Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Hollywood Spy (a Maggie Hope Mystery #10) by Susan Elia MacNeal

It's hard to believe I've just finished the 10th Maggie Hope mystery. It feels like I read the very first book, Mr. Churchill's Secretary, just yesterday. And yes, Maggie has had some incredible adventures since then. But now she is off to Hollywood, California to help her old friend John Sterling solve the mystery of his fiancée's death. You may recall that at one time John had been Maggie's love interest. Later,as an RAF Pilot, he had been shot down over Germany. John was originally presumed dead, he did return to England. No longer able to fly, he was an aide to Winston Churchill, until Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante, when he leaves at Christmastime 1941 for Hollywood to work for Walt Disney, hoping to develop a gremlin story idea he has. 

It's now July 1943 and solving a murder in sunny Hollywood, California couldn't be more different than Maggie's dangerous bomb-defusing work in war-torn London. Now, Maggie is staying at the plush Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard with her old friend Sara Sanderson, a ballet dancer who has a small part in a film that George Balanchine is choreographing. 

But Hollywood isn't as sunny as Maggie first thought. America has been in the war since December 1941 and the country has mobilized - more or less - to support the war effort. But, there is also pollution from the nearby factories,  Zoot Suit clashes between Mexican Americans and whites in the Navy, crooked cops, Ku Klux Klan and Nazi supporters, and, of course, the death of Gloria Hutton, John's fiancée. When Gloria was found dead in the swimming pool of the Garden of Allah Hotel after a party, her death was ruled an accident. But Gloria was also involved in a high profile divorce from her husband of a few months, Titus Hutton, that involved a hefty financial settlement for her. 

As Maggie investigates Gloria's death, she discovers there have been other suspicious deaths, all linked to a sedition trial of some Nazis in Sacramento. Gloria had been promised protection because she was afraid the if the Nazis discovered she had testified, her life would be in danger. After all, she had worked as a secretary for one of the Nazi leaders in Los Angeles. 

Needless to say, this is an exciting novel. It can be tough to keep a series fresh and interesting, but MacNeal has put Maggie into so many different eventful global situations that each novel retains its own crispness. And honestly, I was ready for a little glitzy glamour in Maggie's life after the darkness of the  last book, The King's Justice. Am I ready for a redo of Maggie and John? I don't know and if Susan Elia MacNeal knows, she wasn't telling in this book. 

I did like that we learned a little more about Maggie's Aunt Edith, a forward thinking woman, and her partner Olive. I always picture Aunt Edith as an old woman wrapped up in math problems, but was happy to hear about her war work. It made her feel more lively and energetic. I hope we readers really get to know her better someday.

There is a lot of American history in this novel and I think readers may be surprised at how much unrest and racism there was back them. One of the things I like about this series, and it's also very true in The Hollywood Spy is the amount of authentic flavoring that is always a part of a Maggie Hope mystery. People, places, songs and movies play their part in bringing the time period to life for readers. And I think more than any other Maggie Hope mystery, this one will really resonate in today's world. 

What's next for Maggie Hope? Well, there is a bit of a hint at the end of the book, but I guess fans will just have to wait and see. I hope it's not a long wait.

This book is recommended for readers 14+
This book was an eARC received from NetGalley

Friday, July 23, 2021

MMGM: Arctic Star by Tom Palmer

I've read about convoys and their escorts crossing the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, but never about the ships that escorted convoys traveling parallel to Norway to a base in northern Russia through waters alive with German submarines loaded with torpedoes and Luftwaffe just waiting to take to the air and strike. But even more terrifying than U-Boat attacks and airplane strikes was Hitler's newest ship the Scharnhorst, "the most feared German vessel on the ocean" and rumor has it that she is on the move. Needless to say, this novel, based on a true story, is action packed. 

It may only be October 1943, but teenager Frank, along with his childhood friends Stephen and Joseph, have bundled up to go out on the deck of the HMS Forgetmenot, a convoy escort, to chisel as much ice as possible off the deck of the ship. It's not easy task, given the rough sea, the high waves, and the rolling and tossing of the ship. Which is how Frank suddenly lost his balance and found himself falling into the sea. Sure he was a goner, Frank is surprised to wake up back on the ship. 

Frank recovers, and eventually, the ship makes it to their destination in Russia, but on the way back to their home port, they are torpedoed, and once again Frank finds himself in the freezing Arctic waters as the HMS Forgetmenot sinks. Picked up by a rescue ship, Frank realizes his friend Joseph is dead, but Stephen, who was in the engine room, has miraculously survived. 

Frank and Stephen are given a Survivor's Leave, returning home to Plymouth, England to see their families, and pay their respects to Joseph's father. While there, they receive their orders to report to the HMS Belfast, back on Arctic Convoy duty. And while the HMS Belfast is a larger ship that the HMS Forgetmenot, the trip north to Russia is still filled with fear, anxiety and danger. 

The book ends with the Battle of North Cape, the real life battle between the Arctic Convoy and the dreaded Scharnhorst battleship. I said it is a nail-biter and it is right up to the end. Palmer's descriptions of the cold weather and icy waters of the Norwegian Sea, the ice that coated the ship and had to be constantly chiseled away to prevent the ships from getting top heavy and capsizing, were realistic enough to give me chills despite reading it during a heatwave. 

But even more realistic than the elements were Frank's thoughts and fears. Frank is a sensitive, conscientious boy, and dealing with a dangerous mission should be enough for a anyone who is still a teen, but he must also deal with worry about his mother alone in Plymouth, grieve for a friend who died while the two friends were not on speaking terms, and his own fears of what could happen. The story is told from Frank's first point of view and I thought Palmer did a great job of giving readers a sense of what it was like to be Frank without overwhelming them with too much tension. 

Arctic Star isn't a very long novel, but packs a powerful punch. The Arctic Convoys were such difficult and harrowing missions that an special award called The Arctic Star was created in 2012 for those men who served on what Winston Churchill called "the worst journey in the world." The book is not named for this award, but rather for the North Star that plays a small but important role in Frank's story.

Back matter includes an Author's Note and photographs of men who served on the Arctic Convoys, as well as additional information on the HMS Belfast.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero by Megan Hoyt, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero
written by Megan Hoyt, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, 2021, 40 pages

For eight year, Gino Bartali rode his bicycle around Italy, memorizing trails and paths, winning races and collecting trophies and first-place ribbons. He was such a good racer that in 1938 Gino won the  grueling Tour de France. But it was after that race that Gino noticed things were changing at home in Italy.

Soldiers marched through Europe and soon the world was at war. Jews, who were blamed by some for Europe's ills, were rounded up and arrested. Gino had trouble believing the lies these leaders told about Jews. But Jews had already been denied any freedoms, and now they were being rounded up and arrested. Watching these abuses, Gino thought he needed to do something to help them. Summoned by Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, Gino was asked if he wanted to become part of a network of Italians who were working to provide false identity papers to help Jews escape Italy and flee to countries like Switzerland and America. 

Despite being afraid, Gino began rolling up and hiding the forged identity papers in the hollows of his handlebars and other parts of his bike. He then began to use his cycling skills and the paths and trails all over Italy he had memorized earlier to pick up and deliver packages of these precious documents to anxious, startled families.  

But Gino did more that just deliver identity papers. For example, when Gino learned the soldiers were looking for his best friend's family, the Goldenbergs, he hid the whole family in his cellar for the duration of the war. Another time, capitalizing on his fame as a cyclist, Gino put on his racing clothes and headed to the train station where soldiers were herding arrested Jews into a train. Gino distracted the guards so that resistance workers could lead the Jews to different trains that would take them to safety. Another time, forced into the military, Gino used his uniform to find and help prisoners of war that were being held by the Italians. He led 49 English soldiers out to safety and no one took any notice of it. 

No one really knows how many people Gino helped to save. Some say more than 800, others dispute that figure. Gino never talked about his wartime activities and no records were kept by the resistance (for obvious reasons). Regardless, Gino has been named "Righteous Among Nations" by Yad Vasham, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel for his wartime work helping to rescue Jews.

Bartali's Bicycle is a well-told, well-organized picture book for older readers that introduces this brave man to today's children. Discovering new heroes is always inspiring, and this one is made particularly so thanks to the accompanying illustrations, done in a style and subtle palette of colors appropriate to the period. Both author and illustrator gave an amazing amount of attention to detail that is unusual in a picture book, even a picture book biography like this one. 

Back matter includes a Timeline, a letter from Gino Bartali's granddaughter, Lisa Bartali, an Author's Note and an extensive list the the sources used by the author. 

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero would be an excellent addition to units on the Holocaust and World War II. And, in fact, you can download a free Teaching Guide for it from the publisher, HarperCollins, HERE   

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Bye Bye Feedburner, Hello Mailchimp

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Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr

It's 1939 and England is at war with Germany. For Jimmy Travers, 12, and his younger brother Ronnie, 6, that means evacuation, leaving their dad and Nan behind in London for a village called Llanbryn in South Wales along with the rest of their school to be taken in by strangers. Jimmy's best mate Duff and his sister are chosen right away, and even Florence Campbell, a girl no one wants to have anything to do with because she and her clothing are always so dirty, is chosen before Jimmy and Ronnie.

Jimmy has been worried that he and Ronnie will be separated, chosen by different families, but luckily, a woman named Gwen Thomas decides she will take the brothers in even though she only wanted on child. Gwen and her husband, Alun, who works long hours in the Llanbryn coal mine, have no children of their own but are very kind to the boys, even though Jimmy refuses to accept them as Aunty Gwen and Uncle Alun, believing he will be home by Christmas. On the other hand, Ronnie adapts easily to valley life and seems to adore Aunty Gwen right off the bat.

One day, feeling sorry for himself, Jimmy takes off and finds a good climbing tree in the middle of a field.  And that's when he discovers a skull in a large gap in the tree. Scared, Jimmy takes off, but runs into the Vicar who seems to have a real dislike for Mr. and Mrs. Thomas. And that's when he discovers that Duff is living with the Vicar. 

It's a while before Jimmy sees his friend Duff, and much to his dismay, Duff has changed. Hanging around with the Vicar's son Jack and three other boys, the five of them go around bullying other kids. But to his real amazement, the next time Jimmy sees Florence, her hair, body and clothing are clean, she's happy and helping out in a shop, where the owner, Mrs. Hughes, is teaching her how to make Welsh Cakes. 

Jimmy returns to the tree, and to his surprise, is discovered by Ronnie, who has followed him. When he shows Ronnie the skull, it scares him and he wets himself. Naturally, that's when they run into Duff and his new gang, but it's Florence who punches Jack in the face defending Ronnie and leading to a new friendship between her and Jimmy.

When money goes missing from the Vicar's church, St. Michael's, people suspect it was stolen by the evacuees. It's clear they are welcomed by some people in Llanbryn, but not others and that there is a deep division between the people who go the St. Michael's and those who go to chapel, like the Thomas and the Hughes families. 

But it's the skull in the tree that holds Jimmy's attention, a secret he shares with Ronnie and Florence. When Jack's gang finds Ronnie at the tree by himself, they decide to kidnap him. Making a slip about the skull, they try to get that information out of him. Luckily, Jimmy and Florence find Ronnie before they hurt him too badly. Later, when Duff tries to pal up to him again, Jimmy knows he's being played and gives his former friend incorrect information about the skull. 

But Jimmy is still determined to find out who the skull belongs to and why is it in the tree? And perhaps, of all people, Alun Thomas has the answer. 

This is one of those stories that drew me in immediately. First, I love a story set in South Wales, and second, I love a good evacuee story and this is certainly that. I was happy that Gwen and Alun turned out to be kind and caring, even if there was some resentment in the village about the London evacuees. And Jimmy is an interesting character, unhappy about leaving his dad and Nan, resistant to letting himself settle in too comfortably with the Thomases, and very affectionate and protective of his younger brother.  

The Valley of Lost Secrets is a debut novel for Lesley Parr and clearly she knows her setting. Llanbryn is a fictional village, but it could easily have been Pontycymmer, where my dad grew up. My dad was raised chapel like the Thomases and Hughes families, and I'm not sure American readers will understand the difference between church and chapel that is talked about but that is a small part of the story and probably won't cause any lost of interest in Jimmy's story. 

Though this is a really great middle grade adventure/mystery with plenty of humor, Parr has explored some important themes in this novel, such as what makes a family and a community, forgiveness and acceptance, loss and guilt, courage and cowardice. The Valley of Lost Secrets is perfect for fans of Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, Michelle Magorian's Good Night, Mr. Tom, Emma Carroll's Letters from the Lighthouse, Kate Albus's A Place to Hang the Moon, and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's The War That Saved My Life - all evacuation stories, all unique.

This book was purchased for my personal library.