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!)

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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!

 

 

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.

 

Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice – Natasha Farrant

Ok, hands up who has read the classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen? That doesn’t include watching the BBC adaption with Colin Firth in it, or the film with Keira Knightley….

Well, if you haven’t read it or seen the film or TV show then I will give a brief outline of the plot. Mr and Mrs Bennett live in Longbourne. They have five daughters and need to get them all married off. The oldest daughter, Jane, falls in love with their new neighbour Mr Bingley who is super rich. The second oldest, Lizzie, is pursued by Mr Darcy even though he thinks that she isn’t good enough for him (he’s a bit arrogant but also mega rich) then there is Mary, Kitty and lastly, Lydia who turns 16 during the course of the novel. The book is set in Georgian England and it is about the time that England is fighting the French. Their village is overrun with soldiers, one of whom is Mr Wickham, who has history with Mr Darcy. There is a silly vicar called Mr Collins who is a cousin of theirs and he will inherit their house when Mr Bennet dies unless one of the girls marries  him and secures it for all of them. Mr Collins also happens to be the local vicar for Mr Darcy’s aunt,  who is a Lady. Mr Collins is also really creepy but sets his sights on Lizzie.

Everyone is obsessed with class and money and whether people have good reputations. Mrs Bennet is certainly obsessed with making sure that all her daughters make good marriages with rich husbands so that the family won’t have to worry about being thrown out on the street. I may have just butchered a classic there but that’s a broad outline of the story!

In the original book Lydia is silly, vain and obsessed with dances and dresses and being pretty.  She doesn’t read and isn’t interested in being educated. She follows the soldiers around in their lovely red coats and loves flirting. During the course of the book she befriends the Major’s wife and, when the soldiers are moved down to Brighton she goes with and hopes to bag a husband while having as much as fun as possible.

In this book, she is keeping a diary which was given to her by her sister, Mary. Mary is the clever one who likes reading and playing the piano. The first section of the book follows the storyline of the original and gives us a fresh perspective on the Bennet’s life. Lydia gets on with her sister Kitty the best but respects Jane and Lizzie and feels a bit left out by them. She is a minor role in the original book until the end where she is integral to the ending but, in this her personality comes through. Things really start to get interesting when she arrives in Brighton. In Georgian times, Brighton was the place to go and Lydia soon fits in. She goes to balls at the Ship Assembly Rooms (I’ve been there!) and goes to the theatre where the King may also be attending. She also starts to swim in the sea. During the time, if you wanted to swim in the sea you have to be pulled in a carriage in which you got changed. Everyone was obsessed with their reputations and not exposing themselves to ruin. Other people seeing you in your swimming costume would ruin you!

Anyway, Lydia is on the beach with Harriet (the Major’s wife) when she sees a very glamorous redhead. She learns that this lady is a Comtesse and has  fled France after the revolution. A Comtesse in like a Countess to us. She also learns that she has a brother, Alaric, who is a Comte. She is enthralled by the idea of meeting real life royal French people and sets about engineering a meeting with them. Helped by the dashing but dodgy Wickham. Wickham is already in trouble because he keeps trying to marry  rich women (including Darcy’s sister when she was about 13!). The Comte and Comtesse are living with  a relative who, it turns out, is pretty rich and eligible and Wickham decides to try his luck with her. Lydia in the meantime falls in love with Alaric and hopes to marry him and live in India where his stepfather has a tea plantation.

The book has a good twist at the end which I wasn’t expecting and it is obviously more accessible than the original. It is also of the period so will give you a good idea of the original storyline and why everyone behaves the way they do. It also made me very glad that I didn’t live in that time!

Lydia is a likeable character and you will want her to make a success  of things in the end. The only problem is that I didn’t really feel there was enough time spent on the romance to make it believable that she would do what she did, and there is a few little bits that are a little hard to believe. A nice spin on a classic though, you will enjoy it whether you have read the original or not.

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!

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.