Wolf Children by Paul Dowsell

wolf childrenTitle: Wolf Children

Author: Paul Dowsell

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 1st November 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 288

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: survival in the cellar of an abandoned hospital, Otto and his ragtag gang of kids have banded together in the desperate, bombed-out city.
The war may be over, but danger lurks in the shadows of the wreckage as Otto and his friends find themselves caught between invading armies, ruthless rival gangs and a strange Nazi war criminal who stalks them …

A climactic story of truth, friendship and survival against the odds, Wolf Children will thrill readers of Michael Morpurgo and John Boyne.

~*~

 

Wolf Children begins as World War Two has ended, and Germany has fallen into the clutches of Russian occupation as the rest of the world wages the final few months of war in the Pacific. With Hitler gone, and the Nazi regime obliterated, those who remain in crumbling Berlin must endure the Russian control over their city until an agreement can be made about where the East and West will be divided. Their world has been turned upside down, and Otto, Helene, Erich and Klaus have turned their backs on Nazi ideology, perhaps never quite bought into it in the first place, and have accepted the fate of the regime and seek only to survive the invading armies, rival gangs and a strange Nazi war criminal who has taken an interest in Otto’s younger brother, Ulrich, who has never quite let go of the Hitler Youth.

 

In a world not always seen in World War Two historical fiction, the impact of the end of the war on German citizens who did not support the regime they lived under, but were kept silent out of fear is not always explored. Here, it is shown through the eyes of six children who appear to have nobody left but each other, and in a world of uncertainty and lack of shelter, food and money, they must learn to barter with what they can, and eat when food comes their way. In a world of uncertainty, these children can only rely on each other, and with their lives at stake, will they survive the next few months of post-war Germany?

 

The harrowing stories set during, and after World War Two, from any perspective, are deeply unsettling and raw, and at times, uncomfortable, with characters like Ulrich who cling to the vestiges of a failed regime – where their attitudes are not shied away from, but at the same time, condemned by the characters around them. These stories, whether historical fiction, or biographical, or non-fiction, are not meant to make us comfortable. They are meant to remind us of what dangerous language and divisive ideas and talk can lead to. I have read many books that are set in the turbulent inter-war, war and post war years this year, and none of them have shied away from the discomforts of the historical setting or the ideas and language that floated around then, yet at the same time, have presented them in an accessible way for the audience – in this case, children and young adults. It is a book that is humbling and can serve to remind adults too about what happened and that it must not happen again. The devastation of Germany shows the scars of war – in the buildings, in the crumbling walls and bricks, and in the rubble that surrounds the bartering markets. It shows in the half starved people, and in the children who forage for food and who fear anyone they don’t know.

 

Wolf Children is a story that will stay with me, and one that should be read to gain a broader perspective of these post-war years. In uncertain times, this book shows what people will do when they are desperate, and what it will take for them to turn their backs on what they thought they knew, and help those who are truly the only ones there for them. A brave story, that shows the flaws of humanity in dark and dangerous times for all, with a touch of hope ebbing through the novel.

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The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

the red ribbonTitle: The Red Ribbon

Author: Lucy Addlington

Genre: Historical Fiction/Young Adult

Publisher: Bonnier/Hotkey/Allen and Unwin

Published: 25th October 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 320

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. In another life we might all have been friends together. This was Birchwood. For readers of The Diary of Anne Frank and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

As fourteen-year-old Ella begins her first day at work she steps into a world of silks, seams, scissors, pins, hems and trimmings. She is a dressmaker, but this is no ordinary sewing workshop. Hers are no ordinary clients. Ella has joined the seamstresses of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as readers may recognise it. Every dress she makes could mean the difference between life and death. And this place is all about survival.

Ella seeks refuge from this reality, and from haunting memories, in her work and in the world of fashion and fabrics. She is faced with painful decisions about how far she is prepared to go to survive. Is her love of clothes and creativity nothing more than collaboration with her captors, or is it a means of staying alive? Will she fight for herself alone, or will she trust the importance of an ever-deepening friendship with Rose? One thing weaves through the colours of couture gowns and camp mud – a red ribbon, given to Ella as a symbol of hope.

~*~

Set during the final months and years of the Second World War, Ella has been whisked away off the streets to the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, known in the novel as Birchwood. Here, she is set to working, making clothes for the guards and the Commandant and his family. Here, she learns to make patterns, to choose the right colours for people, and together with Rose, the storyteller, whose fairy-tale optimism keeps the girls going during the darkest of days, dreams of the dress shop they will own one day in the City of Lights – Paris. Ella’s way of describing her world Them, Guards – Nazis, and Stripeys – those in the concentration camp – is both innocent and sobering. It is a child’s view of this world she now inhabits, a world where she is not immune to the brutality surrounding her. It is Ella’s perspective that gives the novel the powerful impact it needs to have, to remind us of what has happened in the past, and to prevent the same thing happening again.

To escape the horrors of the camp, Ella finds her solace in sewing and designing clothes, a skill that she knows she will use when she gets out – but in a place where it seems nobody will ever leave, she begins to wonder if she will ever achieve her dream, or if it’s just a way to comfort herself through the long, dark days. It is not a comfortable novel to read, and nor should it be. Any novel that delves into the darker depths of human history and humanity should not be a comfortable or easy read. What this novel shows is that we should never forget, but also that the human spirit’s capacity to push on through adversity and survive, even when we think we can’t go on.

The Red Ribbon is one of those novels that stays with you and haunts you. It is not one to shy away from the gritty reality that Ella lives in. Instead, the gritty reality is shown, and the horrors communicated through Ella’s eyes as she fights to stay alive and then fights to find freedom. It is a novel to be read alongside the history books, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and stories of resistance against the regime, as portrayed in The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth, Reading these books together will give a more human view of the Holocaust than we get from history books – a human face put to those affected, to those caught up in what was going and to those actively trying to resist. Lucy has captured the history and experiences eloquently, and sensitively, ensuring that the careful research she did has been communicated in an effective and informative way to readers, and giving them a chance to explore the history behind the story in her notes at the end of the novel. it is one that I hope to read again at some stage, because it is important that we keep reading these stories to never forget, and to prevent it happening again during our own lifetimes.

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Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

letters to the lost.jpg

Title: Letters to the Lost

Author: Brigid Kemmerer

Genre: YA

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 6th April 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: Juliet Young always writes letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother’s death, she leaves letters at her grave. It’s the only way Juliet can cope.

Declan Murphy isn’t the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he’s trying to escape the demons of his past.

When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can’t resist writing back. Soon, he’s opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither Declan nor Juliet knows that they’re not actually strangers. When life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, sparks will fly as Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart.

~*~

When Declan Murphy finds a letter on a grave during community service in the graveyard, he is compelled by an invisible force to read it, and respond to the person who wrote the letter.

When Juliet Young finds Delcan’s response to the letter she placed on her mother’s grave, she s incensed that someone has dared to read the words and respond to them as if they know her, as though they had the right to intrude. To Juliet, her privacy has been violated.

And yet, Juliet and Declan find a connection through this anonymous communication. They tell each other things they’ve never told anyone else, and reveal their true selves and feelings throughout the letters and later anonymous emails and messages that they move to. As they grow fond of each other through this method of communication, real life begins to throw them together: at school, at Homecoming, one the dark road with a broken down car, and they begin to form a friendship separate from the letters, not knowing that they are corresponding anonymously online when they face off in person.

Soon, they are thrown together more and more as real life and the letters start to blur together, and a fateful discussion threatens to throw them apart, and secrets are uncovered that Juliet is fearful to share with anyone – except those who helped her find the courage to look at her mother’s cameras, and find out what really happened the day she died.

Letters to the Lost is more than a love story. It is a story of loss, and how everyone deals with it differently, and a story of how the most unlikely friendships can develop in unusual places and come from a similar place and understanding, and slowly, develops into something more. Declan and Juliet have people they can talk to, teachers, friends, but not parents, and those who do try are not always able to understand them the way they understand each other.

I enjoyed Declan and Juliet’s story. It was heartbreaking in many ways, and illustrated the frustrations people feel that come with grief and change, and the shock of truths that lead to what happened, and the burdens that children shouldn’t have to shoulder. They are two people from different walks of life who find a way to understand the world, and the letters and emails interspersed with the prose and the dual perspective – where Declan’s chapters are indicated by him reading Juliet’s letters, and vice versa for Juliet – works well and establishes the characters for the reader, giving them both sides to the story, not just one.

Another interesting read from Bloomsbury for the Young Adult audience.

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The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

the blue cat.jpg

Title: The Blue Cat

Author: Ursula Dubosarsky

Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 29th March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 176

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: From the multi-award-winning author of The Red Shoe comes a haunting story about a boy who can’t – or won’t – speak about his past in war-torn Europe, and his friendship with a young Australian girl.

A boy stood in the playground under the big fig tree. ‘He can’t speak English,’ the children whispered.

Sydney, 1942. The war is coming to Australia – not only with the threat of bombardment, but also the arrival of refugees from Europe. Dreamy Columba’s world is growing larger. She is drawn to Ellery, the little boy from far away, and, together with her highly practical best friend Hilda, the three children embark on an adventure through the harbour-side streets – a journey of discovery and terror, in pursuit of the mysterious blue cat …

~*~

aww2017-badgeThe Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky is a glimpse into a world affected by war through the eyes of children. The main character, Columba, is a dreamy, curious child, who notices the strange boy, Ellery at school during the early part of 1942. A blue cat, sleek and mysterious, has appeared at her neighbour’s house. The arrival of Ellery and the cat spark a curiosity in Columba that has her asking more questions, wanting to know more about the world as she tries to become Ellery’s friend. Columba’s friend, Hilda, is the realist, the pushy one out collecting money for the war effort, and isn’t as dreamy as Columba.

Ellery’s arrival hints that war is closer to home than everyone thought. He is mysterious and quiet, and doesn’t speak English – through the eyes of a child, he is strange, a mystery and yet, someone that Columba sees is in need of a friend. Though they do not talk, they become friends, something Ellery’s father finds pleasing for his son, lost in a new world without a mother. The story culminates in a search for the mysterious blue cat, and events that bring the war and the realities of what that means closer to home for Columba.

The Blue Cat is dreamy, and has a fairy tale feeling about it – as though the blue cat is not quite real. This fits with the dreamy sense I got from Columba, and also the childlike ways of understanding the war – You-Rope for Europe, said phonetically perhaps, as a child might say it. I found there was a sense of magic about it – the threat is real, especially during the air raid siren practice when Columba and Ellery are out walking, and yet, it retains some of the innocence of childhood, though it is scarred by a war that is so far away yet in other ways, so close to the characters.

The Blue Cat combines history with a sense of dreaming, placing the characters in a world where sometimes their imaginations help to get them through the day, but at the same time, the reality of war will always be there. Prisoners of war, bombs and people like Ellery, hiding away, hoping for safety away from the dangers of a nation far away. Throughout the book, Ursula Dubosarsky incorporated primary sources from the time period, which added to the reading experience and gave Columba’s story an authentic feel, and added to the gravity of the situation and reality that the characters were living. An enjoyable novel showing war through the eyes of a child, and a good read for children aged ten and over.

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

traitor coverTitle: Traitor to the Throne

Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy

Publisher: Faber/ Allen and Unwin

Published: 25th January 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 592

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: The second installment of this highly-acclaimed trilogy, Traitor to the Throne throws the irrepressible Amani into a world of espionage, harems, and the Sultan himself.

This is not about blood or love. This is about treason. Nearly a year has passed since Amani and the rebels won their epic battle at Fahali. Amani has come into both her powers and her reputation as the Blue-Eyed Bandit, and the Rebel Prince’s message has spread across the desert – and some might say out of control. But when a surprise encounter turns into a brutal kidnapping, Amani finds herself betrayed in the cruellest manner possible. Stripped of her powers and her identity, and torn from the man she loves, Amani must return to her desert-girl’s instinct for survival. For the Sultan’s palace is a dangerous one, and the harem is a viper’s nest of suspicion, fear and intrigue. Just the right place for a spy to thrive… But spying is a dangerous game, and when ghosts from Amani’s past emerge to haunt her, she begins to wonder if she can trust her own treacherous heart.

~*~

Opening where the Sultan’s guards have captured Amani, the Rebellion and the Rebel Prince, Ahmed, soon find a way into the palace to rescue her. The rescue that takes place sets in motion a series of events that endanger Amani and the rebels, the Djinni and the Demdji like Amani – children of mortal women and Djinn, marked by a vibrant colour of hair, or, like in Amani’s case, blue eyes that stand out against her desert girl features. She is known as The Blue Eyed Bandit, and the Rebellion has come to the palace.

Later, kidnapped by someone she thought she could trust and hidden away and controlled in the Sultan’s harem, where she has been stripped of her powers, Amani uses her instincts from her time in the desert, in Dustwalk, to survive the dangers of the palace and the harem, where fear, intrigue and suspicion rule the women there and their daily lives. Using these characteristics to her advantage, Amani spies on the harem and the Sultan – bringing danger to Amani and those she cares about, and making Amani wonder if she can trust herself.

I received this to review initially not realising it was the second book in a trilogy – even though I hadn’t read the first one, I picked up the plot fairly quickly and have bought the first one to read and fill in any gaps I may have. Amani’s world – a world inspired by Sultans and Djinni, where magic and technology are at war and at the same time, being forced together to fight the same war, and where everyone fits into the world nicely, and comes together to create a diverse cast in many ways was one of my favourite things about this novel. It had strong characters, but they were still flawed, plans weren’t perfect and things still went wrong. And not everyone was who Amani thought they were.

As a reader, I enjoyed the mystery and intrigue connected to characters like Tamid, Leyla, Rahim and several of the harem girls, and the Sultima. Even the minor characters had an important role to play, and I certainly had several surprises along the way, when things that I did not expect were revealed. The cliffhanger ending had me reading it twice – I am eager to find out what happens and how things get resolved. As with any war, good and bad people die, and even those who are neither good nor evil, but benevolent or ambiguous face the prospect of death in a war that has been plaguing Miraji and its neighbours.

The first person perspective of Amani, peppered with a few chapters from an outside perspective, such as a Djinni, works well. When she is cut off from the Rebels, Amani has to rely on anything she can hear in whispers from around the palace and her own instincts to get by. She is a resourceful character. I enjoyed reading about a fantasy world in a desert. In Amani’s world, it is set during a time when technology is beginning to take over from magic and superstition – perhaps akin to times in our own world history like the Industrial Revolution, but in a Arabic-like setting. Religion and beliefs are hinted to, but not named – showing that Amani’s world and their traditions are different to our own.

I am looking forward to reading book one, and then book three when it comes out, and seeing how the war concludes – and how Amani and the Rebellion finish what they started.

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Ariadnis by Josh Martin

Ariadnis.jpg

 

Title: Ariadnis

Author: Josh Martin

Genre: YA/Fantasy

Publisher: Quercus Children’s Books/Hachette

Published: 14th February, 2017

Format: paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: The first in a breathtaking and unique series, packed with magic, prophecy, and a thrilling competition. The stakes of Ariadnis have never been higher.

Back then I thought that if it weren’t for that cliff, our cities would be one and there would be no need for all this fierceness toward each other. But then I learned about pride and tradition and prophecy, and those things are harder than rock.

Joomia and Aula are Chosen. They will never be normal. They can never be free.

On the last island on Erthe, Chosen Ones are destined to enter Ariadnis on the day they turn eighteen. There, they must undertake a mysterious and deadly challenge. For Joomia and Aula, this means competing against each other, to end the war that has seethed between their cities for nine generations.

As the day draws nearer, all thoughts are on the trial ahead. There’s no space for friendship. No time for love. However much the girls might crave them.

But how you prepare for a task you know nothing certain about? Nothing, except that you must win, at whatever cost, or lose everything.

~*~

Ariadnis is set in a fantasy future, where our world is referred to as The Old World, and belief systems that draw from ancient Greek mythology and society, including clothing and names, and the city names: Metis and Athenas. For nine generations, Athenas and Metis have sent two Chosen Ones to enter Ariadnis for a mysterious, and deadly challenge, where only one can survive. In Ariadnis, it is Aula and Joomia who will enter Ariadnis for this task, and prepare from the day they turn seventeen for the impending event. Accompanied by their companions who have been helping them prepare, Aula and Joomia will eventually come together for their challenge, whilst tragic events unfold in their homes, and the ones they thought they could trust start to show their true colours, and leading to Aula and Joomia finding a way to work through it, and adhere to the challenge set before them.

The world of Ariadnis, the last island on a fantastical Erthe with its characters inspired by Ancient Greece and Ancient Greek mythology, where ancient beliefs have come full circle and returned to replace what Aula and Joomia know as the Old World beliefs is an intriguing novel and beginning to a series. Josh Martin uses a first person point of view for each character, marking each change with their name. For this series, it works, as the reader needs to be able to see the world through the eyes of Aula and Joomia, first on their own, and then when they come together in the final sections of the book.

Having studied Ancient Greece and its mythology, the little nods to this culture were done very well, and integrated nicely into the plot, along with magic and the hints that our world is known as The Old World in the history of Erthe. Josh Martin also created two female characters who had their own strengths, and were capable, but also had flaws that they could recognise and had to work through. Each character had a distinct personality and appearance, where diversity had a place – on the last island on Erthe, it is possible that integration of various races and cultures has taken place, and this is what makes this work smoothly.

Deciding on a favourite character was hard – as both Aula and Joomia had things that could be liked and disliked about them, though their connection towards the end was powerful and well written, and it is nice to see a friendship forming as the main relationship in a novel aimed at the Young Adult market.

I’m looking forward to the next novel in the series to find out what how the challenge concluded, hopefully through the eyes of Aula and Joomia again.

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Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

frogkisser.jpgTitle: Frogkisser!

Author: Garth Nix

Genre: Fantasy, YA

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 22nd February, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: A rollicking fantasy-adventure by the master of children’s speculative fiction.

Talking dogs. Mischievous wizards. An evil stepstepfather. Loads and loads of toads. Such is the life of a Frogkisser.

Princess Anya needs to see a wizard about a frog. It’s not her frog, it’s her sister’s. And it’s not a frog, it’s actually a prince. A prince who was once in love with Anya’s sister, but has now been turned into a frog by their evil stepstepfather. And Anya has made a ‘sister promise’ that she will find a way to return Prince Denholm to human form…

So begins an exciting, hilarious, irreverent quest through the Kingdom of Trallonia and out the other side, in a fantastical tale for all ages, full of laughs and danger, surprises and delights, and an immense population of frogs.

~*~

Frogkisser is a fairy tale for all. When Prince Denholm is turned into a frog by the stepstepfather, Rikard, of Morven and Anya, Anya’s sister promise to Morven to find him and turn him back into a human. And so, Anya sets out on a Quest, with Royal Dog Ardent, a newt called Shrub, who was once a boy and Otter-Maiden, Smoothie, to find the ingredients for the lip balm needed to reverse transmogrifications. She needs to see a wizard, and meets up with the Seven Dwarves, and the Association of Responsible Robbers, to help up hold the All-Encompassing Bill of Rights and Wrongs, that Duke Rikard and the League of Right-Minded Sorcerers are trying to do away with. As Anya and Ardent embark on their Quest, The Kingdom of Trallonia is under the control of the Duke, and it is up to Anya and Ardent, along with those they meet along the way and rescue, to ensure the Duke doesn’t succeed.

Usually a fairy tale involves a prince saving a princess. However, in Frogkisser, it is Princess Anya who is destined to be the one to save the prince and go on the Quest, aided by faithful dog, Ardent. Anya is content to sit in the library reading and learning about magic – she wants to be a sorcerer, but perhaps this Quest, and what Duke Rikard does, will change her mind. In this fractured fairy tale, Anya is the one with the most agency – and is just as flawed as any other character, but it is what she does with those flaws and the knowledge she has that make her the hero of the novel.

Each character had quirks and flaws that made them complete, especially those on the Quest, such as Anya, The Good Wizard, Ardent, Smoothie and Scrub. Even Bert, the head of the Association of Responsible Robbers (ARR) was neither wholly good or bad – rather, she knew what she wanted to do, yet gave Anya fair warning of her plans. I enjoyed Anya’s growth over the book, and how she learnt to deal with unexpected changes in her Quest. She is a wonderful character, and a lot of fun. Definitely not a typical princess who waits to be saved – she does the saving herself. She is also human with human flaws and interests that make her relatable, and her trusty talking dog, Ardent, is the most adorable sidekick and Quest companion ever. He became my favourite character.

Garth Nix has combined traditional fairy tale and fantasy tropes with a mixture of well known fairy tale characters and myths, but turned them on their head: The Good Wizard is a woman, as is the Robin Hood character – Roberta, or Bert. The male and female characters for the most part work together efficiently and without question. The final chapters and climax were unexpected in some ways, but lovely in their execution. It is a delightful novel, and though aimed at a Young Adult audience, can be enjoyed by anyone who likes their fairy tales with a twist. I hope to revisit this novel soon.