February 7

Light and Dark

all the lightA young blind girl living in Paris. A poor German orphan. A mystical precious gem, the Sea of Flames. And the ominous background of World War II.

These are the characters to be blended together in ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ – a novel 10 years in the  making, a novel awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Marie-Laure, who has been blind since the age of 6, lives with doting father, a locksmith who works at the Museum of Natural History of Paris. Building a small wooden model of their neighbourhood, her father has cleverly encouraged her to use all her other senses to get about. Time spent at the museum has also alerted her quick and curious mind. When trouble looms from the German occupation of Paris, Marie and her father flee to refuge with relatives in Saint Malo, a walled city by the sea. [See image below]

In another world, Werner seems doomed to follow in his father’s footsteps, working in the mines which ulitmately killed him. However, fortune shines on him (though lightly), when he is discovered as a clever young boy capable of fixing radios; saved from the mines, but caste into the Hitler Youth.

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ tells their tales in parallel for some time, slipping backwards and forwards through times from 1934 – 1944, and on to 1974. Through their eyes, we experience the conditions in 2 different countries before, during and after WWII, and can begin to understand the dark condition of Europe and its inhabitants, during these times. Like many war stories, we are exposed to many grim situations and many dark personalities. The presence of the young, through whose eyes this is ‘seen’, makes it all even more chilling – especially if you multiply by the millions of children they might actually represent in real events.

Anthony Doerr plays with light and dark in many ways. That Marie-Laure spends her life in darkness, but brings some lightness to the story, is one. She ‘sees’ quite a lot in the story – sensing a lot about people, even just from the way they walk or speak. Her ability to move about her home town, and her new home and village (at Saint Malo) are what her loving father wisely prepared her for. It is not surprising, however, that ultimately darkness pervades her tale.

city-of-st-malo2

The walled town of Saint Malo

Werner’s story has little light to it. His options are dark mines, or dark enlistment to the Hitler Youth and WWII. As an orphan, he has lived somewhat happily with his sister in a children’s home. Taken from this to work ‘for the Fuhrer’, he experiences and witnesses many dark events and situations. Reading these experiences is harrowing and upsetting; through the study of history we know too well that they are quite true reflections of what happened for many – though perhaps we don’t always consider it from the point of view of children.

Other light plays into the story with the legend of the ‘Sea of Flames’ – a precious diamond which is said to be both valuable and a curse – a diamond which has 3 replicas made to keep it safe. And the light we cannot see – radiowaves – impacts them all.

As you might expect, the storylines don’t remain parallel, and events (and the Sea of Flames) draw their lives together, though perhaps not as truly expected.

Here’s a short video you might like to watch before you read the book – Anthony Doerr discusses the inspiration for ‘All the Light You Cannot See’. Or read this interview.

July 21

A10567 – just a number?

altmannAs I read Alexander Altman A10567, I recalled Suzy Zail’s earlier book the Wrong Boy – and it made sense that this book should follow. It made even more sense, when I read an interview where she spoke of wanting to tell her father’s story of surviving Auschwitz.

As Suzy stated in this interview:

There were history books and photos in the library, but not all children liked to read history books. Not all of them were ready for graphic images. I’d been to schools and libraries and talked to children about their holocaust reading and knew that the best way I could help them understand the holocaust was by giving them a character to care about.

In Alexander Altman A10567, she certainly gives young readers someone to care about (primarily 14 year old Alex). And as she describes the trials and desperation of those in concentration camps, there is also lots to think about on a personal scale. In doing so, Zail has not protected young minds from the brutalities of war, but causes you to think about the dark things that have happened in the world’s history, and the powerful instinct of survival.

Alexander’s world is understandably turned upside down as his family trudges towards the Jewish concentraion camp of Auschwitz. The alone, in survival mode, his wits are sharpened and his trust in others switches off. He sees too much, and questions everything in his efforts to survive. Truly a reflection of the brutal experiences and suffering which Zail researched – but there is hope and humanity to be discovered – somehow.

As another reviewer stated:

Alexander Altmann A10567 is not for the faint-hearted. People die horrendous, senseless deaths between its pages. However, Alexander Altmann A10567 is not to be missed if you can manage to push through. The power of one simple act of kindness truly can change the world.

pic-A-U-Auschwitz concentration camp gate

Auschwitz Concentration Camp Gate

With the character of Alexander Altmann based on the experiences of a real Auschwitz survivor (Fred Steiner), Zail has personalised history, shared the atrocities of war and made history accessible to young readers. Many will identify with the changing emotions of Alexander – even though it might be really hard to imagine being in his place. Certainly, it provides another way to understand some of the impacts of the Holocaust on the Jewish people – fitting well alongside other books such as the Book Thief, the Boy in Striped Pyjamas and of course, the Wrong Boy.

# One of the 21 CBCA Book of the Year Awards Notables for 2015.

February 24

The human side of August 6, 1945

yokoThere have been many books written covering the impact of World War (both I and II), but are they as touching as this one?

Many years after her death from the release of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Yoko Moriwaki’s brother was encouraged to publish her childhood diary.

As a twelve year old, Yoko kept a simple diary in which she recorded daily events in her life, from the time when she was admitted to the prestigious, First Hiroshima Prefectural Girls’ High School in April 1945. It may have been a project set by her teacher, but within its young prose, Yoko has captured the essence of life for many school children in Japan at this time.

In this edition, interspersed with her entries, are explanatory notes which help the non-Japanese reader to understand many of the cultural aspects which impacted her young life – their religion, celebrations, customs and expectations of young and old. It also adds to the mundane action of daily tasks and routines Yoko kept to as a child of the 1940’s.

It is a record of a young girl, her hopes and dreams, and her feelings about life in Japan as major battles were played out both worldwide and on the homefront. Though it is a little repetitive at times, and hardly an exciting journey, it does reveal the way in which ordinary  life goes on at home during wartime, both in spite of and because of wartime needs.

It also shows how, slowly, wartime rationing and the government’s efforts to rally national pride impinge on the ordinariness of her life. As school students, Japanese children were gradually employed in the war effort, to the point of clearing areas that had been bombed, and with minimal time for proper school classes,; these reducing as the war extended.

Throughout, as reflected in Yoko’s commments, students were made to think that Japan would soon win the war, and were taught to blame the American and British for all their discomforts. Yoko’s diary constantly remarks that she needed to do her best, in spite of discomforts or shortages, since it was nothing “compared to what our soldiers are going through.” She records that the deputy headmaster said: “We must work hard because the fate of our country, Japan, rests on our shoulders.”

Many of the days have similar entries.About long days of travel to and from school, along with the constant interruptions of the air raid signals. Yoko’s days are long – with home duties combined with unexpected changes to her normal routines. Visits to family, absences of her mother, anxiety about her father on the war front are all revealed through her innocent childhood diary entries.

What makes this story different are the additional explanations by the editor alluded to earlier and the trbutes to Yoko, gathered by her brother, from those who knew her at this time. Survivors reflect on Yoko, and the ordinariness of life before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Yoko’s diary brings home the harsh reality for the innocent victims caught up in war – and hopefully gives humanity a moment to think of the need to find better ways to resolve global conflict.

Can stories such as this make a difference to our thinking? If we better understood different cultures around the globe would there be less conflict? Do such stories change our points of view?

May 21

Choices – Nine Days by Toni Jordan

nine daysWe are all connected to our past; to our relatives and to choices – sometimes choices and determinations made by someone else.

‘Nine Days’ opens with the voice of Kip as a young boy, dealing with a grieving mother and the family situation which has resulted from his father’s untimely death. Kip is accepting, but seems unfairly dealt with; he is the younger twin sent out to work, while his spoilt, 7-minutes older brother is able to remain at school.

In his ‘day’ we learn much about the Westaway family, whose history unrolls as further chapters unfold. The days that follow deal with other members of Kip’s family and across four different generations, with many questions along the way…

How was his older sister, Connie trapped/ affected by the attitudes of the times? Did the favouritism offered to his twin brother, Frank, lead to a prosperous and happy lifestyle?

For Toni Jordan, this is her third novel; though it differs from her past books. Inspiration began with a photo – shown on the front cover of the book. From this, Jordan has magically woven and interwoven her tales of the Westaway family, each chapter dealing with a defining day in the life of one of the family members.

‘Nine Days’ feels like a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to me. Since the chapters focus on one individual in the extended Westaway family, then jump across time and back again. As a reader you have to join the pieces together to see how they fit. It raises a number of different issues, and makes you wonder how things might have turned out differently with slight changes to choices made by some of the characters. Indeed, some chapters leave you with a sense that more could be told. In many ways, this is a sign of a good book –  it shows the reader is hooked and wants to know more.

Many people have commented favourably on this book – particularly online at GoodReads (a great site to share everything about great reading!). For a longer review, see http://whisperinggums.com/2012/09/09/toni-jordan-nine-days-review/. For an interview with Toni Jordan about writing ‘Nine Days’, see the video below:

# ‘Nine Days’ was a winner recently in the Indie Awards for Best Fiction 2013 – http://www.indies.com.au/BookAwards.aspx

November 21

Changing Perspectives – Pennies for Hitler

For Georg, life in Germany is just fine – with 2 loving parents and a settled homelife. As an 11 year old, he believes all that his teacher, Herr Doktor Schöner, tells him about Adolf Hitler and the differences between races – even if his (English) father’s views were not quite as adoring.

Things change rapidly when there is a demonstration at a university graduation ceremony that his family attends – an uprising against Jews, and his professor father is caught in the crossfire. Georg and his mother flee the scene, and he is literally ‘packed off’ to live with an English relative, without knowing his father’s fate.

Since his grandmother has Jewish blood, Georg’s mother fears for his safety. In England, of course, it is his German heritage that could put him at great risk, so for a long time he has little to do with anyone other that his aunt and the local librarian.

Life is lonely for Georg, who must now be known as George.  To try to develop an English accent, he spends time reading and listening to the radio. His aunt is kept busy, spending long days away from the apartment supporting the war effort. In fact, life is not normal for many in London, as the war makes food scarce and, for their own safety, many children are sent to the countryside. When the bombing of London increases, his aunt’s workplace also has to be relocated, but Georg cannot go with her.

Once again he is packed off – this time on a ship to Australia to live with a foster family. For a while, he develops new friendships with other children on the journey, responsible as an older child for several others. Soon he finds that these friendships are to be taken away by the relocation exercise, and wonders if he will ever be able to maintain any family ties or friendships.

Sadly, many of Georg’s experiences were very real (and worse) for children who grew up in the war years.

Jackie French has again provided a story that is both well-researched and realistic. Using Georg’s perspective in changing situations, she makes us ponder how men define and create enemies, and how the truth can be manipulated by propaganda. It also helps us think about the many impacts of war on families, and how we decide who we love and hate.

Through it all, Georg is unsure of whether his parents are still alive. Hiding his German/Jewish heritage becomes crucial, as he settles in several different situations. Will he finally with a loving foster family in Australia, find happiness within himself and among the country community?

For a sneak preview of the book, here’s a link to the first chapter.