Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

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A teenage spy. A Nazi boarding school. The performance of a lifetime.

Sarah has played many roles – but now she faces her most challenging of all. Because there’s only one way for a Jewish orphan spy to survive at a school for the Nazi elite. And that’s to become a monster like them.

Survive. Deceive. Resist.

They think she is just a little girl. But she is the weapon they never saw coming… with a mission to destroy them all.

“History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason”- Lord Macaualy.

I was drawn to this book as soon as I read the author’s letter that came with the review copy I was sent by Usborne. Matt Killeen stresses the importance of history in our society in light of the times we’re living in. How many of us would like to think we would have protected jews during the war? Are we standing up for those who are being persecuted today?

This is a terrifying book; intense, disturbingly violent and eye-opening. I couldn’t put it down.

Fifteen-year-old jew Sarah finds herself working as a spy in Nazi Germany in the build-up to WWII. Her task is to infiltrate a prestigious school for Nazi girls to get an invitation to the house of one of her classmates, in order to help sabotage the terrible weapon her father is creating. This book contains starvation, brutal nazi girls, paedophiles and murderous parents…all acting in the name of ‘The Reich’.

Thanks to her actress mother, Sarah is used to playing different roles, but now she must become one of her tormentors. She’s a little girl who goes to terrifying lengths to survive and to stay sane, navigating the traps set for her and overcoming the efforts to destroy her.

Despite her strength, we’re always aware of her youth and how gruelling and skin-crawling her task really is. Using her training as a gymnast and dancer to ‘commit to the move’, Sarah makes for an admirable character- tough and witty but with an enormous sense of justice and love. The character development, especially of Sarah, the British spy and their relationship, felt authentic.

Killeen’s writing is beautifully evocative. The descriptions, especially of food and characters, are striking.

“He was not comfortably plump or slightly overfed, not jolly, round or chubby as some people can be, but excruciatingly bulbous. It was a fatness that looked like it came from a deliberate, sustained and highly disciplined over-consumption that had no hint of pleasure in it. The increasing sense of hunger that had been a feature of the last few years yawned to life inside Sarah and she knew instantly that she loathed this man.”

“She put her hands around the scalding cup and raised it to her lips, letting the warm updraft touch her face. Her nose brushed through the froth, but it gave like soap suds and vanished, popping in a million tiny crackles. The rich, dark liquid flowed through it and cooled as it tore the bubbles apart and slid into her mouth. Both sweet and bitter, sharp and comforting, invigorating and calming like strong arms carrying you through a storm.”

The pages are also peppered with shorter, snappier sentences that build the tension and show Sarah’s fast-thinking and survival instinct. There were just a couple of instances where I found myself skimming over the flowery writing as I was excited to get to the action, but this was rare. The story is full of plot twists and danger- especially towards the end- and had me on the edge of my seat throughout.

Katherine Locke has commended the historical accuracy of Orphan Monster Spy on Twitter, saying that the British spy Sarah works for  ‘is not perfect, or flawless, and he’s no hero, really, the way Allied forces are often portrayed.’

She praises the fact that ‘… ON THE PAGE, it’s acknowledged that it does not matter that [Sarah] is only half Jewish, that she’s never been to synagogue, that she’s not religious, and that she’s Aryan-passing. She. Would. Still. Be. Killed. For. Being. Jewish.’

Sarah never stops being aware that people are dying and her driving force is to work towards the effort of preventing this. She’s only Jewish by birth, yet ‘she does not ignore the plight of other Jews, even though she has no community connection to them. She is a girl who grew up, was given a label, and the label killed her mother and put her life in danger. She is aware of it on every. single. page.’

Read this book, and then think about the Rwandan Genocide, the attacks on Syrian immigrants and Muslims, police violence against black people, the deportation of US and UK citizens and the degradation of people from ‘shit-hole countries‘. Seem familiar?

This novel serves as a warning against allowing history to repeat itself and as a reminder that we can and must prevent that, whether we have ‘community connection’ to those being persecuted or not.

“We are, right now, looking at the conditions that created the Third Reich and all it will take, to paraphrase Burke, is for good people to do nothing.” – Matt Killeen.

A must-read for teens and adults alike, Orphan Monster Spy will be published by Usborne in March 2018.

*Quotations taken from a proof copy of Orphan Monster Spy and may be subject to change.

 

Letters From The Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

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We weren’t supposed to be going to the pictures that night. We weren’t even meant to be outside, not in a blackout, and definitely not when German bombs had been falling on London all month like pennies from a jar.

February, 1941. After months of bombing raids in London, twelve-year-old Olive Bradshaw and her little brother Cliff are evacuated to the Devon coast. The only person with two spare beds is Mr Ephraim, the local lighthouse keeper. But he’s not used to company and he certainly doesn’t want any evacuees.

Desperate to be helpful, Olive becomes his post-girl, carrying secret messages (as she likes to think of the letters) to the villagers. But Olive has a secret of her own. Her older sister Sukie went missing in an air raid, and she’s desperate to discover what happened to her. And then she finds a strange coded note which seems to link Sukie to Devon, and to something dark and impossibly dangerous.

After being caught in an air-raid and the disappearance of their elder sister, Olive and Cliff are evacuated to Devon, where they are sent to stay with a strange lighthouse keeper. The villagers are full of secrets, and Olive is determined to uncover them.

This middle-grade novel slowly unravels an intricate mystery and captures the tragedy of the refugee crisis, both back during WWII and in the present day. Its variety of characters has you constantly wondering who knows what- Ephraim, the discrete lighthouse keeper and his secret control room, sharp-tongued Queenie, fierce evacuee Esther, with whom Olive just cannot get on, and Sukie, Olive’s wild older sister who’s nowhere to be found. I especially loved the characterisation of Olive and Esther and their precarious relationship. They were easy to imagine- Olive, grieving for her father, sensible and determined to protect Cliff; Esther, whose anger seems to be hiding sadness and vulnerability. Equally beautiful was the love between Olive and her brother.

Wartime descriptions and period sayings like “the cat’s pyjamas” made the setting authentic. Each chapter was headed with a slogan from WWII, which I thought was a nice touch. The overall message is that love and compassion beat hatred and bigotry, and the world is as much in need of this message today as it was back in Hitler’s era.

“There were thirty-two refugees in total: thirty-two wet, frightened, exhausted people, who’d travelled through a storm in a sailing boat meant to hold ten. How awful their lives back home must’ve been to take such a risk.”

I did find the plot a little confusing at some points, and had to go back and check I’d got it right. Despite this, it moves at a gentle pace (not a bad thing), is full of moving scenes and reads like a classic. A timeless piece of historical fiction for children.

I don’t think a book could contain a more important message than the one spoken by Letters from the Lighthouse , and it’s weaved beautifully throughout the novel. It links current events to past tragedies and is a warning to us all to not let history repeat itself. Your children need to read it.

 

 

 

 

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

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I’ve read and loved all of Rebecca Mascull’s novels, but The Wild Air was my favourite yet. Set in the Edwardian era and the world of early aviation, it is the story of Della Dobbs and her extraordinary flying adventure.

In Edwardian England, aeroplanes are a new, magical invention, while female pilots are rare indeed.

When shy Della Dobbs meets her mother’s aunt, her life changes forever. Great Auntie Betty has come home from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, across whose windswept dunes the Wright Brothers tested their historic flying machines. Della develops a burning ambition to fly and Betty is determined to help her.

But the Great War is coming and it threatens to destroy everything – and everyone – Della loves.

Uplifting and page-turning, THE WILD AIR is a story about love, loss and following your dreams against all odds.

Although it doesn’t have a particularly fast paced plot, this novel is a page turner. One thing Rebecca Mascull does exceptionally well is characterisation.  She has us fall in love with a character, hooks us to their situation or predicament so intensely that we have no choice but to read on until the end. For me, the protagonist, Della, was so real that she walked right off the page, as did Betty, Pop, Dud, Mam and Cleo. The relationships between the characters are complex I could almost feel the emotions pass between them.

Della encounters obstacle after obstacle on her quest to become a pilot, and the authenticity of the era and setting reveals the shocking reality of the sexism and violence that aviatrices had to face for simply wanting to fly. Della is an intriguing character. While it’s great to have gutsy, ‘tomboy’ female characters,  these days this can be overdone. Della was a breath of fresh air- she is a quiet, dutiful daughter who tinkers with bicycles in her spare time. It made her defiance, and her journey to self discovery, all the more satisfying. I felt like I was watching her grow as a person with my own eyes, and I found myself rooting for her from the very first page.

The writing, as usual, is exquisite- especially the flying descriptions. A blend of poetry and aviation jargon! The novel is written in the third person but Rebecca has still managed to capture Della’s voice. She doesn’t speak as eloquently or as metaphorically as the protagonists of previous books, but this reflects Della’s social class, upbringing and beautiful simplicity. “Della talked aloud to herself. She did that when it was marvellous and she revelled in the complete wonder of flying, the secret joy of it. Or when it was bad. When the mist came down or the wind got up something terrible and she was fighting the weather in order to come back alive.”

Also intertwined with the main plot is a beautiful, very pure but not at all cheesy love story, through which Rebecca contrasts the freedom of the skies with the despair and horror of the war. I also love how she included some research at the end of the book about female aviatrices of this era so as to bring their stories to light.

I was captivated by this novel and I’ll never look at an airplane the same again!