Thursday, 28 July 2016

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

This is a book about how nuns and noodles can change your life.  And don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, it’s there in the first line.  As you can imagine from that, this is a light-hearted read, full of laughs and a lot of Major Dramas.  That’s not a spoiler either – it’s in the title.

But there is a serious side to this book.  Dara, convinced that she’s destined to become a major Hollywood star, knows she’ll land the main role in the school play without the need to audition.  So, when she’s not even given a walk-on part, she can only think of one reason why – the main part is Maria Von Trapp, blonde and Austrian, not dark and Cambodian like Dara.

At first I was perturbed that this could be the reason for not casting her in a white role – surely schools and teachers aren’t allowed to do that?  But then the truth creeps in – it could be that Dara might be better at over-acting than acting.  Her thinking she needs no drama lessons and refusal to even think about them could be part of the problem.  The fact she hero-worships two white, blonde Hollywood stars who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag doesn’t help either.  Besides, as her friend Lacey points out, there are children from all backgrounds in the cast.  Huge sigh of relief, the school is not guilty of discrimination here.

The rest of the world is, however, different.  Dara, desperate for Hollywood, does not know a single well known Cambodian actor.  There are no posters of gorgeous Cambodian Hollywood stars and she can’t see how she can be cast in these roles looking the way she does.  Her ever helpful brother can count on the fingers on one hand how many there are in real life.  Makes you think. 

The other issue is that of her background.  Dara has been adopted into a white, blonde family.  Her brother is the natural child, her sister is adopted, but, being blonde and from Russia, there are no raised eyebrows when she’s introduced as a member of the Palmer family.  But her family are utterly supportive in her need to find out who she is.  Despite the major dramas in her life, Dara knows how lucky she is.

This is a book about identity and dreams.  It’s about accepting who you are and accepting others for who they are.  Most of all it’s a fun, heart-warming read.


Sunday, 24 July 2016

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by JOHN BOYNE, reviewed by Pauline Francis


In this novel, Boyne re-visits World War 2 almost ten years after the success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, so there’s the question: ‘Will this be as successful? 

Boyne uses a familiar technique: he sets up the world of Pierrot, a seven year old boy, very carefully. Did he decide to make this boy younger, I wonder, following the criticism of Bruno in his first novel - that he was too old not to understand that he was living next to a concentration camp? Or is that just me, thinking as an author, not as goes with the job. 

Pierrot has a German father, a French mother and a Jewish friend, a deaf boy called Anschel. After being orphaned, Pierrot is sent from Paris to Austria, where his Aunt Beatrix works as a housekeeper to a mysterious master who visits the Berghof, a house on top of a mountain in the Bavarian Alps. Travelling there alone, Pierrot’s fear is increased when he is bullied by young German soldiers on the train.

The reader is quickly drawn in to Pierrot’s new and strange world: the master of the Berghof is Adolph Hitler; the year is 1935 and the world is already moving towards war. Pierrot recognises Hitler as soon as he sees him. His aunt has already taught him what to say if they meet: Heil Hitler. They do meet, and Hitler take s a liking to Pierrot (re-named Pieter), and slowly sucks him into the Hitler Youth. That’s when I became too aware of the research that went into this book. I didn’t like the cameo appearances of real people into real history, such as the visit from the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. 

But then fictional events take a turn for the worse and rack up a terrible tension. This is where I began to hold my breath. I want to sympathise with the traumatised, orphaned Pierrot/Pieter. I want his innocence to survive the brutality of war. But I know, deep down, that he has to conform to survive. 

And survive he does, at the cost of a terrible decision. Traitors must be punished, Pieter told himself.
That’s the great sadness and tragedy for me, an innocent child corrupted by his environment. Will Pieter suffer regret and guilt forever? Will Pieter be able to see just what he’s become? He has to, hasn’t he, otherwise he will have been corrupted forever. There has to be a way back for him, for all those who have been corrupted by war.

I once listened to a talk given by a boy soldier, ordered to kill to order in Sierra Leone. He said that afterwards, he was taught by a therapist to repeat, ‘It wasn’t me who killed. It was somebody else.’
How will Boyne deal with this dilemma?

I thought it wasn’t going to be solved, even as I began to read the last chapter, A Boy without a Home. At first, it read again too much like a history book, too close to research. And then came the ending I wanted, a wonderful ending of hope, which has stayed with me – and I won’t spoil by telling you, except to say that Pieter offers his only friend – and his reader – the chance to decide.

Pauline Francis