Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Journey to Munich (A Maisie Dobbs Mystery #12) by Jacqueline Winspear

I may not have loved the book, but I do love the cover
I'm not quite as devoted a Maisie Dobbs fan as I am Maggie Hope and Flavia de Luce, but I do like to read the occasional novel.  I especially like that time passes and world events are included in the novels, and that they don't take place in a vacuum.

Journey to Munich begins in early spring 1938.  Maisie is still mourning the loss of her husband and has returned to England after having been gone for a long while.  No sooner does she arrive back in London, than she is approached by the British Secret Service and asked to undertake a dangerous, and for Maisie, unusual assignment.  She is to impersonate the daughter of a man who has been incarcerated in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp in order to get him released.

Leon Donat, who is an engineer, had become involved in publishing academic works and while in Germany to promote them, he made a contribution to a friend's son to keep his underground journal running. Naturally, Donat was arrested for it despite being a British citizen.  And Britain wants him back.  So does the United States.  Donat is also an inventor and had come up with a military landing craft that could be used for an invasion, but the plans are all in his head and everyone knows it is just a matter of time before another war begins.

The Nazis, with the blessing from their Führer Adolf Hitler, and not realizing how valuable he is, are willing to release Donat, but only to a family member.  And his daughter Edwina Donat would be that relative, except she is in hospital suffering from consumption.  So Maisie is to take her place. But before she leaves, she is asked if she will also try to find Elaine Otterburn, the woman who, a few years earlier, was supposed to pilot the plane that killed Maisie's husband who chose to fly it instead. Needless to say, there is bad blood between the two women.  Still, Maisie agrees to the assignment, if only for the sake of the baby that Elaine abandoned.

Naturally, nothing goes as easily or as smoothly as one who like.

I'm sorry to say that I did not enjoy this novel as much as I have other Maisie Dobbs mysteries.  I thought it would never get to the heart of the story - Maisie in Munich, encountering Nazi officials and the ensuing difficulty of getting Donat out of Dachau.  Yet, ironically, she has very little trouble tracking down Elaine Otterburn even though the only information Maisie had was that she lived in Munich.

Don't get me wrong, there are some exciting episodes in Journey to Munich, but they are a bit overwhelmed by Maisie introspection brought on, I think, by the Elaine Otterburn situation.

I felt that Maisie was out of her element as a Secret Service operative, but her talents as an investigator, as a "private inquiry agent" were just too pat here for my taste.  I began to wonder whether Maisie's professional direction would change as the world heads into another war?  Maybe this is the set-up for Maisie-turned-spy.  Time will tell.

If you are a die-hard Maisie Dobbs fan, Journey to Munich probably won't disappoint you. If you are the occasional reader like I am, your experience may not be as wonderful, but do give it a try.  The world of Maisie Dobbs is on the threshold of a whole new era, who knows what experiences she will have.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Secret Seder by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

When the Nazis invaded France, it was no longer safe for young Jacques, his father, mother and grandparents to remain in Paris. There were black-booted Nazi soldiers everywhere and even walking too fast could be dangerous for the Jews who still remained there.  Jacques and his parents left Paris to live in a small village and pretend they are Catholic like everyone else.  His grandparents also left Paris, but Jacques doesn't know to where.

Now, it is Passover, but having a traditional Seder at home is out of the question with so many soldiers patrolling the village.  There is a plan for Jacques to go with his dad through the village, and up a wooded mountain to a cabin at the summit for a secret Seder. To surprise his dad, Jacques has been secretly practicing the Four Questions that the youngest person at a Seder table asks.

When they arrive at the cabin, there is a group of strangers, all men, sitting around a table with their coat collars pulled up high to cover their heads.  Though most of the traditional symbols that are such an important part of Passover are missing, an old man reads reads the Haggadah, including the Passover story about the exodus of the Jews from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, likening it to the situation that Jews finds themselves in once again under the Nazis.  When it comes time to ask the Four Questions, his father and the other men are surprised and pleased to see that Jacques has kept with Jewish custom and learned them in Hebrew.

At the end of the service, the men leave, never having introduced themselves to each other, but having just shared a courageous act of resistance by daring to have a Seder.  Though the Seder reminded everyone that all over Europe Jews were being murdered, their only parting words to each other are "Next year in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), ending the story on a hopeful note.

The Secret Seder is narrated by Jacques, whose youthful perspective and determination to learn the Four Questions really points to the importance of family, tradition, and religion despite the circumstances the Jewish people found themselves in.

The watercolor illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully really reflects the mood of the story.  In the village, the tone is bright and almost cheerful, except for the frightened expressions on the images of Jacques and his father.  As they climb the mountain, the look of fearful apprehension remains, and the landscape around them becomes darker and darker, increasing the feeling of foreboding.

Doreen Rappaport based The Secret Seder on real events.  There are many true stories of Jews celebrating Passover and other holidays despite the danger of doing so between 1939 and 1945.  I think she has really captured the fear that Jews in hiding lived with during that time, seeking to try to blend in they way Jacques and his family do by trying to act normal in the village, but she has also makes clear what an important part of their lives their religion is to Jews, especially during those dark days.

Back matter includes an author's notes about the book, information about Passover and resources for learning more about it as well as the Holocaust.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Weekend Cooking #28: When a war ends...or how I discovered the best peach cobbler ever

Most of us probably like to think that when a war ends the survivors go home and pick up their lives where they left off.  But of course, deep down we know that isn't how it happens. Soldiers come home wounded and often suffering from PTSD, families are torn apart, children are displaced and everyone must still deal with all kinds of loss, and, as you saw in The Seagoing Cowboy, people living in ravaged countries are starving.

After World War II ended, Americans were asked to revive their Victory and Community Gardens in order to help meet the needs of a post-war Europe and Asia.  As Henry Wallace told the National Victory Garden Conference in 1946 "...probably more persons will go hungry during the next four months than in any like period in the world's history."  By then, most Victory Gardens were no longer being used so the 18,500,000 gardeners who has gardened for war were a little surprised when the call went to for them to now garden for peace.   Did Americans rise to the challenge?  You bet they did.

The Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 1946
Besides asking Americans to revive their Victory Gardens, President Truman also called for the production of Emergency Flour.  The idea was to conserve wheat making more of it available to Europe.  What that meant was that all-purpose flour would now contain more bran and wheat germ, both of which are normally not found in flour.  Because Emergency Flour didn't behave the same way all-purpose flour did when used for baking, companies began to put out recipes that were tailored to it:

I've tried these two recipes, though not with Emergency Flour, and they were OK, but my favorite, my absolute favorite is the 1946 Better Homes and Gardens recipe for Crusty Peach Cobbler.  I love Peach Cobbler so much, I started canning my own peaches so I could have it year round.  I found the recipe over at a blog I read called Retro Recipe Attempts and I have been using it ever since.  

As you can see, it has a nice thick biscuity or crusty top layer, which I really love.    

Crusty Peach Cobbler

6 cups fresh peaches (about 3 pounds), peeled, stoned, and thickly sliced
1/2 cup sugar
Grated zest of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons pure almond extract

Biscuit Dough
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/2 cup milk, plus additional drops, if necessary
1 large egg
2 tablespoons sugar, for sprinkling (I don't do this, I don't like the biscuit to taste sweet)

Preheat the oven to 400º.  Arrange the fruit in a greased shallow 9-by-13-inch rectangular baking dish or 10- to 12-inch oval ceramic gratin dish. Toss with the sugar, zest, lemon juice, and almond extract.
Place the fruit in the hot oven 10 minutes while preparing the shortcake.

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar in a medium mixing bowl.  Cut in the cold butter with a fork or electric mixer until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  Make a well in the center and add the milk and egg, mixing until just evenly moistened; do not over mix (I use a Danish dough whisk, one of my favorite tools, for this).  Working quickly, drop the dough by large tablespoons over the hot peaches so that the edges do not touch the sides of the dish and sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar.

Immediately return to oven and bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the topping is golden brown and firm to the touch. Cool at least 15 minutes to serve hot, or cool to room temperature and reheat to warm. 

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. As always Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Waiting on Wednesday #3: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine that highlights
upcoming releases we can't wait to read.

My Waiting on Wednesday pick this week is:

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne
Henry Holt & Co.
June 7, 2016; 272 pages

From Goodreads:

When Pierrot becomes an orphan, he must leave his home in Paris for a new life with his aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy Austrian household. But this is no ordinary time, for it is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house, for this is the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler.

Pierrot is quickly taken under Hitler's wing and thrown into an increasingly dangerous new world: a world of terror, secrets, and betrayal from which he may never be able to escape.

I'm always curious to read books by John Boyne.  I've reviewed a few of his novels in the past, but after the controversy of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (which I have not reviewed) I always feel hesitant on the one hand, excited on the other.  

What are you looking forward to reading?

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Seagoing Cowboy by Peggy Reiff Miller, illustrated by Claire Ewart

You know how on television you sometimes see ads for an organization called Heifer International?  If you have ever wondered how it all began, your curiosity will find the answer in this charming picture book about one of the first "seagoing cowboys" at the end of World War II.  These are the cowboys who delivered livestock to countries in desperate need to being rebuilding after the war's devastation.

By 1945, Poland had been ravaged.  Its cities and farmland had been bombed badly, the people who had survived were starving and help is desperately needed.  In the United States, a young man who is looking for adventure decides to sign up to become a "seagoing cowboy" along with his friend John.

Their adventure begins with a train ride to the city, where they will board their ship, the Woodstock Victory.  They arrive just as the horses and heifers are being loaded onto the ship.  John is one of the young men assigned to caring  for the horses on their week-long journey to Poland, while our un-named narrator cares for the heifers they were bringing over, heifers that will provide milk, cheese and butter to the hungry Polish people.

Sailing to Poland isn't an easy journey what with seasickness and a bad storm, but at last they arrive at their destination.  The cowboys and their livestock are welcomed with smiles and open arms, especially by the children who want the gum and chocolate the Americans carry (and who can blame them for wanting to things after years of having nothing).  And the cowboys are happy to give, but what really leaves a strong impression and saddens them most is the devastation they witness everywhere they go.

I have to be honest and say that although I have heard of Heifer International, I had never heard of seagoing cowboys, and of sending livestock to Poland and other European countries hard hit by war, so this picture book was a real eye-opener for me.

And I found The Seagoing Cowboy to be a fascinating, reader friendly account of such a little-known part of WWII history.  Although it is a work of fiction, it is made compelling because it is based on some photos that were given to Peggy Reiff Miller by her father.  The photos belonged to her grandfather who had been a seagoing cowboy and they sparked her curiosity about what it was like for the men who volunteered to do this work.  After lots of research and talking to some former seagoing cowboys, Peggy took their stories and wrote about the trip of a composite un-named young man and his adventures in The Seagoing Cowboy.

Claire Ewart's full-color watercolor illustrations are bright, light and airy, reflecting the optimism of the seagoing mission while also capturing the full range of emotions felt by humans and animals alike on this voyage.  I love the little smile on Queenie, the horse that John's father had donated to the program without telling his son and John and Queenie see each other on the ship for the first time.

The Seagoing Cowboy is a wonderful, uplifting story about the men who delivered more than just livestock to those in need, they delivered hope for the future, too. You can discover more about this program in Peggy's Author's Note, along with some photographs she has chosen to share.

Be sure to download the extensive Curriculum Guide proved by the author.

You can also discover much more information and history about the seagoing cowboys on Peggy Reiff Miller's website HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Brethren Press

Please, enjoy the book trailer:

Monday, April 4, 2016

Trapped Behind Nazi Lines: The Story of the U.S. Army Air Force Medical Evacuation Squadron by Eric Braun

Here is a little known harrowing story of courage and survival that could rival any novel written about WWII.

On November 8, 1943, a group of 13 Army medics, 13 Army nurses and a flight crew of 4, most in their late teens and early twenties, set off from Sicily on a plane bound for Bari, Italy to pick up some wounded British soldiers.  Almost immediately, the plane ran into trouble as they flew into a cold, harsh winter storm.  As the plane bucked and dove over the sea below, one of the nurses realized there were only 10 life vests for 30 people.  Then the radio went out and communication was no longer possible with anyone anywhere on the ground.  The plane flew in circles and began to run out of fuel.  As they attempted a landing in a valley, the plane was greeted with antiaircraft artillery.  When they finally crash landed, it was cold and rainy, no one was dressed for the weather or even  knew where they were, and on top of that, men with rifles were running towards them shouting in a language they did not understand.

One of the men spoke a little English and told the Americans they were in Albania.  Luckily for them, the Albanians were anti-Nazi guerrilla fighters, unluckily for them, the area was surrounded by German soldiers.  Not knowing if they could trust these partisans, the Americans nevertheless decided to follow them through the woods, and after hiking for hours in the pouring rain, arrived at the village of Gjolen.  There, they were feed some dry cornbread and sour white cheese.

Thus began the harrowing 63 day journey to reach their destination at Bari, Italy.  In-between, the meds and nurses had to hike between 600 and 1,000 miles in bitter cold, snowy weather to reach the Albania coast only 60 miles away.  Along the way, they were at the mercy of the partisans, some who were honest and treated them as kindly as possible under the circumstances. some not terribly trustworthy and others just scared villagers who would put them up for a night, but wanted them gone the next day.  Everyone knew that If anyone in Albania was caught helping the Allies, they would be immediately killed by the Nazis and their villages burned down - and there was proof all around them that this threat was real.

Trapped Behind Nazi Lines is an exciting account of this rescue of the flight crew and the 26 medical personnel of the 807th.  I have to be honest and say that given the obstacles these men and woman encountered, drawbacks like starvation, inadequate clothing, worm out shoes, I am in awe that every single one of the survived their ordeal.

Eric Braun used various sources, including books written by one of the medics and one of the nurses, to recreate a vivid, detailed account of what life was like for the two months these soldiers were caught behind enemy lines.  One of the things that surprised me was that for a country occupied by Nazi soldiers, there were some British SOE agents there who were able to help the Americans escape. The other surprise was the age of the medics and nurses.  I kept having to remind myself that these were really collage-age kids and not seasoned soldiers, yet they acted and reacted like more mature adults given the dangerous situations they found themselves in.

Trapped Behind Nazi Lines is a work of nonfiction that is sure to appeal to middle grade reader, and even YA readers who like history, but will also please kids looking for an action-packed story, all the more  exciting because it really happened.

Back matter included lots of photographs of the Americans, a map, a timeline, select bibliography, internet sites and more.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley