Category Archives: War

D-Day Dog

It’s possible to like war too much. Maybe you don’t stop to think about what war really means, or you get carried away by the excitement of weapons and explosions. And there is that idea of patriotism, duty to your country.

Tom Palmer, D-Day Dog

In Tom Palmer’s D-Day Dog 11-year-old Jack loves all things to do with war, as does his Reserve soldier father. They play war games at home, and Jack just knows that to serve your country is the greatest honour.

Then comes the school trip to the battlefields, and his father is called up, and life turns upside down. The children are told to find a dead soldier to read up on; someone whose grave they can visit. Because Jack has a dog, Finn, which he loves more than anything, he is pointed in the direction of a paratrooper who served in the war with his dog.

And suddenly it all becomes too real and Jack begins hating war.

There are probably many boys who love the idea of war and violence, and this book will be a good way of finding out what’s important in life – and death – and why people do what they do. It also brings attention to the Falkland war, Afghanistan, and Syria, where one of the girls in Jack’s class comes from.

Behind everything on the trip we see Jack’s love for Finn, for his dad, and his fear of what might happen to his family. For anyone unfamiliar with the details of D-Day, or with any war for that matter, this is a powerful little story.

And you know, they have dogs in Syria too. It’s just that Jack had no idea.

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No Ballet Shoes in Syria

Do you like Ballet Shoes? And When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit? Then you will love Catherine Bruton’s No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria

Aya is eleven and has arrived in Britain with her mother and her little brother Moosa. They’ve been here three weeks and queue most days just to see their caseworker and to get food and nappies. Her mother speaks very little English, and is not well. It falls to Aya to do the talking, and the looking after.

At the community centre somewhere in Manchester Aya suddenly hears music, and feels compelled to see where it is coming from. This is how she discovers a ballet class, and having loved her ballet classes back in Aleppo she is drawn to the room.

But can someone like her ever dance here in England?

Set mostly in Manchester, there are flashbacks to Aya’s story of what happened in Syria, and how she and her family ended up in England. Most of her family. In a way it’s the standard refugee tale, but every such story has real individuals in it, and this is Aya’s.

Catherine has got everything right here. It’s exciting, but reassuring. It’s sweet, but not too sweet. And we need to be reminded of all this right now. The dreadful past. The dreadful present. We need to make things better.

I hope you will love this book as much as I did.

Total Recall

Total Recall is one of my Sara Paretsky gold nuggets; picked up second hand and kept until such a time as I needed more Warshawski to read. This last week was it, and I was struck by how Sara introduced her story with a mention of Oxford (just as I was leaving that place) and the Resident IT Consultant’s old college.

Sara Paretsky, Total Recall

The book is almost twenty years old, and deals with two things. First the crime, which is insurance crime in Chicago, and I couldn’t help noticing how it pre-dates the things we are so concerned with today. You can put a few bad guys in prison, if they survive their brush with V I, but they don’t run either the local police department, or the country. People’s lives are in jeopardy, and their money, but there is less of the wholesale fear for your existence that we see today. And mobile phones were not what they are now.

So I enjoyed the crime, if one can say that. It seems that lightning can strike in the same place twice.

The second topic of the book, which underlies all that happens, has to do with Lotty Herschel’s past in Vienna and her time in London after being evacuated. Anything that goes back to the Holocaust is harrowing, but in some way I see Lotty’s current suffering as being more that of anyone looking back to a point in their childhood and youth. It’s the child’s fears, and the lack of control you had as a young person when things happen.

Partly told in Lotty’s own words, we learn many new facts about her and Max, and others previously mentioned in these books. (This makes me wonder how it works when an author starts writing. Sara couldn’t have known everything about the characters she put in the first story. And as the author makes new facts, and then more new facts, it’s fascinating how it all fits in, and makes that person more of who she or he is.)

There are many wise words and sentiments about loss and death and guilt and all those bad things we sometimes believe in. I hope Sara can remember them for herself, but then we are always our own worst enemy, as proven by Lotty in this book.

Remembering Amritsar

Ten – or a hundred – years on and it’s not as if the world has suddenly got a lot better. On Saturday it was 100 years since the massacre at Amritsar. Ten years ago I read Bali Rai’s historical novel City of Ghosts and was shocked. Because I didn’t know nearly enough about this. I blame my non-UK background, but of course, lots of people here don’t know much either. There was an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day. Seemingly British people don’t realise that what happened that day in 1919 didn’t endear them to the Indian population. Or that they haven’t forgotten.

Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

Below is my review from 2009:

Did you know about all the Indian soldiers fighting for England in World War I? I didn’t, other than knowing that soldiers did come from other countries to fight. The sheer number is horrifying. It’s one thing – just about – to send ‘your own’ to die for your country. To send Indian soldiers to their deaths because you have a quarrel with your German neighbour is awful beyond belief.

This novel has a number of sub-plots, which together build a picture of India in the years before 1920. There is Bissen, the soldier who fought in France. There are Gurdial and Jeevan, two teenagers from the local orphanage in Amritsar.

We learn of what happened to Bissen in Europe, and how it affects his life in India after the war. He is an older and wiser influence on the two boys. Gurdial is in love, and Jeevan picks the wrong friends.

And then we have the time and place; Amritsar in 1919. You can tell it’s not all going to end well.

Bali has written a very Indian story from almost a century ago. You can smell the place, and you can see all the colours. You can taste the food, and you can almost feel what happened on that fateful day in April in Amritsar. There is a ghostly element, which although impossible to explain, fits in perfectly with the plot.

It’s very romantic, and it’s very sad and very violent.

It’s a story that needed telling.

It’s a story you need to read.

Erich und Lisa, and Paul and Matt, too.

No, that’s not a new book.

Travel gods willing, I’m off to Berlin today, so thought I’d ‘fob you off’ with some Berlin books.

I’ve never been, so am writing this blind. I’ll be interested to discover how much of Erich Kästner’s city remains. Having watched all three Emil und die Detektive films, I should know. Only one was made before the war. If Emil was English, it’d be easy enough to film a boy in prewar London now. There are plenty of houses and buildings left. I hope quite a bit of Berlin is also still there.

The other old Berlin I ‘know’ is Lisa Tetzner’s, where her child characters lived in tenements in the 1930s. Surely some remain? And I have no idea how large Berlin was in those days. I’m assuming the children in no. 67 lived quite centrally.

You can find countless children’s books set in today’s London. There must be a Berlin counterpart. It’s ‘just’ that we don’t get to see those books.

The more recently written novels that come to mind are British. There was Paul Dowswell’s Ausländer ten years ago. Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen from last year. Both showing life within Germany. Both featuring WWII. There’s more to Germany and Berlin than that.

Death in Berlin, by M M Kaye, set in postwar Berlin. It’s decades since I read it, and I recall a sense of bleakness.

Ich bin ein Berliner, as JFK said. Whether or not that makes us doughnuts I will leave unsaid. I’m certainly rounded enough.

Summer of My German Soldier

It became necessary to take plenty of breaks. Usually this is a sign of a not very captivating book, but with Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier, it was imperative not to read too much in one go, and not because I wanted the book to last longer, either. It was ‘just’ too strong stuff. I needed to brace myself, somehow.

I’d already forgotten that that is what Lucy Mangan says in her Bookworm memoir; ‘when I reread it now, I have to put it down every few pages and walk around for a bit to let it all bed down before I am ready for the next chapter.’ Because it was on her recommendation that I bought a second hand copy of the book.

Bette Greene, Summer of My German Soldier

And if I only have one of her favourites, this has to be the one. Rarely have I come across anything quite like this WWII story about a 12-year-old Jewish girl in Arkansas, who ends up sheltering an escaped German soldier.

Patty is an unusual girl, not loved by her family, but very intelligent, except perhaps when it comes to understanding when not to say some things. Beaten often by her father, it’s hardly surprising she laps up the kindness and politeness Anton Reiker has to offer. They have intellectual conversations and Patty learns about his home in Göttingen.

You know this can’t end well, and it doesn’t. But this must be the best really bad ending to a children’s novel I’ve ever read. Whether I could have coped with reading it in my early teens is another question entirely. Probably not, would be my guess.

Written thirty years after it’s set, I don’t know if Bette describes the American south correctly, but it does feel like it. German soldiers were obviously bad. So were Jews, and also all black people, whose job it was to clean and cook for everyone else. There is unexpected goodness in places, but otherwise this is harsh.

If it was difficult to read for any length of time, then it is harder still to work out what to read next.

I suppose I could reread it…

The Key to Flambards

I have a confession to make; I have only read the first K M Peyton book about Flambards. And I only read it after meeting Kathy at Meg Rosoff’s house seven years ago. That’s when I learned that everyone adores her. This is understandable. And [female] people my age have read ‘all’ the books and adore them. Also understandable.

I got a bit confused by Christina, back then, and in the end I didn’t pursue the remaining three Flambards books. She was a heroine, albeit not your typical leading lady.

Linda Newbery, The Key to Flambards

Now we have The Key to Flambards, a new sequel by Linda Newbery, another big Peyton fan. She asked Kathy’s permission to use her house and her characters, and she has placed them in the here and now. So 14-year-old Grace [Russell] is Christina’s great great granddaughter, and she and her mother Polly come to Flambards for the summer, for the first time.

The two of them have had a hard time with Grace’s parents divorcing and Grace experiencing a life-changing accident. And here they are, at a Flambards where not much has changed, with relatives they didn’t know, all over the place.

Luckily Linda has provided a family tree, which helps, and as a less devoted Flambards reader, I am not entirely sure where Kathy’s characters end and where Linda’s begin. I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter and I was better off not worrying too much about it, apart from a little Wikipedia research…

The story is exactly as I’ve come to expect from Linda and I really enjoyed it. Grace has a lot in common with Christina, and there are modern versions of Mark and Will.

The future of Flambards is uncertain and the people who work and live there have to try and save the place. Grace and her mother come to love it, and make new friends. Grace learns to ride.

I saw a review that suggested the teenagers in this book are old-fashioned. Maybe they are, but we need them as well as the fashionably edgy ones. The old Flambards fans will expect something similar to before, and besides, Linda covers ‘everything’ in her book; disability, divorce, unemployment, the war in Afghanistan, the exploitation of the countryside, abuse and violence, same sex relationships. It’s just that it happens in a romantic, countryside setting.

Highly recommended, whether you know the old Flambards or not. If you don’t, you might want to have a look at it afterwards.