have pushed out the earlier memories of Sinbad. The White Cat is a delightful fairy tale that is apparently related to the Brothers Grimm’s Puddocky and also to The Frog Princess, but perhaps 44-year-old John appreciates it more than 7-year-old John did.

The illustrations – by Florence and Margaret Hoopes – are beautiful. From the frost-giants on the cover to Grendel on the back, through all the full-colour pictures that accompany each story, each picture fits perfectly. The Beowulf story in particular has pictures full of dynamism and energy.

I’m so glad that I’ve found this book at last. Not just for the nostalgia, but for the influence it had on me as a young reader. I must have read hundreds of books in those very early years, but this is the only one that’s stuck with me – and now I have my own copy.

Brave and Bold back

Review: The Battle of the Braes by Margaret MacPherson

The Battle of the Braes

Recently, I was thinking about some of the books that influenced me when I was younger. In particular, I was thinking about The Hill of the Red Fox, by Allan Campbell McLean, which I re-read a while back when I picked up a second-hand copy on my trip to Hay-on-Wye – it’s a book that has had a great effect on my writing, and served as a significant inspiration for The Wreck of the Argyll, my Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize entry. It brought me to thinking of some of the other books I read when I lived in Portree on the Isle of Skye, and in particular books set on that island.

One of the books suggested to the class by my Primary 7 teacher was The Battle of the Braes, by Margaret MacPherson. It’s the fictionalised story of what is sometimes known as the last battle fought on British soil (although that probably overstates the case!) – the 1882 revolt of the crofters of Braes, just outside Portree, against the unfair practices of the landowners denying them grazing rights. The crofters withheld their rent, forced the Sheriff Officer to burn the eviction notices, then, when fifty policemen were shipped in from Glasgow, fought a pitched battle with sticks and stones before five of their number were arrested and taken to Inverness.

The book tells this story of the viewpoint of young Sam Nicolson, from one of the crofting families whose livelihoods are threatened. He takes an active part in the revolt, gets into a significant amount of trouble, and learns some lessons about the consequences of actions. Not for one moment does he ever doubt that the crofters are in the right, and at the heart of the book is the struggle between Justice and Law. Law is on the side of the landlords; according to the schoolmaster, even God is on the side of the landlords, because God is on the side of the Law; but Sam is convinced that the crofters are in the right.

The questioning of authority, and the mistrust of people who value money over communities, is still a valuable message to this day.

Margaret MacPherson herself lived on Skye (in fact, her granddaughter Lizzie was in my class in Portree) and her grasp of the cadence of Gaelic-affected speech is wonderful. There are few Gaelic words or even much in the way of dialect to get in the way of the story, but the way the dialogue is stitched together makes it absolutely clear that this is a distinct and separate culture she’s writing about.

The interweaving of the historical event with the boyish adventures of Sam works well, too. You never feel like you’re reading a history book – it’s an adventure. It just so happens that it’s an adventure that’s based on real events.

Margaret MacPherson’s books are no longer in print, but it’s worth searching them out. I got a lovely ex-library hardback in excellent condition from Abebooks, and plan on hunting down some more of her books (when I’ve got through some of my enormous tottering to-read pile).

It would be a shame for such great stories to be forgotten.