From one boy to another….

The Boy at the Top of the MountainThe Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The day I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I knew I had read something life-changing. The story of Bruno and Shmuel is one I will never forget. It is possible that this new book by John Boyne just might be of the same calibre.
Pierrot is a young Parisian boy who lives with his parents in a time of great upheaval. Pierrot’s father is a WWI returned serviceman with symptoms of what we would now recognise as PTSD. After his father’s suicide, Pierrot’s mother becomes gravely ill and before he really understands what is happening, seven year old Pierrot is living in an orphanage. Fortunately he is not there long as his paternal aunt, whom he has never met, arranges for him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is the housekeeper in a house on an Austrian mountain top. The staff treat the owner of the house, Herr Hitler, with the utmost fear and respect. Pierrot has arrived at the Berghof.
Straight away, life changes for Pierrot. His aunt buys him Austrian clothes, and tells him from now on he will be called “Pieter”. She tells him it is for his own safety and he must not ever mention his best friend from Paris, Anshel Bronstein. Beatrix and the chauffeur, Ernst, tell Pieter that his life depends on not mentioning his old life in France at all.
It is interesting that Boyne chose the name Pierrot for this child protagonist, as Pierrot is a stock theatre character known as ‘the sad clown’. Pieter has to dress up and pretend to be someone else, as Pierrot the clown does, and Pieter must charm and win over Herr Hitler in order to be allowed to stay, just as Pierrot dressed up and acted the fool to win over Columbine.
Day by day, month by month, Pieter becomes part of life at the Berghof. He greatly admires Herr Hitler, his benefactor, and he joins the Hitler Youth to honour him. His aunt can see he is changing, becoming a model Hitlerjugend, and she is powerless to stop it. Forced to disown his Jewish friend Anshel (left behind in Paris), and abandon his true heritage, Pieter is determined to fit in and be accepted by Hitler as a “model citizen” of the Reich. Pieter begins to watch the staff at the Berghof, including his aunt and Ernst, and he becomes someone they are fearful of. Buoyed by this feeling of power over others, Pieter tries to impress a girl from school, Katarina, with stories of his life at the Berghof, but she is unmoved.
As Pieter becomes more and more entrenched in life at the Berghof, he becomes closer and closer to Hitler and drawn away from Aunt Beatrix. When he overhears Beatrix and Ernst talking about “stopping” the Fuhrer, Pieter is on high alert. At the staff Christmas Eve party, Pieter stops Hitler eating a piece of stollen poisoned by Ernst and Beatrix and their fate, and his, is sealed. On Christmas morning, as they are shot as traitors, Pieter tells himself, “she was a traitor, just like Ernst, and traitors must be punished.” His transformation is complete. Pierrot the French boy is now Pieter the Nazi.
The rest of the novel is an examination of a descent into evil. It is difficult to feel sympathy for Pieter as he throws his power around, hurting many other people in the process, but it is important to remember he is a product of his environment and his need to belong and feel accepted. These are powerful needs and emotions and this novel demonstrates how they can control and alter one’s life forever.
If The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a study of how one man’s insanity can destroy an entire culture, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a study of how one culture’s complicity can destroy one young man. Equally as powerful, and a wonderful companion to his first novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is an intense experience. I thought about this book for days after I had finished it, especially the ending (not revealed here because of my no-spoiler policy), and I still can’t completely let it go.
An absolute must-read. For ages 14 and up.

A Revolutionary Tale

Zafir (Through My Eyes, #6)Zafir by Prue Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zafir is living in Homs(Syria) with his parents after moving from Dubai. When he sees a body thrown from a car in the street his life changes forever. No-one stops to help and when Zafir assists his father, a doctor, in getting treatment for the injured man, a protester, an unstoppable chain of events begins.
Zafir starts to realise there is a lot he does not understand about Syria. Why does his best friend, Rami, move away with this family? Why does he write email messages to Zafir in code? How come Eleni, his new friend moves away too?
As a revolution begins in Syria, Zafir comes to realise his father, who has been arrested for aiding the injured protester in the hospital, and other members of his family are in terrible danger. His favourite uncle, Ghazi, is taking photos of what is taking place and his friend, Azzam Azzad is writing for a blog to let the world know the suffering of the Syrian people.
This is a compelling tale of revolution and the “little people” whose lives are turned upside down when it is in full flight. Zafir is quite wide-eyed and innocent at the beginning of the book, but by the end he is more worldly than he has ever been before. Even in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation, Zafir never loses hope – a testament to the reslience of children everywhere. He adapts to the situation around him and is a resourceful child. Zafir is also part of a family that straddles Christian and Muslim beliefs – a really interesting device that shows the differences, but also the similaries between the two doctrines, which is a masterstroke by Prue Mason. Because the events are seen through Zafir’s eyes, the complex situation in Syria is confusing and never “black and white”. This is what makes the stories in this series so believable and poignant and it is a credit to series creator and editor, Lyn White, that this authentic feel has been sustained through all six books in the current series

A gripping story from a child’s point of view, set during a turbulent time from the recent history of a fascintating country.
Recommended for ages 12 and up.

A Narrow Road to an Emotional End

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can I say about this book that has not been effusively said already? I am sorry to say I put off reading this book for a while because I knew some of it dealt with POWs along the infamous railway in Burma. Whilst the passages about the camps and the railway are harrowing, I feel for the first time after reading them that I finally have an inkling of how horrendous these places, and their place in history, were. Flanagan does not step back the atrocity, he takes it on and it is a memorable and emotional experience. As one by one members of Dorrigo Evan’s company die or cholera, malnutrition, gangrene or beating by the Japanese colonel and his guards, part of him dies too and us as well.

Not all the imagery is horrific, thankfully, and Flanagan’s prose soars. His descriptive powers are elegant and precise.
“Backdropped by woodlands of writhing peppermint gums and silver wattle that waved and danced in the heat, it
was hot and hard in summer, and hard, simply hard, in winter.” (p. 4)
This can only be an Australian landscape being described here. A few pages on, there is a superb description of a game of kick to kick in the school yard, with its pecking order and etiquette (recently featured in the sport section of the Sunday Age) that captures it perfectly.

“The smell of eucalypt bark, the bold blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint hard to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost – all these things he was aware of, as he was of the hot dust, the sweat of the other boys, the laughter, the strange pure joy of being with others”

Sublime.

Dorrigo Evans is an enigmatic character and the book swings back and forth between his life before and after WWII, and the years in the POW camp where he served as doctor. In his life before the war, Dorrie has an affair with Amy, who happens to be his uncle’s wife. Amy is his touchstone through the rest of his life – as the one woman whom he really truly loved.
As well as Dorrigo’s story, we also glimpse the lives of some of the Japanese officers and guards after the war, as well as some of Dorrigo’s men who survived the Camp.
I will not give spoilers here, but my favourite part of the book occurs quite late in the story, at a place called Nikitaris Fish Shop. As you read the novel, look for this name – you will understand once you reach the end of the novel. The other moment I found very affecting involved Dorrigo finding out more about Darky Gardiner (a prisoner brutally bashed to death in front of the other prisoners over the course of several hours) – it was truly a gasp-out-loud moment.

Thank you, Richard Flanagan, for being a beacon in the Australian literary landscape, both as a writer and a damned fine human being too.

Defintiely a book for ages 16 and up. Anyone younger would find it too much to bear I think.

Cuts Like a Knife

The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hayley Kincain’s father is suffering from PTSD – a legacy of his service in the US military. She has been homeschooled by him on the road since she was eight, as he drove them around the country in his eighteen-wheeler. Until this year. This year, they are living in her late grandmother’s house and Hayely is enrolled at Belmont High as a senior. She is constantly in detention for proving her history teacher wrong, and she is not keeping up with her class work. Understandable really – under the smart-arse surface of her is a girl harbouring a fear of abandonment, of getting home and finding her father gone, or worse, him being there and just his mind gone. Hayley has methods and routines to keep people at arm’s length – even her best friend Gracie, whose parents have taken divorce warfare to a new level.
Into this picture strolls Finnegan Ramos. Finn. Smart, funny, handsome, afraid of heights and totally besotted with Hayley. Slowly some of Hayley’s walls start coming down and she finds herself growing closer to Finn – closer than she has ever been to anyone. Then her former stepmother turns up, and Hayley’s world begins to fall in on itself. She wants nothing to do with the woman she feels abandoned her father, abandoned her, but she also longs for that mother figure in her life – missing since the death of her birth mother. She starts pushing people way – even Finn.
One day Hayley comes home and her Dad is not there. He has left a note and a frantic search ensues, ending at the quarry, where Hayley’s father told her it was dangerous to walk…
This is a great novel – the writing is superb and I fell in love with Hayley and Finn, so much so that I read the last part of this book in a 90 minute flurry in bed this morning. It is an important story about family, about illness, about love and about hope.
Read this – I will be looking up Anderson’s back catalogue to catch myself up on an amazing writer.
For ages 14 and up – mainly because of the themes involved.

John Boyne does it again

Stay Where You Are And Then LeaveStay Where You Are And Then Leave by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was expecting a lot from this book. After all, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas had quite an impact on me and I really wanted to be moved. I had nothing to worry about.

Alfie Summerfield’s fifth birthday, July 28th 1914, is the day England declares war on Germany. Alfie feels the impact of this straight away – most of his friends don’t come to his party because their parents keep them away. Up until this point, Alfie has lead a pleasant and essentially non-eventful life. His Dad, Georgie, is the local milkman. His mum, Margie, is a regular mum who prides herself on her cooking and her neat home. His Grandmother Summerfield lives across the road and is a bit cantankerous. Down the street Alfie’s best friend, Kalena Janacek, and her father run the local shop where Alfie loves looking at the sweets. His Dad’ best friend, Joe Patience, lives a few doors away. A few days after Alfie’s birthday his Dad answers the “call-up” and before Alfie can really comprehend it, Georgie is off to train at Aldershot.
For a couple of years he family receives regular letters from Georgie, but then, inexplicably, they stop. Margie tells Alfie his dad is working on a secret mission for the government and he is not allowed to write, but as time passes Alfie believes this less and less. He thinks his father is dead and no-one is telling him. As money becomes tight, Margie has to hold down 3 jobs and Alfie decides to help out too. Kalena and Mr Janacek have been placed in an internment camp on the Isle of Wight, so Alfie sneaks into their house and “borrows” Mr Janacek’s shoeshine box. He skips school (but only on the days when they are not doing reading or history) and starts shining shoes to earn some money for his family.
There is a lot going on in this book, much of it background to really illustrate the effects of war. Joe Patience is a conscientious objector (a conchie) and is taken away to prison where he is mercilessly beaten until he nearly dies. Margie is a shadow of her former self – constantly tired and terrified of being out on the street – searching for something to make her feel like she has worth. Alfie is smart, yearning to be a grown up and know their secrets, but also enough of a child to be scared by knowing.
A series of chance encounters leads Alfie to the conclusion that his father is not dead. Rather, he is suffering from shell shock in a hospital in Ipswich. Alfie resolves to see his father, which he does via a courageous train journey all by himself. The scenes Boyne describes in the hospital, of the patients whose minds have been broken by war, are confronting, gritty and terrifying when seen through Alfie’s nine-year-old eyes. After seeing his father and hearing him shout one word (home) as he runs for the door, Alfie starts planning his own secret mission. To bring his father back to Damley Road.
This is a beautiful, heartfelt and intricately crafted novel. Boyne is adept at seeing the world though a child’s eyes, and helping us to see it too. In some ways this book is the opposite of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – in that novel, Bruno is blithely clueless about the nature of the place in which he lives. In this book, Alfie is all too aware and is proactive about it. They sort of bookend each other.
In any case, this is another must-read from John Boyne that made me smile, gasp and absolutely bawl. In other words, perfect.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Broken memory, broken heart

Broken Memory: A Story of RwandaBroken Memory: A Story of Rwanda by Elisabeth Combres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

April 1994. Rwanda is at war with itself. The Hutus and the Tutsi’s. On April 6th, after the assassination of the Rwandan president, the Rawandan army begins massacring the Tutsi population. Almost one million Tutsi citizens are killed. Emma’s mother is one of them.

Emma is five years old when her mother is brutally murdered by Hutu rebels. When they arrive at her house, Emma’s mother hides her behind the sofa telling her “you must not die, Emma!” These last words stay in Emma’s mind and make her determined to survive, no matter what the odds. After her mother’s death she finds herself swept along in a sea of refugees – ending up at the door of an old woman who takes her in.

Mukecuru becomes Emma’s substitute grandmother and gives her a sense of family. Slowly Emma begins to reach out to others, especially a boy named Ndoli, who has also lost everything and was horribly injured during the massacre. Ndoli befriends and old man and eventually so does Emma. The Old Man is someone who has been sent to Rwanda to help refugee children return home and begin healing the injuries of the past.

After a long time, he takes Emma home, where she sifts through what is left of her burned down house. As she sifts through the rubble, she picks up some of her mother’s possessions and turns them over in her hands. This triggers memories from her past that had been buried for a long time. She begins to remember her mother’s face, which had faded in her mind, and she breaks down amongst the rubble. This is a turning point for Emma. Her life will never be the same.

Recommended for ages 12 and up

Trouble crossing The Ink Bridge

The Ink BridgeThe Ink Bridge by Neil Grant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a book I had been looking forward to reading very much, and as I read the first part of the novel, focussing on Omed and his story, I thought it would live up to my expectations. Omed’s life is a dangerous one, full of violence and uncertainty. The scenes where his tongue is cut out were among the most emotionally effecting I have read. I was enjoying Grant’s writing style and flourishes of prose. Then I started reading Hec’s story…and then the story of Hec as an adult trying to reconnect with Omed and it lost me. I found Hec a difficult character to like. I found it difficult to picture him in the situations he found himself. I found it even harder to connect with him as an adult character as I did not know enough about him as a child (in the middle part of the book). Even the ending felt incomplete to me. I was surprised to find myself not really caring whether the two were reunited. It just felt like the story had lost momentum for me and resorted to some cliched media-driven vignettes. My favourite part was the section about Omed and his situation in Afghanistan. To me, that is where the story was and for that I give this book 3 stars. I am disappointed I can’t give this a better write-up, because I certainly expected a lot more.