Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Nastasha Farrant

It's spring 1919, and Ben Langton, 13, feels like he's lost almost everything. His adoptive father Nathan was killed in a bombing in France during World War I when he visited Ben's older brother Sam, wounded in the war. Now, Sam is missing, presumed dead. But Ben refuses to give up hope that Sam will one day return to England and has decided to live on Nathan's narrowboat, the Sparrowhawk, thinking that is where Sam would head to when he comes home. After all, it had been home to the three of them and their dog Elsie for years.

Lotti St. Rémy, 12, is living in her parent's large house called Barton Lacey with her rather unlikable Aunt Vera and Uncle Hubert Netherbury when she isn't being shipped off to dreadful boarding schools only to get expelled. Her parents had both died in an accident and the Netherbury's were Lotti's guardians. What Lotti doesn't understand is why she hasn't heard anything from her beloved French grandmother since her parents death. Grandmother and granddaughter has always been so close. 

Ben and Lotti meet onboard the Sparrowhawk after Lotti rescues an abused Chihuahua she promptly renames Federico. Naturally, her uncle threatens to have it shot when he discovers it and send her off to the most dreadful boarding school yet. Ben has been dodging the local constable, Albert Skinner, who doesn't believe Sam is coming home and wants to put Ben back into the orphanage he and Sam has lived in before Nathan adopted them.

Somehow, Lotti convinces her uncle to let a reclusive Clara Primrose tutor her and Ben. Clara has been waiting for the love of her life to return from the war, having promised to wait for him and earning her living as a translator.

But then Clara disappears from Great Barton, and since Ben and Lotti are both 'on the run' from authority figures anyway, they ultimately hatch a plan to take the Sparrowhawk across the English Channel to France to find Sam and Grandmother St. Rémy. There's just one problem. The Sparrowhawk is a narrowboat, it has a flat bottom meant only for smooth sailing through England's many canals, not the open sea. Ben and Lotti, now sporting short hair and boys clothing and calling herself Charlie, set off, only to discover that the constable coming after them. Enter Frank, skipper of the Secret Starling, and old friend of Nathan's, who agrees to help them cross the English Channel. But can the Sparrowhawk, Ben, Lottie, Frank, Elsie and Federico survive the rough currents of the Thames and the Channel?  

Two lonely, friendless children, one broken-hearted tutor/translator, one adventurous narrowboat skipper with an emotional connection to Nathan, and two dogs are all tied together in this heartwarming adventure story and what an adventure it is. The overriding theme of this story is family and home and how the loss of one member can make someone feel less than whole and less at home with themselves. Each character, even the constable, has suffered a loss because of WWI that has sent their lives off course and each is looking for a way to set the course straight again and the Sparrowhawk certainly serves as a nice metaphor for this theme. 

The story is told from the third person points of view of several characters, giving readers insight to what is going on with all of them. Ben and Lotti/Charlie meet several secondary characters on their journey, who of whom are willing to help them for their own reasons. Readers may find there are lots of coincidences or lucky breaks throughout, but, hey, that's the stuff of middle grade fiction and it works really well here because there are also enough obstacles to overcome.   

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk is an exciting, poignant tale with a cast of some very likable characters and some real scoundrels. I should mention that while the war is the cause of everyone's unhappiness, it is really a postwar tale so readers may find Farrant's descriptions of France somewhat graphic, though not overwhelming so. For American readers who may not be familiar with narrowboats, there is an illustration at the front of the book, as well as a great description of the boat's interior at the beginning of the story. There is also a map and timeline of the journey Ben and Lotti undertake. 

This is middle grade adventure at its best!

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

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Hollywood Spy (a Maggie Hope Mystery #10) by Susan Elia MacNeal

It's hard to believe I've just finished the 10th Maggie Hope mystery. It feels like I read the very first book, Mr. Churchill's Secretary, just yesterday. And yes, Maggie has had some incredible adventures since then. But now she is off to Hollywood, California to help her old friend John Sterling solve the mystery of his fiancée's death. You may recall that at one time John had been Maggie's love interest. Later,as an RAF Pilot, he had been shot down over Germany. John was originally presumed dead, he did return to England. No longer able to fly, he was an aide to Winston Churchill, until Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante, when he leaves at Christmastime 1941 for Hollywood to work for Walt Disney, hoping to develop a gremlin story idea he has. 

It's now July 1943 and solving a murder in sunny Hollywood, California couldn't be more different than Maggie's dangerous bomb-defusing work in war-torn London. Now, Maggie is staying at the plush Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard with her old friend Sara Sanderson, a ballet dancer who has a small part in a film that George Balanchine is choreographing. 

But Hollywood isn't as sunny as Maggie first thought. America has been in the war since December 1941 and the country has mobilized - more or less - to support the war effort. But, there is also pollution from the nearby factories,  Zoot Suit clashes between Mexican Americans and whites in the Navy, crooked cops, Ku Klux Klan and Nazi supporters, and, of course, the death of Gloria Hutton, John's fiancée. When Gloria was found dead in the swimming pool of the Garden of Allah Hotel after a party, her death was ruled an accident. But Gloria was also involved in a high profile divorce from her husband of a few months, Titus Hutton, that involved a hefty financial settlement for her. 

As Maggie investigates Gloria's death, she discovers there have been other suspicious deaths, all linked to a sedition trial of some Nazis in Sacramento. Gloria had been promised protection because she was afraid the if the Nazis discovered she had testified, her life would be in danger. After all, she had worked as a secretary for one of the Nazi leaders in Los Angeles. 

Needless to say, this is an exciting novel. It can be tough to keep a series fresh and interesting, but MacNeal has put Maggie into so many different eventful global situations that each novel retains its own crispness. And honestly, I was ready for a little glitzy glamour in Maggie's life after the darkness of the  last book, The King's Justice. Am I ready for a redo of Maggie and John? I don't know and if Susan Elia MacNeal knows, she wasn't telling in this book. 

I did like that we learned a little more about Maggie's Aunt Edith, a forward thinking woman, and her partner Olive. I always picture Aunt Edith as an old woman wrapped up in math problems, but was happy to hear about her war work. It made her feel more lively and energetic. I hope we readers really get to know her better someday.

There is a lot of American history in this novel and I think readers may be surprised at how much unrest and racism there was back them. One of the things I like about this series, and it's also very true in The Hollywood Spy is the amount of authentic flavoring that is always a part of a Maggie Hope mystery. People, places, songs and movies play their part in bringing the time period to life for readers. And I think more than any other Maggie Hope mystery, this one will really resonate in today's world. 

What's next for Maggie Hope? Well, there is a bit of a hint at the end of the book, but I guess fans will just have to wait and see. I hope it's not a long wait.

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

Friday, July 23, 2021

MMGM: Arctic Star by Tom Palmer

I've read about convoys and their escorts crossing the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, but never about the ships that escorted convoys traveling parallel to Norway to a base in northern Russia through waters alive with German submarines loaded with torpedoes and Luftwaffe just waiting to take to the air and strike. But even more terrifying than U-Boat attacks and airplane strikes was Hitler's newest ship the Scharnhorst, "the most feared German vessel on the ocean" and rumor has it that she is on the move. Needless to say, this novel, based on a true story, is action packed. 

It may only be October 1943, but teenager Frank, along with his childhood friends Stephen and Joseph, have bundled up to go out on the deck of the HMS Forgetmenot, a convoy escort, to chisel as much ice as possible off the deck of the ship. It's not easy task, given the rough sea, the high waves, and the rolling and tossing of the ship. Which is how Frank suddenly lost his balance and found himself falling into the sea. Sure he was a goner, Frank is surprised to wake up back on the ship. 

Frank recovers, and eventually, the ship makes it to their destination in Russia, but on the way back to their home port, they are torpedoed, and once again Frank finds himself in the freezing Arctic waters as the HMS Forgetmenot sinks. Picked up by a rescue ship, Frank realizes his friend Joseph is dead, but Stephen, who was in the engine room, has miraculously survived. 

Frank and Stephen are given a Survivor's Leave, returning home to Plymouth, England to see their families, and pay their respects to Joseph's father. While there, they receive their orders to report to the HMS Belfast, back on Arctic Convoy duty. And while the HMS Belfast is a larger ship that the HMS Forgetmenot, the trip north to Russia is still filled with fear, anxiety and danger. 

The book ends with the Battle of North Cape, the real life battle between the Arctic Convoy and the dreaded Scharnhorst battleship. I said it is a nail-biter and it is right up to the end. Palmer's descriptions of the cold weather and icy waters of the Norwegian Sea, the ice that coated the ship and had to be constantly chiseled away to prevent the ships from getting top heavy and capsizing, were realistic enough to give me chills despite reading it during a heatwave. 

But even more realistic than the elements were Frank's thoughts and fears. Frank is a sensitive, conscientious boy, and dealing with a dangerous mission should be enough for a anyone who is still a teen, but he must also deal with worry about his mother alone in Plymouth, grieve for a friend who died while the two friends were not on speaking terms, and his own fears of what could happen. The story is told from Frank's first point of view and I thought Palmer did a great job of giving readers a sense of what it was like to be Frank without overwhelming them with too much tension. 

Arctic Star isn't a very long novel, but packs a powerful punch. The Arctic Convoys were such difficult and harrowing missions that an special award called The Arctic Star was created in 2012 for those men who served on what Winston Churchill called "the worst journey in the world." The book is not named for this award, but rather for the North Star that plays a small but important role in Frank's story.

Back matter includes an Author's Note and photographs of men who served on the Arctic Convoys, as well as additional information on the HMS Belfast.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
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.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero by Megan Hoyt, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero
written by Megan Hoyt, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, 2021, 40 pages

For eight year, Gino Bartali rode his bicycle around Italy, memorizing trails and paths, winning races and collecting trophies and first-place ribbons. He was such a good racer that in 1938 Gino won the  grueling Tour de France. But it was after that race that Gino noticed things were changing at home in Italy.

Soldiers marched through Europe and soon the world was at war. Jews, who were blamed by some for Europe's ills, were rounded up and arrested. Gino had trouble believing the lies these leaders told about Jews. But Jews had already been denied any freedoms, and now they were being rounded up and arrested. Watching these abuses, Gino thought he needed to do something to help them. Summoned by Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, Gino was asked if he wanted to become part of a network of Italians who were working to provide false identity papers to help Jews escape Italy and flee to countries like Switzerland and America. 

Despite being afraid, Gino began rolling up and hiding the forged identity papers in the hollows of his handlebars and other parts of his bike. He then began to use his cycling skills and the paths and trails all over Italy he had memorized earlier to pick up and deliver packages of these precious documents to anxious, startled families.  

But Gino did more that just deliver identity papers. For example, when Gino learned the soldiers were looking for his best friend's family, the Goldenbergs, he hid the whole family in his cellar for the duration of the war. Another time, capitalizing on his fame as a cyclist, Gino put on his racing clothes and headed to the train station where soldiers were herding arrested Jews into a train. Gino distracted the guards so that resistance workers could lead the Jews to different trains that would take them to safety. Another time, forced into the military, Gino used his uniform to find and help prisoners of war that were being held by the Italians. He led 49 English soldiers out to safety and no one took any notice of it. 

No one really knows how many people Gino helped to save. Some say more than 800, others dispute that figure. Gino never talked about his wartime activities and no records were kept by the resistance (for obvious reasons). Regardless, Gino has been named "Righteous Among Nations" by Yad Vasham, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel for his wartime work helping to rescue Jews.

Bartali's Bicycle is a well-told, well-organized picture book for older readers that introduces this brave man to today's children. Discovering new heroes is always inspiring, and this one is made particularly so thanks to the accompanying illustrations, done in a style and subtle palette of colors appropriate to the period. Both author and illustrator gave an amazing amount of attention to detail that is unusual in a picture book, even a picture book biography like this one. 

Back matter includes a Timeline, a letter from Gino Bartali's granddaughter, Lisa Bartali, an Author's Note and an extensive list the the sources used by the author. 

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero would be an excellent addition to units on the Holocaust and World War II. And, in fact, you can download a free Teaching Guide for it from the publisher, HarperCollins, HERE   

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

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Bye Bye Feedburner, Hello Mailchimp

The Follow by Email subscribe link from Feedburner is no longer available on this blog.

If you still wish to follow The Children's War by Email, I have replaced Feedburner with a Subscribe by Email link in the sidebar.