Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo is a coming-of-age novel (grades 7 and older) that sets readers up for the dreary and devastating life of a young boy, Tommy Peaceful, whose father dies unexpectedly at work as a forester.  Tommy and his brother Charlie are inseparable, and their other brother Big Joe has special needs and is often protected by the family whether it is in the school yard or at home from their Great Aunt.  Tommo tells the story in a series of flashbacks about his father’s death, his regret about how it happened, his friendship and kinship with his brother Charlie and their schoolmate Molly, and The Great War that invades their lives.  Readers will not immediately grow close to Tommo in the beginning, but as he opens up about his past and present situation overseas, it is revealed that things have changed far more and far too quickly for him.  He’s fallen in love, rushed to become an adult, and headed off on an adventure that was far less exciting and far more harrowing than he expected.  Each chapter begins with a little snippet of his present situation before Tommo relives his past happinesses, until the two moments meet in time.

“I want to try to remember everything, just as it was, just as it happened.  I’ve had nearly eighteen years of yesterdays and tomorrows, and tonight I must remember as many of them as I can.  I want tonight to be long, as long as my life, not filled with fleeting dreams that rush me on towards dawn.”  (page 1)

Morpurgo is at his best here with the subtle foreshadowing at the beginning with the crows caught in the fence, like the cavalry caught in the barbed wire of the battle fields and throughout in how Tommo relates his story.  He was 15 when he enlisted in the British military, but only after Charlie agreed to lie for him and say that they were twins of the same age.  These devoted brothers have shared everything — the sorrow of losing a father, the sorrow of losing a dog, the joy of finding Big Joe alive, and the love of Molly — but sharing everything also can breed secrets and resentment, which Tommo brings to the forefront when he speaks of Molly.  From the beginning, readers are given a clear picture of Tommo’s devotion and love for Molly, but it is clear that she treats him more as a sibling and he refuses to see it.

“Every uniform and every helmet was like our own.  Then, as we came down the gangplank into the fresh morning air, we saw them, the lines of walking wounded shuffling along the quay toward us, some with their eyes bandaged, holding on to the shoulder of the one in front.  Others lay on stretchers.  One of them, puffing on a cigarette between pale parched lips, looked up at me out of sunken yellow eyes.  ‘G’luck lads,’ he cried as we passed.  ‘Give ’em what for.’  The rest stayed silent and their staring silence spoke to each of us as we formed up and marched out of town.”  (page 115)

Morpurgo’s prose is clear and concise to ensure the mood is vivid and the experience of first person has the full impact, particularly during training and in the trenches.  A bit more for maturer audiences with its focus on the war and soldiering, but there are lighter moments of ribbing between the soldiers and talk of girls and even romance.  However, Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo is more about a young man coming into his own and dealing with the decisions he’s made and the events he’s witnessed.  Tommo has not only a colored past of poaching and death, but also a soldiering present that has tested his courage and devotion.  An excellent introduction to The Great War.



This is my 2nd book for the WWI Reading Challenge.

Dreaming of Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly

Dreaming of Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly is the second book in her Austen Addicts trilogy, and is a must have in any Austen fan’s collection for its unique set of characters and the clear references to Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and more.  Starring Kay Ashton, who works in a dead end and thankless job, and she’s surrounded by a unique cast from her mother’s friend and fellow Janeite to the cast of actors that invade her new Bed and Breakfast in Lyme Regis.  Kay finds herself playing Emma Woodhouse on one occasion, only to find her results end up much the same as Emma’s, but all the while, she’s looking for her own dashing hero and trying to rekindle the passion she has for painting.  Beth is the prototypical actress diva who wants all of the attention for herself, and she surrounds herself with the rest of the cast, including the dreamy Oli Wade Owen.  But Gemma is not the typical actress — she’s shy and often in the shadow of her mother, a famed television and movie actress whose career is practically non-existent until she weasels her way into the production of Persuasion, produced and written by Adam.

“It was funny that she should be dreaming about Mr. Darcy, because she’d been drawing Captain Wentworth for the last few weeks now.  Darcy had been the main subject of her last book — a collection of drawings in pen, and watercolour paintings of scenes from Pride and Prejudice.” (page 5 ARC)

There are moments in the novel when Connelly tells the reader of the Austen connection, which could have been left up to the reader to discover, but that is not bothersome when readers are swept away by the antics of Beth to get Oli’s attention or when Kay is berating herself for falling for an actor like Oli when she knows she shouldn’t.  Nana Craig, Adam’s granny, is a hot little ticket with her poking and prodding of Adam in the right direction to get his love life moving, and she has some choice advice for Kay as well.  Living in Lyme is not as romantic as Kay imagined, but her imagination sometimes runs away with her and gets overblown in more ways than one.  Readers will get the idea that she hasn’t lived much of her life outside the covers of an Austen novel the way she goes on, but its always in fun and helps liven up the interactions she has with her star guests.

“Kay settled back into her seat and adjusted the red hairpiece above her left temple.  It felt like it was slipping.  She looked in the wing mirror.  She wasn’t all that sure about herself as a redhead.  She’d had visions of being transformed into a beautiful pre-Raphaelite nymph, but she believed she looked more like a slightly baffled red Irish setter.”  (page 174 ARC)

Connelly creates characters that are lively and fun, and readers will love hanging around with them as they gossip, maneuver, and fall flat on their faces looking for romance.  While Austen characters and stories do play a role here, they aren’t necessary, as the novel and its characters could stand on their own.  There is a mix of arts here from screenwriters to actors/actresses and painters, which is juggled well by Connelly.  With the number of heroes, heroines, and secondary characters and subplots, it would be easy to get lost if it weren’t for the author’s ability to juggle those story lines and ensure that readers never miss a beat or feel bogged down by one story or another.  On a deeper level, the novel is about making dreams come true, following your passions, and living life to the best of your ability even if it means making a giant leap of faith to do it.  If you’re looking for fun, Lyme is the place for you and Dreaming of Mr. Darcy by Victoria Connelly is an excellent read to take you on an escape by the seaside.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo is told from the point of view of the horse, who is sold at auction to a drunken farmer and is written for a younger audience, grades 5-8.  In this coming of age story, the young boy Albert Narracott and his Red Bay Joey grow up together and the bond they create lasts through a number of obstacles.  Joey is sold and is off to war — The Great War — to work as a cavalry horse.  Like soldiers in war, Joey must learn maneuvers and be conditioned to fight, which really translates into unlearning farm work and learning how to get his rider safely through the enemy lines.  Morpurgo takes Joey and his readers on a harrowing journey through France where much of the battles take place, and like soldiers, horses were captured as prisoners of war.

“All around me, men cried and fell to the ground, and horses reared and screamed in an agony of fear and pain.  The ground erupted on either side of me, throwing horses and riders clear into the air.  The shells whined and roared overhead, and every explosion soon seemed like an earthquake to us.  But the squadron galloped on inexorably through it all toward the wire at the top of the hill, and I went with them.”  (page 59)

The anthropomorphism of Joey is stunning in this novel.  Morpurgo really understands how to create an animal character who seems more like a human being.  Joey struggles with war fatigue, fear, loss, and a whole set of other emotions, but while away from Albert, he holds onto the love and comfort of his farm life.  Along the way he is treated well and mistreated.

“I found Topthorn was always by me and would breathe his courage into me to support me.  It was a slow baptism of fire for me, but without Topthorn I think I should never have become accustomed to the guns, for the fury and the violence of the thunder as we came ever nearer to the front line seemed to sap my strength as well as my spirits.” (page 44)

What more could readers ask for in a young readers novel about WWI?  A champion horse who earns an Iron Cross and saves his riders from certain death, but who fears and loves just as the young boy he knew did, just as everyone does.  Joey is a hero in more ways than one, and his courage is something that all young readers could learn from, especially how Joey overcomes his fear of strange lands and people.  Additionally, he strives to do his best even when he doesn’t want to do what the humans have him doing and even though it is painful to go on without food and shelter.  Survival is paramount, and Joey not only looks out for himself and his riders, but he befriends and cares for other horses in the regiments.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo is stunning and engages readers early on in the struggles of a young horse who is taken from his home and thrust into WWI in 1914.  There are images of war, but there is nothing too gruesome that parents should worry about young readers.  On more than one occasion, readers will be moved, and chests will be full of emotion and tears will well in their eyes as Joey relates his story.  A great way to learn about the harrows of war without delving too deeply into the politics or military strategy, while at the same time demonstrating its far reaching impacts on non-military personnel, soldiers, and horses.

This is my 1st book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.




This is my 1st book for the WWI Reading Challenge.


All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson is set in 1930s Shanghai and is told by Xiao Feng as she writes down her past, beginning with the courting of her beautiful sister who has been spoiled by her parents.  Her mother’s ambitions lie with her sister, and Feng is on the sidelines watching her sister be paraded in front of other families with prominence in society and wonders where their ambitions will lead.  The prose is easy to read and captures attentions easily with its bright colors and very descriptive settings, but in many ways, the characters initially seem cliched with the older sister demonstrating her importance over her younger sister and treating her poorly and the younger sister simply accepting the treatment.  However, this is a story about Feng and her relationship with her grandfather as much as it is about the ambitions and corruption of a family and its members when disappointment strikes.

“I hope that what I have written in these rough pages of cloth will show you how we were so bound to tradition and history that we could not see what was so obvious and that though I have always loved you, I never understood that love is nothing unless it is expressed.”  (page 2 ARC)

Feng is very naive about the world around her and the traditions that families use to live their lives, but some of the fault for that lies with her parents and her grandfather who sheltered her from the obligations of women in Chinese society.  Her parents focused all of their attentions on her sister and her grandfather kept her in the dark about the realities of life and treated her more like a boy who would have any number of opportunities.  Jepson’s story is like many others about Chinese families with a naive young girl thrust into a married life she does not want and does not know how to navigate.  Feng is transformed into First Wife, and as such, she learns to command staff and even her husband as she holds the family’s fate of having a male heir in her hands.

Readers will see a desperate woman who wants to control her own fate by any means necessary, and unfortunately ends up transforming herself into a corrupt woman with little joy and many regrets.  Jepson’s characters are more like caricatures, with the overbearing father-in-law and mother-in-law, the pliable husband with no backbone, and the servant maid who does as her mistress tells her regardless of the consequences.  Jepson loses some of the pizazz of his writing once the bustling city streets and beautiful gardens fade into the background of the secluded Sang house; readers feel cramped inside the large home’s walls, much like Feng does.  In this way, Jepson has created a very specific atmosphere and controlled environment for his characters to navigate.

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson is an engrossing tale that has been told a number of times, but his story will keep readers turning the pages.  There will be times when they will shout at Feng to grow up and stop being so naive, but at other times they will shake their heads as she makes regretful choices and begins to care about the most superficial things in life, abandoning the girl she once was.  Its a quick read, but there is a lack of depth in characters and the story seems like one that has been told several times.  However, it is entertaining and enjoyable giving readers a glimpse of a changing China.

About the Author:

Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and is a founder and managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

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