Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Consequences of Fear (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #16) by Jacqueline Winspear

It's October 1941, Britain has been at war with Germany for two years with no end in sight, and Londoners are still being bombed and dealing with the aftermath. For 12-year-old Freddie Hackett, the fastest runner in school, it means running messages to and from agents all over London, to earn a few shillings that his cruel father will spend in the local pub. But when Freddie witnesses a murder one night while running a message, only to deliver the message to the man who had done the killing, he's terrified and needs to tell someone about what he saw. And he knows just who to talk to.

Meanwhile, Maisie Dobbs has been enjoying motherhood ever since adopting Anna, the young evacuee who has been staying with Maisie's father and stepmother in Kent. But Maisie is also realizing that she has fallen in love with Mark Scott, the American agent from the Department of Justice that she worked with for the British Intelligence services under Robbie MacFarlane, senior detective with Scotland Yard's Special Branch. Yet, as much as Maisie might want to spend most of her life in Kent taking care of Anna, she decides to take Freddie Hackett's case pro bono, after finding out that Scotland Yard doesn't believe him and discovering blood at the site of the murder. 

In the midst of her investigation, Maisie accompanies MacFarlane to Scotland where they are to test and evaluate twenty British recruits and a few French volunteers, all wanting to become overseas intelligence agents. But when Maisie meets Major André Chaput, there to observe the French recruits, she is sure that he is the murderer that Freddie Hackett described in such detail, including the deep ridges on either side of his face and the patch of pale skin under his eye. Could it possibly be a coincidence? MacFarlane has been annoyed at Maisie for taking on the Freddie Hackett case to begin with, but when she brings up her thoughts about Major Chaput, he immediately sends her back to London.

Once again, Maisie has a lot on her plate, but now that Anna and Mark have come into her life, you can really feel how torn she is between them and the happiness they bring her and her work, which brings its own satisfaction. Added to all that is Freddie Hackett, a child with a cruel alcoholic father who has had to grow up to fast in order to take care of his mother and younger sister, Grace, who has Down Syndrome. We all know Maisie is a softy when it comes to children and so, not surprisingly, she also manages to find the Hackett family a safe place to live away from Mr. Hackett while things are sorted out. 

I have a feeling this may be a pivotal novel in the life and career of Maisie Dobbs. Throughout the novel, she contemplates the possibility of turning her business over to Billy, her right hand man, marrying Mark Scott and being a full-time mother to Anna. Maybe that's why this novel wasn't as exciting as previous novels. Which is fine, I still enjoyed reading it. But now I really wonder what's in store for Maisie. I have to admit, I was crushed when Alan Bradley ended his Flavia de Luce series, but there are a few more war years left, so hopefully we aren't that close to saying good-bye to Maisie. 

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Sunday, April 4, 2021

I am Defiance: A Novel of WWII by Jenni L. Walsh

The story opens in Munich on April 20, 1942. It's Adolf Hitler's birthday and to celebrate, the local chapters of the Jungmädelbund induct all 10-year-old Aryan girls into the Hitler Youth. Brigitte Schmidt and her best friend are12 and they can't wait for Hitler Youth summer camp and the freedom away from family that it brings. But Germany is at war and that evening, Brigitte is told that there will be no summer camp. Not only that, but when older sister Angelika, 18, begins talking about a time when Germany wasn't ruled by Hitler, Brigitte feels that such talk is blasphemous. After all, she's only known life under the Nazis and has been indoctrinated into believing everything Hitler says is truth.

Brigitte has noticed Angelika and Papa with their heads together late in the evening whispering about assassination attempts, bombings, and concentration camps in front of a large map. Papa is worried about Angelika. She had polio a few years back and had to be sent to Switzerland to recover. Now, she has a limp and her left arm is weak, but in a country that demands all its citizens be free of mental illness, deformities, paralysis, epilepsy, blindness, or deafness, Angelika could be sent to an institution or a concentration camp if she is discovered. 

One day when Brigitte picks up the mail, she discovers a leaflet in with other letters. It's all about hitler and fascism, and the bombing of Köln. Then, at the next JM meeting, the girls are asked if their family has received any blasphemous leaflets. When Brigitte's friend Rita admits her family did, the leaders and other girls begin to shun her. And more leaflets begin arriving in the Schmidt's mail. 

As much as Brigitte believed all the Nazi propaganda she was told, her blind faith is beginning to see things in a different light because of the leaflets and her father's concern about Angelika going to do her two months of Reichsarbeitdienst in August. But it is hard for her to let go. and even harder not to say something to her best friend Marianne, also a staunch believer in Nazism and who is hoping to become a group leader in the BDM when she's older. 

In August, Angelika leaves for Ulm to work in a munitions factory. It doesn't take long before her first letter arrives all about her new friend Sophie who is helping her meet her quota. Meanwhile, the British are bombing Germany more and more, and Brigitte is beginning to realize that she is becoming more and more anti-Hitler.  

When Angelika returns to Munich, she's a changed person. Brigitte worries about her and what she's up to with her new friend Sophie. Apparently, so does Papa who makes arrangements for them to escape Germany to an uncle's in Switzerland if worse comes to worse. And it does, Sophie and her friends are arrested for dropping leaflets. Papa is also arrested by the Gestapo leaving Angelika and Brigitte alone. Should they wait to see if Papa will come home or should they try to make it to Switzerland and safety alone?

I am Defiance is an interesting look at life inside Nazi Germany from the perspective of a young girl who, in the beginning, has blind faith in her Führer and what he says and readers slowly get to see that erode as truth seeps into her life. I thought her group leader in the JM, Elizabeth, 15, was true to life - cold, cruel and cunning - just the way the Nazis liked them. I also thought that Papa telling them to play their part as loyal to the Führer and his doctrines was true for many families - Papa bought the Nazi newspaper faithfully and the girls did their part (the Nazis were forced to threaten parents with imprisonment and fines for keeping their children out of the Hitler Youth because so many didn't support the regime). 

One of the things I really look for in historical fiction is a time reference. In I am Defiance, I felt I was reading in a vacuum until the first leaflet appears in the Schmidt's mailbox. That happened in June 1942, and Sophie Scholl's Reichsarbeitsdienst in the munitions factory in Ulm was August-October 1942. Her arrest (and Papa being taken into custody) happened February 18, 1943. Sophie Scholl and the White Rose's activities really helped put this in perspective for me. 

Two other things bothered me about this book. One was the language. I felt it was too modern and too American. When that happens, it pulls me out of the story. The other thing is the games Brigitte and her friend Marianne played. While there was a German version of Monopoly, it was quickly banned by the Nazis for being too capitalist. And although it says they played Sorry!, most likely they would have played Mensch ärgere Dich nicht, similar to Sorry! and very popular in Germany. Most likely, as Ms. Yingling pointed out in her review of I am Defiance, they would have played Nazi propaganda games. 

Aside from these things, I enjoyed the basic story and watching as Brigitte grow and begin to think for herself. Kids should be aware that it is true that not everyone supported what the Nazi's believed but played a part the way the Schmidt's do. And, of course, most of things that bothered me won't really bother young readers who are just looking for a good story about WWII. And they will find one in this book.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Monday, March 29, 2021

Rescue by Jennifer A. Nielsen

It's February 1942 and Meg Kenyon, 12, is living on her Grandmère's farm with her French mother in Nazi occupied France. She hasn't seen her English-born dad since he left in May 1940 after receiving a telegram from London and Meg believes he has been imprisoned by the Nazis, if he is even still alive. Before he left, he created a jar full of coded messages for her to solve - deciphering each other's coded messages was something they both enjoyed doing. Now, however, there was only one message left and Meg has been putting off solving it. 

Meg has also been selling some of the vegetables from Grandmère's farm on the black market while secretly working for the resistance. When she unscrambles a message from them that reads Follow the German, Meg knows just who that is - newly arrived Lieutenant Becker, friendly upfront, cold-blooded underneath. And unfortunately, he now knows Meg's face now, after he figures out she was following him.

But Lieutenant Becker is temporarily forgotten about when Meg gets home and finds a badly wounded British officer, Captain Henry Stewart, in the barn, who claims to know Meg's father. After much sneaking around to help Captain Stewart, it turns out that he was on a rescue mission which he can no longer carry out. That's not all Meg discovers - it seems her mother has been working as a secret radio operator for the resistance. 

It turns out that the rescue mission Captain Stewart parachuted into France to carry out involved three Germans, Albert, Liesel, and Jakob, posing as a family named Durand. Since Captain Stewart is too injured to carry out his mission, it is decided that Meg would lead the Durands to Spain and safety. Before she leaves, she is given a note from her father that Captain Stewart delivered, written in coded language. The next day Meg finds the Durands hiding in a cave where she also finds Captain Stewart's backpack full of spy paraphernalia and a warning not let anyone see what's in it. Fortunately, Meg was told that there are resistance workers along the way who are aware of the mission and can provide some assistance, but for the most part, the four are on their own. 

As if their journey weren't difficult enough, Lieutenant Becker is on Meg's trail, suspecting her of resistance work. And just as they get to the point where they should head to Spain, Meg solves her father's message and insists they go to Switzerland instead. But why? And why would he say not to trust one of the "Durands" and which one?

Rescue is an exciting book, full of mystery, intrigue, danger, and betrayal. It's the kind of book my today self thinks is at time preposterous yet I know my 11/12-year-old-self would have hung on every word and every moment of danger. But my today self also knows that codes and ciphers were very popular during WWII, so it isn't surprising that Meg and her dad have their fun with them. Would I let a 12-year-old do what Meg is asked to do? Not a chance, but during the war, kids did this and more. 

Captain Stewart was part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), as was Meg's father, and he arrived in France with his bag of spy tools, including a spy manual, which Meg refers to often. I liked that Nielsen used the rules from the book for some of her chapter headings. Since they worked in so well with what happens in the chapters they head, I suspect it was a made up book, but fun nevertheless. 

Nielsen has included a section called Secret Codes at the end of the novel for readers intrigued by them that includes all kinds of different codes they can try. I was one of those geeky kids who loved codes and secret languages growing up and still have a fascination for them.* There is also a section called The Special Operations Executive for readers unfamiliar with this organization created by Winston Churchill in 1940. 

Rescue is an exiting book that should appeal to anyone who likes historical fiction about WWII that includes plenty of adventure and danger.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

*I'm pretty sure my fascination with codes and coding is how I ended up in Information Technology, creating programs and teaching kids and adults about computers.  

Friday, March 19, 2021

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Matt Tavares

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Matt Tavares
Candlewick Press, 2021, 32 pages

How many times have we watched an American president or a visiting foreign dignitary laying a wrath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and not really thought much about either the unknown soldier or the soldier guarding him? Maybe you've visited even the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on a school trip to Washington, DC and have a photo you took somewhere on your phone. We may all think differently after reading this excellent picture book for older readers that focuses on this important monument honoring America's unknown fallen heroes and the select few who guard them.
             "I am an Unknown. I am one of many."

Told in the first person voice of one unknown soldier standing in place for all, he tells the reader about the many soldiers who were once the living and loved sons, fathers, husbands, brothers who fell in battle during WWI. When the war was over, most of them went home to families who would mourn them, burying them in graves that would remember and honor them. But for others, those were could not be identified, there was not place to honor the sacrifice they had made.

In 1921, our narrator was given a hero's funeral, laying in state in the Capital in Washington, DC, where mourners who had lost loved ones that never came home could grieve and find some sense of closure. Then, on November 11th, at 11 o'clock, our narrator's symbolic coffin was taken to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. From then on, the narrator says he was always alone. Over the years, people began to visit the hillcrest where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is, but, he says, it was mostly "for the view and not the meaning."

Then, at the stroke of midnight on July 2,1937, our unknown soldier was suddenly not longer alone. From then on, every day and night, in all kinds of weather, the sentinel guards were there, to honor the unknown fallen. Men and women from every race, religion and creed are part of the Tomb Guard. Marching back and forth in their vigil, each guard takes 21 steps in one direction, followed by 21 seconds of silence, then 21 steps back and 21 seconds of silence over and over on his watch and each step with its own click. To understand just how dedicated the Tomb Guard's are to their watch, readers are first introduced to The Sentinel's Creed.

Eventually, the remains of an unknown soldier from WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were also laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just like our WWI narrator, these fallen soldiers first lay in state at the Capital, and once again, mourners could make them their owe, because "[t]heir stories were different and the same." Interestingly, thanks to DNA, the soldier from the Vietnam War was identified and returned to his family. 

People still come to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but now it is to pay honor and not to picnic and marvel at the view. 

Placing this history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Tomb Guards in the voice of an nameless, faceless fallen soldier, Gottesfeld's text gives this book a personal measure of poignancy and melancholy that is rare in the picture book, even one for older readers. But at the same time, he brings a level of honor and reverence to it, as well. Readers will probably never watch a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier the same way again. 

Matt Tavares illustrations, done with pencil and digitally painted, are both realistic and visceral at the same time, completely matching Gottesfeld's poetic text. Have some tissues handy as you read this beautifully done work. The dust jacket shows the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and his guard in daytime, this is what you will find underneath:

This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. If you are looking for a picture book to share with your young readers this coming Memorial Day, this is definitely one of the better choices for that solemn day.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
I received this book for free from Candlewick Press in exchange review. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizabeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Brooke Smart

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizabeth Friedman Changed 
the Course of Two World Wars
by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Brooke Smart
Harry N. Abrams, 2021, 48 pages

This picture book for older readers tells the story of a remarkable woman who developed new code- making and breaking techniques, helped capture bootleggers, and even managed to catch a few Nazi spies. 

When she was a child, Elizabeth Smith loved poetry and Shakespeare was her favorite author. She appreciated the structure and patterns she noticed in his poetry. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth graduated college in 1915 with a degree in English Lit, but she also studied Latin, Greek, and German. 

Looking for a job in Chicago, Elizabeth was introduced to George Fabyan, a wealthy eccentric Shakespeare fan who invited her to become part of a group of researchers on his estate, Riverbank, who were looking for proof that Francis Bacon was the real writer of Shakespeare's plays. Her job was to look for secret messages left by Bacon in the plays. Who knew this job would eventually lead to Elizabeth's helping to capture Nazi spies?  

Well, Elizabeth never found any coded messages but she did find friendship in the person of William Friedman, a scientist. The two friends spent part of their time together devising secret notes and challenging each other to decode them. Soon, they were in love and married. 

When the United States entered WWI in 1917, Riverbank was converted to a code-breaking unit called the Riverbank Department of Ciphers. Elizabeth, William, and their cipher staff set about decoding enemy communications and developing new code-breaking techniques. 

After the war, Elizabeth went on the work for the Coast Guard. They needed help with smugglers who were hiding bootleg liquor and communicating with each other using coded messages. Could Elizabeth crack the codes, so the bootleggers could be caught? She could and did, often testifying at the trials of the smugglers.

When the United States entered WWII, Elizabeth's code-breaking skills were once again needed. In 1942, she joined the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and began setting up a code-breaking unit. Yet, when her decoding talents helped with the capture of some Nazi spies, the FBI director took all the credit for himself. Nevertheless, Elizabeth carried on and helped put American Velvalee Dickinson in prison for spying for the Japanese by decoding her letters about buying "dolls." 

Then came Germany's Enigma code-making machine, which created seemingly unbreakable codes. Thanks to a lazy Enigma operator, Elizabeth and her staff were about to break the codes after months of hard work. They didn't know that in England, code-breaker Alan Turing had also broken the Enigma codes.  

I loved the way Elizabeth's own words were strategically worked into the stylized watercolor and gouache illustrations so readers can get a real sense of who Elizabeth was and what she thought about the groundbreaking work she did. I also loved the ribbons of coded messages the wrap around a number of pages like a lasso capturing secrets, including the Nazis that Elizabeth's decoded messages helped catch. And if you are interested in trying your hand at decoding. those ribbons are coded messages. Check out the back matter for help solving them.

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter is a fascinating biography about a woman who did so much and received so little credit for her hard work. It is packed with interesting information about Elizabeth's personal and professional life. 

Besides information about Codes and Ciphers, back matter includes a challenge to Crack The Code, information on Cryptography Today, a Timeline and a Selected Bibliography.   

You can also find some Activity Sheets to download courtesy of the publisher, Abrams Books HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the Queens Public Library