Roehampton Readers: After the Fire by Will Hill

Front Cover: After the Fire by Will Hill

Review: After the Fire by Will Hill

By Lesley Smith

After the Fire is a young adult novel which addresses the experience of belonging to an extreme religious cult.

It is loosely based on a real event – the siege of the cult known as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993. Their leader claimed he was the Messiah figure prophesied in the Bible but government forces felt the cult was a threat as it was known that they were stockpiling firearms, hence the siege which lasted 51 days. Eventually, FBI agents stormed the cult’s compound and after the ensuing battle, 76 people (including 25 children) were found to have died. The government’s handling of the Waco siege (which played out in the national and international media) was heavily criticized.

Will Hill uses this catastrophe as a springboard to explore how and why people might become involved in such a community, and what the psychological effects might be.  He calls his fictional cult the Lord’s Legion and focuses on the experience of one particular individual, Moonbeam, a survivor of the destruction of the Legion’s base. She is described as “strong, vulnerable, complicated, sarcastic and brilliant” and the indoctrination to which she has been subjected is powerfully conveyed:

“Before my mom was Banished, I believed in him, and in the Legion, with all my heart, and part of me misses – will always miss – the certainty that came with that, the power and pride that came with being part of something that was right and True.” (p218)

Hill says his work is “not intended as an attack on anyone’s religious beliefs.” It is “a story about power and corruption, and how charismatic figures can twist faith to serve their own ends.” The leader of the cult in the novel, Father John, certainly wields a lot of power, though his methods of control are often cruel rather than charismatic and it can be hard to see why his followers love him. There is some ambiguity in the presentation of his character – for instance, does he really believe in his own creed?

The structure of the story is highly effective and scaffolds a thrilling and emotive drama. The protagonist is being cared for in a rehabilitation centre and she is interviewed daily by a psychiatrist, Dr Hernandez, who wants to help her and Agent Carlyle from the FBI who has been tasked with finding out what really happened inside the compound. The past, consequently, is filled in for the reader through flashbacks prompted by their questions. At first Moonbeam cannot trust them but her gradual opening up serves to show her beginning to come to terms with what has happened and suspense is created because the reader knows all along that there are terrible things she has not yet revealed. It takes time for her to be able to talk about the events and her feelings, and there are some things that she cannot even bear to think about. Guilt, loyalty and the remains of indoctrination limit her revelations. We can see the barriers in her mind. Some readers may find this a little heavy-handed at times – perhaps there are too many hints at dark secrets:

“But then I think about my mom and Nate and the boxes and the locked door in the basement of the Big House. I think about my Sisters running towards the Governments with rifles in their hands and the five gunshots and what I found and what I did.” (8 things here!)

However, the atmosphere of life in the compound is skilfully portrayed and the whole novel provides a truly immersive and thought-provoking experience. Hill portrays ordinary people and how they might behave in extraordinary circumstances. On p424, Agent Carlyle says of the members of the Legion: “I don’t think they were stupid or vicious or weak. I think they were misled, and I think what happened to them could happen to anybody, given the right set of circumstances.”A key theme is how we can know what is real and who to trust, but ultimately After the Fire is a powerful and superbly well-written story of survival.

Roehampton Readers: Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

Review: Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

By Julie Mills

Wed Wabbit is a fantasy story told with humour, exploring serious themes including grief, anger, dealing with emotions, change, fears, leadership. Positive play and imagination, co-operation and friendship are positive themes. “Know yourself” might be the motto for this is a moral tale.

wed wabit

Image via David Fickling Books

It is a super compulsive read, good for readers of the younger age group (9/10 or younger if read aloud, upwards). An adventure story with a great narrative, it uses mystery, puzzles and the journey quest as plot movers and includes a map of the land of the Wimblies. This is the land into which Fidge and her cousin Graham are hurled, following the near fatal accident to Fidge’s sister Minnie, whose favourite toy Wed Wabbit has recently taken over the idyllic, but stiflingly structured, land where the different coloured Wimblies live. This is a realisation and subversion of Minnie’s favourite story book The Wimbly Woos and a leap into the imaginative world of the pre-schooler.

Fidge soon realises that there is something rotten in the state of Wimbly Woo: “the prettiness seemed painted on. Nasty things were happening here” (p57). She is driven by the need to return Wed Wabbit the toy to her dangerously ill sister, but in the process leads a motley team of life sized toys to liberate the land of Wimblies not only from the tyranny of Wed Wabbit but from previous weak leadership and stereotyped expectations of its citizens.

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Roehampton Readers: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

Review: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

By Lorna Collins

geraldine

Image of Geraldine McCaughrean via  http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk

Geraldine McCaughrean is a prolific author of children’s books, and has won several awards, including the Carnegie Medal nearly 30 years ago with A Pack of Lies[1]. She has been nominated for the Carnegie award a total of eight times, the last time was in 2015 for The Middle of Nowhere[2] which has also been reviewed by Roehampton Readers. The Middle of Nowhere and Where the World Ends are both concerned with survival in almost impossibly hostile environments.  However, the locations could not be more different; The Middle of Nowhere is set in the Australian outback and Where the World Ends is set on the small island of Hirta, part of the St Kilda archipelago of islands situated off the north western coast of Scotland.

Warrier Stac

Image of Warrior Stac by Anna White

McCaughrean’s inspiration came from a visit to St Kilda made by her daughter, who brought back an abundance of stories about the history of the islands, including one about a group of men and boys who were put ashore on Warrior Stac (Stac an Armin) in August 1727 to collect birds, eggs, feathers and oil to provide for the islanders over the winter.  This was an annual event and they should have been collected after two to three weeks at most, weather permitting. However, they were inexplicably abandoned leaving them marooned on the stac for nine months. Nothing more is known about how they survived or what they thought had happened to cause their predicament. McCaughrean states in an interview on the Carnegie website that this is the ideal scenario for an author to build on – a verifiable historical event, but with very little factual information, allowing the author to imagine the gaps.[3] She has used extensive research into life on St Kilda at the time to imagine how it might have felt to be marooned on the stac and her account of the types of birds harvested and how they were used exemplifies the depth of research undertaken (pp. 38-39).


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Roehampton Readers: Thornhill by Pam Smy

Review: Thornhill by Pam Smy

By Clare Walters

 

Thornhill is a ghost story that interweaves the stories of two girls. The first is Ella Clarke, who is alive and well in 2017, and the second is Mary Baines, who died in 1982. These girls are mirror images of each other, and Ella’s tale is told through the illustrations while Mary’s is told through her diary entries.

Ella, who has recently lost her mother, has just moved to a new house with her father. Mary has been – and still is in her 1982 diaries – incarcerated in a children’s home called Thornhill. By chance, Ella’s new bedroom window overlooks Thornhill, now boarded up and derelict.

In both girls there is an absence of a physical voice – actual on the part of Mary who is a selective mute, and virtual on the part of Ella, who simply has no one to talk to. This is linked to a lack of agency, as neither girl has control over her life.

There is a third girl in the story, too, another abandoned child in the children’s home, who is simply referred to as ‘She’. Described as a cruel teasing, tormenting, bully who makes life unbearable for her victim Mary, she assumes the role of villain. But because She never speaks for herself, she also lacks a voice. We discover her solely through Mary’s diary, so we are learning about her through the classic unreliable narrator. Are the diary descriptions true? Or could Mary be the actual villain? Continue reading

Book Review: Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat

The NCRCL Book Review Series is written by  NCRCL students. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Code Name: Butterfly (2016) by Ahlam Bsharat, translated from Arabic by Nancy Roberts

By Rebecca Sutton

code-name-butterfly-cover-2Butterfly, whose ‘real’ name is never revealed, lives in occupied Palestine. We join her on the journey towards adulthood as she deals with common adolescent concerns such as periods, first crushes, friendships, identity and sexuality. Alongside these, and through the eyes of Butterfly, writer Ahlam Bsharat offers frank descriptions of less universal concerns, of the violence and conflict occurring in Palestine’s occupied territories. With graphic descriptions of a “massacre”, the death of Uncle Saleh who was shot “over and over” and the mine that caused Bakr to lose both his legs, this is no ordinary adolescent journey, but a seemingly commonplace one for teenagers in Palestine. The novel is clearly pro-Palestinian in its ideology with vivid first-hand experience from Bsharat woven in throughout.

However, the conflict in Israel/Palestine is not the main focus; it is Butterfly’s inquiring mind, the questions she asks and the place where she stores these questions that occupy the main space of the narrative. Like many adolescents, she feels unable to talk to her parents, her siblings or friends, and so stores her questions and dreams in an imaginary treasure chest, which she declares almost full to bursting point. Herein lies the sadness: her questions are neither asked nor answered and her dreams are never shared, but by the end of the novel she realizes that grown-ups do not have all the answers and maybe more importantly, that they themselves have many unanswered questions of their own.

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Book Review Series: Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle

The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by  NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone

By Eleanor Hamblen

Toby Alone

Tobie Lolness, the eponymous hero of Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone, is just one and a half millimetres tall and on a mission to save his parents along with the tree in which they live. This thoroughly enjoyable debut novel is an action-packed adventure story with emotional depth and an ecological message at its core.

The narrative begins in medias res as Toby lies injured and hunted, a fugitive from the miniature community which populate the tree. This exhilarating opening anticipates the pace of the narrative, bounding from episode to episode and interspersed with flashbacks. We learn that Toby’s current predicament is the result of his father’s discovery of a process which harnesses the tree’s energy. Professor Sim Lolness refuses to share the secret of his findings for fear of their potentially devastating effect. This enrages Jo Mitch, the greedy industrialist and dictator, who first banishes the Lolness family to the lower branches and then imprisons them. Having escaped, Toby must act quickly to divert both personal and environmental catastrophe.

In his contribution to the well-established miniature tradition within children’s fantasy Fombelle creates an immersive alternative world which readjusts the reader’s perspective. The tree represents the entire universe of the characters and thus the weevil, previously nothing more than a minor pest in eyes of the reader, is transformed into a monstrous creature which is capable of large-scale environmental destruction. Toby inherits his father’s deep admiration for the tree and a desire to preserve its life-giving force at all costs. Fombelle’s ecological agenda is clear and yet his didactic intentions do not detract from the imaginative delight of the story. Toby Alone strikes a balance between suspenseful action, relieving humour and compelling characterisation. Admittedly some characters, particularly Toby’s enemies, are rather two-dimensional which simplifies Fombelle’s otherwise powerful message. The novel is littered with lyrical descriptions all of which are beautifully rendered in English by Sarah Ardizzone’s skilful translation. The text is accompanied by François Place’s pen and ink illustrations which reinforce the reader’s impression of Fombelle’s intricate world and his use of scale.

Toby Alone speaks not only of ecological awareness but also of love, friendship and courage. The miniature hero’s coming of age is accelerated as he is forced to take on considerable responsibility. The novel ends by reopening the adventure, leaving the reader impatient to turn to its sequel Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. Fombelle’s work has received several awards in France including the 2007 Prix Sorcières in the Romans Juniors category while Ardizzone’s translation was awarded the 2009 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. One would hope that success stories such as this will help to encourage a higher level of translation in children’s publishing in the UK, thus giving young readers access to the literary output of other cultures.

Elle Hamblen Name: Eleanor Hamblen

Research area: My dissertation explores representations of nature, ecological messages and miniature communities in French and British children’s fantasy.

Path to Roehampton: BA in French. Extended essay on 17th century fairy tales. I never outgrew children’s books so was delighted to discover I could take an MA in them!

Favourite re-read: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge – my favourite book as a child and it didn’t disappoint the second time round.

Unsung Picture Book: Patrick by Quentin Blake – so joyful! (Mister Magnolia is another favourite)

Unsung Young Adult Novel: William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy.

 

Series edited by Erica Gillingham.

Book Review Series: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code-Name-VerityThe NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by  NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Code Name Verity (2012) by Elizabeth Wein

by Kay Waddilove

If you have seen the film The Sixth Sense, you may have been tempted at the end, as I was, to sit through the whole thing again in order (spoiler alert here!) to spot the many indications of the presence of dead. My reaction on reaching the last page of Elizabeth Wein’s award-winning novel took me back to that moment, as I flicked through the pages in reverse to unravel the author’s intricate construction of Verity’s account, and identify the multiple clues available to the reader of the true purpose of the eponymous heroine’s confession.

Code Name Verity has been variously described as “an exciting … female adventure story (Guardian), “a tale of espionage” (Times), “rich historical fiction” (Amazon), “a Young Adult title” (Daily Mail), “a novel entirely about female power and female friendship” (New York Times). It is all of those things, but is also a meticulously researched novel that deals unflinchingly with matters such as torture and sadism, once considered entirely unsuitable for a young readership, even those of the chronologically ill-defined YA genre. Most interestingly, in my view, it utilises a (not always successful) split narrative voice and subtle use of the unreliable narrator technique to both engage and stretch the implied reader.

As a Special Operations Executive agent, the multi-named Verity is captured by the Gestapo because she betrays her Britishness by looking in the wrong direction when crossing a French street; like so many other episodes in the book, this incident is based on a true event, and is indicative of the historicity that permeates the novel. Having been tortured, Verity agrees to write an account revealing everything she knows about the British war effort in exchange for slightly better conditions (the return of her clothes, for example), and a stay of execution for two weeks. Or so she tells her interrogators – and, of course, the reader. The first two-thirds of the book is Verity’s account, interspersed with the story of her friendship with Maddie, the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who flew her into occupied France. Details of the treatment she has undergone, and that other Gestapo captives are still enduring, are briefly depicted, and, while not dwelt on at length, are unflinchingly described. The attitude of the other prisoners, who despise her as an odious collaborator, and of her two interrogators, who regard her as a traitorous, if useful, source of information, is convincingly portrayed. Yet from the opening paragraph, the text is imbued with subtle hints that Verity’s account may not be all it seems, and that in writing it, she may have motives other than her self-declared cowardice. Her over-arching motive only becomes apparent in the final third of the book during Maddie’s narrative and, as this is a book that really deserves to be read, I will not reveal it here. But skip to the last paragraph if you want a small hint…

As a historical novel Code Name Verity remains true in all essentials to the events it portrays, and Wein has taken care, as she explains in her postscript, to ensure historical accuracy as well as a good story, hoping that “where I fail in accuracy [to] make up for it in plausibility” (447). The book invites the reader into a thoughtful engagement with the text, which seeks, through the narrative strategies, convincing characterisation and careful plotting to present readers with the means to question the events and actions depicted; as with the best historical novels, it is not a fictionalised account, but an attempt to demonstrate that history is a question of perspective, ethics and social politics. The story becomes a way of closely observing human experience and relationships, rather than an adventure tale or an exploration of period and artefacts for their own sake (biro descriptions notwithstanding!). It is also informed by Wein’s ideological and socio-cultural concerns; loyalty and courage are foregrounded and the value of female friendship is emotively expressed: “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.” (88).

Despite some structural faults, the sophisticated weaving of the plot and the rounded depiction of the main characters – even the SS interrogators are revealed as multi-faceted and self-questioning – earned Code Name Verity a place on the Carnegie shortlist in 2013. The Carnegie Medal is a prestigious award for a book of outstanding literary quality published annually for children and young people. While Code Name Verity did not win, it certainly meets the criteria of a work that “should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.”[1] So I will give (almost) the last word to Theo, an 11-year old student then shadowing the Carnegie Medal at a London comprehensive school:

“I liked how this book was written, with that emotional touch that makes you feel everything that is written. It is almost as if it is your own life that is being tragically ruined so you cannot put the book down. Another thing I liked is how it changes point of view half way through. I found this good because it gives you a new perspective and lets you live through a gripping story again. Also the story was so absolutely moving because if you just think about how these things could have actually happened it just makes it all the more emotional.”

And (if strong-minded, stop reading now) – in The Sixth Sense look for the scenes where there is red in the camera shot; in Code Name Verity watch out for the descriptions of buildings….

[1] Carnegie Medal criteria at http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie/award_criteria.php

About the Reviewer:   
kay waddilove

Name: Kay Waddilove, currently researching for a PhD with NCRCL Roehampton

Research Area: Motherhood in populist children’s novels of the 20th century

Path to Roehampton in 195 (!) characters: BA in English Lit & History, MA in Information Science, followed by career in public and school librarianship. Epiphanic discovery that there was A Place to indulge my obsession with children’s books led to an MA at Roehampton in 2008.

Favourite (secret) re-read: I am David by Ann Holm. Still get misty-eyed at the – incredibly unlikely – ending.

Unsung Picture Book: Peace at Last by Jill Murphy. A great read-aloud.

Unsung Young Adult Novel: Dom and Va by John Christopher. An uncomfortable, but thought-provoking depiction of prehistoric human society.

 

Series edited by Erica Gillingham