Monday, September 15, 2014

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond

Have you ever imagined what the world would be like if the Axis powers, Germany, Japan and Italy, had won World War II.  Well,  author Caroline Tung Richmond has done just that in her debut novel The Only Thing to Fear.  

It's been 80 years since the Allied Forces lost the war and surrendered after being defeated by Hitler's genetically-engineered super soldiers.  The United States has been divided into three territories, the Western American Territory ruled by Japan, the Italian Dakotas, and the Eastern American Territories ruled by the Nazis.

For Zara St. James, 16, living in the Shenandoah Valley in the Eastern American Territory, life has been hard.   She has lived with her Kleinbauer (peasant) Uncle Red since her mother was killed by the Nazis in a Resistance mission when Zara was 8.  Since then, Uncle Red has wanted nothing more to do with Resistance matters, but Zara can't wait to join Revolutionary Alliance, and with good reason.
English on her mother's side, Japanese on her father's, Zara is considered a Mischling by the Germans and there has never been a place for mixed-race children in Nazi society. But Zara is also hiding a secret, one that would mean instant death - she is an Anomaly, able control the air around her.  Anomalies are the result of genetic testing by the Nazis in their concentration camps in the 1930s and, as super soldiers, they helped them win the war.  But only full-blooded Aryans can be Anomalies, everyone else is put to death instantly.

Into all this comes Bastian Eckhartt, son of the formidable Colonel Eckhart, commanding officer of Fort Goering.  Bastian attends the elite military academy where Zara is assigned cleaning duties and lately she has noticed he has been looking her way more and more frequently.  But what could the son of a powerful Nazi leader possibly want with a Kleinbauer who garners no respect whatsoever?  The answer may just surprise you.

I was really looking forward to reading The Only Thing to Fear when I first heard of it.  There aren't many alternative histories for teen readers about the allied Forces losing the war to the Axis powers and what that would have meant for the future.  Unfortunately, this doesn't come across as an alternative history so much as it really just another dystopian novel.   What seems to be missing is a strong sense of ideology - on both the Nazi and the peasant side.  The Resistance was there to overthrow the cruel Nazis, but there is not sense of how or why they will make the world better if or when they succeed.

Richmond's world building was pretty spot on, though not terribly in-depth.  I really like the idea of generically engineered Anomalies, which added an interesting touch.

Zara is quite headstrong and can be a bit whinny and annoyingly brave in that she takes chances without thinking through the consequences.  Zara has a lot to learn, and a lot of growing up to do, even by the end of the novel (or maybe it is going to be a series and she can mature at a later date).

One of the things that always amazes me in books about people fighting for their lives is that there is always time for romance.  Yes, Bastian is originally interested in Zara for reasons that have nothing to do with romance, yet even as things take a dangerous turn, they both find they are attracted to each other.

The Only Thing to Fear is definitely a flawed novel, but still it is one worth reading.  As I said, it is Richmond's debut novel, and though you might find it a bit predictable, it is still a satisfying read.

The Only Thing to Fear will be available in bookstores on September 30, 2014.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from NetGalley

Sophisticated readers might also want to take a look at Philip K. Dick's 1962 Hugo Award winning alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Enemy of the Reich - The Noor Inayat Khan Story

Back in September 2011, I reviewed a book called Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue by Kathryn J. Atwood.  This is a truly wonderful book about such brave women and ideal for young readers interested in history.   One of the women that Kathryn wrote about was Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor was the daughter of an Indian father and an American mother.  She was born in Moscow, but lived and was educated in France.  She was raised in the Muslim faith.  After college, Noor began to write and illustrate children's stories, but then, World War II began.

Noor went to England and joined WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), ferrying planes for the RAF.  She learned how to operate a radio in the WAAF and was eventually noticed by the SOE (Special Operations Executive).  Because Noor spoke French with native fluency, she was an ideal candidate for their overseas operations.

After training as an SOE agent, Noor arrived in France, using the code name Madeleine, during the night of June 16, 1943.  She successfully evaded the Nazis and sent hundreds of radio messages, including some about the upcoming D-Day invasion, until she was arrested by the Gestapo around October 13, 1943.  Eventually, after being repeatedly beaten and tortured, she was sent to Dachau, where she was executed on September 13, 1944.

Last night, local PBS stations aired a one hour program called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.  This excellently produced program really brings Noor's life and her activities fighting the Nazis to life in this docudrama starring Grace Srinivasan as Noor and narrated by Helen Mirren.  Noor's story is one you won't want to miss and luckily, since it is on PBS, it will probably be repeated.



Or, you can watch the entire program HERE until September 30, 2014.

And you might want to check out Kathryn's book to see who else she have included in her book of women heroes during WWII.

Oh, I said that Noor wrote children's stories after college.  Well, her stories have been translated into English and are still available:

This program is recommended for viewers age 13+

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith

One summer day in 1941, while Peter Dixon, 12, is in the woods checking his snares to see if he's caught a rabbit to supplement the meager amount of food her and his mam get with their ration coupons, the air raid siren goes off.  Not knowing what to do, Peter starts running for home and the safety of their Anderson shelter, but before he gets there, a German plane crashes so close to him, Peter is knocked out.

It doesn't take long for the whole village to come out to see what happened, including all the children who want to try to get souvenirs from the wreckage.  And that's how Peter meets Kim, a girl about his age, with short hair and dressed like a boy.  The two become instant friends.

Peter and Kim decide to go back to the wreckage that night to look for their own souvenirs, even sneaking inside the plane.  After almost getting caught by the soldiers guarding the plane, the two end up with a gun belonging to one of the dead Germans in it.  Running off towards the woods to hide, they stumble upon a third German from the plane, who had parachuted out but was badly hurt.

Seeing the gun, the German begs them not to hurt him and they decide to take him to Peter's hiding place in the woods.  They clean him up and over the next few days, they learn that his name is Erik, and the three become friends, as much as that can happen when you can't speak each others language. Hiding and feeding Erik is difficult but Kim is afraid the army will shoot him on the spot and she is convinced that if they take care of Erik, than the same kindness will be shown to her brother Josh, in the RAF, or Peter's father in the army if they shot or injured and found by the enemy.

Peter, however, just wants his dad to come home.  Than maybe Mr. Bennett, who owns most of the land surrounding the village, who stop coming around to see his mother so much.  And maybe the older boys in the village will stop bullying him so much about his mother and Mr. Bennett.

Things get more complicated, but in the end, all the elements of this story come together in an exciting, maybe a little predictable, but definitely satisfying denouement.

I found myself immediately pulled into My Friend the Enemy.  It is a compelling story right from the start.  Peter is a sensitive boy, a bit of a loner and rather timid who seems to have spent much of his time with his dad, the gameskeeper for Mr. Bennett's land.  Kim, on the other hand, is a confident girl. a bit of a tomboy, and not the least bit afraid of standing up to bullies older and much bigger than she is.

It is also an exciting story, with plenty of action and historical detail.  Times were tough during the war, food was in short supply and people lived their lives in fear of bombing raids.  Smith incorporates all that into his story, giving the dilemmas Peter wrestles with - to help a German soldier, to steal food from his mother to feed Erik, to accept Mr. Bennett's help even as he begins to suspect the bullies are right about him and his mother - a very realistic quality so  necessary in good historical fiction.

I did like that it takes place in the same north-eastern area of England as Robert Westall's book and, in fact, My Friend The Enemy did remind me somewhat of books by this favorite author.  Unlike the Blitz in London, the north eastern coast was one of the places that was bombed only because German planes were dumping them to lighten their load as they returned home from a bombing raid, a fact Dan Smith includes in his novel, but not a place you read about much in WWII books for young readers.  My Friend The Enemy gives readers another perspective on the war as it happened in England.

Young readers will definitely find this a book to their liking, especially readers interested in WWII and what like was like on the home front for kids around their age.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an E-ARC obtained from NetGalley

Monday, September 1, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay

It is Fall 1942 and the Nazis have been occupying Holland since Spring 1940.  Beatrix, 6, and her mother are Jews who have been running and hiding from the Nazis for that long.  But now it is time to hid Beatrix in a safer more stable place.

Sitting on the tram, on their way to meet the woman who would take Beatrix to safety, her mother is suddenly taken away by the Nazis who regularly board and search the trams looking for Jews.  Beatrix is left sitting on the tram by herself.

Brothers Lars, 63,  and Hans Gorter, 65, both life-long bachelors, work together on a tram - Hans driving it while Lars collects tickets.  When it looked like the Nazis were also going to take Beatrix away, Lars suddenly told them that she was his niece.  The war and all the rumors they had heard about Nazi treatment of Jews suddenly became real for the brothers.

Now, these kind, well-meaning though naive brothers must learn how to care for a little girl, who has been traumatized by the loss of her mother and who must become someone different than who she really is - if only for the duration of the Nazi occupation.  Luckily, Hans and Lars have help from their elderly neighbor Mrs. Vos, 80, and from a new, younger neighbor, Lieve van der Meer, 30, who husband is rumored to have escaped Holland and is flying for the RAF.

Why would two older men who have made it a point to always live quietly and keep a low profile, suddenly risk everything, including their lives, for a little girl they know nothing about?  That is the question at the heart of The End of the Line and Canadian author Sharon McKay answers it eloquently as the story of Beatrix and her new uncles unfolds.

There are lots of books about Jewish children who were rescued by people during the Holocaust and who did what they did simply because they believed it was the right thing to do.  But these stories are generally written from the point of view of the child.  What makes The End of the Line stand out is that it is written from the point of view of the two brothers. and yet it is a thoroughly appealing, totally engaging book for young readers accustomed to reading about protagonists their own age.

Living under Nazi occupation meant living under a daily shroud of fear and anxiety, never knowing if you were going to be singled out at any given moment.  There are plenty of these moments portrayed in the story of Hans, Lars and Beatrix, like the time Beatrix whispers Geb Achting, Yiddish for be careful, to a young Nazi soldier.  However, the story offers more insight into what it was like for the brothers in order to survive the war and the occupation of Holland, from dressing Beatrix as she grows, managing to find food when there is almost none to be had, even to buying her a doll to cuddle and comfort herself with may be new experiences for Hans and Lars, but keeping her safe from the Nazis turns out to be instinctual for these kind brothers.

The End of the Line is an interesting supplement to Holocaust literature written for young readers by an author who is part of the Canadian War Artist Program and has already written books about child soldiers in Uganda, young girls caught in the war in Afghanistan and short stories dealing with the Holocaust with Kathy Kacer, another Canadian artist who also writes books for young readers about the Holocaust.  This should be a welcome addition to any library.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was received as an E-ARC from NetGalley

You can find more information and a very useful lesson plan for The End of the Line from the publisher HERE