Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri

We first meet Nuri and Afra when they are in a reception centre for refugees in England. We learn that Afra was an artist, but now she's blind. We learn that Nuri is haunted by the knowledge that he has killed a man with a bat. He is also haunted by a child called Mohammed, whom no-one but he can see. And we learn that his and Afra's young son, Sami, is dead, but that his mind shies away from thinking of this.

Nuri and Afra are refugees from Aleppo in Syria. As the book slides between past and present, we discover that Nuri was a beekeeper, who worked with his cousin, Mustafa, who was a genius with bees. Mustafa is already in England. He's doing well, thanks to his boundless enthusiasm for bees; he has started up new colonies, and is also teaching other refugees about bee-keeping. He sends encouraging emails to Nuri, he's eager for them to be together again - yet when, after a difficult and dangerous journey, Nuri finally makes it to England, he is curiously reluctant to get in touch with his cousin and tell him that finally, he and Afra have arrived.

In a complex network of flashbacks, we are told what life was like in Alepp before the fighting began. Nuri loved his work with the bees; Afra painted marvellous pictures; their son was a delight to them; they would have Sunday dinner each week with Mustafa and his family. Times were good. But all this changes horribly. Brutal, pointless executions take place every day - in this way, Mustafa's teenaged son Firas is killed, and it is days before they even find his body. Bombs drop indiscriminately: one kills Sami and renders Afra blind. And so they decide to leave. The only way out is with smugglers, via dangerous, massively overcrowded refugee camps. Eventually they make it to England, but it is by no means certain that they will be allowed to stay.

I was given this book for Christmas, but put it aside a couple of times: its subject matter is not easy. But we hear every day of the plight of refugees, and our country, like others, is becoming increasingly hostile to them. We see footage of overcrowded camps, of people in small boats being shot at by soldiers to prevent them from landing, of small bodies lying on a beach. And it feels as if there is nothing we can do, so what is the point of reading about them?

I'm not sure what the practical point is, apart from that maybe, we will be moved by what we read to contribute money to charities working with refugees. But there is a point, of course. Books are a window into other lives. This book shows us very clearly what it is to be driven from your home by an impossible, unbearable situation. It shows us exactly what it is like to live in those camps. It shows us that some people are very bad, but that others are very kind.

Christy Lefteri is herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees, and she has worked as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens. She's listened to the stories of many refugees. So she knows what she's talking about.

When Nuri is in England, he finds a bee with deformed wings in the garden of the B&B where he is staying. With the encouragement of another refugee, he begins to care for it. It cannot fly, and he doesn't expect it to survive, but the other man buys small plants which will provide it with food, and Nuri makes up some sugared water for it. Against all the odds, it adapts to its new surroundings - it goes on living, as Nuri and Afra must learn to do, despite all their losses.

It's a wonderful book - Christy Lefteri writes beautifully and handles the flashbacks very skilfully. I hope someone will make a film or a TV serial of it, so that it will reach a wider audience. I hope that our government, and others, will realise that refugees are not just someone else's problem, easy to forget about because they are in a far-off place.

(Apologies that there's no cover image - for some reason I wasn't able to upload one.)


Saturday, 8 February 2020

The Lantern Men, by Elly Griffiths

I first discovered the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths almost three years ago while on holiday in Norfolk (https://suepurkiss.blogspot.com/2017/04/bookless-in-norfolk-2-dr-ruth-galloway.html). I was on the lookout for something to read, and found the first book, The Crossing Places, in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust visitor centre at Cley. (Which, if you've not been there, is a marvellous place, built on a slight rise and looking across the salt marshes to the sea.)

Ruth's beloved salt marshes

The book was about a forensic archaeologist (a specialist in bones, particularly ancient ones) called Ruth Galloway. Ruth is a woman after my own heart - she hates the gym, wouldn't thank you for a spa experience, enjoys her food and drink maybe a little too much, and is interested in the far-distant past. In this first book, she is asked to help in a police investigation; DCI Nelson is investigating some bones which have been found on the salt marsh, and hoping they are the solution to an unsolved case which has haunted him for some years.

Well, sparks fly. The investigation is a page turner, but the heart of the book, and of the intense loyalty which the series inspires in its readers, is the central group of characters and the relationships between them. As well as Ruth and Nelson, there's Nelson's beautiful wife Michelle, his sharp-tongued mother in Blackpool, his sidekicks Judy and Cloughie, my particular favourite Cathbad the Druid - and others besides. Elly Griffiths writes with a dry humour and a keen eye for the complexity of human relationships - and she continues to do so throughout the series of - so far - twelve books. I don't often re-read books, but I've re-read this whole series at last twice. It's just so nice to be in the company of the gang, and to follow all the unfolding drama of the relationships between them. One of the pleasures is that there is drama, but it's so true to life: people muddle through and make mistakes, and things go wrong and sometimes they go right - and that's just how it is.



The drawback is that once you've read the series and gasped at the final cliff-hanger, you then have a whole year to wait for the next installment. A period of mourning ensues, and that's where I am at the moment, because I've just finished the latest one, The Lantern Men. And what a cracker it is. The gang, though some of them have moved away, are all, by means of a cunning plot, drawn back to the Norfolk coast which is the true home of the series, and into a tale of murder, yes, but also of myth and local legend. I'm not going to say any more than that because I wouldn't dream of spoiling the story for you. (My only slight quibble is that I would have liked a little more Cathbad - but then again, what there is of him is pure vintage.) I tried to read it slowly, to make it last, but there it is. I read it in a day. I think it's one of the best of the whole series, and that's very high praise.

Of course, if you're new to the series, you should start at the beginning. You could read The Lantern Men on its own, but you'll want to know the back stories so you'll end up going back to the beginning anyway - so why not do the right thing and start at the beginning? I envy you, I really do. You have not one, but twelve treats in store.

Monday, 3 February 2020

The story of a book cover

In my last post, (sorry - I know it was some time ago!) I wrote about a book fair I attended in Corsham, Wiltshire, with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick and others. It was good fun - and it gave me some food for thought.

I had a number of books on display. I'm not a particularly prolific author, and I'm a bit of a butterfly - my books are all quite different. I've always seen this as a disadvantage, but on this occasion, it turned out to be be a good thing, because there was something for (almost) everyone: Spook School and two similar funny fantasy stories for younger children; Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is a story set on Brunel's ship the SS Great Britain in the 19th century, beautifully illustrated by James De La Rue; Jack Fortune, which is a middle grade historical novel about a boy who goes plant-hunting in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, in search of the elusive blue rhododendron; and Warrior King, which is a novel about Alfred the Great.

They all attracted attention - except for Warrior King. The reason for this was pretty obvious.

The book was originally published by Walker. I loved researching and writing it, and I had high hopes that it would make out of Alfred a hero of the stature of King Arthur - with whom Alfred is often confused. Arthur is, or was then (this was before Bernard Cornwell's books and the subsequent TV series) much more famous than Alfred, and this struck me as particularly unfair as Arthur isn't even real - or at least, the Arthur of the stories isn't.



They designed a beautiful cover for it - this one. It was blue, and had a hunky, brooding warrior on it. The sales team, I was told, were keen to appeal to boys who were interested in Lord of the Rings, and it had that kind of feel to it. I loved it - though I was a little concerned when a bookseller who had hitherto been very supportive of my books expressed concern, asking how could he sell a book with a cover like that to girls? And there was every reason that girls would like it: two thirds of it is seen from the point of view of Aethelflaed, or Fleda as I called her in the book. She had been a great discovery: I needed a child for a point-of-view character when I came to write about grown-up Alfred (the first bit of the book is about his childhood) - and was delighted to find he had a daughter of just the right age - who as an adult became a ruler in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom, Mercia. So she was obviously a girl of character who learned a good deal from her father. And there's also a charismatic British woman called Cerys - and a brave Frankish princess called Judith Martel.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the book didn't sell in zillions and went out of print. I got the rights back, and decided to reissue it through Amazon Createspace. Lots of adults had read it and enjoyed it, so I thought I would try marketing it as a book for a wider audience, not only for children. And so the cover I made for it is sombre and moody: I used a photograph of floods on the Somerset Levels near Athelney, where much of the story takes place. There is a regular trickle of sales, small but satisfying.


But at the book fair, I watched as children's eyes slid over Warrior King and lighted on Jack Fortune - clearly because it was sending out signals that here was a book for grown-ups. Hm, I thought.

So I decided to bring out a new edition that would a) be clearly for children/young people, and b) would make it obvious that it wasn't just about the king, but also about his daughter. I toyed with various ideas as to how to do this; and then I remembered the work of a friend on Instagram called Norlemann, who posts wonderful pictures of Viking re-enactors in Norway. On impulse, I sent him a message to explain what I was after, and ask if he had anything I could use.

Now, I called him a friend just then, but he was only  a friend in the sense that I followed him and often 'liked' his pictures. It turns out he's an art director and professional photographer - and yet he agreed to do a special shoot, with his daughter as Aethelflaed - just because, he said he and his daughter, Minna, believe that historical fiction is valuable and there should be more of it. Such kindness from a stranger! And when the photographs arrived, I thought they were stunning.

The next hurdle was fitting the photograph I eventually chose - with help from friends - into an Amazon template. That wasn't as easy as it could have been. In the end, I used Canva to add title and text to the front cover - and here it is.



It would be lovely to hear your thoughts - but do forgive me if I'm not able to implement them. There are some changes which would be easy to make, but others would be very fiddly and might possibly result in my brain imploding. (Basically, changes to the front cover would be tricky: changes to the rest of it, less so.)

All I need to do now is add the content of the book. But first I will tweak it; and in a prominent place there will be an acknowledgement of the generosity - and skill - of Lasse and Minna. Oh, yes, and then it would be really very nice if it would sell lots of copies to the children for whom I originally wrote it...