Front Lines

I heard about this book on good old Twitter, as Egmont sent out some pretty cool dog tags alongside an intriguing proof of Michael Grant’s latest offering and luckily, I found it on NetGalley. If I’m honest, I haven’t read any of Michael’s work before (please don’t hurt me), but having read Front Lines, I’ll definitely be pre-ordering the next in the series. It’s powerful, evocative, fresh and gripping.

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“Just when you thought Michael Grant’s GONE series had taken us to the darkest limits of his imagination, the evil genius of YA fiction is back to take you to the Front Lines of terror. In the tradition of The Book Thief, Code Name Verity and Between Shades of Gray, Front Lines gives the experience of WWII a new immediacy while playing with the ‘what ifs?’ of history.

It’s WWII, but not as you remember it from history lessons! This time the girls aren’t stitching socks for the brave boys at the front. Meet Rio Richilin and her friends Frangie Marr and Rainy Schulterman, three of the newest recruits in the US Armed Forces. They stand shoulder to shoulder with the boys from home as they take on Hitler’s army.

In the face of reluctant colonels and sceptical sergeants, the soldier girls must prove their guts, strength, and resourcefulness as soldiers. Rio has grown up in a world where men don’t cry and girls are supposed to care only about ‘money and looks’. But she has always known that there is something wrong with this system and something else in her. Far from home and in the battlefields, Rio discovers exactly who she is and what she can accomplish.

Rio, Frangie, and Rainy will delight fans of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. But this is a book for anyone who thought they were more! The story that Michael Grant is calling his best yet.”

The book seems almost too perfectly timed, with the news coming out this week about women joining the men on the front lines of war. I was hooked by the idea as soon as I read the blurb and it’s bloody brilliant. It’s out on 28th January from Egmont and the paperback is only £7.99, can’t go wrong really.

I’ve always loved reading war-time novels, Birdsong has to be one of my favourites, and by introducing females into the narrative, ones who aren’t being left at home but are part of the fight, it becomes normal. Within a few pages I completely forgot that it wasn’t true because these girls showed how capable we are of anything and how it’s really no different from the male experience. Men were probably just as terrified, just as remorseful and at times, just as utterly useless but using women offers the author a chance to show the emotional affect of war. Not because you couldn’t show it with men, but perhaps it’s more easily conveyed with a woman because emotions aren’t seen as weak. (That in itself is a huge bug bear for me, but this isn’t the time to campaign #HeforShe). It was so interesting to watch Rio go from a reserved, polite tomboy to being a future leader and a great shot with a gun but it was equally chilling to watch the war change her. My favourite character is probably Rainy. It sounds twisted to say, but I loved her cruelty, her personal emotions which came out when faced with her enemy as a Jew. It just felt realistic that she would feel that way, would want revenge and it felt like justice all these years later.

The most interesting thing about it was that you didn’t feel like there was any statement about men and women when it got to the actual fighting. You just had people who were great soldiers, some who weren’t as fit and strong, some who were braver and more skilled. You had the misogyny and the racism but in general it just showed the genders as equal on the battlefield and you read it thinking, ‘why the hell DIDN’T we fight?’. Yes, at first it’s about the girls deciding to join up, then train, and we see the gender gaps and notice how it’s different. But when they get out to the front, for the actual fighting, it’s like those boundaries are softened. When it comes down to it, they’re all different people with particular skills which need to be utilised to survive – something we can easily transfer to our day to day life but with less risk of death. The boundaries are still there, but you have to give up your prejudices and use the right people: the person who can shoot, the person who can heal, even if it turns out those people are black or are women. If not, your prejudices could kill you.

It was just a great feeling of empowerment, to finally see young women represented as fierce and strong as well as having emotions. But on top of that, there’s still that harrowing truth that underlines the new feminist message – the horror of war which burns through that is true and as always, in any book set in this period, it’s tough to take. Michael Grant balances this reality, this pain with the new empowering message of these young women because every so often you remember that though the women aren’t real, that battlefield is and the fear and grief sets in.

By the end of the book, I was more than ready for the next. I love how the characters smoothly came together and can’t wait to see what they’ll do next to remake history. I’m also dying to know who the narrator is. At first I thought maybe Jenou? But then there was a line which proved me wrong. Now I’m thinking maybe it’s one of the men from the book… But I love that added feature – the narrator, with their wry humour and omniscience, teasing us with glimpses of what’s going to happen. This is so difficult to write without giving away spoilers but I love knowing where Rio ends up, I love the clues that someday one of them will do a certain thing. It keeps you hooked and I was glued to my Kindle for the days I was reading. It’s immersive and it’s such a fantastic, interesting idea I’m almost kicking myself I didn’t think of it. But I’m glad I didn’t, because Michael Grant is the perfect person to tell this story with his subtle clues, fantastic writing and haunting characters. If I did stars, I’d give it 5 out of 5, or even 6.

Anna and the Swallow Man

I came across this book at a publicity training day initially but was intrigued as soon as I’d seen the release and mention of The Book Thief so when I saw the wonderful editor Ruth Knowles offering out review copies, I quickly asked for one of my own to read. It’s written by Gavirel Savit and is out 28th January, from Bodley Head (PRHC), £9.99.

To review in one word: stunning.

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‘Kraków, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Łania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father, a linguistics professor, during their purge of intellectuals in Poland. She’s alone.

And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall, a skilled deceiver with more than a little magic up his sleeve. And when the soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see.

The Swallow Man is not Anna’s father—she knows that very well—but she also knows that, like her father, he’s in danger of being taken, and like her father, he has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, even Bird. When he summons a bright, beautiful swallow down to his hand to stop her from crying, Anna is entranced. She follows him into the wilderness.

Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgment, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous. Even the Swallow Man. 
 
Destined to become a classic, Gavriel Savit’s stunning debut reveals life’s hardest lessons while celebrating its miraculous possibilities.’

I can’t say that I would describe this as a YA novel or one children might fully comprehend, but I can say that it is fantastic. It’s incredibly literary, with beauty in every single word chosen and a haunting lyrical effect. There were so many passages I wanted to take a note of, so many quotations I could pick out that were unique and utterly stunning. The plot is so mysterious, but by the end the mystery has barely changed. You’re left to take away from the book whatever you want, confused and questioning it all which I think is a brilliant reflection on how the characters must also feel. I would love to discuss the book with other readers, because I think everyone would react differently and I’d love to hear their feelings on what the book means and who the Swallow Man is, because it leaves so much room for interpretation and imagination.

There are passages where you start to suspect the Swallow Man who does have a darker side and you wonder whether he can be trusted, in fact, try describing the plot without it sounding sinister and creepy – a seven year old girl taken out into the wilderness by an unnamed stranger immediately raises suspicions. Their relationship and their friendship is so delicately narrated; the Swallow Man’s wisdom and Anna’s naivety are a devastating juxtaposition to the horror of their surroundings and their own personal suffering which we see through the book. In that way it reminded me so much of The Book Thief, such a fantastic and exquisite story set against a backdrop of death, danger and sadness. The magical realism is just a subtle flavour in the book, one that is perfectly handled, feeling realistic and unforced.

Having read the book, I’d say younger readers may struggle. It’s incredibly thought provoking, but in doing so, it’s also a little confusing. I found myself re-reading pages, wondering what bits meant and still feeling a little lost at the end. I think it’s the point of the book, to raise those questions, to present the horror of the time through such an interesting, obscure way that hasn’t been done before. Comparisons to The Book Thief and John Boyne are justified in the fact that this book is an unforgettable representation of World War Two, but it’s in its own league with its new take on the people of the time, it’s unique characters, points of view and, most significantly, Gavriel Savit’s writing.

Gavriel Savit really is an artist, a craftsman of words and I would love to read anything of his in the future. Prepared to be left unsatisfied if you’re expecting a plot-driven, black-and-white, wartime story. Instead, you will receive a painfully heart-wrenching, thoughtfully grey book which is lyrically woven together with depth, enigmatic characters and subtle hints of underlying truth. Their journey is realistic, with moments of happiness, questions, fear, sheer sorrow and some understanding until you are lost amongst the emotions and the words which have been used to create such a touching novel.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

A few years ago, my mother pressed Their Finest Hour and a Half into my hands, and told me I had to read it. Let it never be said I’m not an obedient daughter, so I did, and duly enjoyed it – a touching yet entertaining book about the making of a propaganda film during the Second World War. Despite this, though I read quite a few positive reviews of Crooked Heart when it came out, it took me an embarrassingly long time to put two and two together until I picked up a copy in the library (always support your local library!) and realised that she was behind this one too. With the paperback due to be published by Doubleday on 31st December, now seems a good time to post this review.

Crooked Heart

Noel Bostock is a precocious and cool-headed ten year old who after the death of his beloved godmother Mattie is evacuated from London to St Alans away from the war. A suffragette and a free spirit, she had always taught him to reject authority, and as a result, he has a deep suspicion of the government’s motives behind the war. Vee is the unscrupulous and nervy woman who offers to take him on, after noting a slight limp which she hopes to profit from. Noel quickly realises that Vee is exploiting the war for her own ends – and that she isn’t particularly good at it. With him however, her schemes may just work. A rather touching and mismatched friendship develops – whilst it does feel rather odd rooting for two crooks conning people by ‘collecting for orphans.’ But they’re not the only ones making use of the war for nefarious purposes – from the man with the heart condition helping other evade the draft, and the businessman filtering dyed petrol. And some are more dangerous than others. Unsuspectingly, Noel stumbles into a situation far scarier than he could have imagined, and Vee, realising how much the boy means to her after all, takes off after him.

I love a war novel and Crooked Heart doesn’t disappoint – it’s is a fascinating and heartwarming dark comedy, showing a side of London’s ‘wartime spirit’ not often written about. Noel is the ten year old who makes for delightful reading but who you’d rather steer clear of in reality – and who I think I might have taught in my dark days as an au pair. Vee is brilliantly portrayed as buzzing with nervous energy, who can talk her way out of a perfectly credible lie within seconds, to Noel’s exasperation. There’s plenty of fun in their double act, though plenty of darkness to be found too – it is a war novel after all. The death of Mattie and Noel’s continued devotion to her makes for heartrending reading, and we encounter plenty more grief, death and deceit before too long.

Mark your diaries for the publication of the rather fetching new purple paperback!