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by Bernard Ashley
A boy. Lost. Alone. Shipwrecked on an island called Solitaire. He doesn't know who he is, how he got there or where he's from. All that matters is survival. A man. Rich. Powerful. Convinced his grandson is still alive. He has the influence and determination to find and rescue him. His search will bring him to Solitaire.
“will have readers gripped from the start”
Betty Bookmark Five Star Review
‘Poor devils! Look at them! That’s so terrible!’ Joseph Lewis jostled against the restaurant window of the cruise ship – staring at the harbour below where sick and injured war victims spread like a wound across the quay. The ship’s double glazing cut out the sounds of the suffering, but the sight was grievous. There was no running and shouting like at a car-bomb scene – first aid had been given somewhere beforehand – but women, children and old men crowded pathetically towards the ship: the leaning, the stretchered, and the crutched; a distressing clamour to get to the gangplanks.
The stewards had tried to carry on serving dinner as if the St. George was in some sort of parallel universe; but diners with a harbour view had set the general tone.
‘I wish I’d started at medical school, I could go down and help.’ This voice was Rachel’s – Joseph’s older sister – who got a frown from her father.
‘Best not to get involved. They know what they’re doing. We keep out of their way, leave them to it,’ Rex Lewis said. ‘It’s best for them…’
Like watching dramatic news on television, the Neptune Restaurant eyes were riveted on the shuffling war victims. All the wounded were black, but there were white, black and Asian workers among them, presumably medics, one of whom was carrying a legless boy on his shoulders.
‘Poor kid!’ Joseph said.
A woman leaning over him at the window vigorously shook her head. ‘It’s their war, you know – their war!’
The St. George was berthed in Moebane harbour, on the coast of Gambellia, the East African country – like a mosquito bite out of Tanzania – that had been war-torn for the past year. The stop was not on the ship’s schedule, but its small size had allowed it into the harbour. That morning the captain had announced that they were putting-in to respond to an emergency request received from Médicins Sans Frontières to take off sick and wounded women and children – victims of the Gambellian civil war – and ferry them to a hospital in Madagascar, a port of call that was on the Indian Ocean cruise itinerary. This news had been greeted like the Marylebone Cricket Club announcing that the Second Test had been cancelled at Lord’s in order to host a gypsy wedding. Why should a British cruise ship get involved in someone else’s war? These Africans were at each other’s throats the whole time, why should their tribal conflicts alter civilized people’s plans? No one was racist, of course, but what right had this war to spoil someone’s holiday? Would people ever be able to do anything on the leisure front if a war always had to be accommodated?
But the protests were ignored and the ship’s course had been set for Moebane, and in his heart Joseph was looking forward to telling his friends that he’d been to a war zone in the summer holiday – until the reality of those injuries had just hit him. But everything went out of his head when a sudden shattering sound stopped his heart – a devilish screech and a huge explosion.
‘Help! They’re being bombed!’
‘It’s a rocket – hit the quay!’
‘Get away from the window!’
The shock wave rocked the ship and set it tugging violently against its moorings. On board there were screams and shouts, plates clattering to the floor, wine spilling, napkins scattering – and people making for the door. The missile had landed in the middle of a line of warehouse sheds, demolishing the corrugated structures in a great flash, shooting debris high into the sky to fall and randomly maim. The quayside lights cut off as war victims and their helpers scattered for cover – running, crawling, limping, carrying and being carried – some waving for help, others lying still and bleeding and vulnerable on the planking of the dock. Fire licked and black smoke billowed as a second explosion rocked the ship and sent a spout of harbour water into the air.
‘Get back, get down!’ Joseph’s father shouted.
‘Get out!’ shrieked Joseph’s mother as her husband ran them, doubled over, for the restaurant doors and the further side of the ship. Now stewards ran, too, and the restaurant emptied except for one thin-faced old man in an immaculate dinner jacket who sat shakily lighting a cigarette. The ship’s hooter suddenly jumped everyone, and the gangplanks were quickly winched up.
‘Don’t go below!’ Joseph’s father shouted. He ran his family to the starboard side of the promenade deck and made them lie flat on the deck in the lee of the ship’s superstructure. Beneath them the vessel shuddered and the screws churned astern – as a third rocket screamed in to explode on the dock they were leaving; the ringing in Joseph’s ears muting the screaming and the shouting of the war victims – those already on board, and those left in tatters behind.
The St. George made good speed out of the small harbour, zigzagging to port, to starboard, to port, to starboard, as two more explosions – one on the dock again and the other in the sea behind – seemed to show the limit of the rockets’ range. Cold-faced and staring at each other, the Lewises got to their feet, Rex puffing out his cheeks and trying to hold his family in his arms. Around them passengers called, swore, blamed, and wept.
‘I’m sorry… you’ve seen it… up so close.’ Joseph’s father sounded very emotional himself. ‘But that… is war!’ Safe and out of range of the shelling now, he led his family to their suite on the deck below: a superior cabin for himself and his wife, Penny, and two smaller cabins off it – one on either side – for Joseph and Rachel. But the girl hardly got in through the cabin door before she clutched, shaking, at her mother.
‘I saw dead people!’ she shrieked. ‘Dead people! And… a… head!’
Penny Lewis patted her, tried to calm, poured water – but Rachel was inconsolable, and becoming hysterical. For Joseph, his sister’s reaction was his own, acted out. He was shocked, stunned, grasping unbelievingly at what he’d seen. He had seen that head, too – it had rolled, like a coconut on a beach – and he stood there shaking at the memory of another victim lying gory and pulped like a hedgehog on a busy road – which suddenly made him vomit, a quivering victim of war himself.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ Rex Lewis tried to comfort his family. ‘The intelligence must have been so poor – not to know we’d be in rocket range, going in…’ He ran Joseph into the big bathroom and switched on the shower, stripping him of his messy shirt. Penny took Rachel into her cabin and tried to persuade her to lie down on her bed. While unbelievably – and very audibly because the cabin doors to the corridor were still open – drifting down from the saloon on the deck above came the sounds of the dance band playing the curtain-up music of Cabaret Night. Which told Joseph that the ringing in his ears had ceased – and that the entertainments officer thought the sights and sounds of Moebane should be put behind them.
Bernard Ashley is one of the UK's most celebrated children's authors. After thirty years as a head teacher in South London schools, Bernard is now a full-time writer. His first novel "The Trouble with Donovan Croft" won the 1976 "Other Award". Bernard has also been shortlisted for The Carnegie Medal three times.
Visit www.bashley.com to find out more.
Nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2010
The Carnegie Medal is awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. The shortlist and winning titles will be announced in 2010.
This is a challenging and provocative new novel from Carnegie-nominated author Bernard Ashley...From the terrors of people-trafficking in "Smokescreen", Bernard Ashley delves into the murky waters of the arms trade for Solitaire's shipwrecks, secrets and shocking discoveries that will have readers gripped from the start.
Betty Bookmark Five Star Review
Being cast away on a tropical island is a favourite fantasy. In Solitaire, Bernard Ashley skilfully turns the theme into an intriguing mystery novel with a strong and appealing hero and an unexpected twist at the end. A great, thought provoking read.
Bernard Ashley's Solitaire is out-and-out adventure stuff from the first page to the very last...Continuous action makes this an enthralling book for the 11s-plus.
Newbury Weekly News
This is a book with a very moral heart, which raises a lot of questions about man's ability to make war and, worst of all, to profit from war...This is a novel that gives a first impression of being a low-key affair, but seen in its entirety it is a very thought-provoking and crafted work that deserves a wide audience.
Books for Keeps
The reader is snared from the beginning and there are enough astonishing twists and turns to ensure that even the most reluctant reader will find it hard to put down. Ashley never disappoints. He writes with skill and subtlety and this novel is well up to his normal high standard.
Carousel Guide to Children's Books
Solitaire is a brilliant thriller and I was most impressed with its ingenious and completely unexpected early twist, which is bound to keep the reader hooked until the end of the story. Although I’d say this is predominantly a boys’ book. I think girls will reach for it, too – I know I enjoyed it very much.
Marzena Currie - School Librarian Journal
Ashley builds the emotional tension brilliantly throughout the novel so that by the time the book reaches its heart wrenching finale you genuinely care about the characters involved.
Evening Echo (Cork)
While Bernard Ashley's latest novel is thought-provoking as always, this is also a compelling mystery that will keep readers intrigued to the last page.
Leicestershire County Council recommended fiction
A powerful adventure novel, Solitaire is full of unexpected twists and plenty of thrills to excite the reader. It is a story of loyalty, deception, war and peace, in which a silent betrayal is exposed by haunting memories and hidden truths. It will enthrall those aged 9 and over.
Aldershot News and Mail - September 2009
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