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.

 

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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

Life on the Refrigerator Door – Alice Kuipers

Some of you have probably read this book, it was published a while ago but always seemed to be out of the library when I wanted to read it! My daughter wanted me to get a copy and she read it in an hour so I thought I’d add a quick read to my reading list and give it a go.

The premise of the book is that Clare and her mum are really busy people and leave each other notes on the fridge. The author said that she got the idea after her boyfriend left her a note and she realised that someone who read it would know quite a lot about them from just reading that one note. So the book is written entirely in note form.

Clare lives with her mum, who is a midwife. Her parents are divorced and her mum works really long hours. So to communicate they leave notes for each other. Just simple things like shopping lists or when to clean out Peter, their guinea pig/ rabbit. Then things start to get a bit more serious. Clare is only 15 and starts mentioning boys and friends and staying out. It is also obvious from the notes that she has a strong relationship with her dad and spends some time with him. It’s a lot to take on at 15 but Clare seems to do a lot around the house and the bulk of the shopping and cooking.

One day, her mum leaves her a note telling her that she has found a lump in her breast. She had been trying to arrange a time to tell her face to face but they keep missing each other. The notes then take a more emotional, and sometimes angry tone. Clare is scared and angry and still trying to be 15. She starts a relationship with an older boy called Michael and her mum is worried that it may not be appropriate. Gradually we learn that her mum has a mastectomy and starts chemo. Clare struggles to deal with this and spends more time with her dad.

This book is such a great concept. The notes mean that we have an insight in to their lives without becoming too involved. We know that Clare spends a lot of time with her friend Emma but we never meet her. Clare and her mum seem to have a strong, loving relationship but never seem to see each other.

If you are looking for a quick read that you will invest in but not too much, they try this one. It will make you realise that you should spend more time with he people that you love and less  time worrying about stuff because who knows how long you will have with that person? That sounds depressing but it’s actually quite life affirming.

Enjoy.

Kids of Appetite – David Arnold

Kids of Appetite is a split time and split narrative book told from the perspectives of Vic Benucci and his girlfriend, Mad. It’s set in a place in America called Hackensack which I think is near New York!

Vic has Moebius Syndrome. It is a rare neurological disorder that affects the sixth and seventh cranial nerves which causes facial paralysis. Basically, he can’t move his face in any expression and is unable to blink or smile. He has to use eye drops all the time and has a problem with swallowing. He sleeps with his eyes half open (my brother also does this, it’s weird!)  and spends a lot of the  book wiping his face because he has problems swallowing too. Vic has been dealt some bad cards.

Vic’s dad has died and his mum has got a new boyfriend. At the beginning of the book we meet mum and boyfriend and the boyfriends two sons. The sons are not very nice. Just as they finish dinner, Frank (the  boyfriend) pulls out a ring and gets down on one knee. Vic freaks out and runs away. While walking out the door he takes his fathers ashes that have been sitting in the hallway. Vic hasn’t been able to touch them as he is still so unbearably sad about his dads death. While wandering around he decides to go and scatter the ashes in the river. Here he meets Mad, she is also a runway and introduces him to a group of other kids who have all run away from home. She offers to give his somewhere to spend the night and he accepts. He fancies Mad you see.

Because of the way the book is written, we know from the beginning that Vic and Mad have been involved in a murder and are currently being questioned at the Hackensack Police Station. The book is a series of flashbacks where we learn what they have done (or not done) to end up there.

The head of Mad’s little family is called Baz. They also live with his brother Zuz who doesn’t speak but clicks his fingers, and a feisty 11 year old red head called Coco. Baz is writing a book about people that they meet and pick up, while saving to start his own cab company; Renaissance Cabs. All the kids who join their group are called Chapters, and they have to agree to appear as a chapter in Baz’s book and say that they need help before Baz will help them out.  Baz and Zuz are from the Congo and have seen their parents and sister killed in the civil war.

When they open Vic’s dads ashes they find a note inside with a series of wishes of where he wants his ashes scattered; they are a bit cryptic so they need to figure out the  clues and then go and scatter the ashes. Vic also has an obsession with racehorses…

I haven’t read anything else by this author, Mosquitoland looks good too so that has gone on my reading list! This book is a bit quirky, the characters are all a bit out there but I liked the way that you are drip fed the story. You know that something has happened and the book is written in a series of flashbacks and this can sometimes be confusing. I also kept forgetting to check who was narrating so had to go back and check, it was a bit difficult to follow sometimes.

It was enjoyable though, and kept me going right to the end. I eventually managed to work out who had been murdered but not how or why, and there is a clever twist at the end about who the actual murderer is! A good thriller which will keep you guessing with a few storylines to keep you interested. I think that Vic didn’t really need to have a disability though, it felt a little unnecessary and was really only there so that he got bullied by a group of kids once or twice!

‘Kids of Appetite – they lived and they laughed and they saw that it was good.’

The Smell of Other People’s Houses – Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

This book is on the shortlist for the Carnegie this year, and my first one on the list! It’s quite a small one so a good introduction to the shortlist.

The  book is set in Alaska in 1970 and has four main narrators: Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank. Ruth lives with her grandmother and her sister. Her father was killed in a plane crash when she was five and her mother has disappeared. Her sister, Lily was a few days old when their mother went AWOL and her grandmother has brought them both up. In 1970, Ruth is 16, as are all the main characters.

Dora lives with her mum who is an alcoholic. Her father is in prison for smashing up a bar when he was drunk. There is some kind of abuse going on here which is alluded to but not talked about openly. It gets so bad that she moves in with her neighbour, who for some reason is called Dumpling. Her family is much is nicer but Dora feels that she won’t be allowed to stay with them.

Alyce’s parents are divorced. She lives in Fairbanks with her mum but goes salmon fishing with her dad every summer for a few months. The trouble is that she wants to be a ballerina and the trials for her to get a scholarship at university are also in the summer. She hasn’t told her dad that that’s her dream so she sacrifices her place and goes with him.

Hank has two brothers. His dad is also a fisherman but has disappeared, presumed dead. His mum has met someone else that they don’t get on with him so they decide to run away. They stow away on the local ferry which will take them to the mainland when disaster strikes.

All four main characters are connected, or will be by the end of the book but Ruth is the more dominant narrator and her story is implied rather then spelt out.

The connections in this book, although clever, felt a bit too coincidental for me. I really enjoyed the storyline though, I learnt something about what it was like to live in Alaska in the 1970s and how hard it must have been. The different local communities are battling against the weather and the government and Alaska was officially made a US state in 1959. Ruth’s father was fighting against this when he was killed. There is some friendship stuff in  there and Ruth’s situation felt a little bit archaic to me  but….

All in all a good book to start off with. The characters fitted together nicely and the end was good. It left me with a warm fuzzy feeling, but that may have been the tea!

The Hawkweed Prophecy – Irena Brignull

The Hawkweed Prophecy by Irena Brignull is the first in a series about two girls who have a strange connection. One lives in a coven in the woods with other witches, and no men. The other lives with her Dad and moves around a lot. It soon becomes clear that they move around so much because the girl, Poppy has problems settling in at school. Things seem to happen around her.

Poppy and Ember have been switched at birth. Poppy is living with her dad and moves a lot. Ember lives with her mother Charlock Hawkweed and the rest of the coven. The coven is led by her aunt Raven. There is a prophecy that one of the Hawkweed daughters will become Queen of the Witches and that means that it will either be Ember or her  cousin Sorrel.  Raven is determined that it will be her daughter, hence the reason that Poppy and Ember were swapped. Ember has little or no magical powers and there is no real possibility that she will ever be queen.

Poppy is on her 11th school and is struggling with the fact that her mum is in a mental hospital. Her mum is there because she has rejected Poppy and claims that she is not her daughter. Poppy is understandably struggling with this and doesn’t get on too well with her dad either; he is getting fed up with all the moving. Strange things happen when Poppy gets annoyed and most of the schools she has been in have asked her to leave.

One day the two girls meet in the woods by chance. They have no idea that they are connected but form an instant bond with each other. Poppy starts to talk about the outside world and Ember longs to be a part of it. Although she is not allowed the talk to ‘chaffs’ (non magical people) about the coven, she finds herself telling Poppy bits and pieces and lends her some of her books about spells. Poppy soon realises that there is more to their connection then either of them thought.

The other main character in the book is Leo, a boy who lives on the streets. Poppy meets and forms a connection with him and he helps her through some stuff with her cats. Leo has had a hard time and is living in fear of his stepdad and stepbrothers. Leo plays an important part in the lives of both the girls and, without giving too much away, will definitely make an appearance in the next book.

The book has some great elements in it; magic, jealousy, love and revenge. The strong female characters are refreshing to read about, and the idea of a load of ladies living in the woods making potions is kind of cool! As Poppy’s magic grows and she becomes more sure of her abilities she becomes a likeable person that we can identify with. Ember is a little too soft for my liking, but I think this might change later.

All in all a good book that you will enjoy and will keep you guessing. There are some violent elements to it but this is in context and the whole waiting to be queen thing will hopefully be fleshed out a bit more in the next  book, along with the East witches who turn in to big cats. Did I mention that there was people changing in to animals as well?

Further reading: The Thirteen Treasures series by Michelle Harrison, Harry Potter (obviously!) The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard – basically anything with magic in!

Side Effects May Vary – Julie Murphy

side-effects

This book makes me have conflicting emotions. The main character, Alice, has discovered that she has leukemia and only has months to live. Her childhood friend, Harvey, decides to care for her while hiding his feelings, that he is hopelessly in love with her, even though she has been totally ignoring him for the last couple of years. The trouble is that Alice isn’t very nice. In fact, she is a total user who knows that Harvey is in love with her and will do anything she asks.

It all starts with an unfortunate incident where Alice and her boyfriend Luke sneak out of school and go back to Alice’s house. They see something that they weren’t meant to see and Alice swears Luke to secrecy. Unfortunately he is also seeing Alice’s frenemy Celeste and the next day everyone knows. When Alice is diagnosed and realizes that she is not going to make it, she makes a bucket list of revenge. She dumps Luke and gets revenge on both him and Celeste, as well as doing some other stuff like sneaking in to an abandoned camp and smoking pot.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Just as she thinks that she is on her last legs and got all the revenge out of her system, a visit to the doctor’s tells her that she has gone in to remission. She no longer has cancer and is going to live. She finds out the night after Harvey has told her that he loves her. She says it back and then realizes that she is not ready for that kind of commitment and panics.

As she recovers and goes back to school she starts to ignore poor old Harvey and he is in total turmoil. Then she takes up with another boy (can’t remember his name but it doesn’t matter, he isn’t around for long) and Harvey finds out. He tells her enough is enough and goes off with someone else. I won’t spoil the ending but, suffice to say, I still feel conflicted. Alice is not a nice person. Harvey is a nice person but a total doormat. I don’t think that Alice really cares about anyone except herself, and the problem is that because she is dying everyone thinks they should feel sorry for her. There is a really horrible incident towards the end where the people she has been really mean to get their revenge on her, and I just kind of felt that she deserved it! Anyway, you read it and decide what you think.

It’s a good book because it makes you ask yourself whether you would do the same thing in her shoes. If you knew you were dying would you get back at people or would you let the bitterness go and fundraise or something. I like to think I would do good things  but, I’m pretty sure I would give some people some home truths as well! But also, just because you think you should feel sorry for someone, if they are as horrible as Alice is, do you still need to be nice to them?