Category Archives: War

Firebird

My interest in the female Russian pilots from WWII has finally been met. Well, I’d happily read more, but Elizabeth Wein’s dyslexia friendly novel Firebird goes some way to satisfying me. It’s a start.

Elizabeth Wein, Firebird

I knew the British and American female pilots had a tough war, even without fighting. But the young Soviet girls who flew planes had a completely different war. More was asked of them, and then it seems Comrade Stalin had the bright idea to suggest that if they ended up behind enemy lines and survived, they’d be shot for treason when they got back home.

The mind boggles.

Anastasia in Firebird has flown for as long as she can remember, and it makes sense to volunteer on the day her country joins the war. But even though she flies well, they make her stay on as a flying instructor to begin with, rather than join her male friends.

That would have been a different story, whereas this one, where Anastasia and many others form a women’s unit of pilots is infinitely better. I’d read about them, and after this taster, I’d like to read more.

It was a cruel war for everyone, but I’m fairly sure the Russians had it worse (unless it was the Germans who froze as much on their side of the line), and there was never much in the way of good news.

They were skilled, and they were brave.

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Banished

Another holiday; another Selma Lagerlöf for the Resident IT Consultant to read. Though it has to be said that he had to take a break, because it wasn’t always all that pleasant. I know that sounds  unkind, but as you will see from his review below, Banished was a bit of a mouthful, and even Selma suffered.

“Banished is the latest product of Norvik Press’s initiative to publish new translations of the work of Selma Lagerlöf. Bannlyst (its Swedish title) was originally published in 1918 and first appeared in English translation (as The Outcast), in 1922.  This edition is translated by Linda Schenck, translator of  Lagerlöf’s Löwensköld Ring trilogy and five of Kerstin Ekman’s novels.

Lagerlöf, the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, was a committed feminist and pacifist and was horrified by the violence of the First World War. After personally having seen the bodies of thousands of dead soldiers floating in the sea after the Battle of Jutland she was inspired to write a novel that explores the double standard that allows people to hold death sacrosanct and yet neglects the sanctity of life.

Banished tells the story of Sven Elversson, a member of a failed polar expedition on which the survivors are forced the eat the flesh of one of their comrades in order to avoid perishing. He is a brave and kind man but is rejected by those around him and banished from their company. Banished is a thought-provoking tale of love, death and survival that grapples with moral dilemmas as relevant today as they were a century ago.

By the end all those who have found Sven reprehensible realize that human life is worth far more than human death and that during the ongoing war the same people who vilified an explorer for doing what he had to do to survive were prepared to disregard daily mass murders and to glorify those who carry them out.”

Selma Lagerlöf, Banished

The Resident IT Consultant is now recuperating with something a wee bit lighter. But I’d say, keep them coming! He – sort of – enjoys them.

Das Schiff ohne Hafen

Aquarius. Reading about this ship, full of people who have left their homes and countries, and that turned out not to be welcome anywhere, until it was finally permitted to land in Spain. It’s an appalling situation, and one which reminded me of a book I’ve mentioned here several times. I’ve just not gone into detail, or reviewed it, because it’s not available in English, and now I suspect it never will be.

It is Lisa Tetzner’s Das Schiff ohne Hafen, or Skepp utan hamn, in Swedish. Ship with no harbour. Part of a series of books about the children of a tenement in 1930s Berlin, Mirjam and her aunt Mathilde have travelled through western Europe to join a ship that will take them to a new life in South America. They are Jewish, so know they need to leave Europe.

The Garibaldi is not a regular passenger ship, but is now full of paying, desperate people, hoping to escape. There are all sorts of passengers, from the wealthy and successful to the destitute, who have already suffered greatly. The children on board make friends with each other, as far as they can, due to class differences and personality.

Lisa Tetzner, Skepp utan hamn

The journey is eventful in various ways, but it’s not until they reach Brazil that it becomes obvious that things are not going to end well. There is illness on board, which means the ship is not given permission to land in some places. And where they do get to land, immigration officials are strict and refuse to accept many of them, sometimes because their papers aren’t ‘in order.’ Or they are ‘too old,’ or the single women ‘too single.’

The reasons given are the same we hear today for today’s unwanted. So the ship sails on, along the coast, with a few passengers allowed to enter their new home countries, but the rest have to stay and the ship gets all the way round to Peru before disaster strikes, and only a few of the children make it out alive, [conveniently] finding a desert island [where, in the next book, they try to live and survive].

Rich or poor, no one escaped this fate, and they have to make the best of things. Because this is a series of books shaped by WWII, there is much that is bad in them. But because the series ends after the war, Lisa Tetzner also lets there be much hope and friendship and belief in a new future for all. The last book is an inspiration, like a miniature United Nations.

Now, of course, we know a bit more about that as well. But when I first read it, my heart swelled with happiness and pride.

Just goes to show how the world works. If I’d written more about this series earlier, it would have been possible to still believe. I left it, hoping that someone, somewhere, would translate and publish the books. I also stupidly believed in a basic level of decency among people. Well, it exists, but the waves of hating your neighbour seem to be a necessary evil too.

Welcome to Nowhere

I was expecting a story about how life in Syria got so awful that Omar and his family had to leave, becoming refugees and ending up in Britain after much hardship on the way, followed by their life here, and how they were received.

Elizabeth Laird, Welcome to Nowhere

That’s not the story Elizabeth Laird wrote, however. Welcome to Nowhere is exactly that; it’s about a family of seven, who have to leave their home in Bosra when the troubles in Syria begin, and they move in with Omar’s grandmother. Soon they have to flee again, and again. In the end they really do end up in ‘Nowhere.’

Omar is about 13 when we first meet the family, with an older sister and an older brother, who has cerebral palsy, plus two younger siblings. The father works for the government, something that turns out not to be so good in a country where civil war is about to break out.

This is the Syrian crisis from the inside. I’ve read the papers and seen the news on television, but I didn’t know it like this. There isn’t all that much about the actual, physical war. It’s more how a normal family tries to survive, as the reality of the situation slowly dawns on them. How they realise that they might never go home.

Elizabeth Laird as always is very good at showing the reader how people in other countries live. It’s one of the most valuable things about her writing, as well as the thrill of her plots. So we learn how Omar is the one who does things, his clever older sister is destined to be married off, when all she wants is to go to school, and Musa is invariably described as a cripple and an imbecile, even by [some] members of his own family, when he is also extremely intelligent. Their mother has to obey her husband, and it is fascinating to see what it takes to make her stand up to the men in her life.

They all grow up in this story. I’m not sure who grows the most.

Welcome to Nowhere has completely changed how I look at Syria, leaving me wanting to do more, but feeling helpless in what has become a country against refugees.

Everyone should read this book.

Elizabeth Laird, Welcome to Nowhere (illustration by Lucy Eldridge)

(Atmospheric illustrations by Lucy Eldridge.)

Money in the Morgue

Is this a sudden interest; modern writers either finishing the book of a dead author, or writing a brand new one in someone else’s world? Or has it always been happening?

Here we have Money in the Morgue, started by Ngaio Marsh during WWII and finished rather more recently by Stella Duffy. I haven’t looked for the seam, where new meets old. I preferred to simply read and enjoy, which is what I did.

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, Money in the Morgue

Having been concerned that it was a dying author’s last chapters, it was a relief to find they were from a long time ago, even if that does make you wonder if Ngaio Marsh was less keen on the whole idea and put the story away for a reason. But it does put the pressure on today’s author to get the period feel right. I think maybe at times the characters in this wartime New Zealand Midsummer Night’s Dream drama talked a little bit modern.

But the crime – theft of a thousand [dollars?] – seems rather mild compared with current tastes in crime. There might have been a murder. Deaths, anyway. I’d almost forgotten crime could be so civilised, even with Roderick Alleyn at the helm. Had completely forgotten that a good detective will be capable of advising couples in love what to do. I used to find that so romantic.

It all happens during one night, at a small New Zealand hospital, in the middle of nowhere. Midsummer – and Christmas – are about to break loose when the money goes missing and the weather gets dramatic, and the full cast of characters run back and forth all over the hospital, agonising over love and money, about going back to war, and soon the disappearing corpses.

Alleyn is on his own, with no Fox at his side, but does find a Bix instead. And he thinks of Troy, and what to tell her about the goings-on. All-in-all, a pleasant return to the past.

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

As I read The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell, I was already in a mood for a very good book, Cambridge scientists were topical, and I do think about the environment quite a bit.

I love it when a middle grade book is more than a fun read for that age group, and actually appeals to me, for my own sake. Admittedly, Zillah has a publicist adept at twisting arms, but then some of the best books I’ve read have been the result of arm-twisting.

Zillah Bethell, The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

Auden is eleven and suffers from achromatopsia. And also ‘slightly’ from sarcasm. The first one means he can’t see colours, and the second means he’s rather fun. In Auden’s world they are at war, over water, which is so scarce that they are always thirsty and they smell, because washing doesn’t happen much.

His mother and Auden move from London to Cambridge, to live in his [dead] Uncle Jonah’s dilapidated house. Jonah was a scientist, and before long Auden and his new friend Vivi make a discovery in the garden. At first they don’t know what any of it means, but they are intelligent children and they work things out.

While this is a sort of eco adventure, you can’t get away from the horror of a world with hardly any water; where soldiers from the Water Allocation Board are armed to stop people from stealing a few extra drops to drink. It makes you think.

I really liked this book!

The Children of Willesden Lane

This is not a fictional tale about WWII, but the memoirs of Lisa Jura, who at the age of 14 came to London from Vienna with the Kindertransport. Written by Lisa’s daughter Mona Golabek with Lee Cohen, it is a simplified version of what Lisa used to tell Mona about as she grew up.

It lacks a little of the good quality story that you come to expect from this topic, but in the end I found I just wanted to see what Lisa’s life would have been like in England during the war. And as with many other books about refugees in the past, the reader marvels at how differently [from today] the new arrivals were treated by the British. At how many opportunities were offered them, even during the war.

And it makes you feel ashamed.

Lisa was one of three sisters, chosen by her parents for her age – not too young and not too old – and for her skills in playing the piano. They hoped she would be able to make something of herself in a new country.

Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, The Children of Willesden Lane

Things didn’t always go to plan, but the new arrivals were looked after. In Lisa’s case in a house full of child refugees, in Willesden Lane in London. And that confirms my theory that when you lose someone, while no one can replace dear family members, if you have someone else, your life isn’t empty. The children of Willesden Lane had each other, and they were looked after and loved by Mrs Cohen.

While not unique, this is still a very heartwarming, true story. Bad things happened, but the good things carried people through.

I would like to hope for a few more Lisas today.