Children’s Book Award BLOG TOUR: I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

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I am hugely excited to be participating in the Children’s Book Award official blog tour in the books for older readers category.  It’s the only national book award to be voted for entirely by children from start to finish, so I can imagine how wonderful it must feel as an author to be nominated by the readers. Today I am sharing I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson, a London based author who says:Penny Joelson “I was delighted when I heard that ‘I Have No Secrets’ had made the top ten for this award – one of three books in the older children category. It is particularly special as I know it is an award where the voting is entirely by children and young people themselves. I enjoyed writing this book so much and it is wonderful to think about so many young people reading it now.  I can only say – I am utterly thrilled!”

I Have No Secrets, published by Electric Monkey features fourteen year old Jemma, who has severe cerebral palsy. Unable to communicate or move, she relies on her family and carer for everything. She has a sharp brain and inquisitive nature, and knows all sorts of things about everyone. But when she is confronted with a terrible secret, she is utterly powerless to do anything. Though that might be about to change…

9781405286152I was filled with a certain amount of trepidation before reading this book.  Having grown up with an older sister who was completely physically disabled and had round the clock care, I wasn’t sure how I would feel ‘hearing’ a story told from the point of view of someone suffering a similar condition.  However, I’m glad I did read it. The opening hooks the reader instantly by introducing a really unpleasant bad guy and immediately you are on Jemma’s side -not because she’s disabled but because she is brave and determined. The narrative isn’t just centred on Jemma’s disability, it focuses on the relationships between those around her; her carer Sarah, her foster parents, her foster brother who is autistic and her foster sister who has behavioural issues.  Suffice to say there is a lot going on but the story doesn’t get bogged down and as the plot thickens, you wonder just how on earth Jemma is going to bring the culprit to justice, when she cannot speak. Jemma’s world is further turned upside down by the arrival of her long lost twin sister from whom she was separated at birth and the emotional turmoil that ensues is incredibly moving.

Some really insightful moments caused me to draw breath and wonder how many times I’d left the room with my sister feeling frustrated she couldn’t say what she really wanted to. The author brilliantly captures the reality of looking after a severely disabled person and the difficulties that arise from this. Given the themes covered in I Have No Secrets, it is particularly inspiring to know that young people themselves have nominated the book for this award. But not surprising – it’s a well-written thriller told from a unique perspective, with believable characters and a great plot. You can’t ask for more than that and I am really pleased to welcome author Penny Joelson to the blog to share more of her story with us!

Congratulations on the publication of your novel Penny!  I Have No Secrets is a great story – I read it in one sitting. Tell us a bit about your career so far as a writer and the inspiration behind this story. I’ve loved writing and reading since I was a young child. As an adult I did writing courses with the London School of Journalism and at City Lit in Covent Garden, London, where I now teach. I enjoy thrillers and family dramas and I wanted to combine both these things in my work. I had the idea for a thriller in which the protagonist knew the identity of a murderer but was unable to tell anyone. The character of Jemma popped into my head. It took me three years to write and then nine months to get an agent and more months to secure a publishing contract with Egmont.

Why did you decide to write the story from the perspective of a character with a disability? I didn’t set out to write a story from this perspective. The concept came first and then the character. I was a very shy child and became interested in my teens in people for whom communication was difficult for other reasons. I did voluntary work for several years with deaf-blind children and children with cerebral palsy, so I had some experience to draw on. I was also influenced by a play I’d seen at the Chickenshed Theatre about and starring Paula Rees, who has severe cerebral palsy and was unable to communicate until she was ten years old.

How did you go about researching what life would be like for someone who is unable to talk? It was only when I started looking for other books with a character who had cerebral palsy or other severe disabilities, that I realised how few books there are. I felt a huge responsibility as someone who can talk and does not have cerebral palsy myself, to make sure I gave a realistic and convincing portrayal. I knew it would be a challenge to write from this perspective.

As part of my research I spoke to people with cerebral palsy, people who use devices to communicate and people connected to them – family and professionals, charities including ‘Communication Matters’ and ‘One Voice’, as well as doing research online. I wrote however, mainly from the heart. Jemma’s character came alive in my head and sometimes it was as if she was telling my what to write or acting as a critic and telling me to change things. Once I had a draft I was reasonably happy with, I got people with cerebral palsy, AAC users (people who use alternative ways of communicating) and professionals with relevant experience to read the manuscript and give feedback. When someone with cerebral palsy told me how strongly he could relate to it and how he thought even his parents could learn more about what it was like to be him from my book, I was very moved. Since publication I have had very positive feedback from people with cerebral palsy and this has meant so much to me.

Jemma is cared for in a foster family and her foster parents are clearly remarkable people in that they are caring for three children with very distinct needs. Why did you decide to introduce this theme? Years ago, I was involved as a volunteer and then leader for holidays for deaf-blind children with the charity SENSE. As leaders we used to go and meet the children and their parents before the holidays and I came across amazing foster parents who have stayed in my mind ever since. They were the inspiration for Jemma’s family.

Aside from enjoying the story, what do you hope readers will gain from reading I Have No SecretsI hope that readers will feel more empathy with disabled people and be less likely to assume that if someone can’t communicate they are unintelligent or have nothing to say.

Thank you Penny for participating and we wish you every success with I Have No Secrets!  Penny’s next book Girl in the Window is out in August. Find out more at www.pennyjoelson.co.uk and follow Penny on twitter @pennyjoelson

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The Children’s Book Award is the only national award voted for solely by children from start to finish. Any child up to the age of 18 can visit to vote for their favourite books from the top 10. It is highly regarded by parents, teachers, librarians, publishers and children’s authors and illustrators as it truly represents the children’s choice. Thanks to the support of the publishers, over 1,000 new books are donated to be read and reviewed by our Testing Groups across the country every year, with over 150,000 total votes being cast in the process. At the end of each testing year, nearly 12,000 books are donated to hospitals, women’s refuges, nurseries and disadvantaged schools by our groups. Previous winners of the award include, Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman, Quentin Blake, JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Rick Riordan.

Voting is now open for this year’s award closes on Friday 18th May 2018! Follow the award on Twitter @cbacoordinator and use #fcbgcba18.

With thanks to Kate, the coordinator of the Children’s Book Award, for inviting me to participate in this wonderful award blog tour. Thank you to Egmont for sending me a copy of I Have No Secrets to review.

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New review: Sleeper by J D Fennell

This novel had been sat on my to be read pile for some time so I’m glad I finally read it. It’s definitely one to recommend; an edge-of-your seat thriller set in wartime London with plenty of plot twists to keep you guessing.

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Sleeper by J D Fennell

Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is pulled from the sea with no memory of his past. In his blazer is a strange notebook with a bullet lodged inside it: a bullet meant for him. As London prepares for the Blitz, Will soon finds himself pursued by vicious agents and a ruthless killer known as the Pastor. All of them want Will’s notebook and will do anything to get it.

Sleeper is a fantastic gripping read set in World War 2 and featuring a brave hero, Will, who has lost his memory.  The reader is shown the precursor to this memory loss and then follows Will on his journey desperately trying to rediscover who he really is.  Fraught with danger and deception and villains at every corner,  Sleeper is a roller-coaster ride through the streets of wartime London. At every turn Will loses those who want to help him to ruthless killers – in particular the evil Pastor; a quite horrible character! Will follows the only clue he has and ends up at a school for young Mi5 agents in training.

But even then he is not safe and only as he escapes yet another attack does Will find a true ally in the shape of Anna. With her help he begins to understand who he really is and the mission he must complete in order to save, not just himself and Anna, but the whole of London from the Nazis. I enjoyed the wide cast of characters and never knowing quite who was on Will’s side. Weaving history with magical realism and a spy thriller narrative, the story has plenty of fantastic action sequences.  Sleeper has deservedly been nominated for the Amazing Book Awards and I wish the author every success with this fantastic debut novel.

Sleeper is published by the Dome Press. With thanks to The Dome Press for sending me this book to review.

Author Interview: Sarah Matthias

A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is definitely one of my favourite reads so far this year so I’m delighted to welcome Sarah to the blog today! The story is rich in historical detail and features characters who are so believable you can hear their voices. Read on to find out Sarah’s inspiration for writing the book, the creative process behind it and some truly wonderful insight into the work of an author writing historical fiction.

berlin-love-song_3A Berlin Love Song has romance and love at its heart; was this what you always intended when you started writing the book? When I first started researching the Porrajmos, as the Romanies call the genocide of their people during WW2, The Great Devouring, I had no preconceived idea about what sort of novel I was going to write. I knew I wanted to shine a light on this ‘forgotten holocaust’ but the idea of a romance between a Romani trapeze artist and a member of the Hitler Youth came to me gradually as I went about my research. I always read widely around a subject before I begin to write. As my knowledge of the period and the people caught up in the events of WW2 grew, ideas for a plot started to form in my mind. Other writers might disagree, but for me, I can’t have an idea for a historical novel and then try to squeeze my plot into the historical events. The real events form the skeleton, and any plot must fit into this reality. I believe that this approach means that my plot will be more likely to feel realistic. As I researched the historical background to the period I began to imagine a situation where two very different cultures could feasibly collide and it was then that the idea of a romance was born!  So by the time I started writing the book, A Berlin Love Song was definitely going to be a love story – although I didn’t know at the beginning how it would end!

The story you have created is so real as are the characters you portray.  How did the idea for Max and Lili come about?   Were they based on real people?  Max: I have always been interested in the Hitler Youth movement. When I was a child my father had a German Pastor friend, Pastor Knott. He’d been a Chaplain to the German prisoners of war in a northern town during the war and he and my father were involved together in a reconciliation project after the war was over. Pastor Knott was a frequent visitor to our home. He’d been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He came from a devout Lutheran family of anti-Nazis in Darmstadt, Germany. His parents had been opposed to him joining the movement but he had been forced into it in 1939 when membership finally became compulsory. Consequently, I had heard a great deal about what it was like to be a member of HY and the way in which many German children had been troubled about where their loyalties should lie. He told me stories of being bullied by National Socialist teachers at school for not conforming and joining the movement. When creating Max, I was able to think back to those conversations with Pastor Knott about how it really felt to grow up in Nazi Germany with all those conflicting pressures. In addition to this, I listened to hours of recordings of ex members of Hitler Youth from archive material I discovered in the Imperial War Museum – old men looking back and explaining what it was like to be a member of Hitler Youth and how they’d been attracted and repelled at the same time. They also talked about how they felt after the war when they discovered the consequences of what they had believed in so fervently. I think this background research helped me to create the character of Max with an authentic voice.

Lili: I first had the idea for the character of Lili when I visited Auschwitz. There is a very moving museum on the site of the main Auschwitz camp, Auschwitz I, where you can see lots of photographs and artefacts from the time – the piles of hair, shoes, suitcases etc. confiscated by the SS guards from the prisoners on their arrival at the concentration camp; the uniforms that were worn etc. It was here that I first saw the portrait of a Romani girl in a blue headscarf who came in my mind to be Lili Petalo. There were a series of paintings on display in this museum by a Czech artist who was a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. She’d been an art student in Prague before being sent to the Terezin ghetto and thence to Auschwitz, and when the infamous Dr Mengele found out that she could paint, he employed her to paint portraits of the Roma in Auschwitz for a book he was writing on genetic research. I bought a book about this called Roma in Auschwitz on the day that I visited the museum. I read all about the artist and her Lilli petaloencounters with Romani prisoners and in particular her encounter with the girl in the blue headscarf.  I learned from this book that many of the prisoners in the Gypsy Family Camp in Auschwitz had been entertainers and musicians and that there was always music in the camp. It was this discovery that led me to research the Romanies as entertainers and to create the whole Petalo family and their circus. There is no record of the name of the unknown girl in the blue headscarf – but for me, her name was Lili.

There is so much wonderful detail about the Romani people and the time period in general. Tell us about the research process for a novel like this. It must be lengthy! It took me several years to research the book. There were so many aspects to look at. Firstly I decided that the novel should span the entire war so I had to make sure that I had a sound knowledge of the progress of the war for the 6 years, almost, that it lasted. I’m really pernickety about my research as I am aware that a novel about a historical period might be the only thing someone will ever read. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone likes reading history books but it makes me feel that I have a responsibility to be as accurate as I can, always bearing in mind of course that history books are never entirely objective! After that I had to embark on detailed research in a number of areas – the Hitler Youth movement, air raids, clothes and food rationing, tank warfare, propaganda and films, the circus in Germany and Romani involvement in it, and of course the Romani community itself. There are a number of scholarly works written about the Romani Holocaust so I read all of those I could get my hands on. It was harder to find first-hand accounts written by Romanies about their wartime experiences and their suffering in the death camps. There is so much written from the Jewish perspective, largely because the Jews are such a literate and literary culture. The Romanies are less organised as a community, and theirs is not a written linguistic tradition. Their culture is hugely rich in oral tradition, music and folklore but not much is committed to writing. However, I did find a handful of first-hand accounts written by Romanies and those I found I read avidly, drinking in the atmosphere and the language they used to express their suffering. I wanted the novel to celebrate the Romani culture and to shine a light on the culture of a people who are still one of the most disliked and vilified minorities in Europe. I read collections of Romani folk tales and listened with delight and a certain obsession to their wonderful music. The Romani people are often celebrated for their musical heritage, which has influenced jazz, bolero and flamenco music as well as classical composers including Franz Liszt. I tried to incorporate as much Romani language, traditions and folklore in the novel as the plot would carry.

I can’t imagine some of the accounts you must have had to read in order to illustrate what the characters in the book went through in the prison camps. This must have been very difficult – how did you cope with this? It was very difficult. Sometimes I felt so sickened by what I read that I felt I couldn’t carry on with the research, especially when I came to the detailed research about Auschwitz. My research certainly kept me awake at night. I suppose the way I coped with it was always to try to find the good people amidst the despair and horror of it all – the Jewish prisoner doctors who worked tirelessly to help their fellow prisoners and the few SS who tried to help people get on the transports out of the camp. Alongside the many accounts of inhumanity and degradation that I read, there were so many stories of bravery and selflessness to counterbalance the despair that I sometimes felt. I tried to concentrate on the uplifting and nourishing stories of people who risked their lives to protect others. Many, many people collaborated with the Nazis, but there were also many in Germany who actively assisted victims by purchasing food for households to whom shops were closed, providing false identity papers for those at risk of arrest, and sheltering those who evaded capture. I hope that A Berlin Love Song ends with a message of hope.

The fate of the Romani people in WW2 has been called the ‘forgotten holocaust’. Why do you think it’s important that we don’t forget what happened to them? Many people have little or no knowledge that the Roma were targeted by the Nazi regime. The genocide of the Romani people is an under-taught and under-recognised topic. Despite Helmut Schmidt’s belated recognition in 1982 of the racial nature of the persecution of the Roma and Sinti, and the welcome opening of the beautiful memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten by Angela Merkel in 2012, today the Romani community remains one of the most disliked and least tolerated minorities in Europe. And alarmingly, anti-Romani hostility is on the increase, aggravated by growing far-right extremism. The Roma are still scapegoats, frequently victims of prejudice and racially motivated attacks, hate speech and hate crime, and facing marginalization and discrimination in nearly every country where they live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Roma avoid assimilation into the society of the host nation, a legacy, perhaps, of centuries of persecution. And yet because of their isolation, many Roma children don’t attend school. Families often lack access to stable jobs, affordable housing, social services and health care. As a result, poverty, disease, substance abuse and crime afflict many Roma communities.

I believe that now more than ever we must stand up against prejudice and hatred when we see them in our own communities. The Holocaust all happened a long time ago, and yet millions of men, women and children have been murdered since in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. In today’s world, racial abuse and hate crime is still very much in the news so it is more important than ever, as the people who witnessed the Holocaust during WW2 are growing older and dying, to keep the memory alive of what can happen when prejudice and hatred are left unchallenged.

The story also reflects on what happened to normal German families at the time and the difficulties they faced. Was it important to include this perspective? Since A Berlin Love Song is set entirely in Germany and about Germans, I felt it was essential to make sure that the story was told exclusively from the German point of view. I was very careful not to read anything about the home front in England to make sure that my characters had an authentic German feel. There is so much written about the home front in England that it would have been very easy for me to rely on those sorts of books for things like how it felt to be bombed or how to manage with rationing, but I was very careful not to be tempted. It wasn’t too difficult as there are lots of diaries and memoirs written by Germans who lived through the war years and many of them are published in translation. I read every diary and memoir written by Germans living in Berlin that I could find and in that way I began to see that war through the eyes of ordinary Germans caught up in events – how they were bombarded with propaganda and how they were afraid to speak their minds for fear of being denounced and betrayed to the Gestapo, even by their own family. I have schoolgirl German but I was very relieved I could read them in English. I did have to tangle with a couple of books in German that I couldn’t find in translation and it was very time consuming! One of these books was the only book I could find, in the world it seems, about the Romani circus. I just had to read it or I couldn’t have found out what I needed to know. The dictionary was on fire!

A Berlin Love Song is full of colourful characters. When you were creating the wider cast of characters did this come naturally or were you quite specific in terms of who you included? I don’t really find it difficult to create characters. I’m a nosey ‘people-watcher’ by nature and I store up characters in my head and on paper for future use. My husband and I recently went on a small cruise around the Isle of Mull on a fishing vessel that could only accommodate 12. We were stuck on a boat for 6 days in terrible weather with ten people we had never met before – a rich source of characters!  I kept running back to my cabin to write things down – snatches of conversation and things people did. They probably thought I was pretty eccentric too! One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens. He’s brilliant at characterisation and I never tire of reading his novels. Maybe a tiny bit of his skill has rubbed off on me since I’ve read everything he has written. I have certainly learned a great deal from studying his writing, thinking about how he has created such a wealth of sparkling characters in just a few lines of prose. One of the things I do in my spare time is help run a community choir in Islington where I live.  I’m the Membership Secretary. Our choir chairman suggested that I should write a novel about our choir as it’s full of ‘interesting’ characters – but I told her that I didn’t want to end up in court!

You’ve written several historical novels – what would your advice be for anyone embarking on writing a historical novel? Gosh – that’s a hard one. I think the most important thing is to try to know your subject inside out. I think you can never know too much about a historical period when you’re writing. The more you know the more confident your narrative will seem. However, the drawback of doing the amount of historical research I did is that when you come to writing you are overwhelmed with the amount of material you’ve gathered. What to include and what to leave out? I have a pet hate which is historical novelists whose writing feels like they’ve ‘swallowed a history book’ and are determined to tell you everything they know about a subject. This can be very boring and destroy the flow of the story. But I fully understand the temptation. It’s so tempting to include everything you know, especially if the research has taken a long time and been very painstaking.  You have to ‘kill your darlings’ as they say and leave lots out. It’s as much about what you don’t include as what you do. The bottom line is that I see myself as primarily a storyteller, not a history teacher. So, although I am meticulous in my research, even down to the weather on a particular day of a particular year, I nonetheless feel that the historical research must be secondary to the story.

So my advice would be to read as much as you can about the era you are writing about, especially original sources and accounts of the past written by people who were actually there and try to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the time. Try to take your 21st century spectacles off and immerse yourself in what it would have been like to have been alive then. But beware of using all the details you know just because you know them. Only use what you need to tell your story and create the atmosphere.  Less is always more!

Thank you SO much for sharing such wonderful, personal insight and detail about your amazing novel.  Some incredible advice and inspiration for anyone writing a novel especially those involved in historical research. 

Read my review of A Berlin Love Song here. For more information about Sarah and her work visit www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

New review: Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

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Nikki Sheehan has written fantastic books for middle grade children including Swan Boy recently nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.  Her new novel, Goodnight, Boy, is her first for Young Adults and written in both prose and verse and is published by Rock the Boat.

Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

The kennel has been JC’s home ever since his new adoptive father locked him inside. For hours on end, JC sits and tells his dog Boy how he came to this country: his family, the orphanage and the Haitian earthquake that swept everything away.

When his adoptive mother Melanie rescues him, life starts to feel normal again. Until JC does something bad, something that upset his new father so much that he and Boy are banished to the kennel. But as his new father gets sicker, JC realizes they have to find a way out. And so begins a stunning story of a boy, a dog and their journey to freedom.

Told in a mixture of verse and prose, Goodnight, Boy describes a life that no child should ever have to live.  Rescued from the streets of Haiti by a Haitian-American Doctor, Melanie, and taken back to the US to start a new life, JC finds himself yet again being dealt the hand of injustice with no idea when he will escape.  Stuck in the kennel with his dog Boy, it is through ‘conversation’ with Boy that JC shares his life story and we hear of the traumas he has experienced. Stolen from his family at a young age, thrown in an orphanage to be sold, enduring disease and totally unwanted; it is more than most could ever survive.  How unfair that JC now finds himself stuck in a nightmare again and with his new ‘mother’ Melanie seemingly disappeared.  Kept a prisoner by his ‘adoptive’ father, it’s impossible to know how or when he’ll escape.  But his relationship with Boy, who provides companionship, keeps JC from being completely alone.

Goodnight, Boy is quite an incredible, poignant story. The strength of the writing is demonstrated by the empathy you feel whilst reading; it’s achingly real. With pacing that gives time for moments of reflection and to draw breath, and with the mix of verse and prose Goodnight, Boy is like nothing you’ve ever read before.  There are moments of humour and the relationship between JC and Boy is utterly endearing.  You can’t help but feel JC’s sharing is actually a kind of emotional healing for him – even if he is stuck in a dog kennel.  As he talks, he works his way through the horrors of his life but also reflects on those moments of hope that have given him courage.  JC’s stream-of-consciousness show the complex nature of love, family life and remind us of the turmoil of natural disasters and the extreme poverty many people live in. His resilience is a lesson to us all. How does one boy survive such terrible times?  If you come from nothing, then there’s everything to hope for. And with a little bit of hope, perhaps anything is possible. A fantastic YA novel.

For more information visit www.nikkisheehan.co.uk/

New review: A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Sometimes you read a book and when you reach the final page, you realise the story has found its way into your soul.  Heart-wrenching, beautiful and so well written A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is undoubtedly one of those stories and stays with you long after the final page.

It is the fourth book written by Sarah; a YA novel published by Troika Books. Her first job after leaving Oxford university was with the BBC where she was involved in a documentary called The Nazi Hunter, based on the life and work of Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who spent much of his life tracking down war criminals. A Berlin exhibition, Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime, further inspired her to research the wartime persecution of the Romani people, and to write A Berlin Love Song.

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A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Max is a German schoolboy, when he first meets Lili, a trapeze artist from a travelling circus that performs every year in Berlin.  Lili is a Romani and her life and customs are very different from those of Max and his family. Their friendship turns into love, but love between a German and a Romani is definitely forbidden. As Max is conscripted into the SS and war tears them apart, can their love survive?

The story starts in present day, where Max, now an old man, is finally writing down his precious memories from long ago.  We are drawn into a narrative telling the tale of how he, an ordinary German boy, and Lili, a beautiful Romani girl, fall in love.  Theirs is a love that is a meeting of souls; a love that cannot be ignored; “a kind of madness”.  Alongside this, we are shown the impending doom of the rise of the Nazis; the impact the looming war has on everyday life and ultimately how families are ripped apart. Max’s father refuses to conform to the Hitler regime; Lili’s father won’t acknowledge the threat posed by the Nazis to the Roma.  But with the persecution of many groups identified as “gypsy scum” along with the Jews, and with the terrible punishment for those Germans refusing to respond to Hitler’s call, both Max and Lili’s families have no choice but to face the unavoidable.  It is clear that Max and Lili will be unable to choose which ‘side’ they are on; their paths are inevitable.

A Berlin Love Song is a beautiful love story and a brilliant but terrible reflection of the ‘forgotten holocaust’ – the persecution of the Roma and Sinti people during World War 2. The thread of love that runs through the narrative keeps hope alive and whilst the inevitability of the war unfolds, we see that even the most physically broken of people survive in spirit. The stark realities of war are portrayed through the eyes of Max and Lili and through the very different experiences of their families.  It never ceases to fill me with horror the atrocities that took place in World War 2 and the characters are so real in this story, it feels like a true to life account.

Thankfully there are moments throughout that restore your faith in humanity.  The Roma people are beautifully brought to life – the colour, the freedom, the music and above all the spirit of the people leap off the page.  Added to this the wonderful descriptions of Lili’s home and livelihood, Circus Petalo, it is no wonder Max falls for her.  Set alongside the stifling household of his own family, Lili is a breath of fresh air.  Max’s household have very different opinions about Hitler and the Nazis; the claustrophobia and the fear of this situation are palpable and there is a sense Max finds an escape through his love for Lili. Meanwhile, the threats to Lili’s family grow ever closer and the sense of foreboding increases in intensity with every page.

A Berlin Love Song is well-paced and the juxtaposition of the romance alongside the complexities of war keep the reader captivated throughout.  Whilst desperately sad in places, the story holds the joy of love and the strength found in family at its heart. A very appropriate metaphor for our time.

Find out more at www.troikabooks.com or www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

Thanks to Troika Books for sending me this book to review.

 

 

 

 

New Review: Show Stopper by Hayley Barker

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Hayley Barker’s debut YA novel Show Stopper will be published by Scholastic on 1st June 2017.  An English teacher and huge YA fiction fan, Hayley says being published is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her! She was inspired to write Show Stopper by her fears about the growing wave of crime and animosity against minority groups in England.

Show Stopper by Hayley Barker

A dazzling, high-octane read filled with death-defying acrobatics, circus crowds with an appetite for disaster, and two forbidden teenage lovers trying to escape the shackles of their very different lives. Set in a near-future England where the poorest people in the land must watch their children be taken by a travelling circus – to perform at the mercy of hungry lions, sabotaged high wires and a demonic ringmaster. The ruling class visit the circus as an escape from their structured, high-achieving lives – pure entertainment with a bloodthirsty edge. Ben, the teenage son of a draconian government minister, visits the circus for the first time and falls instantly in love with Hoshiko, a young performer. They come from harshly different worlds – but must join together to escape the circus and put an end to its brutal sport.

Living in a dystopian future set in the UK, Ben is a Pure and the son of one the most powerful families in the ruling class; his mother being the Dreg Control Minister. The Dregs are outcasts – immigrants who over the last 100 years have now become so reviled they are like slaves.  Controlled by the Pures, it is the Dregs and their children who provide a never ending, and often needed, supply of performers for the deadly circus.  Ben is not like his mother or the rest of his family and hates having to ‘keep up appearances’. Through his relationship with the family housekeeper who herself is a Dreg, Ben begins to see the pain and anguish they suffer.  When he finally gets to see the deadly circus with his own eyes, he realises the full extent of the horror before him and cannot stop himself from trying to save Hoshiko and escape from a life of almost totalitarian control.

A story with much to admire, Show Stopper is a roller-coaster ride told from the points of view of the two central characters, who both have to draw on all their bravery and strength to succeed.  Ben’s mother is horrible and you do feel great sympathy for him. It is no surprise he falls for the beautiful but fierce Hoshiko, who herself lacks security of her real family, with only her fellow performers to rely on.  There are parallels between Ben and Hoshiko’s very different lives; they both crave the love of their families, suffer at the hands of bullies and have to ‘perform’ for various audiences.  Although the penalty for Hoshiko is far more severe if she fails…. Show Stopper makes knife-throwing in an ordinary circus look like a walk in the park and with the positively evil Ringmaster in charge, there are plenty edge-of-your-seat moments!

The circus is a great setting for a story and the narrative brilliantly captures the atmosphere and excitement – as well the danger and fear. The cast of circus characters are well imagined and you feel great empathy for all of them having to perform in such frightening circumstances.  The scenario of the Pures letting their hair down, transforming into a baying mob and watching the ‘dregs’ of society perform to the death is sadly quite believable, even if somewhat extreme. With some gruesome scenes bringing a definite flavour of horror to this novel, it’s not for the faint-hearted. However, the author succeeds in highlighting the potential ramifications if the increasing hate and prejudice that is embedded in some parts of our society is not addressed. I’d recommend Show Stopper for YA readers who enjoy a thrilling, dark, romance. Watch out for evil Ringmaster!

Follow Hayley on Twitter @HayleyABarkerFind out more at www.scholastic.co.uk. Read my interview with Hayley here. With thanks to Scholastic for sending me this book to review.

New review: Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Danielle Younge-Ullman a novelist, playwright and freelance writer who has always had a passion for books, language and storytelling. Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined is published by Scholastic and is Danielle’s second YA novel.

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Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman

Ingrid doesn’t belong on a hard-core wilderness trek with a bunch of ‘at risk youth’. She only agreed to come so that her mother would let her attend her dream school.  But as the group journeys further into the wilderness, the past becomes impossible to avoid. Maybe she does belong here after all.

Ingrid has always been her singing sensation mother’s number one fan.  Margot-Sophia Lalonde was an opera singer on the brink of superstardom, when her career was halted abruptly and their lives fell apart.  Ingrid has been picking up the pieces ever since; but maybe now it’s her turn to shine.  With the realisation of her dreams on the horizon, Ingrid’s mother only agrees to let Ingrid complete her senior year in a school of her choice IF she goes on a trek through the wilderness.  Ingrid finds herself in the middle of nowhere and very quickly realises it’s not what she expected. Instead of a beautiful tree-lined campsite, Ingrid finds herself wading knee deep in mud, trekking through waves of mosquitos and trying to avoid the searching questions of the camp counsellors. What was her mother thinking? How could she make her spend even one day in the company of such delinquents? She’s not the one with the problem…is she?

Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined is a great title, for an equally great story. With a bittersweet humour running throughout, it explores the experiences of a teenage girl who has had to face more than her fair share of troubles.  The story is told through journal entry letters written from Ingrid to her mother, alongside a narrative focusing on the events that brought Ingrid to this point in her life. Ingrid’s experiences of adjusting from a nomadic upbringing and the consequent fallout resulting in her mother’s depression, have given her more determination than perhaps even she realises.  Ingrid’s dry wit and resolve shines through, even when she’s right at the end of her rope. We follow Ingrid’s emotional journey of self-discovery, meeting those individuals who have had significant impact on her past; the repercussions of which she still feels.  We also meet her fellow campmates all of whom have a story to share that will help Ingrid better understand herself. A huge amount of research must have gone into this book to make each character so believable.

Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined is truly well-observed and I particularly enjoyed Ingrid’s often humorous descriptions of the daily nightmare of the trek. I had nothing but sympathy for her having to hike in soaking wet clothes, being bitten to death and deal with the ‘circle’ sessions around the campfire.  This extended to huge empathy when you discover what she has been dealing with. I found her mother at times infuriating, but also felt desperately sad for her and could completely relate to her desire to protect her child.  Many will relate to Ingrid’s relationships with her school friends, her first love and her responses to the dilemmas she faces. But perhaps most poignant was how the story demonstrated that we all create facades around ourselves for self-preservation; to try and control life. If we admit to ourselves and others that everything is not ‘fine’, we can then face our past and our biggest fears and in doing so, we can move forward.  A great read for all young people.

Find out more at www.danielleyoungeullman.com and follow Danielle on Twitter . With thanks to Scholastic for my copy of Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined.  You can read my interview with Danielle here.