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Mother Tongue by Julie Mayhew   Age 14+

“I do not like the English word BANG. Where is the crack down the middle? BA – BAKH. Where is the fracture that separates then from everything afterwards?”

 

Darya Ivanova is looking forward to September.  She has looked after her little sister, Nika, since she was a baby. Nika is starting school. Maybe Darya can find her job with her own tidy desk. Perhaps even a boyfriend.  But when an unimaginable tragedy strikes, Darya’s life plans are fractured. Stalled. She is afraid. What if she never knows real love? What if she never finds somewhere she belongs? If only she could get to Moscow. There, Darya could escape.  There, she could become someone else....

 

Darya has been a mother to her little sister Nika since their own mother took to her bed after Nika’s birth.  Nika doesn’t seem to notice her mother is ‘missing’ which is due to how well she has been cared for by her older sister.  On her first day of school she is dressed in all her finery, with ribbons in her hair, and even though her mother won’t be there for the celebration, Nika is happy. And Darya will soon be free to pursue her dream of working at a desk complete with pencil pot.  But then the worst happen: armed gunmen take over the school and life as Darya knows it explodes right in front of her.  Darya fights to recover from the shock, fixing her eyes on escaping to Moscow as the solution to her problem. With two brothers turned ineffective vigilantes, a father who disappears most nights and a mother, who now awake from her years of depression, is too absorbed in blame and her own grief, Darya is alone. The appearance of various charity workers and a handsome American reporter seem like her ticket out of the nightmare but she soon discovers it is not that simple.

 

Mother Tongue is brilliant on so many levels I don’t know where to start. Set in Russia, depicted as a vibrant country full of great food and many traditions throughout the narrative, it starts with the first day at school celebrations perfectly portrayed.  This is quickly contrasted with the terrorism scenes which are so well described you can smell the fear and the gunsmoke. Sickening and terrible and unimaginable. Except of course this story is based on something that did take place at Beslan, Russia in 2004.  Darya’s powerlessness to control the events or do anything to help her little sister is traumatising. The aftermath brings with it more horror, as Darya and her father try and find the body of her sister, always hoping that she will be discovered in a hospital somewhere alive.   The desperation of grief seeps off the page; the word empathy doesn’t do enough to reflect how you as the reader feel, not just for Darya, but for all the families affected.  And Darya, already having ‘lost’ some of her childhood to being a ‘replacement’ mother, now looks set to lose any kind of life she had imagined for herself.  With no comfort from her family; indeed a mother who infuriatingly provides no love, and seems to blame her for ‘losing’ Nika, and a father more interested in an unknown woman, Darya despairs.  The truth of humanity is revealed as each character responds to the events very differently, creating a bleak picture with only small pockets of hope. Darya’s parents attempt to marry her off to a respectable young man from the family business but Darya refuses to let go of her dream. Her determination takes her on a journey, away from everything she knows into a world that on the surface, doesn’t bear the scars of the massacre she leaves behind.   But Darya cannot escape her grief that easily and soon realises she has to look inside herself to find the will and hope to survive.

 

Mother Tongue is ultimately about grief, hope and love. It’s about how on earth you survive when the worst happens, about how you can possibly find hope when humanity has displayed it’s most evil and terrible nature. It’s about not being defined by the awful things that can happen, and about finding yourself, and love, amidst the debris of life.  Brilliantly written, Mother Tongue is a story that stays with you long after the final page.

 

Also reviewed for www.readingzone.com.

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'Through the Mirror Door' by Sarah Baker     Age9+

“Wait!” I shouted, “there’s someone up there,” but when I looked back at the top of the house there was no light, there was no fire and there was definitely no face. Night-time footsteps, flickering candlelight and shadows in windows.  Angela knows a secret is hiding in this crumbling French manor house.  Then she finds Julien....but is it too late to save him?

 

Angela is an orphan, her family tragically killed in an accident for which she blames herself. At the age of 12 years old her future looks bleak; living in an orphanage with little hope of finding a new family given that she can’t help but misbehave wherever she goes.  When her estranged Aunt and Uncle turn up out of the blue to take her on holiday for a trial period of living with them, Angela knows this her last chance to make the best of it.  Even if it means putting up with her two horrible cousins and having to stay in a run-down old manor house, Maison de Noyer, which Angela is certain is haunted.

 

It soon becomes clear that her Aunt Cece’s motives are not as benevolent as they first appear. This, along with the mysterious housekeeper Herman and his strange wife Armuth, gives Angela plenty to think about.  And it’s not only the ghostly footsteps that keep her awake at night; Angela’s dreams are haunted by the accident that killed her family.  With her cousins, Felicity and Kitty determined to make her life miserable, Angela struggles to keep her cool.  But her instincts draw her to finding out the truth about her Aunt and about the Maison de Noyer. And that’s when she finds Julien, a young boy who, it seems, needs rescuing just as much as she does.

 

Through the Mirror Door takes the theme of a time-slip novel but with a thoroughly modern feel.  I have always loved the idea of finding portals to other times; you’re never quite sure where, or when, you’re going to end up!  This story starts in a reality that is steeped in sadness. We meet Angela, a girl who has clearly suffered and is in turmoil but won’t let it show.  Empathy for her is instantaneous; I particularly love her defiance in the face of the increasing difficulties she encounters.  The story very quickly gains pace and the reader is taken on a journey not just in time but through varying emotions.  Angela discovers a doorway to the past and meets Julien in 1898. Using all her powers of deduction, whilst trying to escape the clutches of both her cousins and her Aunt, Angela learns that she must face the ghosts from her own past as well as trying to save Julien.  Her determination to save him stems from her inability to save her family and she won’t let history repeat itself, even if it means risking the future!  This adventure story entwines classic ingredients of a time-slip novel with a darker element of the tragedies surrounding being orphaned, guilt at being the one who survived and the horrendous reality of the 19th century typhoid epidemic.  With a particularly creepy setting and a cast of characters ranging from the horrible Aunt Cece, Uncle Vaughn, a bumbling somewhat useless individual, to the enigmatic but silent Herman and the vile cousin Kitty, Through the Mirror Door is a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile read.

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