Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Summer of Lost Letters by Hannah Reynolds

When a box of her O'ma's stuff arrives at the house addressed to her mother, Abby Schoenberg, 17, can't resist opening it. Inside, she finds a stack of love letters addressed to her O'ma, Ruth Goldman, living in New York City from someone named Edward living on Nantucket island, and who refuses to send Ruth a necklace she has asked to be returned to her. Not knowing much about her O'ma's past other than that she came alone from Germany as a 4-year-old shortly after Kristallnacht. Now, Abby is determined to discover more about her O'ma's life - who is Edward, why was he writing love letters to her in the 1950s and what happened to the necklace, which her Grandmother obviously never got back. 

After doing some research, Abby discovers the letter writer is Edward Barbanel, who mentions a place called Golden Doors on Nantucket. Luckily, Abby lands a job working in a bookstore on the island, and a room shared with a girl named Jane, with whom she immediately becomes friends. And yes, everyone she meets knows the very wealthy Barbanel family, who are having a party at which Abby is invited to help serve. Naturally, her curiosity overcomes her and she is caught snooping around by Noah Barbanel, 18 and the handsome grandson of Edward. 

To try to keep his family's personal business private and to protect his grandparents, Noah agrees to help Abby with her search to discover more about her O'ma and her family history. O'ma never talked about her parents and all the Schoenberg's knew was that they have perished in Auschwitz, but who they were and where they lived had always been a mystery. 

In between her job at the bookstore and her attempts to discover more about her O'ma, there are parties on the beach, sailing, ice cream and new friends, even Shabbat dinner with the Barbanel family. Abby hadn't been looking forward to this summer with her friends away, but decides to take the advice of best friend Niko who tells her to go crazy, be bold, have some chutzpah. And that is just what Abby does. 

The Summer of Lost Letters is a contemporary romance with some interesting historical fiction and some interesting historical facts throughout the novel and Reynolds has incorporated it all easily into the story. I thought it was interesting how she introduced some of the chapters with Edward's love letters almost as a portend of what is going to happen. I also thought that never getting to know who Ruth Goldman responded to the letters or what she felt was a great way to keep the mystery going. Of course, readers can  surmise her feelings for Edward by the fact of keeping the letters, despite having married another man (whom she did in fact love, too). 

At first the tension and bickering in between getting along really well was kind of fun as Abby and Noah dances around their attraction to each other. But after a certain point, I honestly felt that this could have used some editing when I found myself muttering "oh my God, own it already." Others may find this kind of dance appealing.  

In the end. all is revealed and I never saw it coming - and I really liked that. The end could come across as a little to pat, but that was fine with me. After all, this is a great summer romance to read, enjoy, and learn a few things.

This book is recommend for readers age 12+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Last Hawk: Pilot, Patriot, Spy by Elizabeth Wein

This is Elizabeth Wein's third novella about a female flier in WWII. The first, White Eagles, is the story of Kristina Tomiak who is accepted into the Polish Air Force Reserve in 1939, and whose job it is to fly a person carrying important information to a meeting in Lvov, Poland. In the second novella, Firebird, it's 1942 and teen Anatasia "Nastia" Viktorovna Nabokova is a Soviet flight instructor who is ultimately accused of treason for defying Stalin's orders.  

Now, it's 1944 and 17-year-old Ingrid Hartman is a talented glider pilot, who loves the feeling of freedom that being in the air gives her. Ingrid has a stutter and in Hitler's view, that means she does not belong in his master race. People like Ingrid are taken away, never to be seen again. So Ingrid has learned how to not speak unless absolutely necessary. When a German officer shows up at her home and becomes angry because she didn't respond to his knocking on the front door and forgets to greet him with Heil Hitler,  Ingrid and her father both fear possible harsh reprisals.  

Ingrid's cousin Jonni agrees to give her an official title at his glider school, where she is his best gliding instructor, giving her some sense of protection. One day, when she is there alone, a woman arrives looking for her. It turns out that the woman is Hanna Reitsch, Germany's most famous female test pilot. Ingrid's friend, Emil Bruck, had recommended her to Hanna because of her gliding skills. It seems she wants Ingrid to accompany her on a propaganda tour of Luftwaffe bases, where Reitsch will give speeches to new pilots and recruit the top glider pilots among them for a special mission.

Naturally, Ingrid jumps at the chance to work with this famous pilot who doesn't seem the least bit bothered by her stutter. And this new job will only require Ingrid to follow Reitsch in a Hawk glider, doing some synchronized fancy flying, but to take down the information of the enthusiastic recruits - none of which requires her to speak. But the mission Reitsch wants these young men to volunteer for begins to bother Ingrid. The project Reitsch is promoting is called the Leonidas Squadron, and it is her job to convince the young pilots that dying for their country is the right this to do for the Fatherland without actually telling them that they would be flying suicide missions.    

Ingrid is thrilled when her friend Emil lands at one of the air bases she and Reitsch are also at. Emil had already said things to Ingrid about the treatment of Jews and others forced to work in munitions factories. Ingrid knows that's a fate she could have met under different circumstance because of her stutter. Now, while forcing a kiss on her, Emil carefully slips something into the waistband of her skirt. At first, feeling betrayed by him, Ingrid is angry - after all, they are only friends - but once she sees what he gave her, she knows she must follow his pleading for her to fly to the safety of the Allied forces not so far away now and show them the photos of the concentration camps Emil had taken as proof of what Germany has been doing. 

But will Ingrid find the courage she needs do fly this last mission, knowing it would be treason?

Narrated in the first person by Ingrid, readers are introduced to a lot of information, from Nazi Germany's eugenics program to the almost formed suicide squadron. Ingrid not only has a stutter, but her mother, a nurse, had worked in a youth hospital for children who had learning difficulties, so the Hartman family knew firsthand about forced sterilization, followed by forced neglect, and that those who didn't die then were simple taken away to a place where they all died from "pneumonia," including the mayor's son. (pg 10-11) 

Readers will really feel the indecision Ingrid experiences when she learns about the Leonidas Squadron and why she and Hanna Reitsch are putting on glider shows. Hanna Reitsch is a friendly, accepting mentor who just happens to be helping to plan the possible deaths of so many young men, most not much older than Ingrid. It is also an opportunity for Wein, herself a pilot, to provide background information the different kinds of planes and gliders used in Nazi Germany, as well as the unmanned vengeance or V-bombs that terrorized England for a while in 1944. And all this is so seamlessly woven into Ingrid's narrative. 

The Last Hawk is published by Barrington Stoke in a dyslexic- and reluctant reader- friendly format. I really like these books, but as an adult dyslexic who has been reading a lot longer than most kids, I wondered if kids would find them as reader-friendly as I do. So, I gave one to a young friend (age 11) who has also been diagnosed as dyslexic and not a fan of reading. Sure enough, they not only liked the format but enjoyed the story, too. 

Pair this with White Eagles and Firebird for an amazing trilogy about girls who fly in WWII.  

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair: Inside the 1944 Plot to Kill Hitler and the Ghost Children of His Revenge by Ann Bausum

One of the things I've learned after reading a number of books by Ann Bausum is that you can always count on her to write a compelling, well-researched book. She really knows how to present the participants, lay out the timeline, and contextualize the meaning of each historical event she tackles. And she has done it again in this book about the  Valkyrie plot to kill Adolf Hitler, in what could otherwise be a confusing event in the history of Nazi Germany. But then, Bausum takes the story further and tells the reader what happened later to the children of the people involved in the plot.

Bausum begins her account with a detailed account of Adolf Hitler's rise in popularity and his seizure of power after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934. From the beginning, Hitler used fear and brutality to maintain control over the German people, and his predilection for retaliation meant little dissent among the people. But by 1943, some prominent Germans, among the *Count Claus von Stauffenberg, Cäsar von Hofacker and Friedrich-Wilhelm von Hase, began to realize that Hitler had to be stopped. 

A plot to kill Hitler and overthrow his regime was planned, adapting the name Valkyrie. The plan was simple enough - von Stauffenberg would carry a briefcase with a bomb in it to a July 20, 1944 meeting at Hitler's Wolf's Lair retreat. He would excuse himself, but leave the briefcase behind. Unfortunately, the planned assassination  failed and the conspirators were quickly captured, put to death and cremated.  

But what about the families of the dead conspirators? Here is where Bausum shines a light on what is probably an almost unknown part of this story. The deadly fate of the conspirators wasn't enough for Hitler, who insisted on broadly applying a policy of Sippenhaft or family arrest to their "families, including spouses, children, siblings, parents and other relatives" (pg. 70) and put SS leader Heinrich Himmler in charge if it.

Over 700 family members were arrested, and then,  children were separated from adults and taken to a former youth retreat called Borntal located in the secluded town of Bad Sachsa. There, they were traumatized even further. All family mementoes, including photographs and personal items, were removed from their suitcases, they were given new last names, and although they were marginally taken care of by staff, they were forbidden to speak to any outsiders. 

What happened to these children, nicknamed the Ghost Children by the community around them, is really the main focus of this book. Using the diary kept by one of the children, Christa von Hofsacker, interviews with a number of the detainees still living, and extensive research, Bausum gives readers a detailed window into just what these children suffered without even knowing why it was happening to them. 

As much as I know about Nazi Germany, the story of these Ghost Children was new to me. I did know about the Sippenhaft policy, but has just assumed it didn't involve children, who could have been re-educated the same way the Nazis re-educated Jewish children who looked Aryan from conquered countries. Instead, they followed a policy of erasure, isolation and harassment. 

To help readers, Bausum includes a map of Europe on July 20, 1944, copious photographs, including many of the families of the conspirators before the assassination attempt, and extensive back matter. There is a timeline of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, a list of the Borntal's Sippenhaft Families, a Resource Guide,  A Note from the Author, and a detailed Bibliography, among other resources. Bausum also has a number of classroom suggestions to use in conjunction with this book, which you can find HERE.

Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair is a book for readers interested history, World War II, and/or Nazi Germany.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Karen Wadsworth at Media Masters Publicity

*Here is an interesting fact I learned when I was writing about Fliegerinnen or women pilots in Nazi Germany. As part of the Sippenhaft policy, relatives of Count Claus von Stauffenberg were also arrested, including his older twin brothers Berthold and Alexander. Alexander, who was not part of the conspiracy, was married to Melitta Schiller, a half Jewish, half Aryan aviator. She had been awarded the Iron Cross in 1943, arrested in the 1944 Sippenhalf roundup, but later released. Melitta tested dive bombers for the Luftwaffe, and was shot down by an American fighter plane in 1945. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Peculiar Combination (An Electra McDonnell Novel #1) by Ashley Weaver

It's August 1940, Britain is at war with Germany, the Blitz hasn't begun yet, and so, Ellie McDonnell, 24, and her Uncle Mick thought it would be safe to break into the deserted home of some wealthy Londoners and rob their safe. Sure, they had done this plenty of times before. Uncle Mick is a locksmith by day, and cracking open people's safes at night was more like a hobby than theft, and niece Ellie is a natural. Only this time, they get caught and it isn't by the London police. Instead, they were take to a large townhouse in Belgravia, now occupied by the military under the command of the quite arrogant Major Gabriel Ramsey. After some interrogation about how they crack safes, Ellie and Uncle Mick are given a proposition - prison or help the Major break into a safe containing some stolen classified blueprints having to do with national security and retrieve them before they are given over to the enemy. 

It sounds like a simple enough job, so Ellie and Uncle Mick accept the proposition - after all, they are patriots who want to do their bit for the war effort. In fact, Ellie's cousins Toby and Colm are already serving their country. So the deal is, Ellie and Major Ramsey will break into a house and get the documents, while Uncle Mick is help as collateral. Everything goes well except the papers are gone and the person in whose safe they were has been murdered.

Having carried out their part of the deal made with Major Ramsey, Ellie and Uncle are released with a promise to live on the straight and narrow for the duration. But then Ellie gets called back to Major Ramsey's office who needs her safecracking skills once again. Ramsey is convinced that the documents will be handed over at a party and lecture on Chinese porcelain to a potential conspirator with German ties. There are any number of possible suspects, but thanks to Ellie's pickpocketing skills, they are able to glean enough information on what appears to be a solid lead. 

Meanwhile, a prickly relationship is growing between Major Ramsey and Ellie. And the fact that an old ex-girlfriend of his may be mixed up in the conspiracy to pass documents to the Germans doesn't help matters. Ramsey is uptight, formal, and slow to trust Ellie, whereas Ellie takes her tasks seriously, but can be feisty and a real buster when she wants to be, though her teasing adds some much needed humor to their relationship and their mission. Don't get me wrong - there are also enough serious and even dangerous moments. 

On the whole, I really enjoyed this first novel in what looks to become a series. It may seem wrong for the main character to be a criminal, after all, they are usually the pursued not the pursuer. But right from the start, Ellie and Uncle Mick are forced to mend their ways (permanently? I doubt it). And although more than one person is killed, the novel inn't graphic, putting into the cozy class. 

A Peculiar Combination lives up to it ironic title and more, and will have readers wanting even more by the time they reach novel's end. 

This book is recommended for mystery fans age 14+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley