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 baby’s 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.

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Ink and Bone (The Great Library Series #1) – Rachel Caine

I haven’t read anything by Rachel Caine before; the whole Morganville thing didn’t really appeal to me even though they were really popular in the library. This one kind of grabbed me because of the library  connection and I thought I’d give it a go.

The book is based on the premise that The Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt was not destroyed and is still standing at the time the book is set, which is in 2025. The Royal Library was built in the 3rd century BC and was a centre of cultural learning and knowledge. It housed thousands of papyrus scrolls and other scholarly works which were destroyed by a big fire in 30 BC. The library then moved to a daughter library or Serapeum and this was destroyed in the Muslim wars in about 642 AD. This background knowledge would have helped when reading the book but is not essential!

The Library is controlled by the Librarians (!) a sinister group that basically rule the world and all the knowledge in it. Any printed books are banned and any that exist are housed in the original library in Alexandria. There is a black market trade in printed books but this a dangerous game and, if discovered will lead to execution. All citizens of the world are allowed to read from tablets, or blanks, and these are controlled by the Library. There is also some wars going on, particularly between the Welsh and the English and these are brutal, almost medieval, warfare. There is also a group of people who live in the Iron Tower in Alexandria called Obscurists. They can preform some sort of magic that controls the blanks and other things. If you are an Obscurist you cannot leave the Iron Tower, ever. They are super powerful and rare. There is also a group of people called Burners who destroy books in a public way to draw attention to the fact that all books should be free to be read without being controlled by the library.

Jess Brightwell lives in London with his family. They are book smugglers and he is a runner. He has to deliver the books to the clients. Some are extremely rare and worth lots of money. He had an older brother called Liam who was executed at 17 for smuggling and a twin called Brendan, who is a mystery ( he makes fleeting appearances in this book!) The Brightwell family are large and have relatives all over. Although Jess is part of the business his heart isn’t really it so when he turns 17  his father buys him an opportunity. Every year students from all around the world are chosen to go to Alexandria to study. They have to sit a series of exams and if they pass, go to Alexandria and study with a Scholar, who chooses six of them to be taken in to the library. The others are sent back.

On the train to Alexandria he meets his fellow students; Thomas, Khalila, Danton and Glain. When he arrives he meets his room mate, Dario who isn’t very nice and later another mysterious girl arrives called Morgan. Their scholar is a chap called Wolfe who may or may not be dodgy, and they are also trained by the Garda, a man called Santi. These are all the main players in the book and you will get to know them as you go.

I don’t want to elaborate too much on the story because it will give you too many spoilers, but this is a series opener so it needs to set everything up. Which it does! The story is fast paced and gritty and there is a hint of magic but it’s not too overwhelming for people who aren’t too into magical books. Jess is a great character and there is a developing love story as well but, the main plot is; who to trust? Should we agree that one organisation can control all the power and knowledge in the world just because they can? The other characters are really good as well and I’m sure that the ones that survive will make an appearance in the next book (which is already in my kindle!)

This is a great summer read and you will become immersed in their world, I am looking forward to reading the next one and the third one is out in July so that’s going on the kindle as well! There are also some spin off novellas which will keep you busy. If you love a series with some magical twists and turns then this is the one for you!

 

 

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.

 

Wild Boy – Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a book that I read a couple of years ago and enjoyed, and have just read again for a book group. For me to re read a book is very rare and very annoying because I just sit there thinking of the time I could be spending reading something I haven’t read before so, this is a big commitment for me!

Wild boy is a freak. At least, that’s what he has been told his entire life. Abandoned as a baby at the workhouse, he has been kept locked in a room for most of his life. The other boys are afraid of him and the workhouse owner makes money from exhibiting him to curious people. One day, a man called Finch comes to the workhouse and offers the owner a deal; he will pay to take the boy off his hands. He wants him to join his circus in the freak show. Wild Boy notices some things about Finch that Finch wants to keep hidden, and we start to see that Wild Boy is not just strange looking (his body is entirely covered in hair), but has a unique ability to see things that other people cannot. He decides that life in the circus has got to be better than life in the work house and he agrees to go. Thus, his new life begins.

The next time we meet Wild Boy he is living in a caravan with a man called Sir Oswald. Sir Oswald lost  both of his legs fighting at the battle of Waterloo and is another inhabitant of the freak show. He spends most of his time mending the caravan and looking after Wild Boy. Through a series of mishaps, Wild Boy is out wandering the circus one night when he witnesses a murder after overhearing a conversation about a mysterious machine. He is then embroiled in a fight and accused of being the murderer. He  teams up with another kid from the circus Clarissa, who he meets on top of a caravan – they hate each other but soon realise that the only way to solve the murder is to work together. Clarissa is the daughter of the trapeze act and can jump and escape from the most dangerous places, her mother runs the circus but hates her daughter because she looks like the husband who abandoned her. Together they team up to try and solve the murder and work out what the machine is. They meet several strange men who are part of a secret society and begin a game of cat and mouse with the real murderer who is also after the machine and thinks they can lead him to it.

Wild Boy and Clarissa both have unique skills to bring to the table and, together they set about solving the murder and saving London. There is a great twist at the end when we discover who the murderer is and the way is set for a sequel with the two heroes. This is a little bit like Sherlock Holmes. Wild Boy  can detect things about a person just be looking at tiny clues that a normal person would not be able to see.

The book is set in Victorian London and has some grimy sewer scenes as well, it’s very atmospheric. A great thriller that will keep you guessing who the golden mask man is, who’s the murderer, and what the machine can do. Also look out for the sequel, The Black Terror, I’m not sure if there will be any more but I hope so.

Hitler’s Daughter – Jackie French

hitlers-daughter

Some of you may have read this already but it was recommended to me by some year 8 girls so I thought I would give it a quick read. And quick it is, at 135 pages it’s very short.

The author of this book is Australian but it took me a while to realize that the  book is set in Australia! Anyway, it is. So, the main premise of the book is this; a bunch of kids who live out on farms get the bus to school together every day. One of them, Anna, is good at telling stories. Little Tracey (not to be confused with Big Tracey who lives down the road) was scared on her first day and Anna told her a story, they all realized that she was really good at it and got her to tell more. This one however, is different. The main narrator is a boy called Mark who lives with his parents on a farm. The weather seems to be permanently dreadful and they are all worried about flooding!

Anna tells the story of Heidi. Heidi is Hitler’s secret daughter. She is a secret because she has a strawberry birthmark on her face and a limp and is  not the perfect German daughter that Hitler wants. He still visits her sometimes though and she is looked after by Fraulein Gelber who does everything for her. She has never left the house that she lives in and has everything that she needs, even though there is a war on. She has only seen her father, or Duffi, a handful of times but she knows that he is her father and that he is important to Germany.   Duffi comes to see her one day and gives her a doll but she can sense that things are not going well. Fraulein Gelber and some other ladies that work in the house are starting to get bad news from the front about their family. The cook’s sister, who was disabled, has been taken away, Heidi is confused about Jewish people.

Towards the end of the war she is taken to another house in the country where she meets Frau Lieb. Fraulein Gelber is increasingly distracted by the loss of her family and so Heidi spends a lot of time with the farmer’s wife. This is an interesting bit as it gives you some insight into the way that the German people lived during the war. She doesn’t really have any contact with her father and but she starts to enjoy the simple life, adopting rabbits and getting involved with the farm.

Meanwhile back in the real world, Mark and his friends are anxious to learn more about Heidi. He asks his parents and his teachers various questions about whether children should just follow their parents blindly or whether they are to blame for their parents decisions. He gets increasingly caught up in Heidi’s world and is desperate to find out what happened. Anna seems more reluctant to tell this story, but it is more detailed than the others. Almost like it’s real.

The book is short and to the point and probably for younger readers but it does pose some interesting questions. Are you responsible for the actions of your parents, even when they are the biggest mass murderer in history? Are we what our parents make us or do we have a  choice about what sort of adult we become?

I had an enjoyable hour spent reading this, give it a go if you want to boost your reading lists and feel like something different.

As I Descended – Robin Talley

as-i-descended

This is the third Robin Talley book that I have read now; I loved The Lies We Tell Ourselves but really wasn’t keen on What We Left Behind so I went into this with a bit of trepidation.

The premise of the book is thus: Maria and Lily are room mates and lovers at a creepy boarding school in America called Archeron Academy. The school is built on an old slave plantation and there are more than a few ghost stories attached. There is a big lake in the middle of the campus where, allegedly, three students  drowned and current students are now forbidden to swim in it. The lake is also supposed to be haunted by the students who died.

Maria is kind of the second best. They are in their senior year and students are competing to win the coveted Cawdor Kingsley Prize, which gives them a free pass to college. When the book opens, Lily and Maria, and Maria’s best friend Brandon are playing with an Ouija board in the old plantation dining room. They ask it a series of questions and open up a link to the spirit world. Before they can close it again, the ancient chandelier falls on the board and smashes it. Maria is haunted by her memories of Altagracia, her maid from when she was a child, who spoke to spirits and was interested in the occult.

The only thing standing in the way of Maria winning the prize, and being valedictorian (top student in the year) and football captain is a girl called Delilah. Lily wants Maria to win the prize so that they can go to the same college and be together forever. She encourages Maria to go out with Delilah ( a known drug user) the night before a random drugs test (Brandon gives her the info) and slip a drug that she uses into her drink. Then Delilah will be caught, she uses all the time anyway and the girls don’t think it’s fair that she always gets away with it; Maria will win the prize, get captain of the team and valedictorian and life will be perfect. Except something goes wrong.

After a tragic accident the situation spirals out of control and Maria and Lily get more and more paranoid. Shove in the ghosts as well and this book gets more exciting. I’m going to give you a final clue and tell you that the book ends on the sports field which was originally called Dunsanane and you will obviously guess that the book is based on the play Macbeth.

Very loosely based I might add! Maria and Lily are obviously meant to be the Macbeths and Lily does a good job of winding Maria up. Eventually though it’s a little unclear whether either did anything because they wanted to or because they were possessed by evil spirits.  Mateo is the hero, Brandon’s boyfriend becomes suspicious of the two girls and decides to do some investigating.

I enjoyed this book a lot more that What We Left behind, although I didn’t think the characters were as deeply constructed as they could have been. There wasn’t much of a back story on any of them and I felt I would have liked them more if there had been. I didn’t really care if Maria succeeded or not, or was consumed by the evil spirits and went mad! The other aspect to the  story was obviously the  ghosts and whether they were real or just the figment of the teenager’s troubled minds. You’ll have to read it to decide that one; I’m still not sure. I’ll tell you one thing though, I am so glad I never to went to boarding school!

All in all, a good read. I would recommend to anyone who is studying Shakespeare as it gives the story a modern twist and it will help you to see the psychological aspect of the story. Was Maria so blinded by what she felt she deserved that she would do anything to get it? Did Macbeth want to be King so badly that he was willing to kill or did Lady Macbeth talk him in to it with clever words and some magical trickery?

The Girl in the Blue Coat – Monica Hesse

girl-in-the-blue-dress

I have just finished reading a book about old people’s homes in Holland (for a book group before you ask!)  and decided to pick  this one up because it is about the German occupation of Holland during WW11. I didn’t know much about so it was an interesting read.

Hanneke Bakker is an 18 year old girl living in Amsterdam during the Second World War. When we first meet her she is on her way to make a delivery of black market goods for her employer, the local undertaker. She  goes around delivering hard-to-get items to the wealthy people of  Amsterdam. She is also mourning the loss of her boyfriend, Bas, who was killed in the short lived resistance of the Dutch Army before the they succumbed to the German invasion. This was two years previously and Hanneke feels a lot of guilt. She thinks that Bas, who joined up early, did so  because he wanted to impress her.

Hanneke is stopped by a young German soldier and flirts her way out of trouble. She then calls on her next customer, Mrs Janssen, who has several sons. One has  been killed and the others have fled to America and England. Her husband has also not been seen for a while. She asks Hanneke to do her a favour. She has been harbouring a  young Jewish girl who was a friend of the family. Her husband had  been hiding the family at his factory but they had been betrayed and all been killed, including her husband, except for the girl. The girl has since gone missing and Mrs Janssen wants Hanneke to find her, as she is the only family she has left.

Coincidently, the same day her dead boyfriends brother Ollie appears at her door and, although Hanneke does not want to become involved, she agrees to meet with a friend of Ollie and realizes that he is involved with the Dutch resistance movement. He knows someone that can help her find Mirjam (the Jewish girl in the blue coat) and bring her back to Mrs Janssen and safety. Judith is a member of Ollie’s supper club and is Jewish. She works at the local centre where Jews go after they have been rounded up by the Germans. Her sister Mina works in the crèche looking after the very young and both girls are active members of the resistance. We also meet Willem, who is Ollie’s roommate.

What follows is a roller coaster of missed connections and double dealing. Hanneke is unwittingly drawn in to helping the resistance and is nearly caught on a few occasions. All the time she is carrying this guilt about Bas and we learn some of their back story. Hanneke  is a strong character that makes you feel that, if you were in the same situation as her you would  hopefully be as brave. The people of all occupied countries suffered such fear and hardship during the years that the Germans invaded their countries and people must have been constantly afraid of doing anything wrong. The rounding up of the Jews is poignantly portrayed, a boy cries because two girls in his class have been deported to concentration camps because they are Jewish. Hanneke has no hope of a future because she cannot see past her grief. Her relationship with her parents also changes significantly during the course of the book.

Every time I read a book like this, and there are so many out there that I have read a few, it astonishes me. How can ordinary people cope with such an extraordinary situation? Would I be able to cope with it? Would you? People do all sorts of amazing things when they have to, and so many people fought the Germans in their own way, small items of resistance that showed the enemy that they won’t give up fighting for their country. Hanneke is an ordinary girl trying to get by in a world that she no longer recognizes, and this book is so well written that you feel sorry for her but, at the same time, you will wish that you were like her.

The book has also  been compared to the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I didn’t really see the connection, or rather I did but didn’t agree.  This book will make you sad, but it will also make you glad that you live in a society where this will never happen again. It’s a study of human endurance and bravery and it made me tingle.

Further Reading: The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas and The Boy at the Top of the mountain by John Boyne.