Saturday, July 20, 2019

Someone recently asked me...

how many books I've read for this blog and did I have any particular favorites. Well, I've been thinking about that and while I haven't counted the number of books I read and reviewed, it's been a lot. And I've learned something from each one - maybe not something directly in the text, but the text roused my curiosity and lead me to Google or to the library or to one of my reference books for more information.

And for the most part, I've stuck to my original plan of only reviewing books I like. There have been some exceptions, but they are few and far between. All this led to the question: do I have any favorites? It turns out that I have a number of favorites - books that I couldn't wait to read and that still stand out in my mind. And after revisiting each book I've reviewed, I was really surprised by the results. Here, then, are my favorite works of fiction, 10 novels and one picture book:


The Staircase Cat by Colin Thompson - not a WWII story per se, this is a heartbreakingly poignant story about a family cat, Oskar, who lives a comfortable life in an apartment building until war comes and forces his owners to leave. Oskar survives the war and alone remains in the house with the ghosts of all those who once lived in the building. 

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe - a powerful novel blending fact with fiction, it is the story of Dita Adlerova, 14, transported to Auschwitz in 1943 with her parents, part of a group of Jewish prisoners transferred from the Theresienstadt Ghetto and receiving special treatment in Birkenau. There, she is put in charge of the library of 8 precious books that must be kept hidden from the Nazis within a building used as a secret school. 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - an homage to the power of words, and narrated by Death, this is about a young girl's desire to learn to read, the communist foster family with whom she lives, and the Jewish man they hide from the Nazis in Hitler's Germany. 

Blitzcat by Robert Westall - this was the second book I read for this blog, and it has remained a favorite ever since. It is the story of a female black cat, mistakenly named Lord Gort, who goes on a journey across southern England looking for her human, a pilot in the RAF, and all the people she meets along the way whose lives are impacted by her being there just when they need her.

Vango by Timothée de Fombelle 
         #1 Vango: Between Sky and Earth - this is a epic adventure/mystery story that deftly mixes fact and fiction together. At 19, Vango, a master of disguise and escape, finds himself on the run for a crime he didn't commit. The main action takes place between April 1933 and Christmas Eve 1935, when Hitler and Stalin are both in power. But by the end, Vango (and the reader) are wondering who he is and why is he the subject of an international manhunt.  

         #2 A Prince Without a Kingdom - Vango is still on the run in this sequel, and after more epic adventures, all is revealed. It's hard to talk about this book without spoilers, but it is every bit as riveting as the first book. The time frame is here, running from 1936, through WWII and the Holocaust. In my review, I wrote I regretted Vango's story isn't a trilogy, and I still regret it, but than the author gave us another wonderful book...

The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle - this clever mix of fact and fantasy, it is the story of Joshua Pearl, who is forced to leave the fairy land he came from, and mysteriously finds himself in 1936 France, and taken in by a famous marshmallow maker. As his memories of his home and the girl he loved begin to fade, Joshua begins collecting items in an attempt to find his way home. Meanwhile, the Nazis are on the march in Europe.

Felix and Zelda family of books) by Morris Gleitzman - Felix, a young Jewish boy leaves the safety of the French orphanage his parents put him in and sets off to find them. Along the way, he meets Zelda, 6, and the two travel together throughout Nazi-occupied Poland. Each book follows the events of the book that came before it, chronicling Felix's struggle to survive, to fight the Nazis and to create a new family for himself. Felix's story is heartbreaking yet poignant at the same time. The only book I didn't like is Book #4, Now, which takes place in 2009 and Felix is 80 years old.   
         #1 Once
         #2 Then
         #4 After
         #5 Soon
         #6 Maybe
The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper - The story of the FitzOsborne family begins in 1936 on the small island kingdom of Montmaray, which they live in a run-down castle. As European politics and the Nazis begin to impinge on their idyllic world, the Fitz-Osbornes are forced to leave Montmary for life in London. And while Book #2 is a nice look at high society in 1930s London, once again the reality of politics and Nazis are ever present there. Book #3 finds the FitzOsbornes fighting the Naizs at home and abroad. 
         #2 The FitzOsbornes in Exile
         #3 The FitzOsbornes at War

Flavia de Luce Mysteries by Alan Bradley - these books are a pure indulgence for me, even though they just barely have anything to do with WWII, and not all of them, at that. Flavia is an 11 year old sleuth, using chemistry to solve all the murders that seem to occur with relative frequency in Bishops' Lacey. 
         #4  I Am Half Sick of Shadows

But my all-time favorites are the two All Clear books by Connie Willis     
         #1 Blackout
         #2 All Clear
And although I don't often re-read books, I re-read these recently and they are still as good for me as ever. 

What are my favorite non-fiction books? I'll get back to you on that.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Stolen Girl by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

**This review contains a spoiler at the end**

Ever since the war had ended, Ukrainian born Nadia Kravchuck and her adoptive mother Marusia have been living in a displaced persons camp in Europe. But now it's 1950 and 12-year-old Nadia has just arrived in Canada with her mother Marusia to join her  adoptive father Ivan, already living in Brantford, Ontario. On her first night in her new home, several people come to visit and Nadia is introduced to Mychailo, a fellow Ukrainian immigrant with whom she will be attending school and receiving English lessons at a neighbor's house.

Unfortunately, Nadia is also plagued with nightmares and flashbacks, none of which make sense to her at first, although she feels that they have something to do with her past, a past she doesn't remember. She knows that although Ivan and Marusia aren't her real parents that they love her as if she were their own child. But who is she really? When Mychailo tells her that she doesn't sound Ukrainian and that she looks like a Nazi to him, Nadia worries that maybe that's who she really is. But Mychailo also seems like her, taking her to the library,  and reminding her to call Ivan and Marusia mother and father, or the Canadian authorities will take her away. 

Disturbed by that she might indeed be a Nazi, the nightmares and flashbacks increase, often triggered by what seem to be totally unrelated things, and finally Nadia remembers that her name used to be Gretchen Himmel and that she was a member of a Nazi family.

Later, on the first day of school, Marusia presents Nadia with a new ethnic-looking outfit that she had handmade her, despite working long, hard hours on her farm job. At school, the teacher is kind, but when a boy says she looks like a Nazi, she runs away in humiliation. Luckily, another new girl named Linda sits next to Nadia in class and the two become best friends.

Nadia eventually begins to adjust to her new life, but continues to be plagued by flashbacks to her past, causing her a great deal of confusion. Little by little, however, the puzzle pieces begin to fit together and form a picture of her life as Gretchen Himmel, daughter of a high ranking Nazi official, his cold, distance wife and his other daughter Eva. But the dreams and flashbacks continue, leading Nadia to believe that Gretchen Himmel is not her real identity. And gradually, more puzzle pieces fit together, finally falling into place through the most innocuous of triggers - a piece of candy. 

Stolen Girl is one of the most emotionally draining books I've read, and knowing before hand who Nadia really is didn't lessen the tension one bit. The novel centers around Nadia's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD and the way it manifests in her after her traumatic wartime experiences. It has to one of the hardest conditions to successfully write about in a young person for young readers to really understand, but Skrypuch has managed to do just that in the ways Nadia's past reveals itself to her through her dreams and flashbacks.

                                                               **Spoiler Alert**
Stolen Girl is also one of the most compelling books I've read about the Lebornsborn Program. With her blond hair, blue eyes and young age, Nadia was a perfect Aryan-looking fit for this Nazi program designed to strengthen the Hitler's master race. Children like her were kidnapped, sent to Germany to be Germanized and than adopted by a Nazi family. Interestingly, other children who did not fit the Aryan picture were sent to labor camps, and Skrypuch gives hints about who Nadia/Gretchen really is when she sees a girl in an German labor camp of Ostarbeiters (workers from Eastern Europe) who looks just like her, and is in return noticed by the same girl. 

If you read Making Bombs for Hitler, you already know some of Nadia"s story and why she was recognized by the young Ostarbeiter. You may recall from that book that in 1943, after the Nazis shot their mother and the Jews she had been hiding, Lida, 8, and her younger sister Larissa, 5, were kidnapped from their grandmother's home in the Ukraine and sent by cattle car to Germany, along with all the other Ukrainian children the Nazis took. Days later, arriving at a slave labor camp in Germany, Lida and Larissa were forcibly separated from one another, and from that point the story follows only Lida's life in the labor camp. If you haven't already read Making Bombs for Hitler, and the other companion book, The War Below), I highly recommend it. Stolen Girl, the companion to Lida's story, is the story of what happened to Larissa after being taken from her sister. 

Stolen Girl is gripping novel that demonstrates how the trauma of war lives on long after the war has ended. It's a suspenseful, visceral journey that proves once again Skrypuch's talent for bringing difficult stories to life. 

This book is recommended readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library


Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Soldier Dogs: Air Raid Search and Rescue by Marcus Sutter, illustrated Pat Kinsella

Matt Dawson, 12, is angry and unhappy. It isn't bad enough that the family has been relocated from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Canterbury, England so Matt's father could work for the war effort in England. Now that the United States has entered the war, older brother Eric immediately returned home and enlisted in the Marines. Matt is angry at Eric for leaving, and at his parents for letting him. Adding to his irritation, foster sister Rachel keeps tagging after him. The only thing that makes it all bearable is Chief, Eric's well-trained German Shepherd, left in Matt's care.

Of course, both Matt and Rachel knew what to do in case of an air raid, but so far Canterbury had been lucky. But Canterbury's luck changed on the night of June 1, 1942. When the air raid sirens began, Matt, Rachel and Chief are sent to the shelter deep in Canterbury Cathedral. On their way, they hear the roar of the Luftwaffe approaching and they aren't far away. But when Matt's mom finally arrives at the shelter with his dad, they are bearing bad news - Eric is MIA.

Upset and even angrier, Matt runs out of the shelter just as incendiaries and bombs begin to fall on Canterbury. Followed by Chief, boy and dog both get disoriented when a bomb explodes near them. Matt heads upstairs, eventually finding himself on the cathedral's roof where the fire watchers are feverishly working to remove incendiary bombs and prevent a fire. And just as he starts back downstairs, Matt discovers Rachel has followed him, and with bad news - she saw Chief run into the streets of Canterbury - no doubt confused and looking for Matt.

Heading out to look for Chief, Matt and Rachel find themselves in the middle of a catastrophic blitz. And in the midst of that, they witness a parachute landing in a canal not far from them. Rushing to help, they discover a German soldier tangled in his parachute who convinces them he will turn himself in if they help save him from drowning. But can this German soldier be trusted?

Meanwhile, Chief is having dangerous adventures of his own. After he runs into a burning building to save a man's life, he finds himself in the hands of an American solider named Landry. Not knowing how well trained Chief is, Landry immediately thinks that Chief is a real natural search and rescue dog, and begins taking him as he searches for survivors among the fire, dust and rubble caused by the bombing.

In all the chaos, will Chief, Matt, and Rachel ever be reunited with each other and with their family?

Air Raid Search and Rescue is an exciting, action-packed adventure alternately narrated in the third person from the point of view of Matt and Chief. I don't usually like novels that anthropomorphize animals by giving them language but it really worked here for showing the reader two different perspectives of the action and of course, for paving the way for Chief's future endeavors in the war.

Rachel's backstory is also interesting. She was a child of the Kindertransport that brought Jewish children from countries occupied by Nazis to England in 1939/40. She was immediately drawn to Matt, and he treated her like any 12-year-old would an annoying little sister - until the bombs start to fall. It is nice to watch their relationship evolve.

Sutter includes a lot of back matter in this novel, answering questions readers might have about dogs in war, the Kindertransport, and the bombing of Canterbury. There is also a WWII timeline. And as a real bonus, there is a pull-out poster of Chief and on the back is information about the the bombings that became known as the Baedeker Air Raids:


As you can see, Canterbury was the last of the Baedeker Air Raids, named after the famous guidebooks produced in Germany. It was Hitler's plan to obliterate all of the most famous cultural sites in England according to the book in retaliation for England's bombing of German cities. In the case of Canterbury, the bombing raid was pay back for the RAF's bombing of Cologne, Germany.

I actually read this book thanks to Ms. Yingling Reads review of it. I had already read a book about another Baedeker air raid, The Exeter Blitz by David Rees, which was also very good, and thought it would be interesting to read another - and it was. Those interested in WWII novels might want to pair these together.

Air Raid Search and Rescue is the first book in the Soldier Dogs series, and I am really looking forward to reading them all. They will certainly appeal to young readers interested in WWII history and the roles that dogs played.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Re-reading Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis


I decided to re-read Blackout and All Clear not long ago. I read them back in 2010, and while I don't usually re-read books, I did these because I always felt that I had read them too quickly. And the fact is I loved them as much the second time around as I did the first. Then I re-read my review and decided, 9 years after I wrote it, to repost it. This is what I wrote on November 17, 2010:

"I have just finished reading Blackout and All Clear and find myself wishing that Connie Willis could have kept going. After reading these two books totaling 1,168 pages, I find I have become quite attached to the characters and had a hard time saying goodbye when I came to the end. They are just that good!

The books are based on a simple enough premise. In 2060 Oxford, history is studied by traveling back in time to observe, collect data and interpret events firsthand under the tutelage of Mr. Dunworthy, the history professor in charge of time travel. The story centers on three students interested in different aspects of World War II. Michael Davies, disguised as Mike Davis who wants to go to Dover as an American war correspondent to observe the heroism of the ordinary people who rescued British soldiers from Dunkirk; Merope Ward becomes Eileen O’Reilly, working as a servant to Lady Caroline Denewell in her manor at Backbury, Warwickshire in order to observe evacuees from London; and Polly Churchill becomes Polly Sebastian, a shop girl by day working in the fictitious department store Townsend Brothers on Oxford Street, who wants to observe how Londoners coped during the Blitz.

In Blackout and All Clear, Willis makes it clear that there are certain cardinal rules of time travel. First, the traveler may not do anything to alter a past event. But that was supposed to have been taken care of so that it couldn’t happen. In addition, an historian is not allowed to travel to a divergence point, a critical point in history that can be changed by the presence of the historian. Nor can a predetermined drop site open if there is a “contemp” nearby who might see what is going on. Furthermore, once they have arrived at their destination, the historian is required to return to 2060 Oxford and report in. If they don’t do this, a retrieval team is sent to bring them back to Oxford. One other thing, time traveling historians are not supposed to have contact with each other while in the past.

That being said, Mike ends up in Dunkirk, saving a life and Eileen is prevented from returning to Oxford at the end of her stay by an outbreak of measles among the evacuees. Both ultimately travel to London, seeking Polly, hoping to use her drop to get back to 2060, but Polly’s drop has been compromised by a bomb and has stopped working. These extended stays do not result in the arrival of retrieval teams; but in much more complex adventures and worries. Have they altered the future unintentionally? Or unalterably? And if so, what does that mean for the future? And will the historians ever get back to 2060 Oxford?

In addition to Mike, Polly and Eileen, Willis has drawn some interesting supporting characters in Blackout and All Clear, all very different from each other and all of whom I found myself caring about. There is Sir Godfrey Kingsman, the well known actor who is part of the entourage in Polly’s bomb shelter, though he did get on my nerves with his constant quoting of Shakespeare, yet he was still endearing. He always referred to Polly as Viola from Twelfth Night because of the way she arrived at his bomb shelter her first night, and she was going by the last name Sebastian, the name of Viola’s twin brother, something to keep in mind as you read. And Colin Templer, 17 and besotted with love for Polly and who had promised to rescue her if anything went wrong. Colin wants to go to the Crusades so he can use the paradox of time travel to close the four year age difference between himself and Polly. Eileen’s life was plagued by Alf and Binnie Hodbin, brother and sister urchins evacuated from London to Backbury, pranksters and troublemakers extraordinaire. Mike had Commander Harold, elderly captain of the Lady Jane who unofficially went across the English Channel to participate in the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk and changed the course of Mike’s time travel.

Connie Willis has done a brilliant job writing Blackout and All Clear, even though I know I will probably have to reread both books again to really appreciate them [yes, that's exactly what happened]. When I first read Blackout, I didn’t pay close attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter, so sometimes they were a little confusing. I found myself preoccupied with questions about why I was suddenly in 1944 or 1945 and who were Mary Kent and Ernest Worthing and how did this connect to Mike, Polly and Eileen?  Blackout sets up all the questions and All Clear answers them.

Throughout both novels, the three main characters are confused by what has happened to them, and the chaos of the period, such as not knowing when or where bombs may fall, adding to their sense of helplessness once Polly's knowledge of when and where bombs will fall is exhausted. As in the real war, anger, anxiety, confusion, fear, frustration and helplessness are exactly the array of emotions that the reader experiences along with Mike, Eileen and Polly. Yet, all is not doom and gloom. Willis balances these with instances of hope, courage, selflessness and heroism. She also injects some very comical scenes into the story, such as an angry bull and the deployment of rubber tanks in a muddy, foggy pasture to fool the Luftwaffe, or the constant antics of the Hodbins. And of course, there is the dry wit of the British and their ‘carry on’ attitude after a blitz attack. I really like the fact that Willis keeps the story focused on the plight of the stranded historians, rather than jarring the reader by going back and forth between them and Oxford 2060.

Blackout and All Clear are both chock full of action, information, comedy, tragedy and everything else that goes into making a great story. They are not really meant for YA readers, yet they are perfectly suitable for high school kids, and even some younger ones. So without reservation, I would definitely recommend Blackout and All Clear to readers in their teens and to everyone else. It is a wonderful a tale about survival and heroism."

These books are recommended for readers age 13+
These books were purchased for my personal library.

Willis described the blitz and the bombs that hit Oxford Street, where Polly worked, in amazingly realistic detail.  Check out the following for an online exhibition of the West End at War including photos and maps of the blitz in that area, the same area that plays a large part in Blackout and All Clear
 http://www.westendatwar.org.uk/index.aspx


The following has online information about the Docklands and East End during the war, another area highlighted by Connie Willis;
http://www.museumindocklands.org.uk/English/EventsExhibitions/Themes/DocklandsWar/

Sunday, June 16, 2019

I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 (I Survived Series #13) by Lauren Tarshis, illustrated by Scott Dawson

It's Monday, May 3rd, and Hugo Ballard, 11, is about to embark on an exciting journey flying from Germany to New Jersey on the Hindenburg, one of two zeppelins crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1937. Hugo had already had one big adventure, living in Kenya with his mom, dad, and younger sister Gertie for a year. But now Gertie is sick with malaria and needs to get home to NYC for the right medicine as quickly as possible and the zeppelin could get the family there in only three days.

The Hindenburg is big, almost as big as the Titanic, but it's a highly flammable gas, hydrogen, that gets the zeppelin off the ground and flying. And that's a pretty scary thought for Hugo and Gertie, but almost immediately, Hugo makes a new friend, Martha Singer, or Marty as she prefers. Marty is a zeppelin pro, this is her eight Atlantic crossing in one, thanks to her dad who works for the company. "It's magical" she tells Hugo, and indeed, it seems to be so. Even Gertie is looking and feeling better.

The next morning, Tuesday, May 4th, at breakfast, however, Hugo's good feelings about being on the smooth-riding zeppelin with a new friend are somewhat diminished by the appearance of Nazi Colonel Joseph Kohl, known for his viciousness (even Gertie thinks he looks like a snake) and two other Nazi officers. When they leave, one of the passengers says that he believes the Nazis are looking for a spy on board the zeppelin.

On Wednesday, May 5th, the day before the zeppelin is scheduled to arrive at the airfield in New Jersey, Mr. Singer offers to show Hugo and his dad around the ship, even taking them into its main body, usually off limits to passengers. While there, Mr. Singer hears a terrible, unfamiliar growling noise. Alarmed, he starts to call the ship's captain, when Hugo realizes it is none other than their dog, Panya, who was put into the cargo hold for the trip. But their tour is interrupted with news that Gertie is once again very sick. After a long, scary night, Gertie's finally fever breaks and the only thing she wants is Panya.

But when Hugo sneaks down to get the dog, he sees someone else there. Is this the spy who is sneaking German secrets back to the United States? Apparently Colonel Kohl thinks so, too. After threatening Hugo with his gun, he manages to get away and get Panya to Gertie. But does an even deadlier fate await the Ballad family when the Hindenburg suddenly erupts in flames while landing?

A WWI Recruiting Poster
I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 is, like all the I Survived books, very exciting with themes of courage, resilience, and the importance of family. And Tarshis is genius at being able to weave these into a gripping tale in the midst of a dangerous historical event without distorting any of the history. She has included lots of information within the story about zeppelins, how they work and their use, even during World War I when they were used to drop bombs on civilians in both France and England. I knew airplanes were used for that, but I didn't know about zeppelins.

Nor does she shy away from Nazi violence or cruelty and yet it is never gratuitous. In this novel, Colonel Kohl is portrayed as the kind of cold-blooded Nazi who would not think twice about shooting Hugo to get what he wants. But Tarshis also always makes sure to surround her protagonist with kind people, too, as she does here with Hugo's parents, Mr. Singer, and Marty. And her protagonists are also kind people. Hugo risks a lot to make his sister happy, but he knows what he has to do. And when the ship erupts in flames, his first thought is how to save his family.

Tarshis has also included even more information about zeppelins and the Hindenburg disaster in her back matter, beginning with the question "Would you want to ride on a zeppelin? To which my answer would be unequivocally no, thank you, although I do appreciate the excitement and spectacular views of such a ride. There is also a section about the possibilities of why the Hindenburg disaster happened (to this day, no one knows), More Hindenburg Facts, and a Selected Bibliography.

I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 is one of four books that are focused on World War II, beginning with I Survived the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941, I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944, and I Survived the Battle of D-Day, 1944. Each excellent and informative, and age appropriate.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

If you would like to know more about zeppelins, be sure to visit airships.net

And if you are curious about what Hugo saw on his tour of the Hindenburg, this is the best example of the inside of it I could find (you can even see the catwalk where Hugo had to walk to get Panya for Gertie):