All These Beautiful Strangers – Elizabeth Klehfoth

This is a pre publication proof courtesy of Netgalley. The book will be published in July 2018.

Charlie Calloway is many things. She is a studious daughter of the rich and powerful Alisdair Calloway, of the Calloway Group. She’s best friends with Drew, her room mate at an exclusive boarding school, she is an initiate for the extremely secretive and elitist A’s. She is the daughter of Grace Calloway, a woman who married way above her and then disappeared, leaving her two young daughters behind.  She’s good at poker and doesn’t date. She keeps herself to herself and is described by her counsellor as a narcissist with a borderline personality disorder.

Until she is contacted by her uncle who has found some photos hidden at the family lake house that imply that there is more to her mothers disappearance then it was thought. Charlie goes back to visit her mother’s family and starts investigating what happened. She is also trying to pass the three tests to make sure that she gets a place in the A’s, if it’s discovered she will be expelled immediately.  As the story unravels Charlie becomes more convinced that something has happened to her mother. She enlists the help of her old friend Greyson, while fending off the charms of Dalton, the school player. The book is written in a split narrative so we also hear from her mother and her father just before she disappeared. Her father’s brother, Uncle Teddy is also in the mix.

There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed. I thought that the storyline was good, the character of Charlie could have been a bit more fleshed out but I kind of got where she was going. The split narrative was confusing because we knew more about what was going on then Charlie, which led to some jumping around. She was also quite happy to believe everything everyone told her and didn’t really question stuff until afterwards, which was frustrating. Some bits tied up at the end but it was all a little too neat. There was also a big question mark over one of  the main characters which was never fully explained. It may be because I had a proof copy and the final version will be a clearer but, the narration was jumpy and a little annoying.

I think that if the book was just about the disappearance, or just about the school initiation (there is a link to an old suicide that turns out to be connected to her mother and father) then it would have  been easier to follow, but it was all a bit too convoluted.  Well written and enjoyable if you stick with it.

 

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Beyond the Bright Sea – Lauren Wolk

 

Beyond the Bright Sea is on the Carnegie 2018 shortlist and is a worthy contender. It begins with a baby, floating on the  sea in a skiff (small boat, people!) . The baby is found and taken in by a man called Osh. Osh lives in a house on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. Osh is not his real name; he decides to call the baby Crow. It isn’t really clear why but as the novel progresses it seems to be because Crow is a different skin  colour, I’m still not sure which! She may be  Chinese but it’s not really explained.

So, Crow and Osh live in Osh’s house on a small island. The group of Islands is called the Elizabeth’s and is a real place, so some of the story, although fiction, has a real setting. I am the type of person that likes to google stuff so I watched a video about Penikese, a leper colony that the state of Massachusetts set up on one of the Elizabeth Islands in the 1920s. It took in local residents with the disease as well as foreign people who had it, including Chinese and African people.  Crow thinks  that she has some link to the leper colony, and the other residents of the Elizabeth’s seem to think so as well , they don’t touch her or speak to her. She isn’t allowed to go the local school in case she infects the other children. Even though she has never shown any signs of having the disease, she is treated as though she has.

The other character in the book is Miss Maggie. We had a discussion in book group about how old Miss Maggie is. The name conjures up an older lady, and she certainly behaves like an old lady sometimes, but I think she’s probably in a her 30s. She lives on a neighbouring island and has a farm. She teaches Crow her letters and some maths and generally looks after her as well.

When Crow reaches the age of 12 she decides that she wants to find out more about her real parents and where she came from. This leads to a chain of events that puts all three of them in danger. Penikese is now inhabited by a bird keeper, the inhabits and the doctor and nurse from the leper hospital have moved away and the hospital partially  burnt down. Crow writes to the doctor to ask for information about any babies born on the island. He writes back to tell her that two babies were born there, one was  taken to an orphanage on the main land and the other died. Crow decides to investigate anyway.

This book is delightful. It has history, adventure, thrills and spills and some really interesting facts about island life. There is definitely something strange about Osh which is never explained, he comes from a different land, speaks a different language and has given up everything to retreat to the island. Miss Maggie tells Crow that when he arrived, he smashed the  hull of his boat so that he couldn’t leave. He is also very shifty when the police arrive to question Crow about an incident on Pekinese. This is never explained however and it would have been more satisfying to finish the book with all the information about the characters; unless the author is planning to write another book!

I liked it, I haven’t read Wolf Hollow, which was on the Carnegie Shortlist last year and is by the same author, but would recommend this one if you are looking for something not too challenging but hugely interesting.

Paper Butterflies – Lisa Heathfield

paper butterflies

I haven’t read anything by Lisa Heathfield before but I discovered after I read this that my daughter has a copy of another one of her books, Seed and I cannot wait to dive in to that one! I also discovered that I have a copy of The Flight of the Starling on my kindle courtesy of Netgalley so, lucky me!
This book made me cry – now if you have read any of my other posts then you will see that this isn’t too difficult, I am a bit of a softy but, this book made me alternate between being really sad and really angry! Angry that the world can let people live in such awful situations and not be fair, and really sad because I wanted June’s life to get better. And I guess in a way it does, because she meets Blister. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
June lives with her dad and her stepmom and her step sister Megan. Kathleen is the stepmom from hell. June’s mum has died in a drowning accident and her dad has remarried. June misses her mum and as the book progresses we see that this is more than just normal grief. She is living in hell. Kathleen is overfeeding her, bullying her mentally and physically and encouraging her daughter to do the same. Her dad is so busy he is oblivious to what’s going on and June doesn’t feel able to tell him. He’s pretty much never there anyway.
June is also having a hard time at school. Kathleen doesn’t allow her to go to the toilet at home and she wets herself, she is accused of bullying even though she is the victim and her stepsister winds her up at school and she is being bullied by a boy there. She is out one day when she finds a strange  collection of huts and meets a boy there  called Blister. Blister lives with his large family and is home schooled. Blister and his family are June’s salvation. She  becomes part of something good and loving and, it helps her to accept the situation that she is in. Sometimes it was frustrating because I wanted her to open up to someone, anyone about what was going on at home, mainly because of what happens later. But she doesn’t.
The book is written in before and after snap shots so we know something awful happens to June. It also leaps forward by a year in most chapters so when we first meet June, and then Blister, they are quite young and we follow them right through to their teen years.
I don’t want to tell you much more of the plot because it will spoil it for you but, this book will make you feel lots of emotions that will keep making you come back and revisit it. June is a character that I wanted to pick up and take care of, Blister is such a lovely, compassionate boy that I wanted to sit and have a chat with him. Primarily I wanted to punch Kathleen really hard in the face for most of the book! Megan I felt a bit ambivalent about because she was also a child and I think some things that she did were a reaction to her mother and her situation, she also needs a good talking to though!
I loved this book, not in the conventional really want to read it again way, but in a way that a book can touch your soul and make you want to be a better person. I cannot wait to read the rest of Lisa Heathfield’s books to explore what else she can offer.

 

After the Fire – Will Hill

after the fire

Hold on to your hats kids, I love this book and so may be a bit gushy!

Moonbeam has grown up living in a cult in the desert in America. The cult, or God’s Legion live in a commune and are led by the charismatic and scary Father John. Moonbeam has lived there for most of her life after her father saw the previous leader, Father Patrick, speak. He moved Moon and her mum there and became one of the top leaders . He then died.

Moonbeam is left there with her mum, who she has quite a fractious relationship with and the rest of the commune. We first meet Moonbeam when she is locked in a secure facility with some other kids from the commune. We slowly learn that there has been a massive fire after the commune is attacked by government agencies and something has happened which Moonbeam feels she is responsible for. The book is written in the present with flashbacks to events that took place before the fire. Moonbeam is being interviewed by a Doctor, Doctor Hernandez and an FBI agent called Agent Carlyle. They are both interested in how the Legion worked and particularly about its leader.

We learn through the flashbacks that the commune is run by Father John with a rod of iron. Any misdemeanour means time in the box, a metal box in the middle of the desert. Father John lives in the ‘big house’ with his wives and there are mysterious visits by other men to the girls rooms unless you are promised to Father John as a future wife. Moonbeam is one of these and, when she turns 18 she will have to marry him. There is also extensive weapons training for when the day comes that the Legion is attacked by the Outsiders and they will need to protect themselves. Everyone needs to take part in this and combat training, including young children, of which there are quite a few.

We soon realise that Moonbeam has no experience of the outside world, once Father John takes over the leadership no one is allowed to leave the compound except Amos, one of the Legionaires. He goes once a week to collect supplies and packages addressed to a James Carmel. Father John takes these and no one else knows what they contain.

A new member called Nate arrives and Moonbeam likes him. She follows him around and he starts to make her realise that there are things going on that are not right. He eventually jeopardises his position within the group and needs to leave, this prompts Moonbeam to start thinking about getting out.

This book is frightening and hard hitting and violent. It is also about how religion can be used to twist people’s beliefs and used as a weapon of  control. The people who live in the commune give up their lives  for something that they believe is true. They think that when you die, you will ascend to Heaven and sit with God, this is the ultimate reward. This is most disturbing when we meet Luke, another teenager living in the commune who was the first child to be born and brought up  there. He has no knowledge of the real world except for what he is told by the leaders. He is a fanatical believer.

Father John is also terrifying. He controls  everyone and everything within the commune. He does this through fear and retribution, not something that you should associate with a peaceful, loving community.

The author wrote this book after a memory of the Waco massacre was awakened after a trip to America. I remember this because I was a teenager when it happened. This was a religious commune who lived Texas and was run by another charismatic leader, David Koresh. The Branch Davidians were a break off group of the Seventh Day Adventists and set up a commune where they stashed weapons for defense against the ‘end times’. The siege in the early nineties lasted for 51 days and was all over the news, eventually 76 people died. This is kind of an exploration of what it would have been like to be a teenager living though that. There are lots of adult stuff going on that Moonbeam cannot understand but, as an outsider we can see that what is going on is wrong and she cannot be blamed for what happens.

I loved Department 19 and I also loved this. Will Hill is a fantastic writer who really gets in to the mind of the characters and takes us there too. Moonbeam is a strong girl despite her upbringing and we are rooting for her to be ok. As a woman and a mother it was frustrating to see how the women were portrayed though, would they really put their children in such danger or did they really believe that this was a safe environment for them to grow up in? It is a dark novel though, and explores some really complex and disturbing themes. Make sure you are in a happy place when you read it!

Further reading: Whit by Ian Banks (this is one of my all time favourite books and is a humorous take on living in a cult) and The Girls by Emma Cline (this is definitely for older readers though so be careful – it is a very disturbing book!)

Our Chemical Hearts – Krystal Sutherland

There is a wealth of books for teenagers about all kinds of things. Some of them worry me. They deal with illness, mental and physical, abuse, sexuality (loads of these!) bullying, relationships, strange illnesses that aren’t really illnesses and, like this one, grief. In this day and age when teenagers have access to so much online content, to then write books about how they should deal with these things, effectively taking the role of the parent, sometimes troubles me. I don’t want my daughter to find out how to deal with these things from a book, I want her to be able to talk to me about them,  but I know that this isn’t possible for some. I also know that there are lots of things going on in your heads that you  need to sort out and, if it helps to read about it then that can only be a good thing…. except bear in mind that  life isn’t all doom and gloom!

This book is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman who has lost her boyfriend/ best friend/ future husband in a car crash. The story isn’t told through her eyes though, but through the boy who falls in love with her afterwards. Henry is a bit geeky and aspires to be the editor of his high school newspaper in his senior year. He has schemed for the last two years with his friends Lola and Murray ( a quirky Australian!) to achieve this. When he is called in to the English teacher’s office (Mr Hink) at the beginning of the year he encounters Grace Town. Grace walks with a limp, wears musty boys clothes and, when offered the job of sharing the editorial job with Henry, turns it down. Henry chases after her (she is surprising nimble, even with a walking stick) and demands to know why. Grace has transferred from another local high school in the area called East High. Henry feels drawn to her but can’t explain why, even to himself. She is not the typical girl to fall in love with and, Henry isn’t the type of boy to fall for girls much anyway, he’s too interested in his writing.

As their relationship develops La and Murray, and Henry’s sister Sadie, who is also going through a divorce, try to warn him against trying to start something with someone who is so broken. The metaphor here is that Henry likes to collect broken things, in particular Japanese pots that have been fixed with gold wires. Grace is profoundly broken and blames herself for the accident that took her boyfriend and future, Dom. The idea that when someone you love is killed, you are also robbed of that future that you would have had with them is a deeply upsetting concept.

There is also a little side thing going on with Henry’s parents which I found quite interesting. This all became clear at the end of the book but it was the relationship between Henry and his parents and then their relationship with his sister Sadie that made me think a bit. The age gap between Sadie and Henry is big and Sadie was the naughty one who did everything, so when Henry is her opposite they aren’t sure how to deal with this. I can’t quite decide whether they intended to make him feel guilty or were relieved that he wasn’t as rebellious as his big sister, interesting though.

The writing is beautiful and the texts and emails that intersperse the book are good at breaking things up and a realistic portrayal of how young people would communicate, no one is ever off limits anymore.   I wanted to feel sorry for Grace, but I ended up just feeling a lot of frustration with her. She doesn’t ask Henry to feel the way that he does but she doesn’t do anything to help make the situation better. The way in which grief is portrayed  as a real, visceral thing that eats away at you is awesome (in the proper sense of the word!) This is a debut novel by this author and I wasn’t expecting it to move me as much as it did, be prepared for some raw emotion and hard hitting dialogue that will leave you reaching for your tissues. Murray is also great as the comedy factor and, although he is portrayed as a stereotypical Australian, it’s kind of ironic!

Enjoy this one, I’m sure you will!

The Bone Sparrow – Zana Fraillon

This was an interesting read after reading Between Shades of Gray. Both are set in detention centres, one during the second world war and the other, The Bone Sparrow, set in the present day. Present day Australia to be precise.

The characters in this book are from Myanmar/ Burma and are part of the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted groups of people on earth. They have been expelled from Myanmar as the government there have classified them as illegal immigrants as a result of the ongoing civil war. In 2015 all Rohingya people were expelled from Myanmar and it caused a humanitarian crisis with thousands living on boats as they were effectively stateless. Many ended up washing up on the coast of Australia where they are still being held in detention centres. If you are in a detention centre in Australia you will never qualify as an Australian citizen according to the afterword in this book. Ever. What will happen to the people who are in there is anyone’s guess.

So, there’s your background, taken from Wikipedia so who knows how accurate it is! The point is that these people have no hope. The main character is a small boy called Subhi. He is probably about 10 years old and was born in the detention centre. He lives  there with his mum and his sister Queeny. She isn’t really called Queeny but that is what everyone calls her. He lives in the family section of the detention centre known as family 3. Also living there is his best friend Eli, who is a little older then him. Eli is a bit of a ducker and diver and manages to acquire things that other people need. The conditions in the camp sound pretty horrendous and, although Subhi doesn’t really know any different, he knows that they should not have to live like this. There are other sections of the camp, mostly all men sections and one for people who try and hurt themselves. Subhi’s Maa is very depressed and seems to spend all day in bed starring at the wall. His dad, or Ba is not with them and it’s  not very clear where he is.

The other narrator in the book is an Australian girl called Jimmie. She lives with her brother, Jonah who is older than her, and her dad. Her mum has recently died and  they all a bit of a mess. Jimmie’s sections aren’t very long but they are interesting. They are not really an antidote to Subhi’s situation and she is suffering from neglect by her dad, who seems to be suffering from depression as well. She rarely goes to school and as a result cannot read. She carries with her a book of stories that her mum has given her about her family history. One day she decides to explore down the road by the camp and manages to hop the fence. That’s where she meets Subhi. Subhi can read her stories and she discovers things about her family and where they came from. She also wears a sparrow necklace and the stories explain to her the origin of it.

Things in the camp in the meantime are hotting up. Eli is transferred to the male wing, even though he is clearly not an adult and the men decide to go on hunger strike. Things start to get nasty for Jimmie as well when she picks up an infection.

The relationship between Subhi and Jimmie is lovely. The plight of the people suffering in the camps is horrendous and little known. The bigger question is what can we do with all the displaced people in the world who cannot go back to where they were born, but cannot live in the country they have ended up in. The refugee crisis in Europe is much closer to home but no less disturbing.

A thought provoking read, like much of the Carnegie shortlist this year. I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

Further reading: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

PS> my favourite character is the plastic duck… he has a great sense of humour.

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

This book has been my shelf to read for a long time. After I read Salt to the Sea and found out there was a connection with the characters, I decided to read it next. They don’t need to be read in an order but they have a link with Joana and her cousin, Lina. Lina is the cousin that Joana is constantly feeling guilty about so it was interesting to see what her story was.

Lina lives in Lithuania with her mum and dad and her brother, Jonah. Her father is a lecturer at the local university. He is anti soviet and may have been seen as a bit of a trouble maker. In June 1941 Lina, her mother and Jonah are arrested by the Russians and deported. A few days later Lithuania was occupied by the Germans but by this time, up to 34,000 Lithuanians were put on trains to Siberia where they were killed or taken to forced labour camps. There is a particularly harrowing account of them waiting at the hospital for a woman to give birth before taking her and her newborn baby on the trains.

Lina is a gifted artist and had applied to go to art school. At this time she is 15 years old and her brother Jonah is 11. They have grown up in a liberal, comfortable household and they have had a nice life. Their life after their arrest and deportation cannot be more different. This is the start of a long journey for them; From Lithuania they are taken by train to a beet farm in Siberia and then eventually on to the Arctic Circle. On the train are some of their neighbours along with other members of their community. Among them is Andrius and his mother. Andrius is the son of a Lithuanian soldier who has been killed. His mother has told the Russians that he is simple so that he can stay with her; Andrius is anything but simple and can acquire things that other people can’t. When they arrive at the beet farm they are put to work and live in brutal conditions, starved and beaten by the Russians and bullied by the local people who are also working at the farm.

Andrius and his mother take a different path which means that they acquire more things, which they then share out amongst the others. Jonah and Andrius develop a strong friendship but Lina is suspicious and cannot like him.

As with her other book, the author develops the main characters while also giving us enough information about the other characters to make us feel that we know them too. The bald man is a good example of this. The other thing that the author does is make us feel how awful this experience must have been. These poor people are beaten and bullied and the Russians want them to sign a piece of paper confining them to 25 years hard labour as traitors to the state. Lina and her family refuse to sign and therefore do not get all the privileges that the people who signed do.

Eventually they are moved again and the relentlessness of the journey and the pointlessness of why they are being punished makes you ache for them.

Another great book by this author who is obviously specialising in war stories from the child’s POV. In the afterword she talks about her family and there is obviously a connection there, which would explain why she is so interested in presenting what happened in Lithuania. Even though the Russians were our allies during WW2, some of the atrocities that they committed were horrendous and the people who were taken to Siberia were there for many years. Their homes and lands were taken over and never returned. It is interesting to hear the stories of the Baltic states, they are not well publicised and that’s a shame when so many people were made to suffer.