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It is a very sad fact, but the truth is, my massive geek-freak obsession with K. M. Peyton stems from the fact that she writes about horses/ponies/racing. Now, you must understand that this line of literature is very limited; oh yes, there are a billion trillion betting themed thrillers where men with guns chase trainers and jockeys, trying to sneak information/money from them. And then, on the opposite scale, there are thousands of stories about little Hannah and her fat pony Ginger who waddle around being annoying and well-behaved. So you must forgive my Peyton love, for she is one very rare author; she understands horses and normal people, and writes wonderful stories that flow so naturally without having that ‘try hard’ edge to them which so many authors struggle to shake off. When you read her, you are unaware of style, or even words. It all just floats off the page and grabs you. I’m sure that I could read any one of her books in a sitting without even noticing.

I’m probably a bit too old for some of her books now (most of her novels are aimed at 13/14 + teens), but I fancied some good old-fashioned nostalgia so went for a Peyton spree on Amazon. The first I’m going to review is one I have never read before, and, there’s no need to panic… there isn’t a hoof or tail in sight.

Quick Overview

The novel begins with a brief note from the author which explains how, although authors constantly write about times/places/situations they have never actually experienced, they often fail to cast their own experiences into words:

‘…it occurred to me what an awful waste of material not to write a book set in a very special period with which I am perfectly familiar. So, after all this time, for better or for worse, here it is.’

Hence, the novel is set in the Second World War and concerns Josie, a pretty sixteen year old who is evacuated out of London to live with her Aunt in the country. Of course, the country turns out to be anything but boring, Josie falling in love with kind and loving Jumbo, who cannot join the RAF as he dreams because of a motor cycling accident which has left him with just one leg.

It is all very obvious, from the outset of Jumbo and Josie, that brother Chris, working away as a RAF fighter pilot when they first meet, will be the nail in the coffin of their budding relationship. We know before he enters the scene how handsome he is, how all the girls ‘fall from the trees’ for him. And soon, of course, Chris comes home and Josie is enveloped in an impossible, heartbreaking romance, with a man whose life is no longer his own. Whose days are numbered by the terrifying play performed recklessly, daily, in the sky above.

Whilst this side of the story felt familiar and predictable, Peyton saves the tale from flat-lining with her ending, which is surprising; surprising in many respects because it leaves you cheered (you will have to read it to see what I mean. You, after all, might not be cheered at all. It’s that sort of clever, multi-dimensional ending.)

The title is a wonderful one, easily summarising the theme of love, happiness, and youthfulness; emotions amplified by the backdrop of war. A war which demands passionate relationships, because, after all, there is no time to wait around. No time to sit and wait for the ‘one’. Soul mates are frequently found, the desperation of living life on a thread encouraging belief.

The title also reminds me of a beautiful section where Chris, flying his plane out to battle in the early morning sun reflects on the laughable game of war. The blue sky, the sun rising; men killing one another whilst the world turns; always indifferent to their bizarre charade.

It is a beautiful and wonderful story that will make you hate the little brats on Facebook who moan about girlfriends/ boyfriends/ their lives etc. It made me want to send them all to war, and that’s never a nice thing to do, after all.

A Picture Portrait

Josie, Jumbo and Chris’s lake: the backdrop for Chris and Jumbo’s blissful childhood later, ironically, becomes the place they will both meet Josie, whose presence eventually tears the brothers apart. It also stands as a symbol for the perfect English idyll, something worth fighting for in the great war.

Spitfire and Hurricane: described often throughout the novel as dragonflies (a lovely piece of imagery which clashes beautiful with the mechanical nature of the machine), the fragility and relative new-ness of aeroplanes and flying made the battle of the skies all the more alien and terrifying.

My Favourite Review…

Is written by Val Randall for Books for Keeps, an online children’s book magazine. The whole review can be found here: http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/162/childrens-books/reviews/blue-skies-and-gunfire.

‘As all three characters struggle with the strength of their feelings and the wounds of betrayal and loss, Peyton conveys with frantic clarity the hothouse of emotion generated by the immediacy of war. When both soldiers and civilians alike are on a taut wire stretched thinly between life and death, the rules of emotional engagement are, of necessity, distorted. The dichotomy within the title perfectly represents the tensions of this novel – a disturbing but richly evocative narrative which illustrates the human cost of war.’

Criticism

If it wasn’t for the fact that I have already moved onto my next Peyton novel, I probably would have nothing to moan about. Sadly, though, I have, and my fault lies with the character of Josie. She just isn’t given quite enough time to develop fully, is slightly one-dimensional and puppet-like. For instance, as the novel opens she is shown as a tough young girl, standing up to her mother and arguing. Later, however, none of this feisty nature appears to exist, she is just a tool lost between the two brothers. It is only in comparison to Tessa, heroine of my current read, that this fault came to light….forgive me K.M, I’m still your biggest fan!

Love,

Zoe

3.5/5 Stars

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