I read a lot of books. I always have, but since I started blogging I must read more than ever. Due to the volume I read some books are read, enjoyed and quickly forgotten (I also have a terrible memory). Some books linger in the memory for a little longer, for whatever reason. And then there are a small minority of books that take hold of your mind or your heart (or both) and simply refuse to let go. I read Stay Where You Are And Then Leave a month ago and even now it is still pops into my thoughts at least once a day, and John Boyne is another on the list of auto-reads.
After a couple of rather brilliant forays into the world of fantasy (Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket), John Boyne has returned to the historical children's novel, the genre that pretty much made him a global name following the publication of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Much as I loved The Boy... the next two books really struck a chord with me and now Stay Where You Are has done exactly the same. I can't ell you how much I loved this book, and it is certainly a(nother) contender for my Book of the Year.
Next year is the centennial anniversary of the start of The Great War and so this is a timely release for a book that deals with one of the less spoken about horrors of that tragic time: shell shock. At the time, the condition was not at all understood and sadly many men were branded as cowards for their reaction to the horrors they experienced in the trenches, and in some case soldiers were executed for desertion that is these days thought to have been caused by shell shock. John Boyne writes about this mental illness incredibly well: he refuses to shy away from descriptions that might unnerve some readers, but he somehow also manages to add a tenderness to these scenes that will bring tears to the eyes of many readers, and his use of Alfie as his main character is the key to this.
This book is much more than just a story about a victim of shell shock though. I'm not expert historian, but for me John Boyne really brought alive the everyday travails of the people left at home. There is the conscientious objector who lives across the road from Alfie, and the abuse he experiences from people he had thought were friends for his supposed cowardice (and done so in a much better way than the truly atrocious Chickens that is on Sky One at the moment). There is also a glimpse at the way certain foreign nationals were treated as war broke out: Alfie's best friend Kalena Janáček, a girl born in the very street where the two kids live, and her Czech father are branded as spies by ignorant neighbours and then labelled Persons of special interest by the powers that be, shoved in the back of a van and taken away into custody.
As with all of his previous books for children John Boyne also manages to imbue this one with subtle humour, although he never makes light of the seriousness of the book's main themes. There is one scene in particular which really made me chuckle, as Alfie finds himself shining the shoes of the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, chatting away to him with no clue at all as to who he is talking to. As readers we are also only able to guess as to who the man might be, our suspicions only confirmed when an unexpected person arrives on the scene.
As with many historical books, part of the real power of this story is in the subtly-included detail of the everyday lives of the characters and readers will find it very easy to empathise with all of them. There are many elements that make perfect discussion material for both English and History lessons. At school some of our Year 8s have just started studying The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in their English lessons, and I would not be surprised if this book became a study text for schools in the future. In fact, this is the kind of book that I think will grow to be loved by millions, and will one day deservedly surpass the huge success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Stay Where You Are And Then Leave is scheduled to be published on 26th September, and is a perfect read for children as young as 9/10, teens and right up to adults (okay... pretty much everyone, but do be prepared to find it lingering in your thoughts for weeks afterwards).(less)
Long time readers of The Book Zone will know that as far as historical fiction is concerned I have a penchant for the Tudor, Restoration and Victorian eras. You will also know that I totally love urban fantasy stories set in London. And it should go without saying that I am a sucker for well-written Middle Grade adventure stories. As I read the publisher's blurb for The Claws of Evil, I already knew that it was ticking most of my 'must read' boxes, and I was not to be disappointed in the slightest.
A lot of urban fantasy stories set in our capital city seem to revolve around ancient battles, and The Claws of Evil is no different. Below the grimy, cobbled streets of Victorian London dwell the Legion, the villains of the piece. The book opens with a member of the Legion's Council of Seven confidently proclaiming that "London will soon be ours", and it would appear that each of the Council's members has a different plan for the city, now that the final piece of their greatest weapon could soon be in their grasp.
Living above the city, constantly on the move across the rooftops, never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row, live the Watchers. They are the light that fights against the Legion's dark, and have been London's protectors for time immemorial. They are constantly vigilant as they perch on the precarious, sloping roofs, equipped with skyboots designed to give them precious grip as they race across the rooftops. The Watchers also believe in an ancient prophecy that foretells of one who will some day defeat the Legion, although that same prophecy also makes mention of the cost that this person may have to pay.
Enter our protagonist, Ben Kingdom. Like me, you will already be guessing that he is the One, the hero of the Ancient Prophecy of the Watchers. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't, only time will tell. But he is a fantastic hero for this book - think the Artful Dodger, but with a moral compass. Ben only gets into trouble with the Law because he is a mischievous scallywag, and there is certainly never anything malicious about his actions. He lives in near-poverty conditions in the attic of a boarding house with his father and brother, and for reasons that become clear as the story progresses, he feels very little love from either of them. He is adventurous but naive, cocky and confident on the outside, but feeling unloved and lacking in self-belief on the inside. He is terrified of the so-called Weeping Man, a mysterious figure who is reported to be abducting the unwanted East End street kids, but digs deep to find extreme courage when he needs to. He is a character with which many 9+ readers will be able to identify.
As well as a great main character, in The Claws of Evil Andrew Beasley has created a host of colourful and exciting secondary characters, whether they be good or evil (or somewhere in between), human or mythological. Lucy Lambert, the scarfaced and fearless Watcher; Jago Moon, the blind man who sells Ben his much cherished Penny Dreadfuls; Professor James 'Claw' Carter, a man who thinks it is his destiny to rule the city, and is willing to work behind the backs of the Council to achieve his diabolical dream; Ruby Johnson, legionnaire and street thief, but could she be starting to see through the lies and depravity of her leaders? And there there is the Weeping Man himself, and opposites, the Feathered Men. Between them they add a soupçon of horror to the proceedings, that add to the sense of risk and adventure that encompass Ben as he is drawn into the ancient battle.
One of the stand out elements of the plot for me was Ben's confusion as to which side is good and which is evil. As I mentioned before, he is naive and quick to believe what he is told, especially if the teller is female and has a pretty face. His confusion is added to by the fact that some of the lead players in this ancient battle are people he has know for some years; people he has conversed with and trusted, leaving him with the ultimate dilemma - who should he trust? As such, readers will almost find themselves shouting "No, don't trust him, trust her", or vice versa. It is a story about choices, and how making the wrong one could lead to disaster for all. (less)