Marcus Sedgwick: Floodland (2000)

Floodland

Marcus Sedgwick has been on my radar for a while. I’ve seen more than one enthusiastic review of his books. He’s regularly nominated for awards and has won a few, notably the Branford Boase Award for first children’s book for Floodland. When you come to a writer who is as prolific as Marcus Sedgwick it’s hard to know where to start. Last year he even published a book for adults A Love Like Blood, that’s high on my TBR piles. I first wanted to read Midwinterblood but then decided to start with his first novel Floodland.

Floodland is set in the UK in the future. Most of the country is flooded, some of the higher regions building small islands. Food is scarce and people try to flee from the smaller islands to a larger part of the mainland. Zoe is left behind on the island of Norwich when her parents leave. During a moment of total chaos they boarded without making sure that she was really following them. Zoe’s been fighting for herself ever since. She’s a loner and most people leave her alone that’s why, when she discovers a boat, she’s able to hide it, and make it seaworthy again. One day she leaves the island, looking for the mainland. Instead of finding the mainland she’s stranded on an even smaller island than Norwich. Dooby, who is only a few years older than Zoe, is the leader of the people on that island. Food is even scarcer and so is shelter. Most people live in an old cathedral. Dooby confiscates her boat and Zoe’s forced to stay on this island on which people have turned into barbaric mobs, periodically overrun by other mobs who they torture and kill, if given a chance. Her only aim is to find her boat, flee and find the mainland and her parents.

I thought that the idea of Norwich being an island was pretty uncanny. I liked how this book was structured and divided into three parts “before”, “then” and “after”. Each part is subdivided into short chapters. At the beginning of every part and every chapter we find haunting wood carvings by Marcus Sedgwick.

Floodland is a short novel and so it may not be surprising that the writing is taut. There’s no superfluous word here. It all moves along at a steady pace and is very suspenseful.The middle part, which is the longest, was reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. It was also the part which carried the strongest message. There’s only one elderly person on that island and he makes Zoe understand how important it is to tell stories if humans want to keep their humanity.

The end felt a bit rushed but I still thought it was well done. Overall I enjoyed this adventurous story a great deal. Zoe’s a wonderful heroine and the world Marcus Sedgwick created felt realistic. There’s not too much backstory but we still understand it’s all a result of global warming. For children this may be a very emotional book because Zoe wonders until the end why her parents didn’t come back to find her. There’s one thing I didn’t like and that’s the idea that people turn into animals when they lose their humanity. I’m not keen on the dichotomy animal/human. The people in this book lose their compassion and their altruism because they are in a very precarious situation. They are cruel and depraved. That doesn’t make them animals. Animals don’t know cruelty.

If you’d like to find out more about Marcus Sedgwick here’s his website Marcus Sedgwick. It’s one of the most appealing writer’s websites I’ve come across. He also writes a blog where I found this quote that sums up his writing

I’m not a writer who tells you something five times. I usually say it just once, and if I say it any more in a first draft, my editor makes me take it out in a rewrite anyway. That’s one of the reasons that my books are sometimes shorter than other people’s. And that’s one of the reasons why I wish some people would read more slowly. Books are patient; you can afford to take your time when you’re reading for pleasure.

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (2002)

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I’m slowly reading all of Neil Gaiman’s novels. I just love the way he combines the familiar with the uncanny and Coraline, a deliciously creepy tale, is one of the best examples of this ability. I often think I already know a Neil Gaiman story or novel when I begin reading it, but then, all of sudden, half-way in, he twists the story and what seemed like something I’ve read before turns into a new and highly original tale.

Reading Coraline reminded me of the discovery of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ book and it also reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Only the land that Coraline explores isn’t a wonderland, it’s dark, creepy territory.

Coraline is a small girl who has moved into a new apartment with her parents. The apartment is in a big, old house, surrounded by a vast garden. In the apartment below Coraline’s live two former actresses, in the apartment above, an old man who pretends to have a mouse circus.

Coraline is bored. The family moved in during the school holidays and Coraline has no friends in the new neighbourhood yet. Her parents are kind but always busy and distracted. At times it seems they wouldn’t even notice if Coraline was gone.

Then Coraline discovers the door and through that door she enters a reversed world. It’s the same apartment house, the same people live in it. Only things seem more beautiful at first. There are doubles of her parents and they are much more attentive. There’s a black cat that can speak. It’s the same black cat Coraline saw in her own world, only there it wasn’t able to talk.

When Coraline notices that the eyes of the other mother and father are made of buttons, and when she realizes that the other mother wants her to stay, she knows this world is a sinister place.

Will she be able to return to her own world? Will the black cat help her? And what about those ghost children? Will Coraline be able to free them?

What I loved best about Coraline, is how it got darker and darker towards the end. At first it seems a simple tale of a lonely girl finding another, better world that looks almost identical to her own, but then, slowly, she discovers more and more unsettling elements— rats who carry keys, snow globes with little people in it, button eyes, dead children and a lot more. The best element comes towards the end. Unfortunately I can’t write about it, or I would spoil the fun of reading it for the first time.

There is one thing that bothered me though. I’m not fond of black cats in fantasy novels, especially not when they have a few negative traits. This one is a helper but it has a lot of creepy characteristics too. There are too many countries that are superstitious of black cats, and, as long as this is the case, I find the use of black cats highly problematic. Halloween is upcoming, and, like every year – it’s a terrible time in many places for black cats. I would have wished he’d not used a black cat.

I wrote at the beginning that Gaiman combines familiar and unfamiliar elements. He uses stories we all know, but he also combines realistic descriptions of everyday life with fantastical elements. Coraline’s boredom, the way her parents treat her —kindly but without fully acknowledging her — is done very realistically.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but now, with the weather turning more autumnal, I feel like watching it soon.

 

Michael Morpurgo: Private Peaceful (2003) Literature and War Readalong May 2014

Private Peaceful

British author Michael Morpurgo is one of the most appreciated writers for Children. He was the UK Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005 and Writer in Residence at the Savoy Hotel in 2007. He won many prizes for his fiction.

Tommo Peaceful is the narrator of Private Peaceful. He begins his story at five past ten in the evening, after everyone else has left him. He awaits the next day with anxiety but he doesn’t want any company or distraction. He wants to spend the night thinking about his life. The chapters are all given a specific time and each intro to the chapter describes briefly Tommo’s surroundings and his state of mind. After the intro Tommo tells us in flashbacks his story, from the idyllic childhood in the English countryside to the trenches of WWI.

Tommo is one of three boys. At the age of nine his father dies in an accident and Tommo feels responsible for his death. Although he and his older brother Charlie are very close, he never mentions what happened in the woods, the day their father dies. They have an older brother Big Joe who had Meningitis as a child. He can’t go to school and is easily agitated but they are still very fond of him.

Their father’s death marks a transition from a carefree life to a life of some hardship. They are at the mercy of the Colonel in whose cottage they live. The cottage is tied to a function and after the death of the father, who was the forester, they would have to leave. The Colonel’s estate is big and many people and families work for him and so Tommo’s mother is offered a position at the big house, and they can stay in the cottage.

The years go by and there is happiness and heartache in equal measures. When WWI breaks out, they don’t think they are affected. Tommo is only 16 and Charlie, who is two years older, doesn’t think of volunteering but in the end they are forced. Although Tommo is too young, he doesn’t want to abandon Charlie and pretends he’s older. Finally they are shipped to France together. From there they move on to Belgium and stay near Ypres for the following months.

They don’t see any action at first but eventually they come under heavy fire. From then on we get an impression of everything that was typical or important during WWI: trench warfare, mustard gas, rats, rain, mud, high numbers of casualties among men and horses, arbitrariness of orders, sadism of the high command, absurdity of it all . . . While it’s usually key to show but not tell, Morpurgo often tells but doesn’t show. He stays away from graphic descriptions or anything that you could call gruesome. We still get the horror because we see how it affects Tommo. Most of the time, we just don’t get to see what he sees. I think that’s a great way to go in a Children’s book.

What works particularly well in the book is the contrast between the childhood and teenage years and the war scenes. Morpurgo takes a lot of time to introduce us to his characters and to make us care for them. While some of the secondary characters are a bit stereotypical, the main characters Charlie and Tommo are well-developed. Their relationship is very close and they would give everything for each other.

As I wrote in the introduction to this month, I was particularly interested to see how a Children’s author would handle a WWI book from the point of view of a soldier. I think Michael Morpurgo did an admirable job. I’m sure, children will get a good impression for the particularities of WWI. And they will care for the characters and feel deeply about the end. For an adult reader who has read some very similar books for adults – Strange Meeting and How Many Miles to Babylon come to mind – it was not exactly a huge revelation, but in spite of that, I found the twist at the end harrowing.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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Private Peaceful is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel Fear – La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier. Discussion starts on Friday 27 June, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Jan Terlouw: Winter in Wartime – Oorlogswinter (1972) Literature and War Readalong June 2013

Winter in Wartime

Dutch author Jan Terlouw’s award-winning novel Winter in Wartime  (Oorlogswinter), which has been made into a movie, is a book for YA. It tells the story of 15-year old Michiel and is set during the hunger winter, in the Netherlands in 1944.

Michiel lives in a Dutch village with his parents, older sister and younger brother. His father is the mayor of the village. Like the rest of the Netherlands, their village is occupied by the Germans. It’s obvious for everyone that the war will come to an end soon and that the Germans are losing it. However, instead of giving up, they intensify their hostile activities; they search houses, arrest, torture and shoot people.

The village is divided, some are collaborating, some are suspected to collaborate, while others are in the resistance. Michiel’s parents are anti-German; they are good people who try to help those who have less, as much as possible. Every night they open their doors to distant relatives, people on the run, displaced persons, provide shelter and food for one night. Uncle Ben who is in the resistance is one of the regulars.

Michiel has an outsider position. He isn’t really a child anymore but doesn’t seem old enough for resistance work. When Dirk, an older boy who has joined the resistnace, asks him to deliver a letter, should he not return from a mission, Michiel feels honoured.

That same day his father and a group of other people is arrested because someone has killed a German soldier. Some of the men who are arrested will be hanged. When Dirk doesn’t return and Michiel fails to hand over the letter, he opens it and discovers that Dirk has been hiding a wounded British pilot. What should he do now? Who will help him? Is there anyone he can trust? That’s what you will discover if you decide to read Winter in Wartime.

Towards the end of the book (p. 121) Michiel remembers something his father said

Michiel often thought of something his father once said: “In every war dreadful things happen. Don’t think that it is only the Germans who are guilty. The Dutch, the British, the French, every nation has murdered without mercy and perpetrated unbelievable tortures in times of war. That is why, Michiel, you shouldn’t allow yourself to be misled by the romance of war, the romance of heroic deeds, sacrifice, tension and adventure. War means wounds, sadness, torture, prison, hunger, hardship, and injustice. There is nothing romantic about it.”

This short paragraph is central and summarises the theme of the book. The novel looks exactly into this and tests it. While the story confirms that war is horrible, it still shows that heroism is possible. There will always be courageous and kind people in every war, people who will try to stay good and do good.

This is a book for young people and I was very interested to see how WWII would be handled. In all the resistance books and movies torture plays an important role. How would that be handled for children. I’d say Terlouw did a great job. He was explicit but not gruesome. Not for one second we think it may not have been as bad but still he isn’t too explicit.

Books for children and YA always have a message. A lot of that message is captured in the quote above but there is another central theme, which is illustrated too – not every German was bad. No people is bad as a whole.

I think Terlouw’s book is well done, it captures he Netherlands during the winter of 44 very well. The hunger, the masses of  fleeing people, the occupation, the suspicions, all this is well drawn. The tone isn’t depressing as the end of the war is in sight. Horrible things happen still but there is a lot of hope.

I saw the movie a few years ago that’s why I possibly didn’t like the novel as much as I would have if I hadn’t known the story already. It isn’t one of my favourite readalong titles but it’s still well worth reading and, as a children’s book, I’d say, it’s excellent.  Don’t miss it if you’re interested in WWII, occupied Holland, the Dutch resistance, and are looking for all of these topics done in a way that is appropriate for younger readers.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Iris (Iris on Books)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Movie review

Kevin (The War Movie Buff)

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Winter in Wartime was the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the novel is Children of the New World aka Les enfants du nouevau monde on the war in Algeria by Algerian writer Assia Djebar. Discussion starts on Monday 29 July, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier: My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974)

My Brother Sam is Dead is a historical children’s book set during the American Revolutionary War. I didn’t really want to read a children’s book but it seems there are a great deal of novels for children and young adults on this period and hardly any literary fiction at all (Please, correct me if I’m wrong). I thought I had found a few literary novels but every time I looked at a book more closely it turned out to be a novel on the Civil War.

The Colliers are brothers and have written quite a lot of books for children together. While Christopher does the research and writes down the structure of the books, James writes the novels.

It’s a well written book but very clearly for children and meant to teach history. It’s quite educational and very anti-war, something which, oddly enough, has been criticized. American patriots, to this day, seem to think that it’s ok to go to war as long as the goal is freedom. Freedom is certainly worth fighting for but, as the Colliers exemplify, it will always be better to see if there are no other options.

In order to show the different positions, they created a conflict inside of one family. The Meekers own a tavern in Redding, a Tory town. The older son, Sam, is about 16 and in college, the younger, Tim, is only 10 at the beginning of the novel. When the novel opens, Sam and his father get into a fight because Sam joins the Patriot troops and wants to fight the “lobsterbacks” – the English. Sam’s father is against this. He doesn’t see why they should fight the King and his troops. Young Timmy is somewhere in-between. He admires his brother but he also loves his father and respects his opinion.

The main reason for the outbreak of the war, as presented in the novel, is that the colonials feel it is unjust that they have to pay such high taxes to England. They want this to stop and become free.

After his dispute with his father, Sam runs away and joins the troops. The novel then focusses on the remaining Meekers and shows how difficult it was for families to survive and to stay out of the conflict. The war soon invades everything. They were attacked by Patriots, British troops got all their food. Staying neutral was suspicious.

I don’t want to tell too much of the story as it’s a short book and there are a few tragic events which shouldn’t be revealed here. Obviously the title contains a spoiler but it will still be surprising to find out how Sam died.

I liked reading this, it’s quite atmospherical and think captures well what it must have been like for families to live during that time. The Collier’s position, which becomes clear when you read the book and which is shown in some quite ironic moments, is that they are not sure whether the war was really needed. They seem to think that there might have been other solutions for the colony to become independent.

The book contains background information on the story and the characters, some events and people were real, some were not. It also contains an interview with one of the brothers. All this together makes this an interesting book, not a literary gem but nicely executed and informative. In some ways you could even call it a cautionary tale.

I’d like to end the review with a  quote taken from the interview with Charles Collier.

I want a reader to understand the complicatedness of the Revolutionary War. Maybe there was as much bad as good that came of it, especially if one considers the Meekers. I think any book that deals honestly with war will be antiwar, because any book that glorifies war isn’t telling the truth.

The review is a contribution to Anna’s and Serena’s American Revolution Reading Challenge. Please visit their site for other reviews or if you’d like to join  as well.