The Blurb: From Tanya Landman, author of the 2015 Carnegie Medal winner Buffalo Soldier, comes a heart-stopping tale of love, corruption and the power of choice.
Blood on her lips. Blood on her tongue. Blood that is not her own. Cassia does not fear to die, but for her – for a slave who has maimed her master – there are worse things than death. Yet the mighty Roman Empire has its limits. Beyond her master’s estate, beyond the river, far to the north stands Hadrian’s Wall. And beyond the wall? Freedom. With dogs on her trail and a bounty on her head the journey seems impossible. But then Cassia meets Marcus – slick, slippery, silver-tongued – a true and perfect son of Rome. And her only hope.
I’ve thrown myself into the list of CKG nominations this week and selected Tanya Landman’s Beyond The Wall as my first read. It’s no surprise that I went for this one first – I spent many lunchtimes in my school library closeted away with Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece – so this felt like comfort reading of the highest order. And yet it’s not really a comfortable read – with a less benign outlook than Sutcliff, Tanya Landman’s version of Roman Britain is definitely aimed at an older YA audience.
It’s the story of ‘a runaway slave and her journey through the murky underworld of Roman Britain’. There’s action aplenty as Cassia flees from the repugnant landowner Titus Cornelius Festus but this is not simply about a slave’s desire for freedom; the oppression Cassia is fleeing from is very specifically violent and sexual. Landman deftly interweaves a thorough examination of the position (read oppression) of women at all levels of society through her fast paced and perilous plot.
It left me thinking two things:
1) Just how good and varied Tanya Landman’s historical fiction is – Beyond The Wall is so different from Carnegie winning Buffalo Soldier and yet reading the author’s note at the end it was very clearly born of the same creative process.
2) The second thing is really more of a lament – Why are there not more YA books set in the Roman world? After the heyday of Sutcliff et al it seems that Rome has fallen out of favour (or fashion) and yet Landman shows that it’s just as pertinent a backdrop for YA fiction now as it ever was. Through Cassia and Marcus we traverse tricky ideas about freedom from oppressive rule, foreign occupation, materialism, a return to a way of life more connected with the natural world as well as investigating female sexuality and ideas of consent – all topics which wouldn’t feel out of place in one of today’s newspapers. Landman takes all these threads and throws them together to make a thrilling and emotionally intelligent adventure story – Not a bad way to kick off CKG 2018 I reckon!
What The Judges Say:
Not a word is wasted. The four protagonists are subtly and so convincingly developed it’s difficult to imagine they are not real people… There is a total balance between a sense of urgency and great reflection’ – Judging panel
What We Say:
We often talk about reading being able to take you to other places, to transport you to other worlds and perhaps to allow you to walk in another person’s shoes for a while– my goodness does this book do that! Set in the Alaska of the 1970s, Bonnie- Sue Hitchcock tells a delicately interwoven story of four teenagers and shows how their lives are transformed when their paths intersect.
However, this is not your average coming of age story. Though the story is shared between the four first person narratives of the teens, it is actually the location that really dominates. Looming large over the narrative, Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock shows us an Alaska that is both strange and beautiful but simultaneously harsh and unforgiving. It is undeniably ‘home’ for these characters – they’re woven into the very web of it. The way they navigate the land – their personal journeys through it – does much in the way of character development, ultimately revealing their self sufficiency, grit, humility and generosity.
I’ve seen it described as a ‘quietly beautiful’ book – and I think that’s a pretty accurate summation having now read it. It has a slightly somber quality that enables the sense of ‘great reflection’ that the judges talk about. It’s certainly a book that I’ve thought about many times and certain scenes in particular have stayed in my head long after I’ve put the book down – Orcas, cranberries and red ribbons have taken on almost totemic qualities for me.
In short, sophisticated plotting, a superb sense of place and a pleasantly uplifting ending make this a great Carnegie contender.
From The Horse’s Mouth:
You can watch Bonnie-Sue talking about her book and reading an extract here: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=18
What the Judges Say:
‘A haunting and beautiful novel that breathes life into one of World War II’s most terrifying and little-known tragedies’ – Judging panel
What We Say:
Ruta Sepetys has form with the Carnegie: Between Shades of Gray, her debut novel telling the little known history of Lithuanians during the Second World War, was shortlisted for the award back in 2012. Salt To the Sea tells a similarly little known yet deadly narrative.
I read it in one breathy gulp of a sitting – totally swept away but genuinely aghast that I knew so little about the historical events depicted in it. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is one of the worst maritime disasters in history with a greater loss of life than that of the Titanic and the Lusitania disasters put together and yet various historical and geopolitical factors have ensured that the tragedy remains largely unknown. The book is a testament to the power of story and its ability to give the dispossessed a voice and identity.
Indeed, the success of this ‘hidden history’ doesn’t simply rest with an already poignant historical fact or the accuracy with which it is related (no pilfered tears here) – it is through the powerful voices of her characters and the ‘human story’ that they tell that the novel really sings.
The narrative is shared between the four main characters, masterfully switching between voices as their stories intertwine. The chapters are rapid fire, ramping up the tension but also offering an exploration of the chilling realities of war from multiple perspectives. There’s an added resonance to one voice in particular – readers of Sepetys’ earlier novel will recognise that Joana is in fact the cousin of Lina, the protagonist in Between Shades of Gray. It’s a nice touch that speaks eloquently to the guilt and grief experienced by families torn apart by conflict.
It’s emotional, thought provoking and pacey.
What our Shadowers Say:
Salt To The Sea is a beautifully written book. The characters are well rounded and the plot is brilliantly crafted – Emily (15)
From The Horse’s Mouth:
“Every nation has hidden history, countless stories preserved only by those who experienced them. Stories of war are often read and discussed worldwide by readers whose nations stood on opposite sides during battle. History divided us, but through reading we can be united in story, study, and remembrance. Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past”. – Author’s Note from Salt To The Sea.
You can find out more about Salt to The Sea in the shadowing site’s video here: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=16
What the Judges say:
‘Engaging and fast-paced with clever use of humour. The book explores what it is to be human with some harsh criticisms of society in subtle ways’ – Judging panel
What We Say:
Often reading the Carnegie shortlist can be a challenge – the best sort of challenge – but one that requires a degree of stamina nonetheless. I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hollow and The Smell of Other People’s Houses – two outstanding works of fiction that immersed me in times and places that I’d never even thought to think about before. Reading Railhead hot on their heels was no less thought provoking – it certainly took me to a time and place I’d no conception of before – but when I tried to think of a word to describe it, rather than thinking in terms of immersion, it felt to me that the act of reading was that of taking flight. It was effortless and wondrous.
What a joy it was to be swept away on a tide of such imagination. The plot is propulsive; we join the action literally mid chase as we follow petty thief Zen Starling fleeing the scene of his latest crime. Before we know it we’re embroiled in an intrigue plot to steal a piece of art and wrestling with concepts of artificial intelligence, the power of corporations and the logistics of interstellar train travel.
The world building of Reeve’s ‘Great Network’ is linguistically beautiful and richly imaginative. The blending of different cultures and languages effortlessly creates a distinct and unique universe: Zen’s industrial hometown, the solid sounding Cleve, sits in contrast to the faded grandeur of the plaintively named Desdemor and a seemingly inexhaustible list of other worlds and places. Worlds are described in rich detail – I delighted in the idea of living in a bio-building grown from modified baobab dna which, if left to run to seed, might sprout ‘random balconies and bulbous little pointless extensions’. And oh the trains! ‘Barracuda beautiful’ and named with an appositeness akin to Anglo-Saxon kenning: the dangerous and unpredictable Thought Fox, the two lovers Wildfire and the Time of Gifts who ‘fill the fog-lit night with trainsong’ and the brusque but honourable Damask Rose who together create a cast of enchanting and believable characters all of their own.
Uncle Bugs – one of the Hive Monks. Art by Ian McQue
There’s challenge in the text too. Reeve’s descriptions create a visual uneasiness about many of the characters: the Motorik Nova with her freckles, the mythical remoteness of the Guardians and the squirming unpleasantness of the Hive Monks. All raise questions about sentience and the rights of the individual which the reader must somehow reconcile. There’s really a lot going on underneath the fast paced and often gently humorous plot.
To surmise: a rip roaring read, that ticks all the Carnegie ‘s boxes: linguistically sophisticated with a thriller of a plot and a raft of convincing characters. I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to read it. The sequel is already on order!
From the Horse’s Mouth:
You can hear more about the creation of Railhead and the enduring appeal of children’s books in Philip’s interview on the CKG shadowing site: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=2
We’ve been industriously reading and digesting the Carnegie and Greenaway shortlists over the last couple of weeks but with only a month to go before we discover 2017’s winning titles we think it’s high time that we shared our thoughts with you…
To start us off we’re looking at Sputnik’s Guide To Life on Earth by previous Carnegie Medal winner Frank Cottrell Boyce.
What the Judges Say:
‘This writer is particularly skilled at using fantasy to say something about the world we live in and how we relate to each other and it is the relationships which really matter. Touching and credible’ – Judging panel
What We Say:
Frank Cottrell Boyce takes the story of Laika, the dog sent into space by the Russians in 1957, and asks what if she didn’t die, what if she was rescued by someone up there and told them about the wonders of Earth? Enter Sputnik, a small, rather unpredictable alien who lands on the doorstep of Prez, a young boy in care. Prez has grown up with his grandfather but the onset of dementia has meant that the two have become separated. Though he finds himself unable to speak to humans, Prez will talk to Sputnik, who having only Laika as a reference, has taken the form of a dog.
Prez’s uncertainty of his place in the world makes him hugely endearing, and Sputnik, a kind of beneficent Lord of Misrule (happy to put a lightsabre into the hands of a five year old or deploy a reverse dynamite grenade to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall), is a fantastic character able to fill the page with joy and adventure. Together the two embark on a mission to save the earth from destruction by cataloguing the reasons it is still worth seeing (according to Sputnik’s alien logic). The resulting list is both profound and ridiculous.
Sure to be a hit with young enquiring minds, this is a tale which is heart-breaking and hilarious in equal measure; it takes the poetic and the mundane and blends them into Cottrell Boyce’s own particular brand of magical realism. Readers will find themselves more than happy to suspend their disbelief – adventures are but a gravity eddy away!
From the Horse’s mouth:
Watch Frank talking about the book on the CKG website where you can also hear him read an extract: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=14