Orphan Monster Spy

The Second World War, a sinister conspiracy with incalculable consequences for all mankind, an undercover mission like no other, a cast of despicable characters who can’t be trusted at all, and a young female hero who can hold her own amongst all these monsters – honestly, it’s as if this novel was written from my own wish list.

At the start, Germany is in the inflexible grip of the Nazis and careering into a war with the rest of Europe that there’s every chance it will win. Before the gates come down for good, a Jewish mother tries to flee Germany with her young daughter Sarah, but before the first few pages are through, that plan ends abruptly. Now orphaned, Sarah must make her own way out, but on the cusp of making it to safety, she takes pity on a mysterious man who will surely face certain death if she doesn’t pretend to be his daughter.

That decision may be her greatest mistake – or the best choice she has ever made. The man she has saved is a British captain, a lone wolf spy investigating Nazi experiments into a devastating new weapon. He’s trying to find a way into an eccentric scientist’s personal laboratory, and here is where Sarah may be able to help him. If she can befriend the scientist’s daughter, she can get an invitation to the house, and then let the captain in.

But to befriend the daughter, Sarah must infiltrate a boarding school. Here, a Jewish girl in an institution designed to churn out dutiful, brainwashed Nazi monsters, she must become Ursula Haller, who isn’t an orphan, isn’t a monster, but who nobody must discover is a spy who could destroy them all.

This book was placed directly into my hands not because that person knew it would be right up my street, but simply because they had enjoyed it so much. Its broad concept reminded me of Auslander by Paul Dowswell, which I enjoyed immensely years ago, but it quickly diverges from following a similar path once Sarah is not simply pretending to be someone she isn’t to save her life, but maintaining a ruse to head even deeper into the heart of danger.

It’s a superbly crafted thriller that never loses touch of the human story of this girl who has lost everything so has nothing else to lose, but needs to come back from that. The Nazis aren’t necessarily the only threat to worry about, of course, because Sarah is well aware that the British captain might well be using her for his own ends, and won’t think about saving her life as she saved his once those ends are met.

The dynamic in their relationship, which is ultimately more balanced than he might have imagined, really lifts this from a being a thrilling yarn into being a wonderful human story as well. I see a second book featuring the pair of them has recently been published, but it certainly has a lot to live up to.

The Lie Tree

It’s difficult to know where to begin the gushing with this novel – in its ingenious concept, in its expertly crafted plotting, or in its edible and quite delicious prose.

Faith is the precocious young daughter of the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a man of god but also a man of science, who drags the family away from a happy life on the mainland to a remote island where his reputation remains intact. An amateur archaeologist, he achieved fame in England for uncovering fossilised remains of the Nephilim – the offspring of fallen angels and human women – and in doing so proved the Bible to be true using science.

Unfortunately it was all faked, but only on this storm-swept island does Faith find out why. Her father has been cultivating a Lie Tree, a plant that is fed not with water and sunlight but with dishonesty. Eat of its fruits and you shall learn truth, but to get those fruits to grow you need to convince people that your lies are facts. The bigger the lie, the bigger the truth. So if you were a reverend who wanted to learn the truth about Creation, you might try to convince people that you have found archaeological proof behind Christian scripture.

After her father is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, Faith has to work out whether he committed suicide, or whether he was murdered. The Lie Tree will be able to help, but if it’s the former, what kind of truth might it have told him?

Even though this is a young adult novel, like Philip Pullman, Frances Hardinge doesn’t write down to her audience. Indeed, she writes up to them, treating them intelligently, able to cope with complex plots and complicated, challenging themes. It’s clear why it won the Costa Book of the Year, but a good part of the reason might well be that some of the adult readers didn’t even realise they were reading a children’s novel.

The ending ties all of the novel#s different threads together in a way that might be a bit more straightforward than everything that preceded it would suggest. Ultimately it is aimed at younger readers, so needs a happy ending, but it’s interesting to consider the different direction an adult version of the same plot might have gone. There may have been only one way it could have ended happily, really. All the other ways (including one it seemed to be veering towards at one point) would have verged on the existentially depressing.

Letters from the Lighthouse

Historical fiction done well has a timeless quality to it, and Letters from the Lighthouse is an excellent case in point. It doesn’t feel as if it was written decades ago, but that will invariably still be true twenty or thirty years after its 2017 publication date too.

A trip to the cinema shouldn’t be the start of a rollercoaster adventure, but Sukie is taking her younger sister Olive and their baby brother Cliff to the cinema in London in 1941, so there’s always the risk something exciting or terrifying might happen. It’s both. Just after Sukie leaves Olive and Cliff for a moment, the Luftwaffe put in an unwelcome appearance. In the midst of a chaotic air raid, Olive is pretty sure she sees Sukie talking to a strange man. The next thing Olive is aware of, she’s waking up in hospital and nobody has seen Sukie since.

Olive and Cliff are evacuated to the Devon coast to stay with someone who is supposedly Sukie’s penpal, but the woman doesn’t seem to know Sukie at all. Though Olive feared she was being sent too far from the site of Sukie’s disappearance to investigate, she quickly realises the mystery might be solved right here. First she has to decode a strange message found in Sukie’s coat before she left, and investigate what that has to do with a lighthouse and the odd secretive behaviour of so many people in the village.

This isn’t an adventure in the sense that it’s full of daring escapades (though there is a quicksand scene), but more that secrets pile in on lies and nobody knows who to trust. There are baddies aplenty, but not all of them are Luftwaffe pilots. Some of them are the most common sorts – those inclined towards petty meanness for its own sake. Yet not everybody who seems to be a villain is one, and to get to the bottom of the Sukie mystery, Olive has to work out which is which.

The Second World War is well trod ground and stories based around evacuees risk comparison to some genuine children’s classics, but Emma Carroll stakes out her own turf with a mystery thriller that’s all about the people – and ultimately the smallest and most vulnerable of them. There’s some cracking humour too, including a wonderful riff on an “I’m Spartacus” moment where everyone’s true colours are finally revealed.

The Umbrella Mouse

When you’re a mouse, you can get away with living pretty anywhere and most of the human world won’t even notice. Pip has a happy life living inside an umbrella in a shop that sells pretty much only those, but their home is always safe from sale thanks to the owner’s kindly son. The human world is about to catch up with Pip, however, and a bomb throws her right into the middle of it, quite literally. After all, this is 1944 and the humans are fighting a war – a war that claims two more casualties in Pip’s parents.

Rescued by a dog, Pip encounters other animals who have to survive on their own, including plenty of pets who have lost their owners in air raids. She wants their help to get to Italy, where her mother has family, and she herself might find a new home. But Italy is still a warzone, and the only animals that are heading towards continental Europe are members of the animal Resistance – codenamed Noah’s Ark. Pip joins them as a means to an end, but when she sees the work they’re doing, and the dangers they put themselves in, she realises she needs to help. Perhaps family isn’t all about blood and a home isn’t just a building after all.

This is a lovely story that manages to meld sweetness with darkness – and it does get surprisingly dark by the time Pip joins Noah’s Ark’s final mission, going into territory you wouldn’t necessarily expect for the story of an innocent mouse looking for family. Pip’s been sheltered from the worst of the war until the story begins, and slowly comes to see her suffering as not a lonely experience but one she shares with many others – animal and human alike.

No matter how dark it gets in places (and not always simply by implication), this is still a fun story full of jokes at the expense of humans. I love the idea that the agents sending coded messages via Morse code to the Allies in London are actually animals, but that the British are entirely unaware who is feeding them aerial reconnaissance, or how. There aren’t many Resistance spies who can offer a pigeon-eye view of France, of course…

It’s not spoiling anything to say the ending is sufficiently open for there to be plenty of scope for more adventures featuring Pip and her new brothers- and sisters-in-arms, and that would certainly be something to look forward to.

The Trial

Bank cashier Josef F is minding his own business when he’s rudely apprehended by the police – on his birthday, no less – and informed that he is being prosecuted. Naturally, being a sensible fellow who is quite innocent of any crime, he is quite bemused by what must surely be a mistake. Still, he lives in a well ordered and stable society, so he has trust in the system to throw out the case as soon as he shows up for his first day in court.

Josef K is, of course, being a little naive. If he doesn’t know what he’s charged with, then he can’t convincingly claim to have not done it before he actually finds out, the judge reminds him – if he admits he doesn’t understand the law then he can’t claim to be entirely innocent. That’s the only thing Josef K will admit, but what he initially views as a farcical trial soon turns into a battle against a bureaucratic machine he always had faith in on the outside, so he faces an uphill struggle convincing everyone else still out there of the truth.

Franz Kafka is asking us to think whether we’ve ever watched someone be arrested and convinced ourselves that there had to be a good reason, and if there wasn’t, then the system – being about justice – would right things in the end. He’s also suggesting our answers to that question would probably be as naive as Josef K’s.

The purpose of justice in his world is about victory. It is about giving order to society for the sake of order itself. Without order society has no meaning, and entropy sets in, the drift to chaos. Much more comforting to imagine those people being herded on to trucks in Kafka’s neighbourhood a few years after The Trial was posthumously published had done something to deserve it, and that society was going to bring back order by sorting them out.

Kafka certainly foresaw a lot when he has Josef K learn that society embraces pleasing lies over uncomfortable or awkward truths. That system is never going to let him go, even if nobody knows what he’s guilty of. People don’t have to accept that something is true, just that it is necessary.

The House with Chicken Legs

Marinka lives in a house that has legs. And not just any old legs – chicken legs. Every now and then, almost without warning, it gets up and walks to where it – and its inhabitants: Marinka, her grandmother and their pet jackdaw Jack – are needed most.

I was given a most insistent personal recommendation for this one, so came to it with few preconceptions. I thought the title cute and expected a story to match. Instead I got a book ringing with genuine pathos, beautifully and wittily written, that finds the humanity inside the magic, and which had a couple of shock turns in the middle that demanded a pause in reading to process.

That’s because the places where Marinka’s grandmother is needed, the places where the house with chicken legs takes them, are places where the souls of the recently dead need to be tended to, listened to and ultimately encouraged to accept that it is time to move on to the next stage in their existence.

Naturally this doesn’t give Marinka many opportunities to make real human friends. The house either doesn’t stay in the same place long enough, or it does, but the local children Marinka’s age are scared off by apparently witchy goings on. That leaves the dead for Marinka to try to befriend, but her attempt at doing so changes everything.

Drawing on Slavic folklore, the novel will be read by some children as a fun adventure. And by others as a poignant story about coming to terms with death, and an exploration of how love and friendship are never possessive, but often sacrificial. Not bad for a book with such a cute title.

Salt to the Sea

Buy SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

I approached this young adult novel with wary curiosity more than anything. I wrote about the true story behind the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 in my book, Final Voyage: The world’s worst maritime disasters, so I knew who most of the 9–10,000 victims were – the beneficiaries of lebensraum, German citizens who moved eastward after the Third Reich cleansed swathes of Poland of her own people.

How do you write a novel that demands your sympathies for character who are only refugees now because of their own legacy of turning much of a continent into refugees (or worse) half a decade before?

Of course, there’s a reason why Ruta Sepetys won the Carnegie, the Booker Prize for children’s literature, with this novel, which is her answer to that question, and which deserves much of the prestige with which it has been lavished in the past couple of years.

For most of the characters in the opening chapters, the war is already over, even if the killing hasn’t stopped and peace is still months from being declared. A disparate group of people end up sheltering in the same barn overnight on their way through occupied Poland, heading towards the coast, where the greatest sea-based evacuation in history awaits them. Some of them won’t make it. And all of them have secrets. Soon three young people become bound by what they know about each other – secrets that may give them power, or be their greatest weakness.

For those who make it to the harbour, there’s an agonising wait to be boarded, but of all the ships docked, the lavish former liner the Wilhelm Gustloff is the one everyone wants to get on. And over 10,000 of them are squeezed aboard. But a Soviet submarine lurks in the freezing waters of the Baltic. Relative safety in Germany is only a 48-hour voyage away, but the promise is a lie.

I first learnt of the Wilhelm Gustloff from The Tin Drum author Gunter Grass’s more recent novel, Crabwalk. In that he notes how the disaster’s place in history has moved sideways since 1945. It started as just another tragedy in the bloodiest months of the Second World War, either suppressed or ignored. After the war it became something unworthy of being mourned in a newly shamed Germany who had no right to feel a sense of suffering. More recently, however, it has become a totem for the Far Right – a little-known massacre of mainly civilians written out of history by the victorious perpetrators, but which proves Germans were victims all along.

Sepetys does somewhat try a little too hard to establish that most of her main characters are not typical German occupiers or their offspring, but ordinary people who have been caught up in the turmoil of events. We can feel sympathy for them because they didn’t build their homes over the bones of the Poles.

What’s more she spends a bit too long establishing just how vile the Red Army was behaving as it forced the Reich back towards Germany’s old borders. The net result is that the Soviets seem like the true monsters even before they torpedo the Wilhelm Gustloff, whereas the crimes of the Nazis are somewhat downplayed, and the only main character who remains loyal to Hitler until the end is a naïve buffoon. I wonder what Gunter Grass would make of this treatment of the disaster, which does somewhat pivot on us being kept from knowing which of the anonymous victims are like our heroes, and which remain devoted to Hitler too.

Of course it’s not a novel about goodies and baddies, because every character here lives in the grey area left behind after they have been overrun by history. As Oliver Stone would have it in Platoon, the first casualty of war is innocence, and almost six years after this war began, by the time the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk, were there really any innocents left?

Mold and the Poison Plot

Buy MOLD AND THE POISON PLOT by Lorraine Gregory

Mold has a nose that is the envy of nobody. He personally is entirely unfussed by the size of it, but secretly he wonders whether it was part of the reason his birth mother abandoned him as a baby. Not that he has particularly suffered for that, because his adoptive mother Aggy has given him a wonderful life, even if her healing tonics aren’t as highly regarded as she thinks they are and she drinks too much.

She’s no royal assassin, however, so it’s a shock to both of them when she’s arrested for trying to kill the king with poison disguised as a tonic. Suddenly Mold’s nose is not just an expansive sunshade for his lip, it’s the key to saving Aggy’s life. Naturally with such great nostrils comes an almost superhuman sense of smell. That means if Mold can get close enough to the comatose king, he might be able to smell what was used to poison him, and then maybe just perhaps he will be able to sniff out a cure in time to save not only the king, but his falsely-accused assassin too.

Mold’s adventure is packed with heroes and villains aplenty, but it is the nasally-blessed one himself who stands out, and not just because of that hooter. The story is told entirely through his wonderful first-person voice, an instantly convincing working-class vernacular that puts a fresh new spin on what is at heart a traditional story about fairness and friendship.

Lorraine Gregory doesn’t shy away from hints of a world that is riddled with injustice, suffering and violence, but these things give Mold’s quest agency, and don’t make the story any less rip-roaring and fun. Obviously a story about a boy with a big nose is going to involve some deliciously revolting details, most of which actually come thanks to a couple of trips through the ever-useful abandoned passages that are the sewers beneath the king’s castle.

Without giving anything at all away, come the end of the book it seems ripe (if you’ll excuse the semi-pun) for a sequel. Forgoing that, perhaps a movie adaptation by Terry Gilliam.

State of Wonder

Buy STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

Having run away from her medical career after making a devastating mistake, the taciturn Marina Singh is much happier living the quiet life of a researcher for a pharmaceutical company – a job where the decisions she makes are a few steps further removed from life and death.

Part of the company’s research is based on studying the remarkable health of indigenous people living a drug-free existence in the depths of the Amazon. When one of Marina’s colleagues visits the project and is reported dead not long after, she becomes the inevitable replacement for two reasons – the scientist leading the project is her former university tutor Annick Swenson, and the wife of her dead colleague manages to use a bit of emotional blackmail to get her to go and investigate what might have happened when there is no body to return with the truth.

Marina enters the heat and everyday lethality of the heart of darkness having to choose between taking antimalarial tablets that give her horrific night terrors or risking the delirium of malarial fevers. Either way she is unprepared for what she finds when she is reunited with Doctor Swenson and meets the subjects of her study – women in their seventies who are still as fertile as their grandchildren.

The echoes of Joseph Conrad are naturally rather fresh, though here it’s not the dark heart of men being explored, but women who believe their own ambitions in one of the wilder corners of the world are altogether more altruistic. They’re not really, of course. If anything, the corporate and mercantile aims are even more brazen than they were in colonial times.

It’s a slow-burn novel, capturing the stifling heat and humidity of the rainforest. Marina is quite a passive main character for most of the book, but it doesn’t really suffer for it. She has been drifting through life, too timid to make a decision, second guessing every choice she dares make, in case she makes another terrible mistake. Only here, unable to escape the person whose absence led to Marina’s original mistake, will she be able to face up to what happened and move on.

Station Eleven

Buy STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

Kirsten and the rest of her Travelling Symphony of actors and musicians walk the empty roads between Ontario and Chicago, looking for outposts of fellow survivors in this depopulated North America who would like to sit and watch some free Shakespeare. Because, as the Symphony’s motto (and Kirsten’s tattoo) goes, survival is insufficient. For these artists, there needs to be more to life than simply existing, scrapping for food and salvage in the slowly decaying remains of the old electric world.

Kirsten is obsessed with finding copies of a little-known series of graphic novels called Station Eleven. They are set on a space station built to appear like a planet, drifting somewhat aimlessly through the cosmos, with all its inhabitants hiding beneath the surface and living a lonely existence. The books were written and drawn by an artist whose estranged husband Arthur Leander died on stage right in front of a young Kirsten, only a few weeks before the end of the world.

Kirsten’s storyline is juxtaposed against the relatively trivial lives of people before the arrival of the plague that killed off most of the world’s population. She lives somewhat vicariously via both the Station Eleven stories and the tawdry celebrity gossip rag news items about Arthur Leander and his lovers that can still be found littering the abandoned cities.

Putting on plays gives her and the others a sense of purpose to continuing to exist, but as with Station Eleven and the celeb goss, they are also about co-opting the apparently more interesting lives of others. Whether the characters in the plays and Station Eleven really have the more valuable lives simply because people are interested in the presentation rather than the reality is a question Kirsten never really contemplates.

Part of that is because the novel is somewhat overburdened with characters (Kirsten only just about manages to come to the fore overall), and could have done with being double – yes – the length. Kirsten is clearly yearning to make a connection, but it’s difficult to make a connection in a world where there aren’t many people left to connect with, and most of those she does meet will either be afraid of her or, perhaps more likely, give her immediate cause to be afraid of them.

There is hardly anybody left in this bleak Midwest to be interested in someone like Kirsten in the way she is interested in constructed personalities spouting perfect lines of poetry or long-dead celebrities gifted sensational captions to photos of them living apparently exciting lives. The only people who have any form of celebrity cachet now are apocalyptic cult leaders, and their fame is earned for all the wrong reasons.

Despite all this, the novel’s post-apocalyptic world is certainly not as bleak or miserable as The Road. In its celebration of art as a way of giving existence meaning, it helps give things a sense of hope. It’s whether that itself is pretty meaningless is something the novel leaves unresolved – mostly.