Category Archives: history

Guest Author: Melinda Szymanik on A Winter’s Day in 1939

Today I’m joined by the wonderful Melinda Szymanik, author of the powerful new book, A Winter’s Day in 1939.  Based on her father’s experiences during World War II, A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Melinda has written a really interesting post for My Best Friends Are Books about why and how she wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939.

Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939

When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back.  The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.

I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up.  It was shocking, and sad, and amazing.  My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next.  As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.

I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children.  I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well  from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine.  I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel.  This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared

Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up.  However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.

I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life.  So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter’s Day in 1939.

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A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

When I was a teenager I went through stages of reading nothing but war stories.  I was fascinated by them because I couldn’t believe how people, especially children, could survive such a horrific event.  These stories put me in the shoes of teenagers in another time, taught me empathy and taught me a lot about the survival instinct of humans.  The thing that always gets me with war stories is that you know these horrible things happened, but you struggle to accept that anyone can be that cruel.   In her latest book, A Winter’s Day in 1939, Melinda Szymanik introduces us to a Polish family who do everything they can to stay together and stay alive.

Taken from their home, forced to leave their country, put to work in labour camps, frozen and starved, Adam and his family doubt that they will ever make it out alive. Even if they were to get away, they might freeze to death, or starve, or the bears might get them. For the Polish refugees, the whole of the USSR becomes a prison from which there is seemingly no escape.

 

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds.  Adam and his family are ripped from their safe, comfortable life in Poland and transported to prison camps in Russia, in freezing conditions and with little to eat and drink.  They get transported in dirty, stinking train carriages with a stove and a pipe as a toilet, live in cramped barracks with many other families, and are forced to work for the good of Russia.  People die of exposure to the freezing conditions and disease is rife.  In these conditions you need to have to will to survive, and for Adam and his family, this is what is keeping them going.

The story is narrated by Adam, so you see everything through his eyes.  You feel how much he wants to survive and how important his family is to him. You get a real sense of how desperate their situation gets as time goes by, especially when it comes to food.  When a clerk at one of the evacuation centers apologizes to Adam for the lack of food, Adam says ‘He sounded sorry about it but that was no help to us.  You couldn’t eat ‘sorry.” You want so much for Adam and his family to survive the war and be able to return home, but you don’t know if their story will have a happy ending.

One of the things that stands out in Melinda’s story is the sense that Adam, his family, and the other refugees around them, hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they’re treated the way they are.  Adam says this himself, ‘We were being punished but I hadn’t done anything wrong.  None of us had.’ These people have been thrown out of their homes and sent to prison camps for no reason what so ever.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a great addition to any home or school library.  It’s a war story that hasn’t been told before and it will have an affect on readers of all ages.  Stories like Melinda’s help us to remember all those people who died during this horrific period of history and I’ll certainly remember Adam’s story for a long time.

4 out of 5 stars

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Introducing The Department 19 Files by Will Hill

I’m a huge fan of Will Hill’s Department 19 series.  I love them because they’re action-packed and gory, and there are vicious, blood-sucking vampires galore.  If you haven’t come across the series you can read my reviews of Department 19 and Department 19: The Rising here on the blog.

The third book in this awesome series, Department 19: Battle Lines will be released in April in New Zealand (March 28th in the UK).  In the lead-up to the release of Battle Lines, Will Hill is publishing three Department 19 short stories as ebooks.  The Department 19 Files is a trilogy of new stories, set in the same world as Jamie’s, but further back in history.  Will describes the stories as:

“…some of the darkest, most painful stuff I’ve written, and are full of all the action and gore you’ll be expecting. They shed light on the early years of Blacklight and how it became the organisation that Jamie and his friends are parts of, and they allowed me to write about one of the most fascinating periods in history, a period of mechanised death and devastation on a scale that is almost unimaginable in these days of drone strikes and laser-targeted bombs.”

The three stories are being released over the next three weeks in the lead up to the release of Battle Lines, and you can buy them from Amazon.com or Kobo in NZ.  Will explains what each of the stories is about on his blog:

“if you want to read about Quincey Harker and his horrifying adventures in the darkness of the Western Front, pick up The Devil In No Man’s Land. If you want to see a younger Valeri Rusmanov doing what he does best as Europe is gripped by the flu pandemic of 1918 (and read some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever written!) then stick around for Undead in the Eternal City. And if you want to know what happened when Quincey Harker returned home and discovered the truth about what his father and his friends really do, then The New Blood contains the answers, along with some characters that fans of Dracula will be very familiar with!”

I’ve just read the first story, The Devil in No Man’s Land, and it’s bloody brilliant!  Set in the muddy battlefields of the Western Front, it tells the story of Quincey Harker (a character you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read any of the other Department 19 books) and the members of the Special Reconnaissance Unit.  They fought relentlessly for their country and were given medals that they could never be officially awarded, but none of them were prepared for the horror that they would discover in Passchendaele.  Will Hill is brilliant at building suspense and having you on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what Quincey and his squad will come across next.  The gore that I love in the Department 19 books is certainly here in this compact little story and Will portrays the horrors of war very well.

One of the things I like the most about the Department 19 books are the historical chapters that give you background to the story and the organisation, so it’s great that Will has written these ebook short stories.  The great thing about The Department 19 Files is that they can be read separate from the rest of the books, so even someone who hasn’t read the others would enjoy these.  They would be a great way to hook readers into the series too.

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Back to Black Brick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Sometimes a story can come along at exactly the right time.  It can mirror something that is happening in your own life and really strike a chord with you.  Back to Black Brick is a story about a grandfather who has Alzheimer’s Disease and his grandson, Cosmo, who tries everything he can to stop him losing his memory.  My nan has early stage dementia so I can completely understand how Cosmo feels.  Cosmo, however, does something that I can’t do – he travels back in time to meet his grandfather as a young man.

Cosmo’s brother Brian died when he was ten years old. His mum hides her grief and Cosmo lives with his grandparents. They’ve been carefree days as Granddad buys him a horse called John and teaches him all he knows about horses. But the good times have to come to an end and although he doesn’t want to admit it, Cosmo knows his Granddad is losing his mind. So on one of the rare occasions when Granddad seems to recognise him, Cosmo is bemused that he gives him a key to Blackbrick Abbey and urges him to go there. Cosmo shrugs it off, but gradually Blackbrick draws him in… Cosmo arrives there, scared and lonely, and is dropped off at the crumbling gates of a huge house. As he goes in, the gates close, and when he turns to look, they’re rusty and padlocked as if they haven’t been opened in years. Cosmo finds himself face to face with his grandfather as a young man, and questions begin to form in his mind: can Cosmo change the course of his family’s future?

Back to Black Brick is a captivating story about families, the secrets that they keep, and the pain they hold inside.  Sarah Moore Fitzgerald wraps this all up with plenty of mystery, a dash of history, and time travel.  It’s a time-slip story but quite different from similar stories I’ve read.  When time travel is involved the characters generally have to think about how their actions in the past will affect the future, but Cosmo does everything he can to try and change the future.  He wants to try and stop his grandfather’s memory from fading when he’s older, so he tells him about things that he’ll need to remember for later in life.

As soon as I heard Cosmo’s voice I knew I would really like this character.  Cosmo is a loner who has been affected by the death of his brother, the abandonment of his mother, and his grandfather’s worsening condition.  From the first few paragraphs you know how much Cosmo loves and admires his grandfather.  He wants to do everything he possibly can to help stop his grandfather losing his memory and would hate for him to have to go into a home.  So when Cosmo gets the chance to meet his grandfather as a young man he believes this is his chance to change the future and make things right.

There were several things that I really loved about Back to Black Brick.  I thought the characters were very well developed and you felt like you were part of their gang.  I especially liked the way that you could see the personality traits mirrored in both the young and old version of Cosmo’s grandfather, Kevin (like the ‘Ah, fantastic’ when he’d drink tea).  The other thing that I loved about the story is the way that Sarah explains how the time travel happened and the way that Cosmo’s visit to the past affected the future.  I like the way that this explanation rounds off the story but still leaves you with a sense of mystery.

4 out of 5 stars

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Christmas 2012: Horrible Christmas by Terry Deary and Martin Brown

Do you love history with all the horrible bits left in?  Have you ever wondered where Christmas carols came from or why we have Christmas trees?  Well all your Christmases have come at once with the latest edition of Horrible Christmas by Terry Deary and Martin Brown. 

Horrible Christmas is a fantastic book from the pair that have brought us the Horrible Histories series.  It’s a book ‘filled full of the foulest facts you can find on this festive folly.’  Terry and Martin dispel the myths about Christmas and give you the cold, hard, horrible facts.  You can discover:

  • the truth behind some popular Christmas carols
  • who invented the Christmas cracker
  • what people used to eat for their Christmas dinners
  • the things they never tell you about Santa
  • Christmas entertainment from the past
  • Christmas customs from around the world

There is so much in this book that I didn’t know about Christmas.  Did you know that Father Christmas comes in down the chimney because Saint Nicholas was the saint of chimney sweeps or that Christmas pudding in the Middle Ages was spicy porridge?  There are also lots of quizes and a game so that readers can test their knowledge about the different topics.  Martin Brown’s illustrations always make me laugh and this book is chock-full of his Christmasy characters from through the ages.  I especially like the illustration of a very fat Father Christmas trying to figure out how to squeeze back up a very small fireplace.

Horrible Christmas is a great addition to the Horrible Histories series that boys just seem to gobble up.  They’re hugely appealing because they’re interesting, funny and gross.  If you know a kid that says they don’t like reading, put  Horrible Christmas under the Christmas tree for them and they’ll be hooked on this fantastic series.

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Interview with Gareth P. Jones + giveaway of Constable & Toop

Garth P. Jones is the author of the creepy, gruesome and funny new book, Constable & Toop (you can read my review here).  After finishing Constable & Toop I wanted to find out what else he had written and I discovered that we had his Dragon Detective Agency series and The Thornthwaite Inheritance sitting on our library shelves.  I love his writing style and I now want to go and read all of his other books.  Gareth very kindly answered my questions about his writing and his fantastic new book.

  • What inspired you to write Constable and Toop?
I was sitting in a coffee shop in Honor Oak (which is not far from my flat). The coffee shop is opposite an undertakers called Constable & Toop. At the time I was trying to come up with a new idea. I wrote down the name of the undertakers, which I found especially evocative. By the time I had finished my coffee the bare bones of the idea were down on paper.
  • Are any of the ghosts in Constable and Toop based on real ghosts?
As a non-believer, I am amused by the idea of real ghosts, but yes – some are. The Man in Grey is the best example. A tour guide by the name of David Kendell-Kerby (also an actor and writer himself) told me about several ghosts who haunt Drury Lane (apparently the most haunted theatre in the world). I liked the story of the Man in Grey best. The stuff about him being bricked up in the wall and possibly killed for discovering accounting irregularities is all ‘true’ although his name was unknown so I borrowed David’s. The part about him whispering to lines to actors is ‘true’ as well – a kind of spiritual teleprompter.
  • In your story there are different types of ghosts, including Enforcers, Prowlers and Rogues. What sort of ghost would you be?
Well, I have certainly worked for large organisations like the Bureau where you can hide the fact you’re not doing much behind all the processes and procedures so maybe I would be a clerk – although a far less conscientious one than Lapsewood .

  • The story is set in Victorian England and you really feel immersed in the period as you read. While researching and writing your story what was the most interesting thing that you learnt about this period?
I think mostly I was struck by how similar it was. I was interested in the South-East London suburbs where I live and where most of the action is based and, although there has been a lot of development, it’s not that different in terms of how connected to London you feel. One of the formative moments in writing was standing at the top of the hill between Honor Oak and Peckham Rye and looking down at London and I realised that the view probably wouldn’t have been dramatically different – give or take a few buildings here and there. There were lots of moments while wandering around London when I felt very connected with the city’s history.

  • One of the things I like the most about Constable and Toop is the mix of the creepy and gruesome with the lighter moments and witty banter between your characters. Was this how you originally planned the story or did you set out to write a more traditional ghost story?
I had a very tight deadline with this book and how no real time to stop and consider what I was doing. Happily the story flowed very quickly from my pen. Gruesome and creepy were necessities of the story and I always intended it to be funny. My editor had told me that she didn’t think my previous book (The Considine Curse) was very funny so I was determined to make sure this one was.
  • What exciting stories can we look forward to from you?

Hm, I’m not sure I’m ready to tell anyone yet. It looks like it will have a Victorian setting again though – at least in part. And It will probably have elements of supernatural and humour – but not ghosts again. I’ll save ghosts for when I do a sequel to Constable & Toop… if I ever do that is.

Win a copy of Constable & Toop!

I have 2 copies of Constable & Toop to give away.  To get in the draw just enter your name and email address in the form below.  Competition closes Wednesday 21 November (NZ only).

Thanks to everyone who entered.  This competition is now closed.

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Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know that I love creepy stories of all kinds.  Ghosts, werewolves, zombies, vampires, and other creatures that live in the dark are often featured in the books I love.  I’ve been reading many of the first titles from Hot Key Books (a brilliant new publisher based in the UK) and when I read about Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones I had to get my hands on it.  A ghost story set in Victorian London, featuring a boy who could communicate with ghosts, sounded absolutely fantastic!  Constable & Toop was even better than it sounded.

Sam Toop lives in a funeral parlour, blessed (or cursed) with an unusual gift. While his father buries the dead, Sam is haunted by their constant demands for attention. Trouble is afoot on the ‘other side’ – there is a horrible disease that is mysteriously imprisoning ghosts into empty houses in the world of the living. And Sam is caught in the middle – will he be able to bring himself to help?

Constable & Toop is a creepy, gruesome story, with plenty of mystery, and a good dose of wit and humour.  Gareth can have you cringing one moment and laughing the next, which is why I liked the book so much.  He has given us a glimpse inside the ghost world and it’s not what you would expect.  It’s the ghost world and the witty banter between his characters that provide the comic relief of the story.  There is also plenty of throat slitting and stabbing for those who like their ghost stories gruesome.  The story is set in Victorian London and from the first page you are immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the period.

There are several different threads of the story, following different characters, which Gareth weaves together perfectly.  Gareth shows us the lives of the living and the dead, and the ‘Talkers’ allow them to communicate with each other.  Characters whose lives seem quite separate from each other in the beginning become increasingly intertwined as the story progresses.

The thing I liked the most about Constable and Toop was the way that Gareth portrayed the ghost world.  It’s very bureaucratic, with each ghost having a role, like Enforcer or Prowler, and there are lots of rules and regulations that ghosts must follow.  If they don’t do as they are told they’re labelled Rogues and are hunted down.  There is an incredible amount of paperwork that needs to be filled out to do anything, and you must have a license in order to be a Poltergeist.  In order to go to the physical world and find out what your unfinished business is (so that you can step through the Unseen Door and cross over) you have to apply for a research license.  Lapsewood is my favourite character because he’s a very likeable guy, who just wants to get away from all the paperwork and get some adventure out in the real world (while impressing the girl of his dreams).  He has some of the best lines and has some incredibly strange conversations with his superiors, who can never seem to get his name right.

If you want a ghost story with a difference grab a copy of Constable and Toop by Gareth P. Jones.  I would recommend it for fans of Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series, Joseph Delaney’s Spook’s Apprentice series, or Barry Hutchison’s Invisible Fiends series.

5 out of 5 stars

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Win A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo

A Medal for Leroy is Michael Morpurgo’s latest book.  It’s a story of war, love and family secrets from this master storyteller.  If you haven’t read a Michael Morpurgobook you don’t know what you’re missing.

Thanks to everyone who entered.  This competition is now closed.

 

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The Boy in the Olive Grove by Fleur Beale

Fleur Beale has written some great novels, both for children and young adults.  My favourite books of hers are the award-winning Juno of Taris series.  Fleur’s latest book, The Boy in the Olive Grove, is a about a girl living in present day New Zealand, whose past lives resurface and turn her life upside down.

On the night of her seventeenth birthday Bess Grey sees images of a witch-burning unfold in front of her as if in a movie. She also sees images from a different time — lovers, and the girl, she’s sure is — was – herself. When she meets Nick she recognises him as the boy. There’s an immediate connection. However when her father nearly dies from a heart attack there’s no time to brood as Bess tries to save her father’s business. She falls in love with Nick but her difficult mother interferes, forcing Bess to make the hardest decision of her life. She must decide whether to lose her mother or the boy she loves.

The Boy in the Olive Grove is a really unique story about a girl who is navigating the minefield of her family life, while trying to deal with the lives she has lived in the past.  In the present Bess has a horrible mother who doesn’t seem to care for her at all, a protective brother who has just up and left her, a father who is ill, and a step-mother who she feels awkward around.  When she has a visions of herself burning a witch at the stake and of a mysterious boy who she has strong feelings for, she gets drunk and nearly kills herself on the road.  This only seems to be the beginning of her troubles, as she gets expelled from her boarding school and sent home to live with her mother.  Her dad falls ill and Bess gets left to look after his struggling furniture business.  She continues to have the visions and her step-mother sends her to a psychiatrist who helps her to understand these and come to terms with what they mean.

I found the story quite unusual (it’s quite different in a way from Fleur Beale’s previous books), but the more I read, the more intrigued I became and wanted to find out how it would end.  Fleur Beale always gets inside her characters heads so we know everything that they’re thinking and feeling.  Bess has so much to deal with, from her visions, to taking over her father’s business, and dealing with her horrible mother, but she deals with everything extremely well.  I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle all that at her age!  I love the relationship that Bess has with the men that work for her dad.  After some initial skepticism they warm to her and she helps to boost their confidence.  I love the way they call her ‘boss.’

The only thing I didn’t really like about the story was the scheming, vindictive bitch that was Bess’ mum.  I don’t think I’ve met a character that I’ve hated quite so much as her, and she didn’t seem to have any redeeming characteristics.  I’d really like to know if there are mothers out there that are really like her, because I couldn’t quite imagine a mother that could be as cruel and uncaring as she was.

If you like contemporary Young Adult fiction that stands out from the crowd, The Boy in the Olive Grove, get a copy now.  If you’re a fan of Fleur Beale then this is one not to be missed.

4 out of 5 stars

You can read an extract of The Boy in the Olive Grove on the Random House New Zealand website.

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If you like The 39 Clues, you’ll love The Infinity Ring

The Infinity Ring is a new interactive series like The 39 Clues.  It’s one of those books that comes with extra bits and pieces so that you can find out more about the story and the characters.  The Infinity Ring series is all about time travel so you follow the characters through different time periods.  Each book comes with a Hystorian’s Guide, which is your key to unlocking the next adventure in the online game.

Book 1 is called A Mutiny in Time by James Dashner and it’s out at the end of the month.

History is broken, and three kids must travel back in time to set it right!

When best friends Dak Smyth and Sera Froste stumble upon the secret of time travel — a hand-held device known as the Infinity Ring — they’re swept up in a centuries-long secret war for the fate of mankind. Recruited by the Hystorians, a secret society that dates back to Aristotle, the kids learn that history has gone disastrously off course.

Now it’s up to Dak, Sera, and teenage Hystorian-in-training Riq to travel back in time to fix the Great Breaks . . . and to save Dak’s missing parents while they’re at it. First stop: Spain, 1492, where a sailor named Christopher Columbus is about to be thrown overboard in a deadly mutiny!

Reserve your copy of The Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time at your library now or grab a copy from your bookshop from 28 August. I’ll also have 2 copies to give away when the book is released.

Scholastic NZ are running a really cool competition to celebrate the release of the series.  All you have to do is register and play the Infinity Ring game on www.infinityring.com and you go in the draw to win iPods and iPads.

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