Rose Under Fire : Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireRose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“And still the sky is beautiful.” (p26)

If there’s a phrase that sums this book up for me, and perhaps Code Name Verity too (which I reviewed here) it is this phrase, this poetic and graceful phrase that sings from the page. There’s something in the way both books look upwards, finding freedom, finding equality, finding hope even in the skies.

We are more than we ever think we are.

Rose discovers this about herself throughout Rose Under Fire. Through circumstance, through action, she finds herself in the darkest of places and she must survive for she has a story to tell.

Set after Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire provides the next part of the story for certain characters in that book. It also provides mild spoilers for Code Name Verity so I’d suggest reading that first if you’re anything like me. Whilst there could be an issue in returning to the scene of the crime (as it were), Wein handles this continuation very well. She closes the story and opens another, and perhaps eases us through the utter loss that Code Name Verity caused. She does this by this closeness, this reminder that pain and heartbreak was not something you escaped from in this war. It was not something that happened to a friend of a friend. It happened to everyone. That tightness, that narrative woven from the darkness of war, the way it is almost inescapable is very very cleverly done.

What shines here as well is the voice of Rose. She grows, unfurls, and then shrinks back inside of herself, recoiling at the horrors she is experiencing. That second unfurling, that coaxing out, that rediscovery of herself and that she still exists and that she *is* Rose Justice, is something that is heartbreaking and beautiful and viciously emotional to bear witness to.

I keep talking of beauty in this book, and I think that’s an odd thing to do. The subject matter is dark, dark, numbingly so but then again I think that Wein’s gift really does lie in beauty. It’s something she found in Code Name Verity and it’s something she finds here; that ability to find grace and in friendship, and hope and love and belief that the people that have been shattered by the world matter. In that they make a difference. In the way that we all make a difference.

In a way, through shining a light on the story at the heart of Rose Under Fire, and through the hope that by telling this story this will never ever happen again, Wein reminds us that sometimes the most powerful weapon is our voice. And if you do not will Rose on by the end of this, turning the pages and hoping, just hoping that she will come back to us, then you are reading a different book than the one I held in my hands.

If you’re recommending or working with this book and young adults, I would suggest taking some time over the excellent afterword from Wein. In this she’s provided further resources that illustrate the awful truth that is behind this story. I would also draw your attention to Lydia Kokkola’s excellent Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature, something I discuss in a blog post here.

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The Blue Lady : Eleanor Hawken

Blue Lady front coverThe Blue Lady
by Eleanor Hawken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the best school story I’ve read this year.

I tweeted about this book and that feeling still stands. There’s something about The Blue Lady, that dark meshing of The Craft and the close, almost Stepfordian potential that the genre always has. Because that’s the thing about boarding schools, they hold secrets. Every school does but there’s something about the forced insularity of a boarding school that heightens that tension. You are forced to be in a community, sometimes against your will, and you’re adopting a world that is not your own. It is the Chalet School meets 1984: you are assimilated into this society or you are not.

Hawken plays with that, very gorgeously, throughout this book. St Mark’s College is layered in secrets, thick and ghostly secret stories and spaces, shadowy and terrifying. Frankie arrives to this world, and she gets lost in it, drawn in by the entrancing and exciting Suzy.

I loved this book. There’s genuine edge here, and Hawken makes you shift from protagonist to protagonist, never quite sure who to root for or who to feel heartache for. It’s a powerful, shivery book that I’d massively massively recommend for school story fans, scary story fans and anybody who thinks they’re brave enough to learn about the truth of the Blue Lady.

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Pantomime: Laura Lam

Pantomime (Pantomime, #1)Pantomime by Laura Lam

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We’ve come a long way, you and I. You’ve listened to me obsess over the nuances of the Chalet School, the way Clara Vulliamy is so perfect in her picture book construction and the way I get slightly evangelical when somebody tells me that Children’s Literature does not matter and if any of that counts for anything, I would ask that you do not read the blurb on this book.

Because this book is not about that blurb.

Pantomime is one of those curious fantasy books that worked for me, and it worked very well. There’s a sensitivity to it, a humanity, that translates through genre to deliver a nuanced and engrossing read that moved me. Hugely. I’m not one of those people who can read fantasy easily. Tolkien, Trudi Caravan (lolz), the odd Marion Zimmer Bradley (is she officially fantasy? Can you tell how much I do not know about this genre?) are about the limit for me. A lot of my feelings about the genre are summed up in this fascinating review of Urgle.

There’s a part of that review that I want to draw attention to. Bradman says that: “Good fantasy is such a hard act to bring off. If your characters are two-dimensional and your plot uncompelling, it won’t matter how incredibly detailed and believable your fantasy world might be. Equally, the slightest suspicion that you haven’t expended enough effort on building your world can bring the whole thing down like a house of cards.”

That’s what works here for me in Pantomime. The way that, when it all comes down to it, Lam is writing about people, and choices, and being who we are and not who we’re wanted to be. It’s a brave, thoroughly fascinating novel that deserves a lot more attention outside of its genre because it’s very quietly delivering one of the most complex and fascinating protagonists I’ve ever read.

Just don’t judge it on that blurb.

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Under My Hat : ed. Jonathan Strahan

Under My Hat: Tales from the CauldronUnder My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a smart, stylish collection of witch stories all based around the starting point of a tall black pointy witch hat. The hat may be real, metaphorical, allusive, and the witch – well, might be anything.

I really enjoyed this. It’s a collection of some stunning names and I was excited to see Peter S. Beagle and Frances Hardinge in the mix alongside Holly Black. Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman.

The joy of a short story collection is that you can flip back and forth in it and wholly skip stories that aren’t working for you. Following the sensitive and astute introduction by editor Strahan, we slip straight into a stunning opener by Diana Peterfreund and this was probably one of my favourite stories in the entire collection. All of these stories are written with vivid skill but something about Peterfreund’s really hit home.

I also had a lot of love for Hardinge’s contribution. She’s an author I need to read more of and on the basis of this, will definitely be doing so.

There were stories in this that didn’t quite work for me but there were so many that did. This is a really clever, unusual, and occasionally very dark collection of stories that reward the reader hugely.

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Mezolith : Ben Haggarty & Adam Brockbank

Mezolith (Dfc Library)Mezolith by Ben Haggarty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard sometimes to review something which wholly and completely leaves you breathless. Mezolith is that something.

Part of the increasingly impressive DFC imprint, it’s a collection of several short stories delivered by the dynamic team of Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank. It’s a match made in heaven; Haggarty’s short, elegant and terse stories play against the rich restraint of Brockbank’s artwork to stunning effect.

Mezolith is scary, and it’s genuinely so. There’s an awareness of the form they’re working in, an adept handling of comic structures and pacing. The use of frames, splash pages, and pageturns is something quite superb in this book. It’s not one to be read late at night! There’s a tension in nearly every frame, a sort of balancing on the edge of this world and the next that’s quite something. Stories, back at the dawn of mankind, were stories that were borne from truth and it was a truth more immediate than anything we could maybe imagine nowadays. Things like Red Riding Hood, the old woman being a witch, or the wicked stepmother, they all have their basis in fact and the society of the time. This is something that Mezolith handles very, very well. It balances on the edge of stories, using young warrior Poika to explore the shadows that form the barrier of our world and the beginning of the next.

I can’t get over how impressive this is and it’s something quite unique. It’s bold, dark, and painted in shadowy, scary, earthen shades. I’d recommend giving it a read yourself beforehand as the impact of this book is substantial and, for the more imaginative soul, could prove quite genuinely scary. Just don’t let any of that put you off. This is stunning, stunning work and it’s a book that deserves a whole world of attention.

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