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The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant

“You writers always have to be so cryptic.”

So says a character in this Australian YA fiction title, honored by The Children’s Book Council of Australia, but, she said it, full of cryptic. The Ink Bridge tells the story of two young men, one Afghani named Omed and one Australian boy named Hector, Hec for short. Omed’s story comes first in the book. Maimed by the Taliban when they cut out his tongue, Omed is unable to talk, lost inside himself, and a lot of his internal dialogue is obscure and puzzling (cryptic) to say the least. Omed’s story is the tale of a refugee with very little hope, as Omed makes his way from Afghanistan to Australia in the clutches of and dependent on an evil smuggler called The Snake.

Halfway through the book, the point of view switches to Hec, another boy without words. Hec is an elective mute; he chooses not to talk because the tragedy which has occurred to disrupt his life has sucked all the words out of him. As he gets to know Omed, however, whom he calls Silent Boy, Hec finds a reason for words and telling stories. In fact, he finds himself compelled to tell Omed’s story in the hope that somehow telling the story of Omed’s struggles will give voice to the suffering people of Afghanistan and will change in some small way the tragedy that is being played out daily in that country.

A lot of the book fits the cryptic label. Omed and Hec both are very internally focussed for much of the story. Since they can’t or won’t talk, they imagine a lot, and some of their introspection is a stew of secrets and mysteries and regrets and visions and just plain craziness. I can imagine not talking for a year, like Hec, and sometimes I think it would be a relief. But it might make me a little more crazy than I already am.

The Ink Bridge is a book about the power of words, but I think it would take a motivated and discerning young adult reader to stick with the story through the enigmatic passages and the difficult relationships that make up the bulk of the narrative. I would recommend it to those who have an interest in refugees in Australia or in the people of fghanistan.

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

Historical fiction set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. Or is it magical realism? The horses featured in the story are very, very intelligent, crafty, and communicative. Then, there’s the question of whether this book is middle grade fiction or young adult. The main character, a Jewish girl named Kalinka, is young, maybe twelve or thirteen? But a lot of what happens in this World War II-setting novel is very, very dark. I don’t exactly know how to classify this book, and that ambiguity in being able to pigeon-hole the book into “YA Holocaust novel” or “middle grade horse book” or “magical horse story” or something else makes it that much more intriguing to me.

Kalinka’s entire family has been annihilated by the Nazis. Max, the wildlife manager at Aksaniya-Nova wildlife preserve, is pretending to cooperate with the Germans so that he can protect the animals he loves, especially the rare and wild Przewalski’s horses. As Kalinka forms a bond with the horses out on the snowy plains where they live, Max forms a plan to save both Kalinka and the horses from the German soldiers who have been ordered to wipe out both the Jews and the ancient breed of Przewalski’s.

The style of writing in this novel comes across as very Russian (Ukrainian?) to me. The writing is rather simple and unadorned, and Max’s philosophy of “live and let live” and “persevere to fight another day” strikes me as typical of a Ukrainian peasant, at least the Ukrainian peasants I’ve read about in Russian novels. Something about the way the book is written, the characters, and the descriptions made me eel as if I were in Ukraine in the winter of 1941, watching the events unfold. Even when the events that unfold are borderline unbelievable (a horse that counts and strategizes?), I wanted to believe. And when the plot turned to harsh, violent, and tragic, I wanted to close my eyes and disbelieve that things like genocide, animal cruelty, bombings, and attempted cannibalism really could happen. But those latter things, the ones I wished weren’t at all possible, were the ones that did happen, and probably still are happening.

I would recommend this book for older teens who can handle the horrors and can yet still suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a semi-happy ending.

Kalinka’s (nick)name comes from an old Russian song by composer and folklorist Ivan Petrovich Larionov:

And here’s a short video about Przewalski’s horses:

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Heidi Grows Up by Charles Tritten

At Half-Price Books in San Antonio (which by the way is a very old-fashioned edition of Half-Price with lots of nooks and cubbyholes and corners and old books), I found a copy of translator Charles Tritten’s sequel to the classic Heidi by Johanna Spyri, called Heidi Grows Up. I remember Tritten’s two sequels, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children quite fondly from my teen years of reading, and I would love to have a copy of Heidi’s Children to go with my new/old copy of Heidi Grows Up.

So, I re-read this story of Heidi’s teen years. In the story, first Heidi agrees to go away form her beloved mountains to boarding school so that she can be educated away from the cruel schoolmaster in Dorfli and so that she can develop her musical abilities with violin lessons from a professional teacher. Heidi manages to win the affections of almost all of the girls in her new school, just as in the original Heidi, she wins over Clara and her father and all of the Sesemann household in Frankfurt. But again just as in the original, Heidi misses her grandfather and the Alps, and in the summer she and a friend go back to spend some time in the mountains that are truly Heidi’s “natural habitat.”

After a year or so of schooling, Heidi declares her intention to return to Dorfli and teach school. She hopes to teach the children useful skills such as sewing and knitting and reading and to replace the cruel schoolmaster who has been in the habit of shutting up the children in a boarded up cloakroom-turned-dungeon for any infraction of his strict and arbitrary rules. Heidi is ultimately successful in her reform of the school at Dorfli, and in the process she manages to also a reform a young delinquent (who, of course, has a good heart and fantastic artistic ability) named Chel. The book then ends, very happily and traditionally, with a wedding.

The entire story echoes the first bookHeidi quite a bit in its plot and themes, and Tritten is said to have “adapted from her (Spyri’s) other works . . . many years after she (Spyri) died.” It is a little odd that Spyri described Heidi as having dark curly hair while Tritten portrayed the same girl with straight fair hair in Heidi Grows Up. Curiously enough, Ms. Spyri herself may have adapted Heidi from another novel that she read or heard as a child:

“In April 2010, a Swiss professorial candidate, Peter Buettner, uncovered a book written in 1830 by the German author Hermann Adam von Kamp. The 1830 story is titled “Adelaide: The Girl from the Alps” (German: Adelheide, das Mädchen vom Alpengebirge). The two stories share many similarities in plot line and imagery. Spyri biographer Regine Schindler said it was entirely possible that Spyri may have been familiar with the story as she grew up in a literate household with many books.” Wikipedia, Heidi

Heidi Grows Up forms a nice bridge between Heidi and Heidi’s Children, both of which are better and more substantial books than than this middle one. I’d like to find an affordable copy of Heidi’s Children in good to excellent condition both for my library and for my personal reading. I’d like to see if the “ending” to the story of Heidi and her grandfather, The Alm-Uncle, is as satisfying as I remember it.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

The fourth book in Dorothy Dunnett’s historical series Renaissance man, Francis Crawford of Lymond, aka Comte of Sevigny, takes the characters, especially Lymond himself, to a new level of complexity and human triumph over adversity and suffering. And at one point in the story, we are informed or perhaps reminded that Lymond is only twenty-six years old. He’s already survived more than most men three times his age, even in the adventurous Renaissance times in which he lives.

In this book, Lymond manages to escape a couple of assassins disguised as nuns, imprisonment in a North African harem, poisoning, an underwater struggle with his murderous arch enemy, and a rather deadly chess game featuring human chess pieces who forfeit their lives if taken by the opposing player. The chess game in the seraglio in Istamboul is unforgettable, by the way. And that’s just a sample of the perils and predicaments that face Mr. Crawford in this highly entertaining adventure.

Entertaining, yes, but the denouement of the novel is heart-rending. Lymond must choose whether or not to forfeit the life of one innocent in order to save the lives of many more. It’s a no-win situation, and of course, since Lymond is the sensitive soul that he’s always been in all of the other books in the series, he blames himself for the outcome and carries a heavy burden of guilt into the next book in the series, The Ringed Castle.

Has anyone else read this series, and if so, what did you think? The vocabulary and writing style are challenging for me, in a good way, and I don’t usually find that to be so with novels written after 1900. Lymond is also a complex, conflicted, and challenging character. I do have a prediction to make at this point in the series, a prediction I came up with halfway through this volume: I predict that Lymond and Philippa will end up truly married by the end of the sixth book. Don’t ask me how (I don’t know) and don’t tell me if I’m right or wrong. I’ll see how my prediction pans out as I read books five and six.

If you want to read a little more about this engaging novel, here are some other blog reviews of Pawn in Frankincense:

She Reads Novels: Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett.
Shelf Love: Pawn in Frankincense (some spoilers)
Semicolon review of The Disorderly Knights, book three in the series.
Semicolon thoughts on Game of Kings, the first book in the series.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, besides authoring several Golden Age of detective fiction mysteries, also wrote romance novels and according to Wikipedia “essentially established the genre of Regency romance.” During her career,she published over thirty Regency novels, for a period of her life publishing one mystery/thriller and one romance per year.

The Grand Sophy, one of those Regency novels, was published in 1950. It’s the story of a rather indolent and somewhat impecunious family, Lord and Lady Ombersley and their several children, including the eldest, Charles, who has become something of a family tyrant in his quest to save the family from bankruptcy. When Lady Ombersley’s niece, Sophy, comes to stay for a while while her diplomat father goes on an ambassadorial trip to Brazil, the entire household is turned topsy-turvy by Sophy’s free and easy ways and her lack of female propriety, not to mention her monkey, Jacko.

Sophy is a grand character. She’s independent, intelligent, and spirited without being obnoxious. Sophy’s cousin Charles is less well-developed as a character. At first, he seems like a petty family dictator, ruling over his parents and his younger brothers and sisters in a rather arbitrary way while planning to marry an heiress to re-coup the family fortunes. As the story continues, Charles becomes more sympathetic as a character, but I was never sure why he was so high-handed and unbending at the beginning.

Jane Austen fans and Regency romance readers should definitely check out The Grand Sophy. Ms. Heyer’s novels, including this one, are not as subtle and deep as Jane Austen’s, but as far as straight light romance novels go Georgette’s Heyer’s books rise near to the top of the list.

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay

British author Hilary McKay specializes in stories of unsupervised, even neglected, children. Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Caddie Ever After, Forever Rose, and Permanent Rose make up a series of books featuring one of the most dysfunctional functioning familes in children’s literature. The father, Bill, is absent most of the time, and the mom, Eve, is an artist who spends her days and most of her nights in a backyard shed where she paints and dozes and daydreams. The children run wild, free range as it were. The other book that I know by Hilary McKay is a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, A Little Princess, called Wishing for Tomorrow. McKay’s follow-up features the poor little neglected girls of Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.

And now there’s Binny for Short, Ms. McKay’s latest. Eleven year old Binny has a mom (dad’s deceased) and an older sister and a younger brother. However, mom is awfully busy working to support the family, and she’s a little lackadaisical about supervising Binny. Which is fine with Binny. Binny spends her time exploring the seaside town she lives in along with her favorite enemy, Gareth, the boy next door. Or she looks for Max, her long lost dog. Or she tries to convince herself that Aunty Violet has not come back from the dead to haunt the house she left to Binny in her will. Or she works on the excursion boat that takes tourists to see the seals. Binny is never bored.

Binny’s six year old brother, James, is even more unbored. He grows poisoned lettuce, chases chickens, entertains the old people at the nursing home, wears his purple and pink wetsuit to the beach, sprays the back fence, and generally acts like a creative, thoughtful, free range kid. I’m pretty much in favor of the free range kids philosophy myself, even if I do find it difficult to put into practice given my place of abode in Major Suburbia and my kids’ personalities, pretty much introverted homebodies. However, I believe in giving kids room to roam and explore and learn the world on their own terms. (It just so happens that my kids prefer a world mostly mediated by books and movies, kind of like their mom and dad.)

Anyway, if you’re OK with children in your books or in real life who explore the neighborhood freely and who are allowed to figure out their place in that world by themselves for the most part, you’ll like Binny for Short. In other words, if you’ve read the Casson family books by Hilary McKay, and you’re OK with those children, you’ll probably enjoy Binny for Short. If you’re a little nervous about the whole free range kid thing, you might want to let your children at least experience it vicariously through Binny and James (and the Cassons: Cadmium, Saffron, Indigo, and Rose).

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell


“Child, you do not forgive because the person who wronged deserves it. You misunderstand the point of forgiveness entirely. The only cage that a grudge creates is around the holder of that grudge. Forgiveness is not saying that the person who hurt you was right, or has earned it, or is allowed to hurt you again. All forgiveness means is that you will carry on without the burdens of rage and hatred.”

What a lovely parable about forgiveness and friendship and compromise and negotiation. And it’s all built upon the framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. When Sand wakes up in the cold fireplace of the Sundered Castle, he has no idea how he got there. Nor can he understand why everything, every single thing, in the castle is torn apart: floors, doors, furniture, linens, tools, everything. It couldn’t be the result of an earthquake, the story that Sand has heard all of his life. Earthquakes don’t tear both hammers and heavy iron anvils in half.

Now Sand finds himself trapped inside the Sundered Castle with a hedge of vicious thorns all around, and he does the only thing he knows how to do. He begins to use the forge and his skills as the son of a blacksmith to mend what has been broken.

This reworking of the story of Sleeping Beauty is aimed at middle grade readers, but it works for older children and adults, too. Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is more for adults, and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is a YA adaptation. It’s good to have such a solid Sleeping Beauty story for the younger set.

The book does use the idea of medieval Catholic “saints” as semi-magical figures who offer guidance and answer prayers. This depiction of mythical saints may be uncomfortable for both Catholics who believe in praying to real saints and Protestants who are uneasy with the entire concept. However, if you don’t mind a couple of fictitious saints inhabiting the pages of the fairy tale, then The Castle Behind Thorns is uplifting and authentic at the same time.

Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai

A middle grade mystery story set among Afghan immigrants to the United States with a Muslim girl detective protagonist whose main interests are origami and other paper crafts—it’s definitely a niche that needed to be filled.

Just kidding, this kid’s mystery is really a good story with an interesting setting and likable characters. Ariana, the main character, is a twelve year old tomboy/artist who has a special skin sensitivity that makes her have to wear soft, seamless clothing with the tags removed. These quirks, interests, and idiosyncrasies make Ariana a real character who comes across as more than just a Muslim stand-in for developing multi-cultural awareness.

At the same time that Ariana is a well-rounded character, not just Afghan or just Muslim, she and her family are both of those things, and readers con learn a lot from this book about Afghan culture, food, and traditions. When it seems as if a family feud from two generations back has been carried over to the same families in America, Ariana must find a way to end the fighting and work together with the family that may be her own family’s enemies.

Shooting Kabul was a good book about an Afghan family emigrating to the U.S. just after 9/11, and Saving Kabul Corner takes the same Afghan immigrant community into the next decade as they learn to combine American culture with the traditions brought over from Afghanistan to make a new place for themselves in San Francisco.

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

I read the first of the Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings, back in early January and reviewed it, sort of, here. Mostly I told you about all of the new words I learned from reading the first in a five volume series about a sixteenth century Scots lord with a loquacious and facile tongue.

A couple of months ago I read the second book in the series, Queens’ Play, in which Francis Crawford of Lymond, moves his base of operations from Scotland to France, where he lives a dissolute and adventurous life at the court of Henri II and manages to protect the young Scots princess Mary, who is affianced to the the Dauphin, from numerous assassination attempts, all while drinking inordinate amounts of alcohol and staying drunk for most of the book. Crawford of Lymond is, simply put, amazing.

“On the day that his grannie was killed by the English, Sir William Scott the Younger of Buccleuch was at Melrose Abbey, marrying his aunt.
News of the English attack came towards the end of the ceremony, when, by good fortune, Young Scott and his aunt Grizel were by all accounts man and wife. There was no bother over priorities. As the congregation hustled out of the church, led by bridegroom and father, and spurred off on the heels of the messenger, the new-made bride and her sister watched them go.”

In this third book, The Disorderly Knights, Lymond becomes entangled with the affairs of the Order of the Knights Hospitaliers, whose headquarters and refuge on the island of Malta is threatened by the Turkish fleet bent on revenge. The Knights of Malta themselves are torn by internal dissension, and the only hero in the whole mess, besides the ever-smiling and accomplished Lymond himself, is Sir Graham Reid Mallett, nicknamed Gabriel, a Scots recruit to the order whose skills and expertise in war and diplomacy rival those of Lymond.

After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and Gabriel both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border on behalf of, but not directly under the orders of, Queen Dowager Mary of Scotland. Gabriel joins Lymond’s merry band ostensibly to train under the great soldier, but also to claim Lymond’s allegiance and soul for God, the (Catholic) Church and the Knights Hospitaliers. Lymond, of course, has other plans for his soul.

Lymond: “What does anyone want out of life? What kind of freak do you suppose I am? I miss books and good verse and decent talk. I miss women, to speak to, not to rape; and children, and men creating things instead of destroying them. And from the time I wake until the time I find I can’t go to sleep there is the void—–the bloody void where there was no music today and none yesterday and no prospect of any tomorrow, or tomorrow, or next God-d— year.”

Finally, in addition to a fiendishly clever plot and excellent characters and dialog, there are the words. Here are a few more words that I gleaned from The Disorderly Knights:

Fremescent: Becoming murmurous, roaring. “Fremescent clangor.” –Carlyle.
Opaline: of or like opal; opalescent; having a milky iridescence.
Fauve: wild, literally, tawny
Insessorial: adapted for perching, as a bird’s foot.
Coign (quoin): an external solid angle of a wall or the like; cornerstone.
Debouch: to march out from a narrow or confined place into open country, as a body of troops: The platoon debouched from the defile into the plain.
Culverin: medieval form of musket or a kind of heavy cannon used in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Cittern: an old musical instrument related to the guitar, having a flat, pear-shaped soundbox and wire strings.
Simulacrum: a slight, unreal, or superficial likeness or semblance.
Dissentient: dissenting, especially from the opinion of the majority.
Otiosity: being at leisure; idle; indolent.
Pendicle: An appendage; something dependent on another; an appurtenance; a pendant.
Bagatelle: something of little value or importance; a trifle.

Those are just a few of the new-to-me words I encountered in this volume of Francis Crawford of Lymond’s further adventures. The next book (fourth) in the series is entitled Pawn in Frankincense.

QOTD: What is your favorite word? What word(s) do you just like to use because of the sound and meaning and the way the two fit together?