Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen: excellent YA historical fiction

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What it’s all about…

Orphan Monster Spy is the story of 15-year-old Sarah, who lives with her mentally unwell mum in Germany at the time of Hitler and the National Socialists. Sarah is a Jew and experiences the racism and isolation that this involves. An attempt to flee Germany ends in her mother being shot and killed at a checkpoint but Sarah’s Arian appearance – blond hair, blue eyes – enables her to escape. On the run, she encounters a mysterious man, the Captain and together they realise that working together could be their way forward in this dangerous world they find themselves in. The Captain sends Sarah on a mission to a National Socialist elite school for girls, where she is to befriend the daughter of a scientist, who has the potential to destroy Germany’s enemies. It’s a story of survival, of deep-rooted inner strength in adverse circumstances, of flawed human beings and the complex dangers of power.Untitled design (4)

Plot wise…

It is a satisfying, page-turning spy thriller with that boarding school element, which is always a great setting for narratives of intrigue and mystery.  I was totally gripped throughout. However, there is so much more to Orphan Monster Spy than its plot alone.

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I loved…

Matt Killen really captures the German setting, the National Socialist period in history, in an accessible and engaging way. I like a book that fully and authentically draws you into a place in time and this book certainly does that!  With my German family background, a German Studies degree and a whole lot of reading about World War 2 behind me, both fiction and non-fiction, it takes a lot to win me over and Killeen definitely did.

The relationship between  Sarah and the Captain is brilliantly written – there’s a real spark there, a genuine raw and equally complex connection as well as a passion to change the horrific world they live in.

The elitist fascist school for girls is a really interesting concept and isn’t something I have really given much thought to before, nor have I come across much about these schools until now. Such schools did exist, though there were only a few girls’ schools due to the juxtaposition of an academic education with the Nazi belief that women were destined to be wives and mothers and should therefore be given an education to reflect these roles. I’m really interested to find out more  – I love a bit of research!

The exploration of loyalty and betrayal is a powerful theme running throughout the narrative. I especially liked that Sarah’s response to her life in Germany is complex. Although she is a victim of Nazi ideology and experiences horrific things, she also considers herself German first and foremost and wants to be loyal to her country. She thinks long and hard about the consequences of her actions, whether her work with the Allies is for the greater good.

The appeal of belonging is equally well explored, Killeen shows that life is not black and white, that powerful regimes play on the human need to belong and that it can be an immense struggle to stay true to your beliefs in the face of what is offered: Sarah recognises how easy it would be to give in, to belong to the German Youth Movement due to her looks, how appealing the choreography of the Nazis movement is and especially for young people who are still trying to figure out their place in the world.

A real-life scientist of the time called Lise Meitner makes a significant appearance in the story based on her contribution to the discovery of fission and again, I learned something new. I hold up my hands and admit I know little about science throughout history and I certainly hadn’t come across this fascinating woman, who was part of changing the world forever but who was denied a Nobel Prize for Chemistry as she was forced to flee Germany and also  because she was a woman in a man’s world.

I really appreciated  Killen’s author note at the end where he explains his own experiences and motivation behind writing this book. He writes of summers spent with his mum’s German best friend and family, who he describes as gracious, loving and intensely pacifist and the challenges of getting older,  learning about the Holocaust and wondering, “Exactly how could these gentle people allow this to happen?” The message that human beings are incredibly complex and that history also depends on who’s telling the story, comes across with passion.

In the same end note, Killeen tells the reader of the amount and depth of research involved in writing Orphan Monster Spy and the quality of this is evident throughout the book. Yes, Sarah’s story is fiction but its fiction with a lot of sensitivity and a sound factual structure.

There is an abuse story line and I tend to disconnect with such content because of personal reasons, plus I also find that they are generally rarely written well/with meaning. In his note, Killeen talks about how Sarah’s world lives on today in insidious ways, how children and vulnerable people are still abused, how it is still so often concealed and even dismissed. I can see why Killeen has included this subplot (he has handled it well) and I stress that I think it’s an important topic to tackle, to create awareness of.

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And finally…

I love that there is so much yet to be explained and discovered and I can’t wait for the next in the series: Devil Darling Spy, published January 2020.

Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson; a story that captured my heart

Every now and again a book comes along that totally captures your heart; Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson is most certainly one of these.

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I’ve been a huge fan of Upson’s Josephine Tey crime series for years (which deserves a blog post all of its own) so when the proof for this book popped up on my twitter feed, I was immediately intrigued to see where this standalone with a very different sounding direction would take me.

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{I was incredibly lucky to receive a proof copy  from Duckworth Publishers}

So, what is Stanley and Elsie about? It is the story of artist Stanley Spencer and his unique friendship with his housemaid Elsie, who comes to live with Spencer and his young family after World War I. We meet Stanley as he is in the process of working on a commission to paint the interior of a memorial chapel for those lost at war and we accompany the years it takes to create his masterpiece of  trauma, loss and redemption. We also follow his complex marriage to fellow artist Hilda, his tangled relationship with his daughters and later on how he navigates temptation and obsession. At the heart of the Spencer family is Elsie, who does her utmost to keep them all together, offering care, wisdom and friendship.

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{I need an Elsie in my life. This is a painting of Elsie by Hilda Carline}

Spencer was a real artist, as was his wife Hilda, who later signed her work as Hilda Carline. I knew Stanley and Elsie was based on real people and on their artwork but that was pretty much all the background knowledge I had going in. And what a discovery this book was – it opened my eyes to incredible art that I didn’t know existed. What struck me in particular as I researched Spencer afterwards, was how Upson has taken a character, who is so often portrayed as a great artist but a pretty awful human being, and has dismantled this polarised image with such skill to reveal a complex man, who lost his sense of self during the war and spent most of his life trying to work out who he actually was – through his art and also through his relationship with women. A man who was capable of great kindness but who could be equally self-centred and hurtful, who could be charming and grounded in life but also naive, manipulative and detached from reality.brusha7.png

Whilst I’ve started with Stanley, it is the women in this novel who shine through for me. Upson writes each character with so much depth that I felt incredibly invested in their development:  The absolutely lovely, observant and vibrant Elsie, who I wish I could be friends with. Hilda, who struggles with finding her own identity as an artist, who struggles with being a mother and is so consumed by loneliness and her love for a man who cannot give her what she needs. Stanley’s sister, a side character but a striking one, who gave up her art to look after her parents and lost her sense of self in the process, her mental health deeply affected. And of course, Patricia and Dorothy – who I can’t say to much about as it would spoil your reading experience – who I wanted to hate but just couldn’t as they were battling their own personal and societal demons too.

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And then there’s the very special relationship between Stanley and Elsie, which felt so real, so genuine and which I still think about now. It is a friendship which navigates both social and gender divides – it is messy and frustrating and warm and at times very sad; I felt all the emotions!brushA7

Alongside Upson’s wonderful characters is the equally wonderful interweaving of Stanley and Hilda’s art. I absolutely loved how the plot was shaped around the artwork, crafted with such care and detail; Upson must have done an immense amount of research for this. The description of the different parts of the chapel are stunning, enabling me to visualise each piece in such detail that when I came to look up the chapel paintings online, it was like I was returning to something I had already seen before. The chapel is a National Trust property now and can be visited – of course I have a road trip planned for the summer.brushA5

I can’t finish without mentioning how brilliantly Nicola Upson captures those seemingly small, ordinary moments, which hold so much more. There were several times I annotated a page with “ such beautiful sadness” and I was left in tears at several points towards the end because of how an interaction or an observation was written. As I said, this book left a mark on heart.paint-set

 

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: the book and recent TV adaptation

I was inspired to read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay when the BBC scheduled a new series adaptation back in June (produced by Fremantle Media and Foxtel). I have a thing about needing to read the book before I can watch a screen adaptation and the previews just looked so good!

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is often described as a modern Australian classic. Written in the sixties, the book is actually set at the turn of the 20th century and is the story of a group of teenage girls attending an Australian boarding school, who go missing along with a school mistress during a picnic at the ancient Hanging Rock and the impact this vanishing has on those at the school and in the local community.

I will be honest and say that it was a slow starter for me, it took me a while to get into the writing style and connect with both the plot and the characters. But once I was in I was in! It is only a slim novel yet there was so much packed into those pages. In many ways, I felt it needed to be longer to explore the themes and characters in more satisfying depth; I’m all for making the reader do some work but there was so much more potential there!

I loved:

The themes of mysticism and nature: The Hanging Rock felt like a character in itself, linked to the ancient traditions of its Indigenous People and not understood by a white society trying to enforce its customs on the land. Its energy is mysterious, foreboding, timeless and tantalisingly just out of reach. I can see why so many people are frustrated with this book as there isn’t a clear, logical narrative and it is really difficult to pinpoint the nature of the rock’s role in events. One interpretation is that the girls use the picnic to escape from their lives, that there is a silent pact that the reader is not privy to. I really like the idea of the girls’ search for freedom being intertwined with the rock’s energy and being a portal for a life beyond the restrictions forced upon them as young women. Whether they do in fact commit group suicide, find a secret path through the rocks and build new lives elsewhere or, more fantastically, are swallowed by this energy portal, their lives are changed forever, and this has a profound ripple effect on all those connected with it as well. I was very much left with the impression that nature cannot be tamed, it holds the true power in the narrative.

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The Head Mistress Mrs Appleyard: again, the character details were few and far between but there was just enough there to make me wonder what darkness lay beneath her rigid, harsh facade. It is deliciously dark how she represses herself, only escaping by means of a secret stash of alcohol in her desk drawer, and all the time constructing a cage for herself and the girls in her care. I got the impression that there was torment in her past back in England and felt incredibly sad that having managed to  escape the country, she then becomes a repressor herself. The inevitable unravelling of Mrs Appleyard was so interesting, so intriguing and I think there is a whole other book waiting to be written about her.

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The delicious web of secrets that everyone carries below the surface whilst trying to be part of a “civilised” society: I’m not going to go into detail here but let’s just say that the enticing contrast within Victorian society between what was being presented on the surface and what was in fact going on below the surface is present in abundance.

The theme of time: I’ve read that Lindsay was obsessed by time, believing it was a destructive force destroying creativity, restricting freedom and expression. The clocks stop when they get to Hanging Rock. I loved the symbolism of this. I also got the slightest hint of time travel every now and again, adding a further layer to the mystery of the girls’ disappearance.

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The girls: Irma with an intense love of all things beautiful and almost narcissistic in nature; Marion with her deep thirst for knowledge and, above all, strong willed, sparky, provocative Miranda.

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What I thought about the adaptation…

I absolutely loved it! It is very much made for a modern audience and is interpreted accordingly yet this isn’t a negative for me- it brings a fresh perspective and creates a new audience.

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The production is stunning. The sumptuousness and piousness of Victorian Society is so well captured, the flashbacks and inner thought sequences totally captured my imagination. I adored the steam punk/Gothic element to Mrs Appleyard and her darkness is deliciously tangible. I thought the girl’s back stories were really well developed using the book as a starting point; they became so much more rounded than on paper – Miranda is a passionate feminist in the making, Marion explores her attraction to her teacher Ms. McCraw, and is given an Indigenous heritage background; Irma’s sensuality crackles with electricity. The purists among Lindsay’s readers were generally not impressed (according to the reviews that I read)  but as far as my own experience is concerned, it captured the essence of the book brilliantly and, after all, isn’t a book interpreted differently by each reader anyway?

 

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

I came across Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik when the Walter Scott Prize longlist for 2018 was announced (it made the shortlist too). Without even opening the book, I knew it would be just my cup of tea – it has so many elements that I love: a World War II backdrop and the British countryside; intriguing female lead characters; a character driven story line as well as an exploration of friendship and hidden lives.

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The story is of Rene Hargreaves, who, one day in 1940, walks out on her husband and children to join the Land Army and is billeted to the remote Starlight Farm where she then meets its owner, Elsie Boston. The two are strangers from totally different worlds and weary of one another but they soon come to depend on and care for each other immensely. They are forced to leave Starlight and become itinerant farm workers, travelling the country together, always sticking to isolated farms where questions won’t be asked. After the war, they then settle in a Cornish cottage where their life together is shaken to its foundations when someone from Rene’s past intrudes. Everything is threatened, and the resulting choices and actions have far reaching consequences.

My thoughts…

The wonderfully crafted characters:

Elsie. Oh, how I identified with this socially awkward soul with an exceptional ability to care for animals and plants, who likes nothing better than being settled in a place she knows and loves with her radio to keep her company and routines to guide her days. Though she is the gentler of the two characters, there is a core strength within in her, a fierce determination to live her own life and not be constrained by others.

Rene. Based on Malik’s research of her own grandmother’s past, Rene challenges society head on and is a character of many layers (there is a wonderful article on Malik’s discoveries on the Penguin website). She breaches gender rules; walks away from being a wife and mother even though the consequences for her family and for herself are heart-breaking. But she knows herself well enough to know how her life needs to evolve and she makes it happen. Even in the hardest times. However, whilst Elsie craves isolation, Rene also enjoys the company of other people and being a part of the outside world and is often torn between these two worlds – I loved this contrast.text dividers-12 2The development of the relationship between Rene and Elsie is intricately and incredibly beautifully written in all its depth, complexity and human connection. I loved that their relationship as a same sex couple was not once explicitly mentioned yet all the nuances and small details spoke volumes. I especially enjoyed the way the characters spoke to each other, which gave a real sense of what they were like as people at the same time: Elsie’s more formal, slightly awkward constructions with such an underlying need for belonging; Rene’s more extrovert, direct and warmer ways, a voice that protects and nurtures on its own terms. This is not to say that life is perfect, unspoken words and underlying tensions run alongside; it is a hard existence for them and their contrasting personalities cause some heart-wrenching moments of distance between them too.text dividers-12 2I absolutely loved all the tiny details of home life for Elsie and Rene: playing patience, reading to each other, listening to the radio of an evening. I was transported back in time, picturing everything so clearly. The way Malik describes how every new dwelling is made into a home, despite an immense lack of financial resources, is also beautiful in its detail: every piece of furniture is hard won, every dark corner made the best of, hours and hours of hard graft to turn dismal surroundings into somewhere that they can belong.text dividers-12 2The descriptions of the landscape and how the two women are bonded with the land are gorgeous; starting at Elsie’s Starlight Farm then moving on to the places they travel as itinerant workers during the war and beyond. There is a wonderful description of them riding their bikes on a whim one evening to celebrate Rene’s birthday, their destination being an ancient white horse carved into the hillside, the outline of which has been covered with turf to prevent German planes using it for orientation purposes. Tipsy on a found half bottle of brandy and the exhilaration of spending time with each other, they uncover the horse just long enough for Rene to see it as a whole.text dividers-12 2There is a darker side to the story, which involves a trial in the last section of the book, when a visitor from Rene’s past intrudes and turns the women’s secluded life into a living nightmare. It is based on the newspaper article Malik found during her research. Elsie and Rene’s life, always so carefully kept out of the spotlight, is now under public scrutiny and, without giving more away, the way it was written really broke my heart. A brilliant contrast.text dividers-12 2In a Walter Scott Prize interview, Malik considers what history means to us today and talks of how perceptions of history are ever evolving as different aspects become important to us as a society. It is this kind of history that I love; the stories that haven’t yet been told, an emerging focus on women’s history and female perspectives, social history that allows you to have a real sense of connection with the past. Malik’s book does all this and much much more.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is one of the most beautiful, gentle, uplifting yet also tragic books I’ve read in quite some time. An amazing character piece of two women who refuse to fit neatly into the pigeonholes society has for them.