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!

 

 

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One of Us is Lying – Karen M McManus

Hands up if you have seen the awesome 80s classic The Breakfast Club? High school kids stuck in detention, all different types, don’t really know or like each other and then they are all stuck in the same room and end up having this amazing experience? WHY NOT??? This film is fab and I demand you go and watch it this evening….

Well, this book is unashamedly similar, except one of the students who goes into detention doesn’t make it out again. Bronwyn, Cooper, Nate, Addy and Simon are all in detention on a Monday afternoon for being caught with their mobile phones. Except all the phones they were caught weren’t their own, but were found in their bags. Weird coincidence number one. While they are all there, the teacher leaves for a second and there is a car crash in  the car park which they all go and look at out of the window. The next thing you know, Simon falls down and starts  gasping for breath. It is well known that he has a peanut allergy and quick thinking Nate tries to find his epipen. It’s not in his bag and one of the others runs to the medical room to get a spare; there aren’t any.  Simon doesn’t make it  (this isn’t a spoiler, it tells you this in the blurb)

The other four narrate the story and all have something to hide. Simon is the author of an online gossip website called About That and has been writing nasty things about other students, he isn’t exactly Mr Popular. So when it’s discovered that he has been deliberately killed they are all under suspicion. Bronwyn is the clever type who is just trying to get though high school and into Yale. Cooper is the star baseball player who is just about the get a full scholarship and possibly play in the majors (this is important if you play baseball apparently) Nate is the school drug dealer and lives with his alcoholic dad, his mum has disappeared. Addy is dating Jake, a thoroughly nasty jock who is a total control freak. That basically sums up Addy’s personality at the beginning of the book.

As things play out and the students all fall under suspicion they start to get together to figure out what really happened. As they start to trust each other more, and spend more time together, there is a lingering suspicion that one of them may have committed the murder. So who did the crime?

I liked the way that, as the reader you experience all the main suspects in their own words, which makes it more difficult to figure out which one (if any) of them might have done it.  As  the groups secrets are exposed and some of them get a bit closer the suspicion heightens. Although I never really believed that any of them were guilty, the lies came out quite slowly so it was exciting to go along not knowing who the murderer was. I also started to really like the characters and really hoped that none of them were responsible!

This is another YA book that references classic stuff but also is trying to encourage you to be an individual. Addy in particular is in an abusive relationship but doesn’t even realise it. Cooper’s secret also exposes the fact that, although American is a first world country, it still has some backward thinking going on!

The twists and turns made me want to finish quickly and I  really enjoyed the ride. A good thriller that will make you go ‘oh!’ when you find out the truth! One to read over the summer I think.

Now go and get The Breakfast club on Netflix , if you love Pitch Perfect hopefully you have seen it already!

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

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

Dumplin’ is otherwise known as Willowdean Dickson. She is a little larger than the average girl so her mum invented the nickname Dumplin’ and it has stuck. Her mum is also the main organiser of the town’s local Beauty Queen Pageant: The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant, the oldest beauty pageant in Texas.

Willowdean lives in small town America and  the pageant is the biggest thing to happen in the town every year. If you are a previous winner, even if you’re old, you are celebrated as a town success story. Her mum wears the same dress to the ceremony every year and during the weeks running up to the pageant, their house is full of things associated with it. Dumplin’ lives with her mum and, until last year,  her aunt Lucy. Her father seems to be some guy passing through town. Lucy was also large and, at a young age, had a heart attack and died. She was also a massive Dolly Parton fan and took more interest in bringing up Dumplin’ then her mum. Dumplin’ misses Lucy – lots.

But, there is more to life for Willowdean and she has never even considered entering the pageant. She works at the local fast food place, Harpys and spends most of her time with her best friend Ellen and Ellen’s boyfriend Tim. At the beginning of the book all is well. Dumplin’ is working and hanging out with Ellen, who may be just about to sleep with Tim, life is going on as normal. Except that she works with the gorgeous, brooding Bo. A private school boy who is the restaurants chef. Bo starts making a move on Dumplin’ but, although she is confident about the way she looks, she’s not sure why anyone would like her. Bo makes a move but it’s all a secret and, in the end she decides that he is destroying her confidence by not being open about what he wants, and finishes it. She also finds out that he is starting at her school after the summer holidays. He didn’t tell her.

In the meantime, Ellen and Tim have done the deed but Ellen has a new friend at the skinny girls store that she works in, Callie, and Dumplin’ feels that they are growing apart. Callie is not a nice girl. To protest at the way that ‘not normal’ girls are never entered in the pageant, Dumplin decides to go for it, along with some other  friends who are not pageant material, and here’s were all the drama starts. Add in some Dolly Parton drag queens, some unrequited love and this is a great book! Millie, Emma and Amanda are also great characters that will have you rooting for them.

I liked her other book, Side Effects May Vary and this one is also good. A nice mix of fun, the underdog and sassy girls thrown in means that this is a quick and fun read that will have you rooting for fat girls everywhere ( know I used the f word but it’s used a lot in the book so…). I did feel a bit sorry for poor old Mitch though – but I loved the fact that even though Willowdean was not your average beauty queen, she still gets the guys and, hopefully, lives happily ever after.

An uplifting read that you will enjoy.