Roehampton Readers: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

By Kay Waddilove

Salt to the Sea is a historical YA novel set in the closing months of World War II. As with her debut Between Shades of Gray (2011), previously shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Ruta Sepetys weaves a fictional narrative around an actual, but little-known historical event. In the final months of the Nazi regime a multitude of refugees, both civilians and soldiers, fled from the advancing Soviet army to the Baltic Sea ports in the hope of boarding a ship to safety, and escaping the chaos of war-torn Europe. Several German ships were conscripted for this evacuation, dubbed Operation Hannibal, including the Wilhelm Gustloff, a large cruise liner designed for around 1400 passengers. Approximately ten and a half thousand refugees were loaded onto this ship, which, on 30 January 1945, was hit by Russian torpedoes. It sank in less than one hour, in a snowstorm, and approximately 9000 people died, over half of them children.

As Sepetys informs the reader in her postscript, this sinking was “the deadliest disaster in maritime history”, with a death toll exceeding those of the Titanic and Lusitania combined, yet it is a tragedy that is virtually unknown outside Germany. As a writer committed to shining an ideological light onto such “hidden chapters of history” through “the child and young adult narrative” (Between Shades of Gray did this for the plight of Lithuanian deportees to Siberian labour camps), Sepetys explores the event from the different perspectives of a group of young protagonists. The refugees came from Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the author builds her story around four contrasted fictional characters: Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a Polish teenager; Florian, a Prussian art preservationist; and Alfred, a punctilious Nazi soldier. They all have a secret; carrying their guilt, their fate, their shame, or their fear – or perhaps all four – as psychological burdens which they describe as “hunters” in the opening chapters.

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Cover via Penguin

 

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Roehampton Readers: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Review: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

By Lorna Collins

The Bone Sparrow tells the story of 9-year-old Subhi, whose family have fled Burma (Myanmar) as a result of the persecution of the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. Subhi, however, knows nothing of his homeland, since he was born in the Australian detention centre in which the story is set.

Subhi’s life consists of permanent hunger, constant threats from other detainees as well as from the ‘Jackets’ who run the centre, interspersed with involvement in smuggling packages for older members of his ‘family group’.  His only escape is the magical ‘Night Sea’ of his mother’s stories which he believes brings him gifts. We later discover these ‘gifts’ are left by Queeny, his seemingly heartless sister as  mementos of their father, knowing (as Subhi does not) that they will never see him again.

Jimmie, a girl who lives outside the centre, manages to get in through a hole in the fence. Her mother had died 3 years previously and we gradually learn that she has been pretty well ignored by her father since then, resulting in her skipping school and being unable to read. She carries with her a book of stories written by her mother which she longs to read. Subhi is able to read and longs to hear fresh stories, since his mother, previously an avid story teller, seems to have given up altogether. The two children quickly form a bond. Jimmie also able to bring with her a thermos of hot chocolate which is an unimaginable delight to Subhi.

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Roehampton Readers: Beck by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

Review: Beck by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

By Lesley Smith

Beck is a picaresque coming-of-age novel set in the first half of the twentieth century. The central character is a mixed-race orphan who suffers from physical, sexual, emotional and racial abuse, but eventually finds his place in the world.

beck

Cover via Walker Books

Prejudice influences his very conception, as his mother meets his father when he is drinking beer in a street in Liverpool. A black sailor, he has been refused entry to the pub. After his family all die in a flu epidemic, Beck endures three years of harsh treatment in an orphanage. He is then shipped to Montreal to lodge temporarily in a home run by Catholic priests and learns to nurture plants in the priests’ vegetable garden. This learning serves him well in later years, but the abiding memory of this time, and one which comes back to haunt him again and again, warping his attitude towards any kind of loving relationship, is the appalling physical and sexual abuse he suffers from the priests.

 

Sent to work on a farm, Beck is despised, half-starved and made to sleep in a barn because his skin is black. He runs away, but has a long way to travel before he finds a place where he can be properly accepted. The plot takes us on a considerable journey through Beck’s formative years and across Canada, although sometimes whole years are left out of the story and the reader is left wondering how Beck managed to survive during these periods. A pivotal moment is his meeting with an older woman called Grace. She is also of mixed race, but she has created a role for herself within the indigenous Blackfoot tribe who are themselves viewed as outcasts by society as a whole.

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Roehampton Readers: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce

By Julie Mills

Frank Cottrell Boyce won the Carnegie award for Millions (2004) and his novels have been regularly shortlisted/nominated for the Carnegie medal since then. His children’s novels include Framed (2005), Cosmic (2008), The Unforgotten Coat (2011) and The Astounding Broccoli Boy (2015). He has also revived Ian Fleming’s famous flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (2011).

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth gives us a hearty helping of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s humour and fantasy whilst being grounded in the not so wonderful life of Prez, a young boy who is living in temporary care. It is a boy-orientated narrative with episodic flights of fancy and imagination.

sputnik

Cover via Pan Macmillan

The flights of fancy are great investigations of “what if?” – What if the remote control really could rewind real life? Or a reverse explosion could rebuild Hadrian’s Wall? Or the supermarket self check-out gave you money and not the other way around? – all delivered with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s trademark humour. These sequences also allow him to explore big themes: time, ageing, death, love, home (Life, the universe and everything?). The story also gives insight into the experience of children who are carers, living with dementia and life in care for both young and old.

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Roehampton Readers: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

By Clare Walters

Set in rural Western Pennsylvania, USA, in 1943, Wolf Hollow (2016) tells the story of 12-year-old Annabelle’s bruising experiences with an ‘incorrigible’, ‘dark-hearted’, older girl, Betty. It is a coming-of-age novel, a Bildungsroman, in which the protagonist goes through a period of intense psychological change over a matter of a few months. She transforms from a happy, innocent child into a more wary, but stronger and independent, young person who’s had first-hand acquaintance with the underbelly of humanity.

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Cover via Puffin

The story, told in the first person, is narrated by a mature female voice, reflecting on a time when she was younger. The older Annabelle recalls how, during a few momentous months, she was forced to reconsider both her place in the world and her understanding of other people. She ‘learnt how to lie’, and discovered that what she said and what she did actually ‘mattered’ – that her actions directly affected others.

As Lauren Wolk explains in her video on the Carnegie shadowing website, Annabelle is a good girl, with a strong sense of right and wrong, who tries to solve a problem without recourse to her parents. In doing so, she discovers her own moral strengths and weaknesses. To cope with the situations before her, she has to face her own fear and draw on reserves of courage. Annabelle is both brave and loyal, but she is also subject to emotions such as anger and meanness (at one point she prays for Betty to get blisters from her encounter with some poison ivy). She also experiences constant confusion, as she’s unfamiliar with dealing with the difficult new challenges that tumble fast, one upon the other.

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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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Roehampton Readers: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves

Image via Carnegie Medal

Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

By Kay Waddilove

Lies We Tell Ourselves is a historical YA novel which interweaves a story of friendship, teenage identity crisis and burgeoning love into a brutal account of horrifying racism and prejudice. Set in the fictional US town of Davisburg Virginia in 1959, the story is narrated by two female protagonists; Sarah, a black girl entering a previously all-white high school, and Linda, a white girl who is the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor, a fervent white supremacist. In 1954, a time when open segregation was common in the southern states (‘white’ cafes, ‘whites only’ toilets, etc), all US schools, by Supreme Court ruling, had been required to become racially integrated (the Brown v. Board of Education ruling); the Court ruled that states must integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” Nevertheless, many Southern politicians resisted the ruling, utilising technical delaying tactics (some schools were shut down by local politicians or school boards for months or years – a history alluded to in the book), economic reprisals and direct intimidation in order to maintain a segregated and two-tier education system. Robin Talley grew up in Virginia, and decided to write this novel after hearing her parents discuss their own teenage memories of high school desegregation in the 1950s. She investigated historical records, including diaries of black students, and speaks on the Carnegie website of her shock at what she discovered during her research and her determination that the facts of history should be better known.

In 1957, a federal court ordered integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas public schools and nine African-American teenagers were enrolled into the Central High School. Such young people had thus been placed in the frontline of the struggle for civil rights, and on arrival, the ‘Little Rock Nine’ encountered a vicious white mob. This scenario clearly inspired the powerful opening chapter of Talley’s book, when the ten new black students turn up for their first day at Jefferson High, to be greeted by “a sea of angry white faces” and calls to “keep the niggers out”. The author pulls no punches in depicting the intimidation that her fictional characters face; from the outset the shocking language and physical violence aimed at them is described in challenging terms. As the progress and experiences of these students are followed throughout the school year, Talley maintains and builds suspense through her realistic description of events. No-one, apparently, is safe; incidents such as the false arrest and subsequent vicious life-threatening beating of Chuck, Ennis’s decision to leave Jefferson, Sarah’s final assertive rejection of her parents plans for her future, all reinforce the realism of this text while also ensuring that reader engagement is rooted in the unexpected turns of the plot.

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