Review – Freedom Swimmer

Freedom SwimmerI often have great difficulty reviewing a book I feel a profound affection for. Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim may be one of those books. There is an aura of Amy Tan about Chim’s depiction set in Communist China of two boys and their astounding quest to find a better life. If you think this sounds less than remarkable, read on.

Chim has fashioned a tale base on the true-life events of her father who made an incredible lunge for freedom when at the age of 19, he swam from the Dapeng Peninsula to Tung Ping Chau Island, Hong Kong in hope of finding a better life in the then British colony. I love books that reveal another of history’s amazing episodes, one that I may only have had peripheral knowledge about before, or in this case, no solid previous understanding. Stories like these, shared with today’s children, are priceless. The tales of the real life freedom swimmers are remarkable and chilling in their own right.

Freedom Swimmer chimes with Mao Tse-tung quotes and the fervour of Communist China, just pulling itself up from the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’. Ming’s village is stricken by famine and poverty throughout this era, as are most in rural China.  He loses his parents but survives and along with dozens of other orphaned village children, he and his closest friend, pseudo brother Tian, scrape together an existence that is both grinding and bereft of any real affection.

One day, the village cadre makes an announcement. As part of the new re-education program initiated by Mao’s self-serving government, city youths are sent to Ming’s village to be ‘taught’ by the peasants. This is of course also an insidious way of injecting more Maoism’s into the population of China, an explicit agenda to control and monopolise thought.

Ming’s fellow villagers are not so easily swayed although few of them express their so-called ‘imperialist’ doubts aloud fearing terrible retribution. Tian is the first to laugh in the farcical face of Communism yet like Ming, begrudgingly accepts the new arrivals, as is the cadre’s directive. To his surprise, Ming quickly befriends one of the city boys named Li. Li is a staunch supporting member of the Red Guards but also warm and intelligent enough to approach his newfound village life with considered respect. He encourages Ming to express his dreams, Ming teaches him to swim. Although worlds of thinking separate them, they form a deep bond and respect for one another. As is often the case when great divides define relationships, those on one side slowly begin to yearn for the opposite.

Then the unthinkable happens; Li’s father is branded a Party traitor. Li immediately falls from favour, plunging into disgrace and unrelenting torment from his erstwhile comrades. Ming too is suffering from his untenable position as a village no-body, and is frequently frustrated at not being able to be with the girl he secretly admires.

Rather than continue their oppressive lives, the teenagers plan to risk the shark-infested waters between their peninsular and Hong Kong and swim to salvation. It is a great measure of the stoicism of humanity that so many, thousands in fact, of Chinese youths braved this desperate escape; spurned by nothing more than their hopes for ‘a better life and greater opportunity.’ Shark attack, illness, dog patrols and armed guards contributed to the immense risk these swimmers took in their bid for freedom.

Wai ChimChim recounts this period with confidence and true affection. Her writing is moving, poetic and substantial with strong character convictions and emotion to maintain a midgrade audience. This is a fascinating if not contemptible, chaotic time in Chinese history that captures the themes of taking chances, striving for a better life and perseverance with authenticity and feeling.

Chook Chook seriesFans of Chim’s previous junior fiction series, Chook Chook will appreciate her relaxed, more grown-up storytelling style and shared family history. I know I did. Stories have the power to unite and enlighten. Freedom Swimmer is auspiciously, one of those stories.

Sydneysiders have the good fortune of being able to meet Wai Chim this Friday at Gleebooks where she will officially launch, Freedom Swimmer.

If you can’t wait, the book is available here, now.

Stick around for the fascinating and touching insight into Wai Chim’s father’s story which inspired this compelling story to be written in the first place.

Allen & Unwin August 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

 

Books with Bite – YA and MG reviews

Young Adult and Mid-grade novels are being gobbled up by kids and young adults almost faster than they can be cooked up. The exhilarating storylines and make-you-laugh-hate-cry predicaments I discover between the covers of YA and junior novels are repeatedly rewarding, and contrary to the views of some of my adult-only reading friends, capable of imparting deep satisfaction with tales of intense emotion and believable fantasy. These novels tell it like it is, with a no hold bars attitude and formidable spunk that instantly cements our dislike or admiration for the heroes within. They are quick and honest reads to invest in, which is why they are so perennially popular. Here are some you might like to eat up, if you can wrest them off your teenager’s bookshelf.

Mid-Upper Primary Reads

The Vanilla Slice KidThe Vanilla Slice Kid takes the custard-pie-in-the-face gag to a death defying new level. Chockers with slap stick humour and oozing with more pink spew than you can catch in a wheelbarrow, this midgrade novel is sure to crack a smile on the dials of 6 – 11 year-olds. Archie is a kid with envious abilities; he can shoot sweet sticky treats from the palms of his hands. Only trouble is he hates cakes and has a set of parents and one hysterically insane General bent on exploiting his super talent. As the General’s domination of the world draws closer and Archie’s own life hangs in a gooey mess of trifle and fruitcake, Archie must rapidly decide who to trust and what to eat. Deliciously good fun, Adam Wallace and Jack Wodhams know how to whet young appetites. Liberally sprinkled with wacky line drawings by Tom Gittus, The Vanilla Slice Kid is one satisfying read.

Ford Street Publishing October 2015

CrossingCrossing by Catherine Norton had me engrossed from start to finish. This softly dystopian drama is an interesting reflective exploration of the corruption and discord that can develop in human society no matter how long we spend on this planet and an interesting suggestion that history is ever capable of repeating itself. Echoes of WWII communistic control reverberate throughout with the most obvious similarity being the Wall, which separates 12 year-old Cara’s reality from a future she has never dared think about before let alone attempt to strive for. Norton’s gripping narrative echoes with prophetic what ifs, encourages individualism, and reminds us to never ‘let them wall your mind.’

Omnibus Books May 2014

Upper Primary – 14+ Reads

Talk UnderwaterTalk Under Water by Kathryn Lomer is a breezy light-hearted read about a couple of teenagers facing not so breezy light-hearted experiences. Seems talking under water is easier than you think (especially if you are deaf), but talking above it about your innermost desires and trepidations is not quite as smooth sailing.  Life in the teenage world can be ‘as simple and as complicated as that’ accordingly to Will who is wrest from his mainland home to Tasmania on the whim of his disillusioned divorced dad. When he meets Summer, his world begins to brighten, however her reluctance to share her deafness with him for fear of thwarting their budding relationship creates confusion and misunderstanding deeper than the Bass Strait. Written in an expository and introspective style, Talk Under Water is a beautiful observation of being young and being deaf, literally giving diversity a face and voice.

UQP August 2015

OneOne by Sarah Crossan is searingly beautiful. I’m almost lost for words. Poignant, painful and playful, Crossan invites us to spend the end of summer and beyond with conjoined twins, Tippi and Grace. It’s an experience you are not likely to forget in a hurry. Explicit yet elegant, this verse novel has the power to move you effortlessly from mirth to heartbreak with a solitary syllable. Written with sensitivity and extraordinary candour, One is one of the more ‘grown up’ verse novels I’ve read yet possesses all the succinct expressive precision I’ve come to expect and enjoy of them. Crossan examines the one question: what does it mean to want and have a soul mate? Is the battle for identity and dignity worth the loss of sisterhood love? Unequivocally compelling and wrenching and highly recommended.

Bloomsbury Children’s September 2015

YA – New Adult Reads

The FlywheelFurther embracing the notion of diversity is Erin Gough’s *The Flywheel. This upper high school read is LOL funny and tummy turning cringe-worthy (Not because of the writing – Gough’s narrative is prose perfect. More because of the excruciatingly embarrassing and difficult situations 17 year-old Delilah must struggle her way through.)       I had not expected The Flywheel to delve head first into the impenetrable tangles of unwanted responsibility, sexual identity, social expectations and love with such wild abandon nor so entertainingly. Thoroughly absorbing characters, snappy wordplay and enough fraught situations coupled with realistic downers kept me guessing how life was ever going to pan out for Dancing Queen Del. The Flywheel (café) is the type of place I’d like to return to. Definitely worth a visit.

Hardie Grant Egmont February 2015

The Rest of Us Just Live HereIt is near impossible to put into words just how ingenious Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here is. Ness writes with such acerbic wit and abandon in such an incredibly controlled, dagger-precise way, it actually becomes a sheer joy to be caught in the swirling angst of so many pre-grad teenagers. This is the penultimate tale of the underdog finessed with consummate care and at times an irreverence you cannot help but admire. Ness’s mixed posse of Unchosen Ones led by Mr McOrdinary, Mikey barely have to whisper for attention yet are heard with stinging clarity. They banally attempt to get on with their lives and graduate however, the Chosen Ones’ inability to deal with the Big Bad continually claims their attention. Explosively wicked, you must experience this (Ness) for yourself.

Walker Books August 2015

*You’ll note a fair whack of these terrific reads are by Aussie authors and for some, this is their first novel, made possible by such incentives as The Ampersand Project. When you purchase and read an Aussie title, you are not only supporting the further creation of more awesome stories but you are in no small way ensuring the survival of a distinctly unique and vital Australian industry. Read all about Boomerang Books commitment to #ByAustralianBuyAustralian here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most fascinating and brutal social experiments in human history

9780141021874

Review – Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

I am a big reader on The Second World War but my reading has never taken me past 1945. Earlier this year I finally read Anna Funder’s Stasiland and was fascinated by what life was like in East Germany so when I saw this book I jumped at the opportunity to read about Eastern Europe in the direct aftermath of World War Two.

Most Cold War histories contend that the Iron Curtain was a reaction to the Marshall Plan of 1947 however Applebaum shows that Soviet plans for an Eastern Bloc were instigated the moment they swept through Eastern Europe in 1944, before the Second Wold War had ended.

Iron Curtain focuses on three Eastern European countries; East Germany, Poland and Hungary. It details their transition from the end of the war to becoming part of the so-called Soviet Bloc. Anne Applebaum has chosen these countries as they each had different experiences and roles in the Second World War which influenced their transition to Communism and in particular Stalinsim.

The transition to Soviet Communism was swift and total. Applebaum details how the Soviet Union literally took over and dominated absolutely every part of society from youth groups to the media, political parties to schools and universities and even art and architecture. The Soviets were systematic and relentless. They initially thought they could win power via elections but when their propaganda and rhetoric failed to capture a majority of votes they turned to vote rigging and the literal crushing of any opposition.

It is hard to believe, almost 70 years later, how the people of Eastern Europe in some cases supported, in others tolerated, the Stalinization of their countries. But Applebaum also explains in depth people’s different reactions to this process. There was much misplaced optimism and hope that a better, utopian Europe could be built from the rubble and ashes of the Second World War. In some cases there was a strident need and desire to position themselves as far from the Nazis as possible. In other cases there was simply exhaustion from being at war for 6 years. Capitalism was also seen as having given rise to Nazism so an alternative was sort. And though opposition was quickly stamped out, people found ways to protest which included wearing particular shirts and ties and even colourful, striped socks.

However following Stalin’s death in 1953 a spell seemed to be lifted and Eastern European countries began to try and exert some autonomy over themselves and to develop their own form of communism. Again this varied from country to country and culminated in the uprising in Hungary which was brutally crushed. Despite appearances that the citizenry of Eastern Europe had fallen into lockstep with Soviet communism and the assumption that the totalitarian regimes had stamped out all opposing views these uprisings showed that the human spirit and its desire for freedom and individual identity can never be completely crushed. Unfortunately The West stood idly by and it would be more than 40 years before another mass movement of resistance to Societ control bubbled to the surface.

This is a highly readable history of a time that has been mythologized by both sides of the Cold War. Applebaum sets the record straight as well as explores one of the most fascinating and brutal social experiments in human history.

Buy the book here…