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.

 

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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.

Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys

In the notes for the Carnegie (this book is on the shortlist) the first question is: Have you heard the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff before reading this book?

I have a history degree and an interest in history and historical fiction. My A Level dealt with the Second World War and I have never heard of it.

On the 30th January 1945 Germany were just about to lose the war. They were evacuating civilians, wounded men, Nazi officials, nurses and various military personnel from East Prussia before the Russians arrived and killed everyone. The ship was built before the war for German workers to enjoy a cruise on. As a result it was kitted out for pleasure and not as a military carrier. It was also built to carry approx. 1500 people (remember this figure, it will be significant later).

Salt to the Sea follows the story of four young people who are all connected to the Wilhelm Gustloff. Joana is from Lithuania and has some nursing experience. She has met up with some refugees who are heading for the coast and hoping to get a ship to Germany. As she has medical experience she has become a naturalised German citizen. She is helping the group, including an old man who is a shoemaker, a young boy who has lost his family, and a blind girl. The shoemaker knows the countryside and is helping them to reach the port and safety. Florian is a German boy escaping from the Nazi art thieves. He is also an expert forger and is carrying a big secret. Emilia meets up with Florian who saves her from being raped by a Russian soldier. She is grateful to him and attaches herself to him as her protector. He isn’t too pleased about this. They meet up with Joana and the larger group and, when they realise they are all heading in the same direction they link up. Not that Florian is very pleased about this either. Then there is Alfred. He is a German sailor who is already on the ship, preparing it for evacuation. He is also a bit crazy. He composes letters to his sweetheart in his head, except it turns out he never writes them, and she isn’t his sweetheart. And he isn’t very nice. I liked his segments though, they were amusing!

If you are looking for a light-hearted read then this is not it.  The war was brutal, especially during the final few months when the Russians were invading German held territory. Many children, old people and woman were in vulnerable and dangerous positions. Most of the Polish civilian population were drifting after the German occupation in September 1939 and the Polish people had endured terrible hardship. Emilia is from Poland but had been left with a German family. Her story is maybe the most shocking of them all.

It is no spoiler to tell you that the Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by three Russian torpedoes in the Baltic Sea in January 1945. The ship had no hospital markings as it had anti aircraft guns fitted and so was seen as a target. It was also in deep water with its lights on to avoid mines. A sitting target. The death toll for the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was 9400. Mostly wounded men, women and children. It was the biggest maritime disaster in WW2 and is not spoken about, even today.

What I won’t tell you is what happens to the characters. The way they interlink is good and the various narrators works well. I also enjoyed the way that the author fleshes out the other characters so that we care about what happens to them, the shoemaker and the little boy for example. It is a well written, exciting and life affirming book. The subject matter is obviously disturbing and tragic but it is handled in a sensitive and interesting way.

It did also make me go off and do some research about the ship and what happened afterwards. Another terrible disaster in an already terrible war. A good choice for the Carnegie though, and definitely one that I may not have picked up.

 

Beck – Mal Peet

This is the second offering that I have read from the Carnegie short list for this year. I am struggling to find one that I like at the moment but, I have read Tamar and Exposure by Mal Peet and liked those so thought I’d give it a go.

This is Mal Peet’s last book and he didn’t manage to complete it before his death so it’s finished off by another YA author, Meg Rosoff. Peet knew he was dying and asked Rosoff to finish the book if he died before he managed to write it all. It was a promise that she wasn’t expecting to keep and the gap is seamless. You can’t really tell where Peet’s voice  finishes and Rosoff’s begins. Both are exceptional writers and were great friends so it kind of adds to the quality of the book. And it is quality.

Ignatius Beck is born in Liverpool in 1907. His mother was poor and sometimes had sex for money to make ends meet and support her parents and disabled brother. Ordinarily this may not have been a problem as one more child in a poor neighbourhood wouldn’t have made much difference, but the father of Beck was a merchant seaman, in port for one night, and black.

Growing up in Liverpool in the early part of this century and being black is going to be tough, and it is. Beck is orphaned at seven and sent to be looked after by the nuns. When he is twelve he is chosen to go to Canada as part of a programme by the UK to send young children over there to be adopted. Beck has never seen a car or a boat and is picked with some other boys from his orphanage. The voyage is tough and not all the boys make it. Beck ends up in a Catholic home in Montreal. The  home is run by some priests and let’s just say that if his life was tough before, it gets even worse.

He is then sent to work on a farm for some truly horrible people, or a horrible woman and her not quite so horrible husband and eventually runs away. Bear in mind that by the time this happens he is probably about fifteen years old. Beck spends most of the book running from something and this time he is picked up by some bootleggers who are running whisky over to America. He falls in with them and lives with Bone, another black man and his partner, Iris. Things go wrong and for me, this is the saddest part of the book. For the first time Beck experiences love, and how other people can love each other for themselves. It is something that he has never seen.  Each time he finds people that he could love something happens that destroys the life he has and he begins to harden his heart against it. Eventually he meets Grace. A half Red Indian (according to her grandmother) and half Scottish woman who has inherited money and owns her own land. The land is also a  gathering place for her Indian family and her grandmother is one of the elders of the family. She is older then him and struggles against her feelings for him. He doesn’t understand his feelings for her. Both don’t see reason.

What I loved about this book….  it was hard-hitting, beautiful, heart-warming, heart-breaking all at the same time, and infinitely confirms that love and time can heal everything.  I’m not sure whether it should be on the Carnegie as it deals with some fairly graphic subjects which younger readers will struggle with. Especially the first 60 pages or so. The catalogue of abuse that Beck suffers, and not just because of his colour, is horrendous and will leave some readers not able to continue. Try and push through this bit though because ultimately this book is about redemption.

I loved it, can you tell?

Further reading: Tamar by Mal Peet, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

For the older ones amongst you: Kindred by Octavia Butler