Thursday, April 23, 2020

Blue Skies by Anne Bustard

It's 1948 and the war has been over for three years, but not for 11-year-old Glory Bea Bennett. She's been hoping for a miracle - that her beloved MIA father, who was last seen alive storming Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944 and is now presumed dead, will someday still come home. And it looks like Glory Bea is going to get her least that's what she thinks.

Grateful to the United States for helping to liberate France from Nazi occupation, the French people have are sending 49 boxcars* on what is called the Merci Train, all filled with gifts for the United States. And one of those boxcars is going to travel through and briefly stop at Glory Bea's small town of Gladiola, Texas. Slowly, as the town begins to prepare a celebration for the train's arrival, Glory Bea allows herself to become more and more convinced that her dad will be on that boxcar stopping on Valentines Day, which also happens to be her parent's wedding anniversary. She's sure just wants to surprise her and her mom. After all, why else would the Merci Train stop in Gladiola, and wouldn't it be just like her dad to plan a big surprise like that? she thinks.

There's only one problem - now her dad's best Army buddy, Randall Horton, has arrived in town to visit with the Bennett family and Glory Bea is not happy about the fact that he is spending a lot of  time with her mother, laughing, going out, and just enjoying each other's company. Angry and resentful, it seems the more Glory Bea tries to make his visit unpleasant, the longer Randall stays.

Glory Bea keeps her idea about her dad's return to herself, only telling her best friend Ruby Jane about it. Meanwhile, she begins to prepare for his homecoming, but now it looks like Randall is planning to settle down in Gladiola. Well, once her dad is home, her mother will lose all interest in Randall.

But when the Merci Train finally arrives in Gladiola, Glory Bea's miracle is definitely not what she expected.

Blue Skies is an interesting work of historical fiction that really shows the extent to which WWII impacted the lives of those who lived through it long after the fighting ended and that finally by 1949, people were beginning to finally move on with their lives. And while I loved the idea of bringing the Merci Train into the story, I did have a hard time with Glory Bea's holding on to the idea her dad was still alive but just hadn't come home yet for such a long time.

That being said, I still really liked this novel. There's so much going on beside Glory Bea's obsession. Her grandmother is a matchmaker, and she's trying to follow in her footsteps matching Ruby Jane and neighbor Ben Truman, and totally missing Ben's real crush.

An important side story in the book is that of Ben's father who returned from the war a changed man, suffering from PTSD. When Randell Horton arrives in town, and goes to visit Mr. Truman, just being able to talk about the war with someone who was there finally begins his healing, but there's no doubt he has a long road ahead of him.

One of the things I really enjoy when reading historical fiction are the little everyday things that are included, giving the reader a real sense of what life was life for kids back then. For example, the way movies play such a big part in the lives of Glory Bea and Ruby Jane, and the tradition of going to the soda fountain for Dr. Pepper floats afterwards.

Bustard has also really captured the patriotic spirit of places like Gladiola after the war. It's a small, friendly community where everyone knows and look out for each other. This is very evident in the parade that is being planned for the Merci Train's stop there or when Glory Bea and Ben hop on a train without a ticket.

I have to admit that at first I found Glory Bea an annoying, self-centered character, but as I read on I began to feel more empathy for her. I can understand the difficulty of losing a parent that you feel so attached to as a child. It happened to me, and it happened to my Kiddo, and life is hard for a long time. Coming to terms with loss can be a hard, sad journey, but Bustard allows Glory Bea to have her journey her way.

If you have read or are planning to read Blue Skies, you can find a list of interesting resources and links, including an Educator's Guide, HERE. There's even a playlist of songs from that time period (one of my favorite things is an author's playlist for historical fiction).

If you are looking for a compelling middle grade book about WWII and its aftermath, you can't go wrong with Blue Skies.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Simon & Schuster

* There were 49 Merci boxcars in all - one for each state and a 49th for the District of Columbia and Hawaii to share. The Merci train, also called the French Gratitude Train, was sent as a thank you not only for America's part in the liberation of France, but also for the more than 700 boxcars of much needed supplies on The American Friendship Train sent to France in 1947.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Village of Scoundrels written and illustrated by Margi Preus

It's December 1942, and Inspector Perdant has just arrived in the small mountain village of Les Lauzes, located in southeastern Vichy France, and not far Switzerland's border. Officially, Perdant's job is to "maintain positive relationships with the locals," but unofficially, he understands his job is "to identify evidence of illegal activities and unregistered Jews, foreigners, communists, and undesirables." (pg 38)

No sooner does Perdant settle in than he takes an immediate dislike of the teenagers who sled at high speeds through the village's main street at night. And as Perdant begins to observe the comings and goings of village residents, he becomes increasingly suspicious of these teens, convinced that they are up to something and there are Jews sheltering among them and that the villagers are in on it. 

And indeed, Perdant's suspicions are correct. In the center of Les Lauzes is a high school that is "meant to 'promote peace and international unity' and attracts teens from all over France, many of whom live in different boardinghouses in the village. Les Lauzes is a village full of secrets, and these teens attending school are part of that. Living in a boardinghouse named Sunnyside is an expert Jewish forger of documents, ration books, and identity cards who turned himself into Jean-Paul Filon, 17, and whose base of operations is the barn of Monsieur Mousset, a farmer. Jean-Paul often works with siblings Sylvie and Léon. Into Jean-Paul's life comes Jules, a 10-year-old goatherd who knows the mountains around Les Lauzes better than anyone and who offers his services as a delivery boy of forgeries.

Then there is red-headed Philippe, a Boy Scout with survival training, who escorts people escaping the Nazis through the mountains and across the Swiss border. Not well known among the teens, Philippe sleeps by day, and travels by night. Celeste, a wealthy girl from Paris, thinks she is too scared to be of any help to the resistance until she is asked to take a risky trip to deliver a message for the maquis.

In mid-December, the Gestapo arrive in Les Lauzes, taking up residence in a hotel right next to the Beehive, as boardinghouse with twenty children living there, most of them Jewish, including teenage Henni, as is the director of that residence. Most of the  children there, including Henni, were released from Gurs, a concentration camp in southwestern France.

This is a character driven story and is told from alternating points of view, including Pendant. The characters are all based on actual people, with the exception of Jules. One of the things I liked is the inclusion of a mystery woman with a limp who carries a suitcase around with her and sometimes herds the goats. The implication is that she is Virginia Hall, an American spy. I also feel that the village of Les Lauzes is itself a character in its own right, and is based on the real village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

And into this mix of characters, Margi Preus weaves a fictionalized story of resistance, courage, cleverness, community, and danger, all of it based on real people and true events in the face of Nazi occupation. What makes the resistance activity work is that nearly everyone in the community is involved, including ordinary citizens, pastors, farmers, teachers, families, and of course, the teens, just as it was in reality.

Preus has included a Pronunciation Guide of names and places used, and back matter includes an extensive Bibliography. But most interesting of all is her Epilogue. Here she documents the actual people that her characters are based on and what happened to them after the war, as well as information about the actual places included in the book.

There are illustrations done by the author, but I read an EARC and never saw the final art so I don't feel I can comment of them. That aside, Village of Scoundrels is an exciting, well-written work of historical fiction about a different aspect of the French Resistance.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Friday, April 10, 2020

On the Horizon by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Kenard Pak

On the Horizon by Lois Lowry,
illustrated by Kenard Pak
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 80 pages

Imagine looking at old family home movies and discovering something in the background that suddenly jolts memory and reflection. Well, that is exactly what happened to Lois Lowry when she had some of her family's old home movies restored and realized as a young child playing on Waikiki beach with her grandmother in 1940, her father's camera had also captured the USS Arizona in the distance heading to its berth in Pearl Harbor:
She Was There
We never saw the ship.
But she was there.

She was moving slowly
on the horizon, shrouded in the mist
that separated skies from seas
while we laughed, unknowing, in the breeze.

She carried more than 
twelve hundred men
on deck, or working down below.
We didn't look up. We didn't know.

It is only as an adult, Lowry says in her Author's Note, while showing the restored films to friends, that the USS Arizona is finally seen. As you probably already know, it sank when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, and most of the sailors onboard were killed - among them, twin brothers, members of the ship's band, two brothers, one a survivor, one not but reunited years later in death.

From 1941, Lowry jumps to August 6, 1945 and the bombing of Hiroshima, and again highlighting individuals who were there - among them, a young boy named Koichi Seii, who would later become known as Allen Say, a child pulled from the rubble and reunited with his father, teenage girls running the trams, and a little boy on a red tricycle.
The cloud appeared over the distant hill,
blossoming like strange new flowers in spring, 
opening, growing. But the world was still.
When the cloud appeared over the distant hill,
silence has fallen. There were no sounds until 
rain came. Not true rain, but black drops falling
from the cloud that appeared over a distant hill,
blossoming like strange new flowers in spring.

On the Horizon is written in three parts- the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Lowry family's life in post-war Japan - and uses a variety of poetic forms. One of the things that she has accomplished is to show the randomness of war - especially who lives and who dies (a randomness we are witnessing again as the Coronavirus chooses its victims).  It is perhaps one of the most affecting books I have read about WWII, and I found often myself tearing up as I read. I believe it is because of the way Lowry has brought the distant near. In this slender book of poems, she shows us that sometimes history can feel like one is looking at something far away on a misty horizon, but by giving face and voice to those who were there she brings it to the forefront, and history becomes closer, people become individual human beings. This is a book of poems I believe I will be returning to again and again.

Kenard Pak's black and while pencil and digital illustrations are a perfect compliment to each one of the poems.

You can find a useful Teacher's Guide HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was a EARC gratefully received from NetGalley

This is one of my favorite poems from On the Horizon:

The hospital ships had names that spoke of need:

The carried the wounded and ill.

That morning, Solace was moored near the Arizona.
She sent her launches and stretchers across.
The harbor has a film of burning oil.
Scorched men were pulled one by one from the flames
and taken to Solace.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The King's Justice (a Maggie Hope Mystery #9) by Susan Elia MacNeal

I can't believe this is the ninth Maggie Hope mystery I've read. It seems like just yesterday I was reading #1 - Mr. Churchill's Secretary - and yet, it was back in 2012.

Maggie Hope has always been like such an intelligent, level-headed pillar of strength to me, but in The King's Justice we see a different side of Maggie, a more devil-may-care woman and who could blame her given all she has been through already.

It's now March 1943 and Nicholas Reitter, the Jack-the-Ripper copycat serial killer known as the Blackout Beast, and whose last victim was almost Maggie, has been sentenced to death for his crimes (see The Queen's Accomplice, Maggie Hope Mystery #6). Not sure she can ever put her experience with the Blackout Beast behind her, Maggie has refused to have anything more to do with spying for Churchill's SOE and is no longer working for MI5. Even DCI James Durgin, whom she is dating, can't change her mind, not even to help find a valuable stolen Stradivarius violin. 

Instead, Maggie has has taken up traveling around London on a rickety motorcycle, smoking and drinking too much, and volunteering to work with the 107th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers, defusing bombs that were dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. Known as the "Suicide Squad" it is a troop of conscientious objectors, most of whom are Itailan COs. 

But now, it seems there is another serial killer on the loose in London, one quickly nicknamed Jimmy Greenteeth. A number of suitcases full of clean white bones have been found during low tide in the Thames River, along with a white feather. Could the bones belong to London's conscientious objectors, possibly even friends of Maggie? But none of the men not showing up for work have been reported missing. Durgin is stumped and Maggie still refuses to help him solve the case.

But then, just days before his execution, Nicholas Reitter, now being held in the Tower of London,  claims he can help the police fine this new serial killer, but the only person he will speak to is Maggie Hope. And there's a condition attached to his information - Reitter wants a Royal Pardon from His Majesty, King George VI to stop his execution. Knowing this pardon will never happen, and angry with Durgin that he won't warn the COs about the white feathers found with the bones, Maggie ultimately finds herself involved in the Jimmy Greenteeth case when the young man she has been training, Milo Tucci, goes missing.

Perhaps not quite as action-packed as past Maggie Hope adventures, The King's Justice is nevertheless an exciting, complicated mystery. At first I thought that there would be a problem with linking this book up to a past story and using a specific events and recurring characters. I wondered if new readers might get lost unless there is enough background info given without spoiling too much of the action in each story. Not to worry - new readers don't need to know all the details from The Queen's Accomplice, but could well be inspired to begin reading Maggie's mysteries from the very beginning,  or just Book #6.

Old friends of Maggie, like myself, will enjoy her new adventure and, without giving anything away, you know what we are all hoping for in Maggie Hope #10, given how this ends.

One of the things I like really like about Maggie Hope mysteries is the attention to detail author Susan Elia MacNeal gives to presenting an in-depth picture of wartime London in her descriptions, and in this one particularly, the treatment of conscientious objectors, and enemy aliens, as well as in her use of British history, i.e. Jimmy Greenteeth is named after Jenny Greenteeth, a character in English folklore who would pulled people into a river and drowned them (and allows MacNeal to interrogate gendered ideas about who is capable of killing).

I am almost never disappointed when reading a Maggie Hope mystery, and now, I can't wait to see what #10 brings for her.

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