Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Adam & Thomas by Aharon Appelfeld, illustrated by Philippe Dumas, translated by Jeffrey Green

Early one morning, towards the end of WWII, a mother and son leave the ghetto and head towards the nearby forest.  There, she leaves her son Adam, 9, telling him not to be afraid, he knows the forest well from all the times he had visited it with his parents before the war came, and promising to come for him if she can that evening.  He is left with a blanket, a knapsack with food, a book and some jacks, 

Adam spends the day walking around the forest, thinking about it and his life with his parents and his dog Miro before the war and the ghetto.  His mother doesn’t return that evening.  

The next day, Adam meets Thomas, also 9, and also left in the forest by his mother with the same promise to return for him in the evening.  Adam and Thomas know each other from school, though they had not been friends there.  They spend the day in the forest, and that evening, their mothers again fail to return.

By day, Adam and Thomas forage in the forest for food, and talk to each other about their situation.  Their talks begin to take on a philosophical nature, about faith, God. and intellect.  Positive thinker Adam believes God will help get them through, negative thinker Thomas relies of study and education, which isn’t happening for him now.

Adam and Thomas decide to build a nest in a high tree for safety, partly because of the fugitives  running through the forest, pursued by Nazis shooting at them.  They both understand they will also be shot if found since they are Jewish.  Every day. the two boys wait for their mothers, who never come for them.  One day, however, while trying to help a wounded man attempting to escape the Nazis, they learn that the ghetto has been liquidated and everyone sent to Poland.  

Luckily, they also discover a cow in a meadow and begin to get some milk from her every day.  One day, a young girl their age comes to milk the cow.  It is also a girl from their class named Mina.  Mina is hiding from the Nazis in a peasant’s home.  After the boys try to make contact with her, Mina begins to leave food for them whenever she can. 

Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, and soon a kind peasant tells them the Red Army is not far away, the war could be ending, and, meanwhile, he also begins to leave food for the boys.  Then, one day, out of the blue, Adam’s dog shows up with a note from his mother attached to the underside of his collar.  

The weather begins to get colder and colder and soon, snow starts falling.  One day, the boys see a figure wading through the ever deepening snow, and realize it is Mina, who has been very badly beaten by the peasant she lived with and thrown out into the cold and snow.

How will the children survive the cold harsh winter, with only small amounts of food and no real shelter, and not even a fire to warm themselves by.  And can two young boys really nurse Mina back to health, or will it take a miracle to make that happen? 

I have to admit that I found Adam & Thomas to be a bit of a strange story.  It was originally written in Hebrew and loosely based on author Aharon Appelfeld's real life experiences.  It is also his first book for children.  The philosophical conversations between Adam and Thomas aren't so deep or adult that middle grade readers won't understand them, but they may be a bit disconcerting, since it isn't something young readers may be used to.  But there are not explanations for some things (like why was Mina beaten? And there is no closure to anything, including the ending).

That aside, Adam & Thomas is a compelling story about suffering, survival, optimism, friendship, and especially acts of kindness during some very dark, difficult days.  Appelfeld's writing is clear and simple, with short declarative sentences and few adjectives for the most part.  

The story of the two boys, including the animals and people they encounter, has a unrealistic quality to it.  Appelfeld says he writes from a dreamlike or artificial/imitative-like world in the kind of style used in the Bible, all of which, I think, is what gives Adam & Thomas its fable-like feeling.  But make no doubt about it, this is a story based on truth, on horrific circumstances and you never forget that while reading.

Adults and young readers interested in the Holocaust shouldn't miss this small but totally accessible and powerful book, which, I think, will also make an big impact on readers not particularly interested in WWII or the Holocaust.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+

This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows ( a Flavia de Luce Mystery #4) by Alan Bradley

It's Christmastime and Flavia de Luce, 11, is anticipating the arrival and capture of Father Christmas, using a concoction whipped up in her fully equipped laboratory, her Sanctum Sanctorum, designed to hold him fast to the rooftop chimney till she can get there.   Once and for all the question of Father Christmas's existence will be answered for Flavia, and what older sisters Daffy (Daphne) and Feely (Ophelia) told her will either be right or wrong.

But before that can happen on Christmas eve, the ancestor home, Buckshaw, is going to be used as a movie set in order to make some money to keep Her Majesty's taxman at bay.  After the movie crew gets itself settled in at Buckshaw, the vicar, Rev. Richardson, asks the movie's leading lady, Phyllis Wyvern, if she would put on a performance with her leading man, Desmond Duncan, to raise money to help pay for roof repairs at St. Tankred's.  The plan is that they will do a scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Because the roof is already caving in, it is decided that the performance would be done at Buckshaw and, since there is already considerable snowing falling, the good folks of Bishop's Lacy will be brought in by sleigh and tractor.  

As the performance begins, the falling snow increases to blizzard proportions, and by the end of the performance, the snow has stranded  everyone at Buckshaw.   As everyone settles in for the night, sleeping on the floor scattered all around, upstairs Flavia decides to go have a midnight chat with Phyllis Wyvern.  Approaching her bedroom door, Flavia can hear a confusing slap-slap sound coming from the actress's bedroom.  Pushing the door open, she discovers a film projector going round and round and then she sees that Phyllis Wyvern is wearing the peasant blouse and skirt of one of her old movies - Dressed for Dying - and has been murdered, strangled with a piece of film from the movie and then tied in a big bow around her neck.

Naturally, Flavia manages to insinuate herself into the investigation once Inspector Hewit of the Hinley Constabulary is brought in,(and after doing her own initial investigations), yet this novel isn't about Flavia's sleuthing skills so much as it is about the de Luce family, past and present.  We are given more background information about the de Luce's, about Flavia's mother Harriet and how much her parents loved each other before Harriet's accidental death.  And, even sisters Daffy and Feely aren't as mean to Flavia as they normally are, especially when she almost becomes the victim of her own plan to discover the truth about Father Christmas.

Bradley has created a very Agatha Christie-like situation involving an isolated country house full of suspects that can't easily get away from the scene of the crime.  And there are suspects galore, but why would any of them want Phyllis Wyvern dead?  Flavia naturally discovers, Phyllis Wyvern has secrets, lots of them.  Some involve the war, some involve her family and others involve professional jealousies, and Flavia is determined to get to the bottom of them all.

I've loved the four Flavia de Luce mysteries I read so far, and, even though I haven't read them in order, it hasn't been a problem.  Bradley gives enough information in each book to inform without over doing it.  And I like that Bradley has included a Christmas book in his Flavia novels, it gives it a more rounded feeling.  This isn't one of the best Flavia book but it is a nice holiday mystery.

And I am anxiously awaiting Flavia #8 - Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Home and Away: A World War II Christmas Story by Dean Hughes

It's Thanksgiving 1944 in Ogden, Utah, and for the Hayes family, it's a tough one.  Oldest son Glen is a paratrooper  somewhere in Holland, and Dennis, his 16 year old brother. can't wait to enlist as soon as he turns 17.  Meanwhile, Dennis is trying to keep peace at home,  His dad, who has a drinking problem, also has a quick temper and sometimes a very cruel mouth, aimed at Dennis and his mother.  Younger sisters Sharon and Linda are still too young to be the brunt of their dad's anger. though he doesn't pay much attention to them anyway.

Dennis has decided he would like to make Christmas a special one for his mom this year.  He's working extra hours at the Walgreen's to save money to buy her a new dress for church, her first in a very long time.  Dennis even manages to get his car mechanic dad to contribute $5.00.  Dennis is aware that his father favors his brother, because Glen accepts his dad for who he is, and the two of them go hunting and fishing together, whereas Dennis is somewhat ashamed of his father.  Besides that, his dad thinks Dennis is a momma's boy - meaning he's not half the man his brother is.

And it turns out that Dennis realizes he is somewhat ashamed of his dad.  When a wealthy girl in his class, Judy Kay, lets him know, she would like to go to the Christmas dance at school, Dennis allows himself to be talked into buying an expensive suit and shoes by his wealthy best friend Gordon.  He knows he has spent way too much, but can't stop himself.

In alternating chapters, the reader learns about Glen Hayes and his friend Dibbs have survived the Normandy landing  and now they are living in a cold, muddy trench in the rain in Holland.  Their Thanksgiving meal, a wet, splashy version of someones idea of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, only serves to make Glen want to be home and to discourage his brother from joining up.

On December 17, Glen and the other men of the 101st Airborne Division are loaded up on trucks and sent to Belgium as infantry reinforcements despite not being trained for that and not having enough ammunition, or winter clothing to protect against the bitter cold there.  By Christmas, there is snow to compound the discomfort of their new trench.

Back in Ogden, Dennis manages to purchase the dress he has his heart set on for his mom, thanks to a kind sales lady who gets it discounted for him.  Christmas is a success, the dress is a success, the younger girls love their presents.  But more importantly, Dennis and his dad finally have a difficult conversation about how they both feel towards each other.

Not long after Christmas day, a telegram arrives that Glen has been seriously wounded in action.  Will this be the thing that finally pulls the Hayes family together or pulls them completely apart?

Dean Hughes has written a lot of WWII books and I thought this one would be an interesting Christmas story.  Christmas had to be a tense time with family members away fighting in Europe and the Pacific.  Worry about them could easily lead to tensions within the home and it's understandable that suppressed feelings could bubble up to the surface.  And that is exactly what Hughes has depicted in Home and Away.  With the exception of father Henry Hayes, the rest of the Hayes family is very religious and rely on that to help them through these tough times.  I should say that some of what Hughes writes is LDS fiction, but there is not particular religion mentioned in Home and Away.

Home and Away is a novella, but I can't say I found it very satisfying.  Although Hughes did a great job depicting Dennis' dilemma about signing up to be a paratrooper like his brother, I never felt like he was a coward because he had reservations.  Still, I did feel  that there were events that didn't quite come to a satisfying conclusion and that bothered me.  There was all that talk about money for a new dress, but nothing was said when Dennis spent so much on a suit, shoes and the dance.  Sure it came out of his pocket, but would that stop his dad from commenting on the waste of money it was.  And the girl Dennis took to the dance, Judy Kay, was so gun-ho war but why?  And what happened to Glen's friend Dibbs?  Was he hurt? or killed?

Hughes has captured life during the war at home and abroad so well, so realistically, I wish he had written this as a novel instead of a novella.  I think it would have been so much more satisfying.  Still, I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction and/or WWII fiction.

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday #17: Top Ten Books Read in 2015

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish

This week's top ten topic is the top ten books read in 2015.  I've read more than I've blogged about this year, but I did review my favorite books, although picking a top ten was really difficult.  Anyway, here are my picks, in no particular order:

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley 

I loved Ada spirit and determination to save herself and her younger brother from the blitz and their mother despite her severely clubbed foot and never having walked before.  Some people thought the ending was too pat, but if you really think about it, it is plausible.

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I loved the way three different stories from three different time periods are tied together by one harmonica and how that harmonica influenced the destinies of the young protagonists in each story.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: 
Knud Pederson and the Churchill Club by Philip Hoose 

Can a few people make a difference in the face of ruthless tyranny?  You bet they can, as these young Danish boys prove in their efforts to sabotage the Nazis that occupied their country in any way possible during WWII.  

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba
by Margarita Engle

There aren't books for young readers about the Jewish refugees from Europe finding refuge in Cuba.  Engle lyrically tells the story of Daniel, 13, a refugee, who befriends Paloma, a Cuban whose father has the power to grant or deny visas to those wishing to enter Cuba, and David, a Yiddish speaking Russian and the events that surrounded Cuba from 1939 to 1942.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

This is a sequel to a book by E. Nesbit written in 1902 about the adventures of five children and a Psammead.  It begins in 1914, WWI has begone and the children rediscover the Psammead.  And while the Psammead provides some humor, the novel is really more about how the war impacts the each family member.

A Prince Without a Kingdom by Timothée de Fombelle

A sequel to Vango: Between Sky and Earth, it brings the mystery about who Vango is to a satisfying conclusion, but not before lots of adventure, intrigue, suspense and a little romance.  It is a big book, as was the first volume, but oh, so worth the read.

The Tiger Who Would Be Kind by James Thurber,
illustrated by Joohee Yoon

This is an old James Thurber fable about the pointless of war that I remember reading in high school. What put it on my top ten list is the incredible illustrations by Joohee Yoon, using only a palette of green, orange, black and white to create some wonderful boldly expressive images, giving new life to this old tale.

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

This is a story of friendship between two girls in Auschwitz, and how they helped each other and the other girls in their barracks survive.  Told in verse and in alternating voices, readers learn about their families, their lives in Auschwitz and the one risk one girl makes for the other.

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne Jones

This is the book that surprised me the most.  I'm not a fan of zombie tales, but Wynne Jones created a story that was so compelling and so different, I ended up loving it and gushing like a schoolgirl when I met Wynne Jones.  It is really the story of a Japanese soldier, and American soldier and what happened on a south Pacific island.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and 
Tanya Simon

Before leaving Germany shortly after Kristalnacht, Oskar's father told him to always look for the blessings.  After arriving in NYC on the seventh night of Hanukkah, Oskar must walk up Broadway to 103rd Street and the aunt he's never met and who doesn't even know he is coming.  Along the way, Oskar discovers eight wonderful blessings.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Reading Challenges

Tempus fugit!
Well, time really does fly!  It's already he end of the year and time to think about reading challenges.  When I first started blogging, I loved reading challenges.  I saw them as a chance to read books I might never have read otherwise, a chance to get out of my comfort zone and explore different ways of looking at things.

So...it turns out that I'm not as good at reading challenges as I might like to be.  And I think the main reason for that is that I never plan ahead.  I never commit to reading X number of books per challenge, or listing what I plan to read, I just let things happens serendipitously.  Apparently, however, serendipity doesn't work for me.  I like a plan and my most successful endeavors have always had a plan of action.

This year, instead of giving up a good reading challenge, which I still find fun to do, I've decided to approach it with a plan.  And I found just the right challenge for this blog, thanks to Becky at Becky's Book Reviews, a blog I have been reading for years now.  Becky is hosting the 2016 World at War Reading Challenge and to help participants like me get the most out of her challenge, she has provided a bingo-type card :

And I have actually made a list of books that I would like to read and my plan is:

1- Any Book published 1914 - 1918: Before the Chalet School: The Bethany’s on the Home 
    Front by Helen Barber
2- A Nonfiction Book about the 1910s and 1920s - Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem 
    Renaissance by Laban Carrick Hill

3- A Fiction Book Set in the 1920s - Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin   

4- A Book Set in Asia or the Middle East - Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

5- Any Movie About Either War - TBD

1- A Fiction Book Set in WWI - All Quiet on the Western Front

2- A Fiction Book Set in 1918 - 1924 - Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

3- A Fiction Book Set in the 1920s - The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer

4- A Fiction Book Set in the 1930s - Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

5- A Fiction Book Set During WWII - TBD

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, illustrated by Mark Siegel

Shortly after Kristalnacht (November 9-10, 1938), young Oskar's parents decide to send him to America to live in New York City with his Aunt Esther, whom he has never met.  Before he leaves, his father gives him some parting words of advice:

"Oskar, even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings."

Oskar arrives in NYC on the seventh night of Hanukkah, which also happens to be Christmas Eve.  It's a cold, snowy December night and Oskar, who arrived penniless, with only an address and a photo of his aunt, has a long walk up Broadway from the Battery to her house on West 103rd Street before sundown and the lighting of the Hanukkah candles.

Along the way, Oskar finds the blessings his father told him to look for.  Watching an old woman outside Trinity Church feeding pigeons, he eats the bread she hands him to feed the birds.  Seeing him so cold, tired and hungry, she gives him a small loaf of bread to eat.

At a Union Square newsstand, the news dealer gives Oskar the Superman comic he can't pay for but is attracted to.

Later, Oskar has his first "conversation" in America, whistling back and forth with Count Basie outside Carnegie Hall.

Encountering some boys playing in the snow in Central Park, Oskar offers a helping hand to  a boy who has slipped.  Seeing Oskar's frozen hands, the boy gives Oskar his warm mittens and in return, Oskar gives him his Superman comic.

Altogether, Oskar experiences eight blessings (one for each night of Hanukkah) as he journeys up Broadway to 103rd Street.  But, of course, the last and most important blessing is finding his aunt.

The Simon's text is sparse but lyrical, a perfect read aloud book, and the story is carried forward wonderfully by Mark Siegel's paneled illustrations, done in a variety of sizes.  Siegel has rendered the illustrations in greys and earth tones, with splashes of color, so that they convey the overcast cold, snowy day of Oskar's arrival.  He has captured the variety of emotions that Oskar experiences on his long walk - fear, hope, confusion, wonder, surprise, happiness - both in Oksar's demeanor and his facial expression, and sometimes his emotion is only reflected in his eyes.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings works on so many different levels, but mostly it is a beautiful, sensitive Hanukkah story that really demonstrates that it is a season of hope and miracles.  The fact that the seventh night of Hanukkah is Christmas Eve, also a season of hope and miracles, only adds to the ambiance of the blessings.

But Oskar and the Eight Blessings is also a gentle way to begin introducing the Holocaust to young readers by explaining to them what happened on Kristalnacht and why Oskar was sent away by his parents to safety can provide enough information to help with those more difficult discussions later on.

NYC can be a daunting place even today, and I can only imagine what it would have felt like to this young Jewish refugee in 1938, escaping the cruelty of the Nazis who had already been in power since 1933, having no money and not speaking English and looking for an aunt who not only doesn't know him but isn't even expecting him.  But New York can also be magical, especially during the holidays, a place where blessings actually can happen.  Be sure to look at the map of Manhattan to see the places where Oskar's received his blessings in his new world and read the Author's Note for some very interesting background to Oskar and the Eight Blessings.

This book is recommended for readers age 4 to 104 years old
This book was borrowed from a friend

Friday, December 4, 2015

Playing with Matches by Lee Strauss

Playing with Matches begins in 1938, when Emil Radle is 9 years-old and a member of the Passau (Germany) Deutsches Jungvolk, anxiously awaiting the day he will be old enough to join the Hitler Youth and begin to learn how to fly.  Emil wants nothing more than to become a pilot in the German Luftwaffe.

But the Jungvolk is hard work and the leader, Heinz Schultz, likes to pick on Emil's friend Moritz for being weak.  Emil is aware that Moritz and their friend Johann aren't really supporters of the Reich and, in fact, neither are Emil's parents.  And maybe Emil isn't either, since he still likes his friend Anne Silbermann, a Jewish girl whose family owned a bakery, and is very upset when he saw what happens to her family on Kristalnacht.

Even after war is declared in 1939 and the youth leaders and his school teacher continue to speak Nazis rhetoric to the kids, Emil half wants to believe what he hears.  Seeing Anne and her mother boarding trains east, he thinks they are being resettled, while Moritz and Johann inform him otherwise.  Other incidents begin to cause Emil to question things more, and his belief in Nazi Germany's greatness begins to waver.

In the summer of 1941, when Emil turns 13, he discovers that Johann and Moritz are secretly listening to BBC reports on a shortwave radio.  When the reports contradict the Nazi reports on how the war is going, Emil's chasm of doubt in the Fatherland widens.  Soon, the boys are joined by Johann's sister Katharina, and all four begin to transcribe the reports and leave them around town for people to read.  And Emil begins to notice he has a strong attraction to Katharina.

The friends continue their resistance activities, as it becomes clearer that Germany is really starting to lose the war.  Emil's father is sent to Berlin for not joining the Nazi Party and isn't heard from for a very long time.  When news breaks about the arrest and beheading of The White Rose group, college students doing something similar to what Emil and his friends are doing, instead of backing down, they continue to distribute their flyers transcribed from the BBC.

Emil's affection for Katharina becomes stronger as time goes by.  In the summer of 1944, after he turns 16, Emil finally asks Katharina to marry him and is happy when she says yes.  But even though the Germans are losing the war, there is still another year of it left.  And it is a treacherous year in which some will survive and some won't.

It's no secret that the Nazis used kids to further their cause, but we don't often get books that look at the lives of those kids.  The book covers 7 years in Emil's life, which probably mirrors the experience of many boys and girls at that time.  Not everyone was a full, enthusiastic supporter of Hitler and his policies the way the leaders of Emil's Deutsches Jungvolk or his teacher are, but there were plenty who did.  And there is one incident in the novel of a girl in Emil's class turning in her parents for saying something against Hitler and that kind of thing did happen.

That said, Playing with Matches is a compelling story that really is a chronicle of one boy's life between 1938 and 1945, character driven rather than plot driven.  And, we meet a remarkable cast of characters that surround surround Emil's life - from staunch Nazis and bullies, to people caught up in a situation they don't support and their little acts of kindness, generosity and the type of support for each other that the Nazis discouraged, and who, it turns out, are real heroes for staying true to their own values and principles even in the face of a regime grounded in hate and violence.

Playing with Matches is an interesting coming-of-age novel, ideal novel for young readers interested in historical fiction, WWII history and for understanding what life was like in Nazi Germany.  It would make a nice companion book to Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library