Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Rosie's War: Rosemary Say and Noel Holland (France)

This is the extraordinary true story of a plucky young woman and her dramatic escape from a German-run internment camp in Occupied France. Written in Rosemary's own words and completed by her daughter and son-in-law after her death, it includes photographs and documents from Rosie's incredible journey. Rosie's story moves from artistic circles in Avignon, through occupied Paris and the privations of prison camp, and across war-ravaged Europe. A tale of remarkable courage: not only of Rosie herself, but also of the many people who helped and harboured her at huge personal risk. Rosie's story sheds light on the little-known story of the thousands of British women trapped in Occupied France. Moving, enthralling, and inspirational, 'Rosie's War' is a book for all to enjoy.

This book tells the true story, as the description above says, of a young English woman trapped in Occupied France, who makes a plucky escape from a POW camp back to her home in England. The book was written by Rosemary herself, and completed by her daughter and son-in-law after her death in 1996. How though did a girl such as this, for when this all began, our heroine was just a girl, end up in war torn France in the first place?

The answer was that she wanted to escape the increasingly dull existence that she felt had been mapped out for her - a dead end job that she did not enjoy and a boyfriend that she did not love, but everyone expected her to marry. In search of adventure and a desire to "see the world", Rosemary applied to work in Germany as an au pair, but having been convinced that this is not a good idea, as war seems about to break out, she instead takes a job in Avignon, France, where she is to help look after three young children.

She soon settles into her new life and learning fluent French, becomes part of her new family. Blissfully unaware of how bad things are across the rest of Europe, and ignoring her families please for her to return home, she chooses to stay until it is almost too late to escape. She is persuaded to flee back to England through Paris on the Eve of the German's triumphal march into that city, and on arrival witnesses the spectacle as they march up the Champs Elysees. In fear of her life, with nowhere to stay and no way of earning money, she is forced to take a series of low or unpaid jobs in exchange for board and lodging, until one fateful day she is arrested and taken to a POW camp.

After several months in the one camp, she is transferred to a somewhat better one, a converted hotel known as Vittel, which we later learnt acted as a staging post for Jews being transferred across Europe for execution. Eventually with the help of her fellow inmate Frida, she hatches a bold plot to escape, this time via the city of Marseilles in the Unoccupied Zone of France. During this time she is forced to rely on the goodwill of those within the French Resistance, going from safe house to safe house while awaiting her 'papers' as a Briton seeking repatriation. After several months, the papers finally come through and she journeys home via Spain and Portugal where she becomes a temporary celebrity.

This is an abbreviated version of what is a much more detailed story, and really just skims over the surface of what was an incredible and very moving book. Although I work with the elderly, and my own parents were of that same generation, meeting later in life, I still know very little about this part of history, as I did not study the subject past the age of 14, so it helped to put the flesh on the bones of many of the stories that I have been told and really brought home to life just how brave those men and women were and are, who fought so that we could have our freedom. This is not your average war time saga, for it is written from a woman's perspective without the blood and the guts and the violence that is so prevalent in other books of this genre. It is though no less real. In many ways it is more so, for what it does detail are the emotions that the young Rosemary experiences. It is those emotions and those feelings that make us what we are, and that colour our future in ways that most do not begin to understand.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Mosquito: Roma Tearne (Sri Lanka)

When author Theo Samarajeeva returns to his native Sri Lanka after his wife’s death, he hopes to escape his gnawing loss amid the lush landscape of his increasingly war-torn country. But as he sinks into life in this beautiful, tortured land, he also finds himself slipping into friendship with an artistic young girl, Nulani, whose family is caught up in the growing turmoil. Soon friendship blossoms into love. Under the threat of civil war, their affair offers a glimmer of hope to a country on the brink of destruction…

But all too soon, the violence which has cast an ominous shadow over their love story explodes, tearing them apart. Betrayed, imprisoned and tortured, Theo is gradually stripped of everything he once held dear – his writing, his humanity and, eventually, his love. Broken by the belief her lover is dead, Nulani flees Sri Lanka to a cold and lonely life of exile. As the years pass and the country descends into a morass of violence and hatred, the tragedy of Theo and Nulani's failed love spreads like a poison among friends sickened by the face of civil war, and the lovers must struggle to recover some of what they have lost and to resurrect, from the wreckage of their lives, a fragile belief in the possibility of redemption.

Beautifully written, by turns heartbreaking and uplifting, `Mosquito’ is a first novel of remarkable and compelling power.

This is a beautiful and compelling book, which vividly paints both the horror of war and the beauty of the Sri Lankan landscape, written as it is, by an artist. I found myself inexplicably drawn into this story, like water falling from a bucket into a well, and found that I did not want it to end. By the time it did, I found myself crying, the tears rolling down my cheeks.

Although I have read many books of late set in these war torn countries, no one painted it in quite the way that this writer has, summing up so eloquently the dictotomy between the beauty and the harshness all at the same time. I guess you have to suffer paradise to know what love is - whether that is true could be an excellent question for a book group!

This book though for me, conjured up so many emotions, love, despair, fear but most of all, hope - hope that things would get better for both the characters and their country, and in the end of course, for it is a very good story, and all good stories have a happy ending, this one did too.

I loved the way though that the effects of war are explored through all the different characters, and not just the main ones, for this is so very true to life. War affects all those around it, whether they are directly involved or not and it is something that you always carry with you. This book is one that I shall always carry with me.     

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: Elizabeth Tova Bailey (United States)

While an illness keeps her bedridden, Elisabeth Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence in a terrarium alongside her bed. She enters the rhythm of life of this mysterious creature, and comes to a greater understanding of her own confined place in the world. In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, she shares the inspiring and intimate story of her close encounter with Neohelix albolabris – a common woodland snail. Intrigued by the snail’s world – from its strange anatomy to its mysterious courtship activities – she becomes a fascinated and amused observer of the snail’s curious life. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is an affirmation of the healing power of nature, revealing how much of the world we miss in our busy daily lives, and how truly magical it is. A remarkable journey of survival and resilience, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating shows how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our own human existence and deepen our appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.

Although I have read a multutide of previous books that could count towards the United States as part of this challenge, I felt that it would good to review the next one I read on this blog, just to show the readers what wonderful books there are from this part of the world.

This is a delightful little book that I bought as the Kindle Book of the Day earlier in the same week that it was read. It was a relatively quick read (for me at least), at just 2 1/2 days and after having read a series of what some would consider quite heavy books made a refreshing change.

I found the subject matter fascinating - the idea that one could observe life through the eyes of a snail and in the process come to some startling conclusions about how we human beings live our own lives,  helping us to appreciate quite literally, the smaller things in life. The book is part spirituality, part science, which helps show how the two are so intimately connected, and how nature which is by definition part of the scientific world, affects us in ways that do not fully appreciate or comprehend. The book for me at least, also illustrates the power of silence, and of illness and how much we can learn from both, for eveything has meaning, and we give, to coin a phrase from A Course in Miracles, all the meaning that it has to us. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Last Train from Liguria: Christine Dwyer Hickey (Italy)

From the bestselling Irish novelist comes a sweeping historical novel, a tale of consequences, spanning from the 1930s to the 1990s

In 1933, Bella Stuart leaves her quiet London life to move to Italy to tutor the child of a beautiful Jewish heiress and an elderly Italian aristocrat. Living at the family's summer home, Bella's reserve softens as she comes to love her young charge, and find friendship with Maestro Edward, his enigmatic music teacher.

But as the decade draws to an end and fascism tightens its grip on Europe, the fact that Alec is Jewish places his life in grave danger. Bella and Edward take the boy on a terrifying train journey out of Italy - one they have no reason to believe any of them will survive...

This was a very good, very well written book, which I managed to get through in around 3 days (the snow helped). Initially I found the authors oscillation between past and present tense (she moved, she moves) annoying, but as I continued to read, and understood the reasons for this, it ceased to be an issue, and the story was allowed to speak for itself.

The opening chapter is set in Dublin, where the character that we later comes to know as Edward, has killed his sister and is forced to flee, we later learn to Italy. This chapter is a little gory, gritty even, but I am no stranger to crime fiction, and so this did not unduly shock. For me at least, it helped to set the scene for the story that began to unfold, an enigmatic story full of colour, which truly brought the Italian scenes amd the characters to life.

I knew little about this part of Italian history other than what I have seen in films, so it was also an education and no doubt very well researched. The characters too were very believable, especially Bella in the way that she blossomed when he was given the chance to escape like Edward, from her troubled past.

The blurb describes this as a book about redmeption, and in many ways this is true for Bella does commit like Edward, a terrible crime, effectively stealing the child and her employers money, yet at the same time, she gave that child the best chance of life that she had and managed to save a life that would otherwise have almost certainly been lost.

Yes the ending could have been better, but this for me is a reflection of the whole book, how Nonna who had remained an enigma to her granddaugter Anna, brought her secrets to the grave, as did Edward too. As for what happened to the afforementioned Edward and of course Alec, well that is what made it such a good story, for like life itself, it is and will always remain, a mystery.