Bomber

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It’s quite the culture shock for Brooklyn native Harry Friedman to leave the land of plenty and arrive in an England that has already been at war for four years – a country of rationed food, air raid sirens and shelled-out buildings. He isn’t given time to acclimatise, though. Barely has he got his feet on the ground when a B17 Flying Fortress landing at the airfield he has been posted to turns into a fireball.

This is not the heroic adventure the underage Harry thought he was signing up for based on the Pathe newsreels showing 3,000 miles away. Back there, you’re a hero if you complete 25 missions. Over here, you’re just a fairytale – hardly anybody lives long enough to do that. Once he’s understood that, Harry is determined to live every day in the moment, because tomorrow he might have to fly to face a faceless enemy for whom having a surname like Friedman will single him out.

For much of its length this is a more episodic, action-driven novel than many of Paul Dowswell’s others – focused on the events rather than the characters. Harry’s Jewishness is mostly just there to increase the suspense after his Flying Fortress is shot down over France in the second half of the novel, and his pairing off with a British sweetheart is more of a fantasy on his part than a developed relationship, seeing as they only really get a couple of scenes together.

To an extent the book reminded me of the film Dunkirk. We don’t really need to know any more about these people. They exist only in this moment, because it may be their last. Everything here is about the danger and tension of being the guy stuck in the transparent gun turret beneath a bomber plane that the Luftwaffe is desperate to stop reaching its target. And what happens next when the bomber crew fails their mission, and the Luftwaffe succeed in theirs.

Red Shadow

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Misha lives a life apart from most Soviet citizens. His father being one of Stalin’s private secretaries, his home is within the Kremlim, his plate is always full (even when the German betrayal in early 1941 brings food shortages) and his path towards membership of the Communist Party looks to be quite smooth.

But Misha isn’t blind to the fact that the foundations of his society are built over the graves of communism’s victims. Ever since his mother was arrested (and presumed executed) on exaggerated charges of treason, he’s been well aware that his is a world where the truth can only rarely be whispered and rumours can get you shot. Yet he knows also that Stalin is not the statue or the poster that he is to others, but a mulish chain-smoker who has to be cosseted and coaxed into making a decision, and who fully understands the power of propaganda.

The onslaught of the Nazis, crossing hundreds of miles of Soviet lands within weeks, promises to change everything, though. As even some within Stalin’s inner circle begin to contemplate defeat, fingers begin to be pointed. It’s not safe to be a boy with doubts about communism when that happens.

Of all the Paul Dowswell books I’ve read, this is probably the most uneventful. Misha doesn’t have the kind of adventure many of Dowswell’s other heroes do. Indeed, he is largely trapped, on every level, and that’s what the novel is really about – his growing awareness that everyone in the Soviet Union is a prisoner of some sort, and that some people are hoping to get better gruel by currying favour with the guards.

Building on what he did in Sektion 20, Dowswell depicts life in a dictatorship as increasingly cloying, a house of cards that everyone is pretending is a beautiful castle built on a rock, and those who don’t pretend hard enough need to be cast out. It’s a suffocating existence, and by the time the Nazis appear to be closing in, they seem largely a metaphor for who else has already tried to crush Misha, his friends and his mother.

Auslander

I’ve reviewed more of Paul Dowswell’s books on this blog than any other author’s, to some degree because his historical children’s adventures are the kind of books I had in mind whilst I was writing The Thieves of Pudding Lane. Auslander is the one that won him the awards, and I can see why. I’ve enjoyed all the others, but this one is a cut above the rest.

Auslander is the story of Piotr Bruck, growing up in a Polish orphanage after his parents were killed during the joint Russo-German invasion in 1939. Piotr is saved from an uncertain fate by Nazi pseudoscience. Though he has a Polish mother he also has a German father, and it certainly helps his racial credentials that he is a blond-haired Aryan that looks just like the boy on the Hitler Youth poster. Outcast in Poland for not being Polish enough (or rather, being a bit too German – the enemy), Piotr readily accepts the chance to embrace his German side and be adopted by a family in Berlin. He even allows them to rename him Peter.

But Piotr already has niggling doubts about the Nazi creed, even if its superiority has been extended to a poor orphaned farmboy like him. Initially dazzled by the modernity of the capital of the Reich, Piotr soon starts to see its foundations are built in the shadows, and when the war begins to turn against Germany, the true face of the Nazi machine is finally revealed. Piotr is too close to those others who have had their doubts even longer than he has, so he knows he can’t stay. Escaping an empire as big as Nazi Germany, through a warzone, is not going to be easy, however.

Most of Paul Dowswell’s books are billed as thrillers, but the best ones are strong human dramas as well. This one also treats of a theme he has explored in another book (Sektion 20): the effect on the individual of living in a totalitarian state. In Auslander, however, he comes at it from the other side – from the perspective of someone who is on the right side of the regime. Auslander means ‘foreigner’ in German, and Piotr soon remembers that he is really an outsider too.

Ultimately it is a story about identity, how it’s mostly a fiction, and how, when it’s being invented at national level, it’s more than slightly ridiculous. The stereotyping (of Jews in particular) that Piotr encounters in school textbooks seems almost comical, but Dowswell points out in his notes at the back that his examples are all lifted from actual German schoolbooks from the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, this is how anti-Semitism took root: inviting young kids to laugh at Jews, to see them as figures worthy only of ridicule. The rest would come later.

As thrilling as it is at times (particularly towards the end), this is a serious book rather than an entertaining adventure, brilliantly crafted to explore the nature of life in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, but not at the expense of the involving human story at its heart.

Eleven Eleven

Will Franklin and Axel Meyer may be on opposing sides in the First World War, but they have a lot in common, most notably the fact that they are actually too young to have enlisted. Will is separated from his squad when a sniper in a forest starts to pick them off. Meanwhile Axel is separated from his platoon after the village where they are based is attacked from two directions. Both boys end up in the same shell crater, along with a downed American airman only a few years older than they are. On any other day they would have to try and kill each other, but this is 11th November 1918.

Paul Dowswell chooses the most pointless half-day of fighting in the entirety of the First World War to show up just how pointless much of the rest of it was too. Even though their leaders have already signed an armistice, the men in the trenches must continue to shoot, bomb and gas the enemy until the message can be confirmed to have spread the length of the Western Front at 11am. The pointlessness of it all is best summed up when the men (and boys) in the forest discover the remains of a British position abandoned four years previously. After all that carnage, the Allies have simply managed to get back to where they were at the start.

Aimed at early teens, the book unsurprisingly offers a more sanitised version of the First World War than All Quiet on the Western Front. On the one hand there’s much to be said for not writing ghoulish Somme porn. But at the same time Dowswell falls into a common trap. Whilst Erich Maria Remarque could get away with writing about soldiers sitting around just talking rather than fighting for much of his semi-autobiographical novel, the demands of drama and his thriller-writing sensibilities have led Dowswell to make the war seem at times rather exciting. This doesn’t distract from his message in the end. But sometimes the message isn’t there at all.

It’s shorter than the other books of his I’ve read. Perhaps this time they cut out his seemingly stock-in-trade peeing scene! The extract from Auslander included at the end makes mention of full bladders, so it’ll be back to business as usual when I get round to reading that one, I imagine.

A bottle of port versus a vodka shot

Halfway through the year and Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell is only the thirteenth book I have read since January, which means that New Year resolution to read more than thirty books this year is looking just as unlikely to be successful as it was the previous three years. So I can’t really blame the shorter commute I have now. I long gave up on attempting to read fifty books a year, having accepted that I am just a slow reader – slower than my dyslexic mother was, in fact. Still, a book savoured over a week or two leaves a greater impression than one blitzed in a couple of days, right? A bottle of port versus a vodka shot.

Anyway, nineteenth century teenager Sam Witchall always dreamt of going to sea, but he only gets to spend a couple of chapters as cabin boy aboard a merchant ship before being impressed into the Royal Navy as a powder monkey – the nimble-footed child whose job it is to run back and forth between gun and magazine to replenish the gunpowder for the former. He quickly discovers how his predecessor met a sticky end, and it was just as sticky for his salty new crewmates who had to scrape the kid off the deck.

After that the book loses the plot, quite literally. Despite being largely plotless, its lack of direction (or characters driven by any greater motivation than simply surviving) is disguised by its swift pace. Sam is the initially wide-eyed naïf typical of these kinds of young adult novels, his introduction into navy life shaping the book into an episodic guided tour of life aboard a frigate just before the Napoleonic Wars. Storms, shipwrecks, sea battles, floggings, maggoty biscuits and horrific surgery at sea all feature, though not necessarily in that order, along with the apparently obligatory pissing scene (third Dowswell book, third scene featuring wee).

The ending sets up for another two books in the series, which presumably will have plots, but next up for me is An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is proving to be a cup of warmed sake next to Dowswell’s beaker of Diet Coke.

The Cabinet of Curiosities / Sektion 20

In quick succession I’ve read a couple of a historical YA novels (a pigeonhole I’ve got more than a passing interest in) by Paul Dowswell recently, The Cabinet of Curiosities and Sektion 20.

The Cabinet of Curiosities has the harder job to do because it’s set in such an unfamiliar world – Prague in the mid 1500s. The book might as well be set in a fantasy world, for all the research Dowswell has to cram in to give a real sense of time and place.

It’s the story of orphaned Lukas, who comes to Prague to live with his uncle after his father is burnt to death by the Inquisition. Lukas’s uncle Anselmus is physician to the emperor, Rudolph, a melancholic figure who collects curiosities (from religious artifacts to supposedly magic trinkets) in a grand chamber at the heart of his castle. Despite an interest in alchemy and astrology, Rudolph is not a superstitious man. The Spanish may have banished the Jews from their country but in Rudolph’s Prague they are free to live side by side with Christians and Muslims.

Naturally, this raises the ire of the constantly hovering Inquisition. Failing to convince Rudolph to return to the Catholic fold and abandon his heretical ways, they come up with another way to restore Prague’s loyalty to the Pope. Living a double life (working with his uncle in the castle by day, hanging out with the wastrels by night – and keeping both lives secret from the other side), only orphan boy Lukas is in a position to stop the assassination plot.

What follows is predictably a dramatic story full of betrayal and redemption (though not necessarily in that order) with characters that are so easy to root for they are too uncomplicated to be memorable, and lots of vivid historical detail. The only thing that really lets it down is the dialogue, which tries to avoid cod historical thees and thous but often verges on the anachronistic as a result.

Sektion 20, on the other hand, has no such difficulties, being set four centuries later. It’s also perhaps more resonant because the world it takes place in has only really slipped out of recent history, well, recently, and is still living memory for many.

East Germany in the mid 1970s still hasn’t recovered from the Second World War. Buildings still haven’t been repaired, and homes don’t have telephones, heating or baths. Dowswell depicts a country of people who were so determined to reject the Far Right following Hitler’s downfall that they embraced the Far Left instead – and ended up with pretty much the same government anyway.

Dowswell slowly reveals the insidious nature of the communist police state as it affects the every day life of teenagers living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, on what they eventually come to consider the wrong side of it. It starts innocuously enough (you would think) with teenager Alex letting his hair grow too long. He can’t quite believe this is enough to attract the attention of the Stasi, but attract their attention it does.

After all, as the teachers at school explain, wanting to be different from others is a sign of egotism and vanity, because the only reason you wouldn’t want to be like everyone else (homogeny having been rebranded equality) is because you think you are better than they are. As their troubles escalate, Alex’s family eventually realise that they have to disappear from East Germany, before the Stasi do the job for them.

The no man’s land that borders the two Germanys may only be yards across, but that journey (hidden in the van of professional people smugglers) will probably prove to be the longest of their lives. And West Germany may not be the utopia of freedom that Alex and his friends assumed it would be when they stood at a high window on the East side and looked over the Wall.

I didn’t know much more about East Germany in the 1970s than I did about Prague in the 1500s but Dowswell is more successful with creating a convincing, immersive world in Sektion 20. It’s usually easy to forget that the last ripples of the Second World War were still spreading out when I was born, and seems strange to remember that there were still dictatorships in the heart of Europe in my lifetime.

Dowswell has written a great thriller, its suspense all the more palpable because the Orwellian twists are based on truth. My only complaint is that he starts to develop a mystery in the second half that ratchets up the tension considerably, only to reveal his hand far too swiftly. Still, that would have made it a different book, and it’s probably not fair to judge it too harshly against what might have been.

I’m very tempted to read Auslander next, the book for which Dowswell won all the awards the others were only nominated for.