Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Re-reading Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

I decided to re-read Blackout and All Clear not long ago. I read them back in 2010, and while I don't usually re-read books, I did these because I always felt that I had read them too quickly. And the fact is I loved them as much the second time around as I did the first. Then I re-read my review and decided, 9 years after I wrote it, to repost it. This is what I wrote on November 17, 2010:

"I have just finished reading Blackout and All Clear and find myself wishing that Connie Willis could have kept going. After reading these two books totaling 1,168 pages, I find I have become quite attached to the characters and had a hard time saying goodbye when I came to the end. They are just that good!

The books are based on a simple enough premise. In 2060 Oxford, history is studied by traveling back in time to observe, collect data and interpret events firsthand under the tutelage of Mr. Dunworthy, the history professor in charge of time travel. The story centers on three students interested in different aspects of World War II. Michael Davies, disguised as Mike Davis who wants to go to Dover as an American war correspondent to observe the heroism of the ordinary people who rescued British soldiers from Dunkirk; Merope Ward becomes Eileen O’Reilly, working as a servant to Lady Caroline Denewell in her manor at Backbury, Warwickshire in order to observe evacuees from London; and Polly Churchill becomes Polly Sebastian, a shop girl by day working in the fictitious department store Townsend Brothers on Oxford Street, who wants to observe how Londoners coped during the Blitz.

In Blackout and All Clear, Willis makes it clear that there are certain cardinal rules of time travel. First, the traveler may not do anything to alter a past event. But that was supposed to have been taken care of so that it couldn’t happen. In addition, an historian is not allowed to travel to a divergence point, a critical point in history that can be changed by the presence of the historian. Nor can a predetermined drop site open if there is a “contemp” nearby who might see what is going on. Furthermore, once they have arrived at their destination, the historian is required to return to 2060 Oxford and report in. If they don’t do this, a retrieval team is sent to bring them back to Oxford. One other thing, time traveling historians are not supposed to have contact with each other while in the past.

That being said, Mike ends up in Dunkirk, saving a life and Eileen is prevented from returning to Oxford at the end of her stay by an outbreak of measles among the evacuees. Both ultimately travel to London, seeking Polly, hoping to use her drop to get back to 2060, but Polly’s drop has been compromised by a bomb and has stopped working. These extended stays do not result in the arrival of retrieval teams; but in much more complex adventures and worries. Have they altered the future unintentionally? Or unalterably? And if so, what does that mean for the future? And will the historians ever get back to 2060 Oxford?

In addition to Mike, Polly and Eileen, Willis has drawn some interesting supporting characters in Blackout and All Clear, all very different from each other and all of whom I found myself caring about. There is Sir Godfrey Kingsman, the well known actor who is part of the entourage in Polly’s bomb shelter, though he did get on my nerves with his constant quoting of Shakespeare, yet he was still endearing. He always referred to Polly as Viola from Twelfth Night because of the way she arrived at his bomb shelter her first night, and she was going by the last name Sebastian, the name of Viola’s twin brother, something to keep in mind as you read. And Colin Templer, 17 and besotted with love for Polly and who had promised to rescue her if anything went wrong. Colin wants to go to the Crusades so he can use the paradox of time travel to close the four year age difference between himself and Polly. Eileen’s life was plagued by Alf and Binnie Hodbin, brother and sister urchins evacuated from London to Backbury, pranksters and troublemakers extraordinaire. Mike had Commander Harold, elderly captain of the Lady Jane who unofficially went across the English Channel to participate in the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk and changed the course of Mike’s time travel.

Connie Willis has done a brilliant job writing Blackout and All Clear, even though I know I will probably have to reread both books again to really appreciate them [yes, that's exactly what happened]. When I first read Blackout, I didn’t pay close attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter, so sometimes they were a little confusing. I found myself preoccupied with questions about why I was suddenly in 1944 or 1945 and who were Mary Kent and Ernest Worthing and how did this connect to Mike, Polly and Eileen?  Blackout sets up all the questions and All Clear answers them.

Throughout both novels, the three main characters are confused by what has happened to them, and the chaos of the period, such as not knowing when or where bombs may fall, adding to their sense of helplessness once Polly's knowledge of when and where bombs will fall is exhausted. As in the real war, anger, anxiety, confusion, fear, frustration and helplessness are exactly the array of emotions that the reader experiences along with Mike, Eileen and Polly. Yet, all is not doom and gloom. Willis balances these with instances of hope, courage, selflessness and heroism. She also injects some very comical scenes into the story, such as an angry bull and the deployment of rubber tanks in a muddy, foggy pasture to fool the Luftwaffe, or the constant antics of the Hodbins. And of course, there is the dry wit of the British and their ‘carry on’ attitude after a blitz attack. I really like the fact that Willis keeps the story focused on the plight of the stranded historians, rather than jarring the reader by going back and forth between them and Oxford 2060.

Blackout and All Clear are both chock full of action, information, comedy, tragedy and everything else that goes into making a great story. They are not really meant for YA readers, yet they are perfectly suitable for high school kids, and even some younger ones. So without reservation, I would definitely recommend Blackout and All Clear to readers in their teens and to everyone else. It is a wonderful a tale about survival and heroism."

These books are recommended for readers age 13+
These books were purchased for my personal library.

Willis described the blitz and the bombs that hit Oxford Street, where Polly worked, in amazingly realistic detail.  Check out the following for an online exhibition of the West End at War including photos and maps of the blitz in that area, the same area that plays a large part in Blackout and All Clear

The following has online information about the Docklands and East End during the war, another area highlighted by Connie Willis;

Sunday, June 16, 2019

I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 (I Survived Series #13) by Lauren Tarshis, illustrated by Scott Dawson

It's Monday, May 3rd, and Hugo Ballard, 11, is about to embark on an exciting journey flying from Germany to New Jersey on the Hindenburg, one of two zeppelins crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1937. Hugo had already had one big adventure, living in Kenya with his mom, dad, and younger sister Gertie for a year. But now Gertie is sick with malaria and needs to get home to NYC for the right medicine as quickly as possible and the zeppelin could get the family there in only three days.

The Hindenburg is big, almost as big as the Titanic, but it's a highly flammable gas, hydrogen, that gets the zeppelin off the ground and flying. And that's a pretty scary thought for Hugo and Gertie, but almost immediately, Hugo makes a new friend, Martha Singer, or Marty as she prefers. Marty is a zeppelin pro, this is her eight Atlantic crossing in one, thanks to her dad who works for the company. "It's magical" she tells Hugo, and indeed, it seems to be so. Even Gertie is looking and feeling better.

The next morning, Tuesday, May 4th, at breakfast, however, Hugo's good feelings about being on the smooth-riding zeppelin with a new friend are somewhat diminished by the appearance of Nazi Colonel Joseph Kohl, known for his viciousness (even Gertie thinks he looks like a snake) and two other Nazi officers. When they leave, one of the passengers says that he believes the Nazis are looking for a spy on board the zeppelin.

On Wednesday, May 5th, the day before the zeppelin is scheduled to arrive at the airfield in New Jersey, Mr. Singer offers to show Hugo and his dad around the ship, even taking them into its main body, usually off limits to passengers. While there, Mr. Singer hears a terrible, unfamiliar growling noise. Alarmed, he starts to call the ship's captain, when Hugo realizes it is none other than their dog, Panya, who was put into the cargo hold for the trip. But their tour is interrupted with news that Gertie is once again very sick. After a long, scary night, Gertie's finally fever breaks and the only thing she wants is Panya.

But when Hugo sneaks down to get the dog, he sees someone else there. Is this the spy who is sneaking German secrets back to the United States? Apparently Colonel Kohl thinks so, too. After threatening Hugo with his gun, he manages to get away and get Panya to Gertie. But does an even deadlier fate await the Ballad family when the Hindenburg suddenly erupts in flames while landing?

A WWI Recruiting Poster
I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 is, like all the I Survived books, very exciting with themes of courage, resilience, and the importance of family. And Tarshis is genius at being able to weave these into a gripping tale in the midst of a dangerous historical event without distorting any of the history. She has included lots of information within the story about zeppelins, how they work and their use, even during World War I when they were used to drop bombs on civilians in both France and England. I knew airplanes were used for that, but I didn't know about zeppelins.

Nor does she shy away from Nazi violence or cruelty and yet it is never gratuitous. In this novel, Colonel Kohl is portrayed as the kind of cold-blooded Nazi who would not think twice about shooting Hugo to get what he wants. But Tarshis also always makes sure to surround her protagonist with kind people, too, as she does here with Hugo's parents, Mr. Singer, and Marty. And her protagonists are also kind people. Hugo risks a lot to make his sister happy, but he knows what he has to do. And when the ship erupts in flames, his first thought is how to save his family.

Tarshis has also included even more information about zeppelins and the Hindenburg disaster in her back matter, beginning with the question "Would you want to ride on a zeppelin? To which my answer would be unequivocally no, thank you, although I do appreciate the excitement and spectacular views of such a ride. There is also a section about the possibilities of why the Hindenburg disaster happened (to this day, no one knows), More Hindenburg Facts, and a Selected Bibliography.

I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 is one of four books that are focused on World War II, beginning with I Survived the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941, I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944, and I Survived the Battle of D-Day, 1944. Each excellent and informative, and age appropriate.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

If you would like to know more about zeppelins, be sure to visit airships.net

And if you are curious about what Hugo saw on his tour of the Hindenburg, this is the best example of the inside of it I could find (you can even see the catwalk where Hugo had to walk to get Panya for Gertie):

Monday, June 10, 2019

Stubby: A True Story of Friendship by Michael Foreman

2018 was the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I and to commemorate it, a fair number of books for young readers were published. Stubby is one of those books and his story begins in a training camp far away from the war.

For some soldiers, basic training can be a cold lonely process of endless drills and exercises. But in one particular camp, each time the bugle calls soldier's to a meal, stray dogs from all over always seem to show up, too. One of them takes a real liking to one particular soldier [Robert Conroy] and before you know it, man and dog have bonded. The soldier names the dog Stubby.

Stubby is pretty smart, and learns to sit and to salute quickly and, of course, everyone seems to love him, But when orders come that the soldiers are shipping out, sailing across the Atlantic to a land at war [France]. Stubby is supposed to stay home, but at the last minute, he gets smuggled on to the troop ship.

In the trenches, Stubby's excellent sense of smell and hearing more than once comes in handy, catching enemy soldiers who sneak into the trenches, or warning the men of poison gas attacks in time to put on their gas masks (yes, Stubby also has a gas mask), and sometimes just keeping his master warm on cold, rainy nights.

But when Stubby is injured in battle, he is sent off in an ambulance with other wounded soldiers and his owner wonders if they will ever see each other again. But, Stubby's nursed back to health at a field hospital just like a real soldier, and after six weeks, he is returned to the tranches. When the enemy is finally driven out a one town, the local ladies get together and make Stubby his own army jacket, complete with medals and badges.

When peace is finally declared in 1918, Stubby returns home to the United States a hero and is even given a position of honor at the front of a victory parade.

This is a sweet story, not so much about Stubby heroics during the war, though these are certainly included, but about what a good, loyal companion he was to Conroy. And to keep the story focused on Stubby, Foreman never uses Conroy's name and makes the dog the main focus of the illustrations.   
The illustrations are done in Foreman's signature style, using a soft pastel palette. He doesn't shy away from the realities of war, but none of the battlefield illustrations are so graphic they would upset young readers. Even the illustration of Stubby laying unconscious in the midst of fighting isn't frightening, but kids will definitely know Stubby is injured.

Be sure to read Forman's note at the back of the book, complete with a photo of Stubby in his army jacket.

Stubby: A True Story of Friendship is a heartwarming story, made all the more poignant by the fact that it is a true story.

You can download an extensive Teaching Guide courtesy of the publisher, Anderson Press

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Some Books About D-Day

D-Day June 6, 1944
"You are about to embark upon the 
great crusade toward which we have striven these
many months. The eyes of the world are upon you...
I have full confidence in your courage, 
devotion to duty and skill in battle."
                                                       General Dwight D. Eisenhower 

Tuesday, June 6, 1944
My dearest Kitty,
"This is D Day," the BBC announced at twelve. "This is the day."
The invasion has begun!
                             Anne Frank

Today is the 75th anniversary and the world is honoring the heroes of that day in a big way - as we should. The D-Day landings on the Normandy coast by American, British, and Canadians soldiers and all the equipment they brought with them sometimes seems like an overwhelming mission, it feels like a miracle that it succeeded at all. But it did, and it change the course of the war. The allied invasion cost so many people their lives, and as the quote from Anne Frank reminds us, it was a momentous turning point, not the end of the war.

There are a number of very well written books about D-Day which I've already read (but haven't necessarily reviewed) and I would like to share them with you today.

by Ronald J. Drez
National Geographic Children's Books, 2004, 64 pages

by Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt and Co., 2014, 224 pages

D-Day: The World War II Invasion The Changed History
by Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic Press, 2018, 400 pages

D-Day: Untold Stories of the Normandy Landings
inspired by 20 real-life people
written by Michael Noble, illustrated by Alexander Mostov
Wide Eyed Editions, 2019, 48 pages
This is a picture book for older readers (age 8-12). I loved reading about these "stories of bravery, sacrifice, and innovation. 

Invasion: The Story of D-Day
by Bruce Bliven, Jr.
1956, 2017
I haven't reviewed this book yet, but it is a very detailed look at what it took to prepare for the D-Day allied invasion and it's aftermath, there is just one problem with it -  there is absolutely no sourcing. I gave it a four star rating for the prose content, but a one star for the sourcing.

by Lauren Tarshis
Scholastic, 2019, 144 pages

by Kate Messner
Scholastic, 2018, 160 pages

Barrington Stoke, 2019, 120 pages

Walter Dean Myers
Scholastic Press, 1999, 2012, 144 pages

by Walter Dean Myers
Scholastic Press, 2013, 224 pages

by Amy McAuley
Walker Children's Books, 2012, 326 pages

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

D-Day Dog by Tom Palmer

Jack Ashville, an 11-year-old living in England, had always wanted a dog, and finally his parents had said yes. Now, except for school, he and Finn are inseparable, and Jack has worked very hard taking care of Finn and having fun with him. But Jack also loves to play video games with his dad, a soldier in the Army Reserves. Their newest video game is based on the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, and while his dad wants to teach Jack something about D-Day before playing, Jack just wants to get to the video game. Then, Jack learns that his father might be deployed to a war zone, and he couldn't be more excited.

At school, Jack's class is beginning to learn about the D-Day invasion of the Allies in World War II in preparation for a class trip to the beaches of Normandy, France. One of their assignments is to pick a soldier who died on D-Day and is buried in Ranville Cemetery there and learn all about them. Then, when they arrive at Ranville, each student can plant a small cross with a poppy on it on the soldier's grave.

At first, Jack is pretty gun-ho about the trip, but after hearing his parents fighting about his dad's deployment, and learning that his dad would be staying at this
grandmother's for a while, until things can be worked out, he's feeling a little deflated about everything. However, when his teacher suggests Jack research "D-Day and dogs," his enthusiasm picks up again as he's sure he's found the perfect soldier to honor.

That is until he reads about what happened to his soldier and the dog he trained to parachute out of an
airplane on D-Day. Emile Corteil was a young private in the 9th Parachute Regiment and Glen was his German Shepard. When it came time to jump, Glen got spooked by all the noise below and Emile had to literally throw him out of the plane. The jump didn't killed them, but both did die on June 6, 1944. Reading their story, Jack become so angry at what he feels is Emile's betrayal of Glen, that he subsequently refuses to go on the class trip. In fact, Jack does a complete 180° turn, now finding the reality of war to be abhorrent.

Trouble is nobody's having any of that and Jack finds himself on the bus sitting between his friend Lucas, a special needs student, and Kassandra, a girl whose family had to flee their home in Aleppo because of war. But anger causes Jack to act out and now his punishment is to sit by the bus driver, a gruff, chain-smoking old soldier, and apart from the other kids.

Needless to say, Jack's class trip is a real eye-opener for him as he learns not just about the cost of war in human life, but also comes to understand why people are willing to fight and die for what they believe, and that there is a big difference between the reality of war and war fought in a video game.
Grave of Emile Corteil and
Glen in Ranville

It is interesting to read the way Palmer has brought three subsequent wars into this story. There is Jack's dad, who could be sent to fight in the war in Afghanistan, the bus driver who had fought in the Falklands War, and Kassandra, a refugee from Syria whose family lost everything, including her beloved dogs, in the fighting there. American readers may not be familiar with the Falklands war, but there is enough about it in the driver's story to understand what happened. Each one contributes to Jack's increasing understanding about war.

Palmer has poignantly captured the volatility of an 11-year-old's feelings and emotions in Jack, which run the gamut of happy, sad, angry, betrayed, and even understanding. Jack romantic, almost idealistic ideas about war come crashing down when he learns that his father actually puts his family first and being a soldier second, and those ideas seem to just spiral down as the story goes along until Jack can finally see his way to a more realistic concept of war, making this a nice coming of age story.

I have to admit, I knew nothing about paradogs until I read D-Day Dog but although found the idea interesting, I felt a big like Jack when he discovered what happened to Glen. I would definitely recommend D-Day Dog as it is a well-written contemporary story and a timely book for young readers who may be interested in WWII. 

You can find all kinds useful resources for D-Day Dog on author Tom Palmer's website HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased from my personal library from Book Depository

There is a recent addendum to the story of Emile Cortiel and his dog Glen. Emile and Glen were buried together in Ranville Cemetery, even though it was a breach of military rules, but as of now, there is no mention it anywhere. Now, a new British memorial is to be built to honor the men and women killed in 1944 liberating France and will include a memorial dedicated to all the animals who were killed in action during the summer of 1944, including Glen. You can read the whole story HERE
Emile Corteil and Glen