Category Archives: War

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.

Orphan Monster Spy

This page-turner debut thriller, set in Germany, gives a bleak view of a country about to take over the world. We see how the German people have been taught to think, and what is expected of them, whether schoolgirls or soldiers.

Matt Killeen, Orphan Monster Spy

Newly orphaned 15-year-old, but looking much younger, Sarah, finds herself alone in Berlin at the outbreak of WWII. Alone, apart from a British spy calling himself Helmut Haller. The thing about Sarah is that while she is Jewish, she is blonde and Aryan looking, so her ‘uncle’ Helmut sends her to a leading boarding school for young Nazi ladies.

The British want to find out about an invention for what sounds like an atomic bomb by a wealthy German scientist, and it is ‘Ursula Heller’s’ task to befriend his daughter to get close to the lab.

There are some lighthearted moments, but mostly it is grim; cold, muddy and with bad food, and as much peer bullying as you’d expect in certain British schools.

Sarah has many skills, and they come in handy during what turns into a horrific and increasingly bloody schoolgirl spy trip. Maybe those skills are a little on the unlikely side, but this is a fantastic wartime thriller, as seen from the inside of Germany. Only the fact that it is a YA novel made me feel that maybe everything – well, you know, most things – would be all right at the end.

If it is the end. I can see lots more happening here.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do

We’ve recently celebrated the centenary of [some] British women winning the right to vote. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was a start.

Sally Nicholls has written a suffragette novel – Things a Bright Girl Can Do – and as we meet her three main female characters, well-off Evelyn, educated but threadbare May and working class Nell, many of us know that very soon there will be a war, and this won’t be exclusively about the rights for women to vote.

Sally Nicholls, Things a Bright Girl Can Do

We learn a lot about the suffragette movement – and I was reminded of why I always liked Sylvia Pankhurst the best – as our three girls go about campaigning for votes for women in their own different ways. What I particularly liked was that they have sympathetic people close to them; Evelyn’s young man, Teddy, May’s single mother, and Nell’s [literally] very poor parents.

And it’s not just votes for women. May and her mother are Quakers, and both Nell and May like girls best, discovering that they aren’t alone in this. Then there is the lovely Teddy, and the threat of the looming war.

After a quick march through protests and fasting in jail, war breaks out, and it’s much tougher than the way it’s usually described in fiction. Yes, young men go off to be slaughtered, but life in England is really hard, especially for people like Nell and her family, who have no money and little food, and someone is always unwell. Trying to remain a true Quaker is not easy, either, at a time when everyone seems to give up their principles for their country.

The novel is written in the same light style as Sally’s other books, and it works, despite the difficult topics of suffrage, war, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. In fact, I feel it works better for having this sweetness about it, as the reality of the war years hits home.

You come to love these characters, and you discover that death isn’t necessarily the worst thing that could happen.

Purple Hearts

And then I cried.

I was sad to get to the end of Michael Grant’s Front Lines trilogy, because now there is no more to read. But I was glad the war was finally over. Not everyone survived, because that’s the thing with wars; people don’t.

Michael Grant, Purple Hearts

Purple Hearts, along with Front Lines and Silver Stars, will count among the best I’ve read. It’d be easy to dismiss this fast paced WWII trilogy as pure entertainment, but it is so much more. For a start, what makes it stand out is the use of women soldiers, alongside the men.

Michael makes a stand for equality, for men and women, for black and white, for ‘real’ Americans and for those others who fought by their side.

The Front Lines books teach us history. There was much I didn’t know. It’s given us rounded and interesting characters – I even grew fond of Private Sweetheart in the end – and it tells us how stupid, and evil, people have always been, and will continue to be, but that there is good in so many of us.

You have to care. And in order for us to care about those who had to die, Michael shows us, however briefly, what they are like. This way we mourn their deaths. Otherwise it’d be like it ended up being for those worn out GIs, who didn’t learn the names of new soldiers, on the grounds that they wouldn’t last long.

Starting in June 1944 we first fight on Omaha Beach. It didn’t take me long to realise Michael was making a detour via Oradour for one of our heroes. Mercifully it was quick (I have read a whole book about it), as was Malmedy (which I didn’t know about). And the concentration camps… Brief is almost better, with one major atrocity after another, the reader is with the GIs as the European continent is – slowly and painfully – conquered.

My guess as to which of the main characters was ‘writing’ all this down was correct. My hope for some of the more romantic elements worked out. We need hope.

I could go on. Purple Hearts is an inspiring read.

We could have done with women like these a long time ago.

And I [almost] blubbed over one name. Diane. It’s continuity like that which makes a story.

(The cover image is the American one. I prefer it, and as I read this as an ebook, there was no cover to call mine.)