Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O'Brien Carelli

It's August 2012 and Superstorm Sandy has hit New York City with all her force. With rising waters flooding the first floor of the Rockaway Manor Nursing Home in Queens, it's time to evacuate the residents. And that includes Lily, 12, and her 80-year-old grandma Collette, whom she happens to be visiting. But not before Granny insists Lily find and bring along a flat red box, and slips back into speaking her native French as soon as Lily asks what's inside.

Flashback to Nazi-occupied Brume, a small town in the south of France in the winter of 1944. A 12-year-old Collette, disguised as a young boy named Jean-Pierre, is working for the resistance. Her job is to deliver a package. In reality, it is a code for letting other resistance members know if their next operation against the Nazis is a go or not. The confirmation that the message was received is an X marked in her notebook with a Montblanc fountain pen. Collette's stealthiness and success at avoiding Nazis soon earn her a code name, Wallcreeper, and a place in the resistance group referred to by the Germans as Noah's Ark.

Back to 2012: once Superstorm Sandy has finally passed and her granny is settled in on a cot at the Brooklyn Armory, Lily is asked by one of the nurses if she would try to scrounge up some food - preferably free food. Before she leaves to do that, granny shows Lily what's in the red box - a very special Montblanc fountain pen with the initial F engraved on the side - and asks her to keep it safe for her. Lily manages to find free food, but in the process she loses the pen her granny asked her to safeguard.

Realizing that her granny will be upset if she learns that she has lost her special pen, Lily is determined to find it or one just like it. Armed with a packet of old letters written in French and addressed to her Granny, Lily's quest for the lost pen will take her to an odd little pen store in Manhattan, on a long train ride to Stratford, CT and a meeting with Skylark. Along the way, Lily will interact with a variety of interesting people, all willing to help her accomplish her pen quest. And it all unfolds without her frantic mother's knowledge (or permission).

As more surprising details about her granny's life unfolds, a life neither she nor her mother had any knowledge of, Lily learns the identity of Skylark and Wallcreeper - two young French girls working together in the Noah's Ark resistance where members only go by the names of animals in their quest to help defeat the Nazis.

Although Skylark and Wallcreeper is written in two time periods, it is not a time travel book. Lily stay firmly in 2012, it is Granny's story as a 12-year-old resistance worker in 1944 that is interspersed with the events of 2012 and Lily's story throughout the novel. Interestingly, the present is told in the first person by Lily, and the past is narrated in the third person, so there is no confusion.

Usually when I read a dual time setting novel, I end up wishing the author had just written two separate books instead of combining them. However, in this novel, I really thought it worked well. There was just enough of the past and present to satisfy. The chapters that take place in WWII always start at an appropriate point in Lily's story, so it is not a jarring jump into Nazi occupied France.

I found myself completely caught up in Lily and Granny's stories immediately. Lily, Granny, and Skylark are appealingly vivid characters, more well-rounded than the supporting characters around them. In German, there are these words called flavoring particles which add particular zest to a sentence and that's how I felt about the secondary characters in this novel. They really add a lot, but it remains Lily, Granny, and Skylark's story.

Skylark and Wallcreeper is a very satisfying, compelling novel that examines the importance of friendship, family relationships, courage and loyalty in the face of difficult and challenging times. There are a few peccadillos, but not so bad as to spoil the overall story and I would still highly recommend this book.

Do read the Author's Note to learn when elements of this novel are based in fact and what is based in fiction.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EBOOK provided to me by the publisher, Little Bee

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The War Outside by Monica Hesse

It's August 1944 when Haruko Tanaka, 17, her sister Toshiko, 12, and her mother have just arrived at the Crystal City Internment Camp, in Texas to join their father. They haven't seen Ichiro Tanaka, in five months, not since the government came and removed him from their home, accusing him of passing secrets to the Japanese through his night job at a hotel in Denver, Colorado. Living in Denver, the Tanaka's weren't interned, unlike the people living on the western coast of the United States. Shortly after Mr. Tanaka was detained, Ken, Haruko's older brother, enlisted in the army.

Watching the Japanese families arriving in Crystal City is Margot Krukow, a German American girl, interned in Crystal City with her German-born parents. As the families begin to walk away from the gate, Haruko and Margot catch each other's eye. But it isn't until Haruko's first day of school at the Federal School that she finds out who Margot is. Sitting next to each other, they completely ignore one another while being completely aware of each other. Generally, Japanese and Germans internees don't mix in Crystal City, going to separate schools, shopping in separate commissaries, but Margot chooses the Federal School because the German school is too Nazi for her and isn't accredited.

It isn't until a dust storm hits that the two girls finally speak. Margot pulls the confused Haruko into the icehouse, and before she knows it, Haruko is pouring her heart out to Margot, telling her things she can't tell anyone else. Slowly over time, the two girls find they are attracted to each other, using their meetings in the icehouse to escape the pressure and tension they both feel within their families and at being in an internment camp. Haruko can't help but wonder whether he is guilty of espionage or not, and continually worries about her brother, whose letters are beginning to sound less and less like the Ken she knows.

Margot worries about her mother's health, concerned that her pregnancy will end in miscarriage like the previous ones. And concerned that her father will finally be won over by the Nazi contingent among the Germans in the camp, and that he also may be guilty of aiding the enemy.

When a tragedy strikes the camp, things come to a head and the two girls begin to wonder if they can really trust one another. Because of the way the novel is structured, however, the reader knows right from the beginning that the friendship is doomed and that some kind of betrayal has happened, but not what it is or why. The basis of the novel are the events leading up to that betrayal, if you can really call it that.

The War Outside is told in alternating points of view, switching between Haruko and Margot to give both sides of their story in this family internment camp and the events that lead to the conclusion. It is told from the perspective of the present but there are interruptions by both girls that refer to the narrated events from a future perspective. It's an interesting device and by the second interruption (there aren't that many), I did not find them at all disconcerting, but rather interesting and made me even more curious to see what they are talking about.

Still, given the way the relationship between the girls unfolds, and the way their respective home lives are depicted, I wondered where this novel or should I say where the relationship between the two girls was going. The writing is certainly compelling, the descriptions of life in this particular internment camp are incisive and accurate, all of the characters are realistically flawed and believable, but in a place where there was no privacy, where armed guards watched internees from towers spaces along fences topped with the barbed wire, and walls were paper thin, and where Germans and Japanese don't fraternize, I have to admit I did kind of assume where the story was heading. Boy, was I wrong! Boy, did my jaw drop! I did not see that coming.

The War Outside is a very interesting coming of age novel. It is part romance, part mystery, and historical fiction at its best. Monica Hesse has really done her research resulting in a clear picture of what life was like in Crystal City. Crystal City was not quite the same as the other internment camps in that it was a place for people of Japanese, German, and Italian ancestry who were considered to be "enemy aliens" or spies. It was not run by War Relocation Authority, but by the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) division of the Department of Justice and yes, forced repatriations were carried out from there. I suspect that on several levels this novel will resonate for today's readers.

Do read the author's A Note on Historical Accuracy to discover how she researched this novel as well as what events really happened in Crystal City and how they were seamlessly incorporated into The War Outside. It is s fascinating as the novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

You can find more information about the internment of Japanese Americans in Crystal City HERE
You can find more information about the internment of German Americans including Crystal City HERE (I haven't completely explored this site yet)

There are lots of real places that were part of life in Crystal City used in The War Outside and this map may help orient readers:
Source: "Hand-drawn map of Crystal City internment camp, Texas.." Densho Encyclopedia. 17 Jul 2015, 15:20 PDT. 16 Sep 2018, 07:26 <https://encyclopedia.densho.org/sources/en-denshopd-p64-00005-1/>.
(Click to enlarge)

Monday, September 10, 2018

📚Save the Date: BookFest@BankStreet 2018 is coming

If you're looking for a fun, bookish way to spend Saturday, October 20, 2018 in NYC, look no further than BookFest@BankStreet. It's a day chockablock with some of your favorite authors and their books, with panel discussions and autographing tables. There's refreshments in the morning, with time to chat, and a box lunch with more socializing. All in all, it's a great day and, in fact, it is one of my favorite autumn events and it's only a mere $75.00.  So if you're interested, it's time to register and you can do that HERE

Here's a copy of this year's Schedule of Events for your perusal:

Click to Enlarge
The Book Discussion Sessions are a chance for you to participate in talking about your favorites with a qualified leader. Click HERE for a list of discussions and the books that will be discussed from which you can chose what you would like. 

Won't be in NYC on October 20th, no problem, Book Fest @Bank Street 2018 will be live streamed by and thanks to

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood

In the summer of 1940, as fear of a German invasion grew, the British government initiated a program called the Children's Overseas Reception Board, or CORB, which purpose was to evacuate British children from England and send them by ship to one of their (then) Dominion countries.

Lifeboat 12 follows the experience of one of the children chosen to be sent to Canada, a boy named Kenneth Sparks, 13, of Wembley in London, the son of working class parents. Kenneth, however, doesn't want to go, thinking his stepmum had finally found a way to be rid of him, even if she did buy him a very good, expensive overcoat to take with him. He was thrilled about getting such a nice coat, even if it was second hand. After all, by the summer of 1940, Ken was used to everything being second hand, makeshift or rationed because of the war. But he still wasn't happy about going to Canada.

Once the Blitz begins, and night after night is spent in a shelter, Ken quickly begins to look forward to leaving England. And he does finally leave in a convoy on Friday, September 13th, sailing on a luxury ocean lined called the City of Benares. And it is luxurious for the evacuees, who are fed wonderful and plentiful food including seconds, provided with brand new toys and games, and clean soft beds, even better than what Ken had at home. Ken makes friends with some of the other boys and spends his time exploring the ship with them. Only the constant lifeboat drills in case of an attack and the convey escorting the ship remind the kids of war they left behind.

That is until September 17th, their fourth day at sea, when a German submarine torpedoes the ship, causing severe damage. Ken heads to his assigned Lifeboat 8, but in all the confusion, he remembers he left his coat behind, the one his stepmum bought and admonished him to take care of and not to lose. Rushing back after retrieving his coat, Ken discovers Lifeboat 8 has left and he ends up squeezing into Lifeboat 12, along with 5 other boys, and 40 adults. 

Surrounded by bodies and overturned lifeboats, the survivors in Lifeboat 12 watch as the City of Benares sinks, and wonder when and if they will be rescued. With enough food and water for only eight days, Lifeboat 12 drifts in the rough seas of the open ocean for eight days.

Lifeboat 12 is based on the true story of the torpedoing and sinking of the City of Benares, and while it is a fictionalized telling, it is based on the account of the Kenneth Sparks and other survivors, whom Susan Hood interviewed for this free verse novel (knowing Ken survived isn't a spoiler).

Hood spent a lot of time interviewing Ken just before he passed away and she has really captured his 13 year old self. He is both is appealing and believable, a friendly, lively, bright boy who notices everything around him and is curious about it all. His anger at his family for sending him away feels genuine, as does his fear - going back for his coat so his stepmum won't be angry at him, sitting in an overcrowded lifeboat wondering if he would be rescued - and the disappointment that his parents couldn't see him off when he left, and then having travel alone to London when he returns to England. I liked how Hood has Ken mention in passing that planes are his hobby, rather than making a big deal about it, and he knows them all, knowledge that ultimately saved the people in Lifeboat 12.

Lifeboat 12 is a coming of age story that most readers will find hard to put down. It is divided into three sections - Escape, Afloat, and Rescue, and each section gives a day by day account of what Ken was experiencing. And when you are finished reading Ken's fictionalized story, there is plenty of back matter to explore, including facts about lifeboat 12, information on the people who survived, plenty of photographs, and books for further investigating, interesting websites, and videos, and information about the crewmen, particularly the Asian crew.

Lifeboat 12 is a testament to courage, a gripping, tension filled novel that will have you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

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

This photo in the back matter really caught my eye. I had done some research years ago on overseas evacuations of British children, including the City of Benares. Sure enough, I had a copy of this picture from The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post dated September 28, 1940, along with this account by Kenneth Sparks. So I can honestly say that Susan Hood really has brought Ken's to life for today's readers.