Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Less Than Perfect Peace by Jacqueline Levering Sullivan

It's January 1950 and for most people, WWII has been over for five years.  But not in the Howard household in Tacoma, Washington.  It was only fours years ago that Annie Leigh's father, who had been MIA, returned from the war, and spent time in a convalescent hospital learning to adjust to his blindness.  Now, he's home, but is starting to withdraw more and more, refusing any more help with his blindness, unlike Uncle Billy, who had also come home from the war with PTSD, and had gotten help for it.  Now, the Howard Brothers are planing on starting a carpentry business together - one that won't require Annie's father to leave home.

On top of that, her mother, who seems to be extremely most self-absorbed and domineering, has started her own beauty salon, a long time dream finally realized, but a bone of contention between her and her husband.  The family needs the money the salon will bring in, but it takes up a lot of her time, or maybe, Annie speculates, what takes up her mother's time is really the florist, Mr. Larry Capaldi, whose shop is downstairs from the salon and who frequently picks Mrs. Howard up and drops her off.

Into all this come Jon and Elizabeth VanderVelde, refugee twins from Holland who have come to  Tacoma to live with their Aunt Dee and Uncle Hendrick.  They live on the estate of a wealthy family,  Aunt Dee is the cook and housekeeper and Uncle Henrick is their driver.  Jon and Elizabeth immediately become friends with Annie Leigh, but they are also carrying their own emotional baggage, especially Jon.   The twins spent the war living under Nazi occupation, and witnessed the terrible killing of their parents, to which Jon responded in ways that left him with his own nightmares and PTSD.

Luckily for Annie, her beloved Grandma Howard from Walla Walla comes for an extended stay and can offer Annie some support, advice and stability when needed.  Meanwhile, Annie gets to know Jon better, and the two find they are attracted to each other, despite his black moods.  But after he  surprises her by telling her the truth about what happened on his family's farm towards the end of the war. Annie begins to question her feelings for Jon.   But, Annie's biggest surprise come when her mother announces that she is pregnant, and Annie can't help but wonder who the real father is.

Yes, this coming of age story is packed with problems that Annie fears might collapse her world.  But in the process of seeking solutions, Annie learns to appreciate what those who were directly involved in the war experienced.  And in her attempt to find solutions and make everyone's world better again, she must learn to sometimes step back and let things unfold without her help.

A Less Than Perfect Peace has some nice elements to it and creates a very realistic sense of place and time, giving the reader an interesting window into the beginning of the Cold War, which is also a good metaphor for what was going on in the Howard family at the time.  At times the story did drag, and it seemed like there were just too many different story threads, but it all works out in the end and it does mimic how real life happens.

When my mother suddenly lost the sight in one of her eyes, I saw how truly panicked she was about it, and the idea of losing sight in both eyes was a really scary thought for her.  I could understand Mr. Howard's desire to stay in the safe confines of his home, where he knew his way around, and to be so resistant to admitting to himself that he is blind and therefore handicapped, even when there were programs and guide dogs to help him maneuver the world again.  His character shows what a paralyzing emotion fear can sometimes be.

I should mention that this is a sequel to Annie's War, which I haven't read yet, but enough background information is given by narrator Annie Leigh in A Less Than Perfect Peace so that it is a nice stand alone novel and a novel that will certainly resonate with many young readers especially those who are or have family members stuggling with PTSD.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

Life is pretty comfortable for Gabriella Schramm, 13, called Gaby by friends and family.  Living in 1932 Berlin, her upper middle class family is better off than most Germans at the time.  Her father is a renowned scientist, teaching astronomy at the University, and is friends with Albert Einstein.  Her mother, an former pianist who gives lessons at home now, hob nobs with Baba, a well-respected Jewish society columnist for the only newspaper in Berlin that isn't pro-Nazi.  Gaby's older sister, Ulla, is scheduled to begin studying at a conservatory in Vienna next year.  And Gaby, who loves to read anything she can get her hands on, including Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Mark Twain and my personal favorites Rainer Maria Remarque and Erich Kästner, is looking forward to reading Heinrich Heine's poetry in Gymnasium after summer vacation.

But things are beginning to change, both within Gaby's family and all over Germany.  First, Ulla insists on remaining in Berlin for the summer instead of going to the family's lakeside vacation home, claiming she has a bookkeeping job at the cabaret where her boyfriend Karl, an engineering student, works.  But when Karl and Ulla come to visit, Gaby begins to suspect that Karl is a Nazi supporter.  She had already suspected the same thing of the family housekeeper, Hertha and the man who maintains their Berlin apartment building.  In fact, Gaby has noticed a significant increase in the number of Brown Shirts (SA) and Black Shirts (SS) all over Berlin despite the ban on them.

Back in school after vacation, Gaby and her best friend Rosa are overjoyed to begin studying literature with the very beautiful, kind, well-dressed Frau Hofstadt, who is picked up everyday by a mysterious limousine.  But, at home, the talk is more and more about the political situation, which in 1932 is all over the place, though everyone is relieved when the Nazis loose seats in the Reichstag (Parliament), hoping that that will be an end to Hitler and his Nazi party.

But that's not what happens at all and through all kinds of twists and turns, Hitler is named Chancellor by President Hindenburg at the end of January 1933.  And with amazing speed, Gaby watches her previously safe, happy world fall completely to pieces.

The period 1919-1933 was such a complicated time in German history and politics.  The Nazis referred to it as the Kampfzeit, the time of struggle to gain acceptance and power for their radical policies.  Lasky covers only 1932-1933 in Ashes and kudos to her for successfully tackling it in a novel for young readers.  There is lots of talk about events that actually happened, and Lasky provides enough information to understand it without overwhelming or boring the reader.

Ashes is a well-written novel, and although it is a little slow in places, given the time and place of the action, it is indeed a worthwhile read.   I particularly loved that each chapter begins with a quote from a book Gaby loves and which foreshadows what happens in that chapter.  And since Gaby witnesses the Nazi book burning on May 10, 1933, it is all the more poignant a reminder of some of what was lost in that tragic event.

The novel is told from Gaby's point of view, which gives us her very subjective, but very astute observation, not only of what is happening around her, but how she thinks and feels about it all,  A fine example of that is when she witnesses her former math teacher, Herr Berg, being removed from her school by the Nazis for being Jewish, and disappears.  The reader feels her shock, disgust, sadness and  despair all at the same time.

Some of the scenes may feel a little cliche and I am not the first person to realize that Karl resembles Lisle's Hitler Youth boyfriend from The Sound of Music, and that there is a scene similar to one in Cabaret, in which everyone in an outdoor Biergarten joins a Hitler Youth in singing a Nazi song.  But, these scenes also make a necessary point (and people have traditionally joined in singing in Biergartens in Germany, it wasn't just a Nazi thing to show support).

Ashes is a nice contribution to the body of Holocaust and World War II literature and on its own, a very interesting book about a very complex time made accessible by good research and skillful writing.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Top Secret Files of History: Spies, Secret Missions, & Hidden Facts from World War II by Stephanie Bearce

World War II is like an iceberg - the parts of it that we read about in history books or even learn in the classroom are really just the tip of the iceberg.  Below the surface, hidden from sight, are all kinds of secrets, deceptions and subterfuge that helped win the war.  So, what are some of them?

Well, Stpehanie Bearce has culled some of the more interesting aspects of wartime secrets and put them together in this small, but very interesting book.  Young readers will learn not only how one became a spy for England, training in the grand estates around the country requisitioned for that purpose, but they will read about the Ghost Army that fought the war with rubber trucks, tanks, planes and weapons.  Rubber?  That's right.  And that's not all they did.

Kids will how read about how an Australian journalist turned spy called The White Mouse became a bane of Nazi existence because of her ability to give them the slip while working with the French resistance.   Or how one man, Christopher Hutton, invented the silk map, making life so much easier for Allied pilots and parachutists, because their maps were now so lightweight and indestructible.  Hutton went on to invent other useful things for soldiers, including a special Monopoly game that could be sent to POWs and contained escape equipment.

There is lots of interesting information about secret missions, like, exactly what Julia Child was cooking up during the war.  Or the secret city that really didn't exist but did exist, and designed to fool the Japanese.  And readers will learn all about Rat Bombs, Bat Bombs and Doodlebugs.

But my personal favorite was the section on Code Talkers.  I've always liked codes and ciphers, especially the Enigma (one of these days I am hoping to post instructions for making a simplified Enigma out of a Pringles container).   And I, like many of you, have heard of the Navajo Code Talkers, but never really understood how the coding worked.  Bearce gives a short history about this special group of men, and how they devised their code, and includes a simplified dictionary for solving her Code Talker's Challenge.

In fact, in each of the five sections that the book is divided into there are corresponding projects that kids can do or things they can make, such as a simple spy obstacle course or a fingerprint kit, or even a book safe.

Scattered throughout each chapter are sidebars of even more interesting information or facts that will intrigue readers, such as how Ian Fleming came up with the name Jame Bond for his famous agent 007.  And at the back, you will find Bibliography and a list of websites where readers can get additional information on all the topics covered.

Spies, Secret Missions & Hidden Facts from World War II is sure to please budding history buffs and anyone else who just likes a secret.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher

A 5 copy giveaway of Spies, Secret Missions & Hidden Facts from World War II is going on over at Goodreads until October 28, 2014, so head on over there if this sounds like a book you would like to own.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Crow Call by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

It's autumn 1945 and young Liz's dad is home after being away for a long time fighting in the war.  In fact, he has been gone so long, that he has become a stranger to Liz, who is feeling shy and a little afraid of him.

November is hunting season and father and daughter are going out to look for crows, because crows eat the crops.  But first, there is a new rainbow plaid hunting shirt to be bought for Liz, so big it hangs to her knees.

On the big day, Liz and her dad get up very early, drive to the diner for breakfast, and then off to find crow and to maybe become reacquainted with each other.  Liz's job is to blow on the crow call whistle just the right way to wake the crows up, her dad's job is to kill the crows with his hunting gun.

As they walk to a good hunting spot, Liz asks her dad if he was ever afraid in the war.  he says, yes, he was scared, scared of lots of things, "Of being alone.  Of being hurt.  Of hurting someone else."  When Liz admits to also being scared sometimes, he asks if she is scared now.  "I start to say no.  Then I remember the word that scares me.  Hunter."

When they stop and Liz blows her crow call, crows from all over come flying over, and the more she blows it, the more crows come.  But no shot is fired, instead her dad just watches her delight in what she is doing.

With one more blow, father and daughter head back to their car hand in hand.

Crow Call is Lois Lowry's first ever picture book (surprising for such a prolific writer).  It is a fictionalized autobiographically based story, taken from a day she actually did spend with her father after he returned from the war.

Lowry addresses many issues in Crow Call, but I think the most important is Liz's fear of her father, a stranger has been away fighting and presumably killing other human beings, which is why I think their conversation about being afraid is so important.  Liz needs to see her father as a loving, caring person again, not as a hunter.  It is such a gentle story of how a father and daughter must find and learn to trust each other again after a long separation and while it takes place in 1945, it is a story that will resonate with so many of today's children who parents are or have been deployed overseas for long periods of time.

The gently muted realistic illustrations done by Russian-born artist Bagram Ibatoulline are done in watercolor and aryl-gouache using a palette of earth tones, which perfectly match the mood set in the text, reflecting the end of autumn, and, metaphorically the war, but highlighting Liz's rainbow colored shirt.

Fans of Lois Lowry will certainly appreciate this lovely picture book for older readers.  And Crow Call would pair very nicely with Suzanne Collin's picture book Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, October 10, 2014

Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

In spring 1944, Hungary was occupied by German soldiers and in the city of Debrecen, a ghetto was formed at the end of April.  Thinking her family was lucky because their apartment fell within the walls of the ghetto, Hanna Mendel continued to believe she would be able to attend Budapest Conservatorium of Music, where she had just been selected for a hard won place as a piano student.

But in the middle of a night in June 1944, a knock on the door by officers informed them that the Mendel family,  parents, high-spirited, defiant older sister Erika and Hanna, 15,  was ordered to assemble outside the synagogue at 8 the next morning.   Before leaving, Hanna rips the C-sharp from her beloved piano and takes it with her.  The next morning the Mendels, along with all of Debrecen's Jews, begin their long trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

Once they arrive at Auschwitz, the family is split up, but luckily Hanna, Erika and their mother are able to stay together in the same barrack, even sharing a bunk.  Put to work in the quarry, one day Hanna sees her music teacher playing piano with an ensemble made of up inmates and called the Birkenau Women's Orchestra.  Piri thinks that maybe she can get Hanna a place in it.

When that doesn't work out, Hanna is sent to audition with five other inmates for the camp's cruel commandant.  Believing she doesn't stand a chance at being chosen, the commandant leave the choice to his totally disinterested son, Karl Jager, who points to Hanna.

Day after day, Hanna trudges to the commandant's house to await the order to play for him and any guests he may have.  The only perks to playing for the commandant is a warm shower everyday (the commandant detests dirt), shoes, a warm coat and a warm house while she's there.  The only extra food is leftovers she must steal and risk getting caught and shot.

Gradually, however, she discovers that Karl Jager harbors his own dangerous secrets and is not as disinterested or as indifferent as she originally thought.  When he treats her kindly, Hanna finds herself more and more attracted to him.  But returning to the barrack at the end of each day, she sees that her mother and Erika are cold, starving and barely surviving.  To make matters worse, her mother, who had started going mad during the roundup in Debrecen, is having more and more trouble surviving the selections each time they are done.

Their one hope is that the Red Army is really moving east as rumored around the camp and that they arrive in time.

Playing for the Commandant is certainly a very readable book.  I read it in one day.  It is told in the first person by Hanna, a very observant 15 year old and on many levels her voice rings true.  Her descriptions of the camp, of the cruelty inflicted on innocent people are spot on.  When she talks about the lice, the smells, the moldy bread or about how skeleton thin her sister and the other women are becoming, you can clearly see and smell what she is describing.

Despite everything, Hanna'a father had told her to survive at any cost to tell the world what happened to the Jews of Europe and so, she is determined to do what her father wanted.

But when she talks about the danger of stealing scraps of leftover food, or of  living under the pressure of always having to please the commandant, Hanna's fate feels just as capricious or dangerous as her fellow inmates.  For example, when the gardener, a Jew, steps on the grave of the commandant's dog, he is shot in the head for it.  But, when a girl at the commandant's house drops a tray with tea and cakes on it, I thought for sure that when she is removed from the house, she is also killed, but she shows up later, and I have to admit, I was surprised to see her again in the novel.

But, Hanna's growing romance with Karl is very most disturbing and a real flaw in the novel.  I guess I thought Hanna should be thinking more about food than a boy.  She didn't get that much more to eat than her sister, and what she got, she shared with Erika.  Also, at one point, Hanna gets angry at the people, ordinary farmers, who watch her walk to and from the commandant's house every day and do nothing.  I got mad at Karl for being against what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, but who passively sits by and watches it all happen.  I would be curious to know how others feel about this part of an otherwise good novel.  

Yet, despite this criticism, in the end, I thought that Playing for the Commandant is definitely worth reading for its message of survival and hope, but not for its gratuitous romance.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This was an EARC received from NetGalley

Though Playing for the Commandant is a complete work of fiction, Jews actually were often used to play music for the Nazis.  Here is the obituary of Natalie Karp, a famous pianist who played for Amon Goeth's birthday on December 9, 1943.  She and her sister allowed to live because of the beautiful piano playing that night.  Goeth was the cruel commandant of the Kraków-Plaszów Concentrtion Camp in Poland (you may recall Goeth from Schindler's List).

This is book 7 of my 2014 European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader
This is book 12 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry