Monday, August 30, 2021

A Boy is Not a Ghost by Edeet Ravel

Based on true events, this sequel to A Boy is Not a Bird continues the story of Natt Silver.  You may remember that Natt's father was arrested and sent to a gulag in Siberia after their Eastern European home came under Soviet occupation, and he was considered an enemy of the Soviet state.

Now, in the summer of 1941, Natt and his mother, along with 26 other people, have been traveling in a cattle car for more than six weeks after being arrested and are on their way to Siberia. The journey is nothing short of a lice-infested "Train of Horrors, finally ending in Novosibirsk, in southern Siberia. There, they are taken to an outdoor schoolyard where they will be staying. Natt is still haunted by the terrible thing he did after his father was arrested. His mother was told she could see his father through a window at a certain time, but when she and Natt walked by, Natt turned his head away from the window, an act he is sure he will never forgive himself for and is convinced his father won't either. 

Life in Siberia allows for a certain amount of movement, simply because escape is pretty much out of the question. But life is hard hard. There is never enough to eat, clothing is old, dirty, patched, and never warm enough. And each time their circumstances change, Natt thinks things can't get any worse, and yet they do. But Natt also makes friends wherever he goes, who can often help in get wants he wants. There is Irena, 18, who voluntarily travels to Siberia in the same cattle cart as Natt and the others, in order to try and find information about her exiled parents. Natt lives with her for a while when his mother is arrested for "stealing potatoes" after being set up by an official who needed to meet her arrest quota. And there is Olga and Peter, siblings who live in Novosibirsk and whose father has an important and useful-for-Natt job. And Gabi Mindru, 11, whose mother takes Natt in when Irena leaves to find her parents, and who nurses him back to health when he gets deathly ill. Through Gabi, Natt meets Igor, 16, whose father is an NKVD captain, but who also proves helpful to Natt, nevertheless. 

Like the first book, A Boy is Not a Ghost is an very readable novel, and narrated in the first person by Natt, who is as beguiling as ever. His story, which begins when Natt is 11-years-old ends towards the end of the war when he is 15, as you might have surmised, it is a book about fighting to survive every day against all odds. Natt, who often misread people and their motives in the first book, learns to make himself invisible, and to communicated in code and to understand when others communicate to him in code. I wrote about the first book that Natt held on to his innocence in part because there were always enough kind people in his life who really liked him, and though no longer as innocent as he once was, Natt is still an extremely likable  boyand people are often willing to help him.

He is still writing to his best friend Max in Switzerland, though he never hears from him and the reader never finds out if he made to safety. But Natt's letters are a wonderful shortcut vehicle for more giving information about what is happening with Natt and the other exiles in Siberia. 

Though it is a sequel, A Boy is Not a Ghost can be read as a stand alone novel, though I would recommend reading both books. The author, Edeet Ravel, has included a lot of information relevant to Natt's experiences under Soviet occupation in the book's back matter that I would also recommend reading. I read an eARC and did not see all of the chapter illustrations or map that will be in the published book. 

A Boy is Not a Ghost will be available on September 7, 2021. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Sunday Funnies #38: Snoopy vs. the Red Baron...Again

Sunday, October 10, 1965 is the very first appearance of Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace and his never seen nemesis the Red Baron. Of all Snoopy's personas, this one has always been my favorite. Dressed in goggles, a silk scarf and the iconic leather flying cap of those early WWI pilots, and climbing up onto the red roof of his doghouse pretending it is his Sopwith Camel, Snoopy lets his imagination fly. Always defeated by the Red Baron, Snoopy ends each dogfight with his signature "Curse you, Red Baron!"
The World War I Flying Ace and his Sopwith Camel

But who exactly was the Red Baron, Snoopy's arch rival?

The Red Baron is based on Manfred von Richthofen, an actual German flying ace. Richthofen flew a Fokker DR1 triplane, which he had painted a bright scarlet red inside and outside, earning him the nickname "der Rote Baron" (the Red Baron). During his career as a fighter pilot, Richthofen shot down 80 Allied aircraft, but was killed in a dogfight on April 21, 1918. Interestingly, Richthofen landed his plane intact near a small French village called Vaux-sur-Somme before his died. His body was recovered, and he given a burial with full military honors by the Australian forces stationed there. Richthofen was only 25 years old when he died. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Censorettes by Elizabeth Bales Frank

It's 1941 and Germany has been bombing London relentlessly. For Cambridge educated, Lucy Barrett, 20, it means the loss of her Italian-born mother, Tessa, in hospital being treated for illness when the building is bombed. And it means wondering what happened her beloved brother Matty, an RAF pilot, missing since Dunkirk (1940). Now, in an effort to keep his daughter safe, Lucy's father has sent her to Bermuda, to work as a Censorette for the Imperial Censorship Detachment, reading letters and looking for coded messages. And even though Bermuda is beautiful and relatively safe, Lucy intends to return to England just as soon as she turns 21, to really do her bit for the war.

Working in the basement of the Princess Hotel, Lucy shares rooms, first in the Bermudiana Hotel with Rebecca Lark, called Lark, and later moving to the Princess Hotel, where she and Lark acquire two more roommates - Georgina Taylor, called Georgie, and Ruth Smith, who chooses to sleep in a closet rather than in the bedroom with the other three women. Each of these women have particular talents for the job they do reading mail and looking for anything suspicious. Like the letters Lucy reads from a man they call Brooklyn Joe, whose English isn't very good, and who misquotes Shakespeare in them. But even after her supervisor, Colonel McKay, dismisses the first few letters, Lucy persists. Is she on to something? 

Into this mix of four roommates, come more woman working for the Imperial Censorship Detachment, including McKay's secretary Rebecca Gwynne, two Belgian sisters called Fleur and Roos and then, there are the American soldiers, there to build an airport. It doesn't take long for some weekend partying to begin, complete with a piano, an accordion player and a well-stocked wet bar, thanks to the Americans, who aren't in the war and so not dealing with rationing. 

One American soldier, Lieutenant William Inman, is particularly attracted to Lucy, and while she's not quite as attracted to him, it doesn't take long for his temper and possessiveness to rear their ugly heads. He is especially annoyed at all the attention Lucy gives to Ruth, whom she has taken under her wing and brought her into the fold. Ruth, who likes to paint using watercolors, has always been told that she is "an odd duck. Mental. Looney." Under Lucy's mentoring, she begins to come out of her shell and participate in dances, movie going, and parties. Much to the chagrin of Bill Inman. But when Ruth is found murdered in a park one Sunday morning, her death is not really investigated and her family is disinterested. Lucy, however, has her suspicions.

This is not a mystery novel and Ruth's death is not at the heart of it. What is at the heart is women's friendships and the ways in which women were treated by the men in their lives at the time. From the moment Lucy's father exerts his parental control by sending her to Bermuda for his own peace of mind, to McKay's dismissing Lucy's suspicion about Brooklyn Joe and his letters despite her Cambridge education and her fluency in English, Italian, French, German, and Shakespeare, to Bill Inman treating her as if she were a piece of his personal property, Lucy's strength and intelligence are devalued at every turn. It is only among her female companions that she find the validation she craves. The novel changes time frames to capture the interesting back stories of Lucy and each of her roommates, so the reader knows exactly where they are coming from in life and why they are who they are.  

Censorettes is a multilayered, well textured novel that moves along at an unhurried, never boring pace (reflecting a sunny, leisurely life on Bermuda, even in wartime?). It kept my interest all the way through, so much so that I hated to have to put the book down for different reasons and couldn't wait to get back to it. There is much going on in the novel, but I don't want to spoil it. There are also lots of timely details about life on Bermuda during there war adding depth to the story and which I found very interesting. Movies, songs, different places are all mentioned and are all spot on correct. In this respect, it reminded me of the Maggie Hope mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal. 

If you are interested in women in WWII, you might find this is a book for you. It is based on the real Censorettes working in Bermuda then, and I highly recommend reading the author's Notes and Acknowledgments in the back matter. You might also want to read about how Elizabeth Bales Frank was inspired to write Censorettes while visiting Bermuda on Sarah Johnson's blog Reading the Past.

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This book is was gratefully received from the author.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Traitors Among Us by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Traitors Among Us is the third book in the story of Krystia and Maria Fediuk, two Ukrainian sisters who had been separated when the Nazis occupied their country beginning in 1942. Maria, who was then 11-years-old, had decided to leave their home in Viteretz to work in the German Reich and hopefully be able to send money home to her sister Krystia, then 12-years-old and mother. 

Now, it is June 1945, the war is over and the reunited sisters, Krystia, now 16, and Maria, now 14, have just arrived, exhausted, at an American refugee camp in Karlsfeld, Germany and are feeling somewhat safe and hopeful for the first time in years. The girls are hoping to be able to travel to Toronto, Canada to live with their mother's sister Auntie Stefa and her husband Uncle George.    

But Krystia and Maria's initial feelings of safety are short lived when Sophie Huber arrives in their barracks using the name of Maria's friend Blanka Holata, who had done slave labor with Maria on the Huber farm. Sophie was a Hitler girl, and rather a staunch, cold-hearted believer in Hitler and his Reich. And, yes, when Russian soldiers show up at their barracks, kidnaping anyone they believe had betrayed the Soviet Union during the war, Sophie can't denounce Krystia and Maria as Nazi collaborators quickly enough in an attempt to save herself. An attempt that doesn't work - the Soviets know who she is and suspect her of being a Werewolf, part of an underground network of Hitler youth working to bring the Nazis back to power.

Krystia and Maria find themselves in the back of a truck with a man, Elias, and his son Finn, a woman named Olga and her baby Piotr, as well as Sophie. Along the way, they learn that Elias and Finn are Volksdeutsche or ethnic Germans who originally lived in the Ukraine but were moved from their home by the Nazis in order to Germanize Poland early in their occupation of that country. Olga has British papers, but was arrested became her father had joined the White Army during the Russian Revolution, to fight the communist takeover, but Olga's husband had fought with the Nazis to defeat the Soviets (be sure to read the author's notes at the end for more historical information).

Eventually, the truck arrives at an interrogation house in Soviet occupied Germany. And it doesn't take long for the Soviets to begin their interrogations, torture, and even stage a fake execution of Maria to get Krystia to sign a fake confession. When she continues to refuse to sign their confession, the Soviet soldiers finally let Maria go but tell her to report to the train station where she will be taken to a Soviet labor camp. Maria is taken in by Birgit, who lives in the basement of a bombed building. Birgit has been bringing food to the Soviets at the interrogation house hoping to eventually be able to rescue her grandson, Mychailo, being held prisoner there, too. With two prisoners released (Elias is also free, but not Finn), and four still being held and tortured, can a rescue attempt possible be successful in such a heavily guarded, locked and barb wired building? 

Traitors Among Us is a fascinating story and a great conclusion the the trilogy about Krystia and Maria. As she always does, Skrypuch brings a lot of history into her narrative that unravels so seamlessly while, at the same time, she weaves together a story that is readable, believable and so realistic. My only complaint is the same as Ms. Yingling's - it all ended to abruptly and I wanted to know more. But isn't that often a problem when great stories end?

There are some graphic depictions in this novel, but only to the extent to give readers a real sense of what was happening at the time, yet not to such an extent that middle graders would be freaked out by it. I did like that in the middle of trying to save their lives and escape, Maria feels resentment at being treated like a helpless younger sister, and Krystia's constant need to protect her. Sibling resentments added an almost normal touch to their otherwise treacherous situation. I also loved how Maria used her sewing skills to make two pairs of underpants out of a Nazi flag - sort of like poetic justice.

Just as the second book in this trilogy, Trapped in Hitler's Web, worked as a stand alone novel, thanks to Skrypuch's including just enough background information from the first book, Don't Tell the Nazis, Traitors Among Us also works as a stand alone novel, with just enough information from books 1 and 2, though I recommend reading all of them. They are just that good. I started Traitors Among Us one evening and sat up until about 3:30 AM reading to the end, because I couldn't put it down and needed to know what Krystia and Maria's fate was going to be. 

Traitors Among Us will be available September 7th, 2021, giving readers just enough time to read books 1 and 2 before then, if they haven't already. 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC received from Edelweiss+

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant

It's spring 1919, and Ben Langton, 13, feels like he's lost almost everything. His adoptive father Nathan was killed in a bombing in France during World War I when he visited Ben's older brother Sam, wounded in the war. Now, Sam is missing, presumed dead. But Ben refuses to give up hope that Sam will one day return to England and has decided to live on Nathan's narrowboat, the Sparrowhawk, thinking that is where Sam would head to when he comes home. After all, it had been home to the three of them and their dog Elsie for years.

Lotti St. Rémy, 12, is living in her parent's large house called Barton Lacey with her rather unlikable Aunt Vera and Uncle Hubert Netherbury when she isn't being shipped off to dreadful boarding schools only to get expelled. Her parents had both died in an accident and the Netherbury's were Lotti's guardians. What Lotti doesn't understand is why she hasn't heard anything from her beloved French grandmother since her parents death. Grandmother and granddaughter has always been so close. 

Ben and Lotti meet onboard the Sparrowhawk after Lotti rescues an abused Chihuahua she promptly renames Federico. Naturally, her uncle threatens to have it shot when he discovers it and send her off to the most dreadful boarding school yet. Ben has been dodging the local constable, Albert Skinner, who doesn't believe Sam is coming home and wants to put Ben back into the orphanage he and Sam has lived in before Nathan adopted them.

Somehow, Lotti convinces her uncle to let a reclusive Clara Primrose tutor her and Ben. Clara has been waiting for the love of her life to return from the war, having promised to wait for him and earning her living as a translator.

But then Clara disappears from Great Barton, and since Ben and Lotti are both 'on the run' from authority figures anyway, they ultimately hatch a plan to take the Sparrowhawk across the English Channel to France to find Sam and Grandmother St. Rémy. There's just one problem. The Sparrowhawk is a narrowboat, it has a flat bottom meant only for smooth sailing through England's many canals, not the open sea. Ben and Lotti, now sporting short hair and boys clothing and calling herself Charlie, set off, only to discover that the constable coming after them. Enter Frank, skipper of the Secret Starling, and old friend of Nathan's, who agrees to help them cross the English Channel. But can the Sparrowhawk, Ben, Lottie, Frank, Elsie and Federico survive the rough currents of the Thames and the Channel?  

Two lonely, friendless children, one broken-hearted tutor/translator, one adventurous narrowboat skipper with an emotional connection to Nathan, and two dogs are all tied together in this heartwarming adventure story and what an adventure it is. The overriding theme of this story is family and home and how the loss of one member can make someone feel less than whole and less at home with themselves. Each character, even the constable, has suffered a loss because of WWI that has sent their lives off course and each is looking for a way to set the course straight again and the Sparrowhawk certainly serves as a nice metaphor for this theme. 

The story is told from the third person points of view of several characters, giving readers insight to what is going on with all of them. Ben and Lotti/Charlie meet several secondary characters on their journey, who of whom are willing to help them for their own reasons. Readers may find there are lots of coincidences or lucky breaks throughout, but, hey, that's the stuff of middle grade fiction and it works really well here because there are also enough obstacles to overcome.   

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk is an exciting, poignant tale with a cast of some very likable characters and some real scoundrels. I should mention that while the war is the cause of everyone's unhappiness, it is really a postwar tale so readers may find Farrant's descriptions of France somewhat graphic, though not overwhelming so. For American readers who may not be familiar with narrowboats, there is an illustration at the front of the book, as well as a great description of the boat's interior at the beginning of the story. There is also a map and timeline of the journey Ben and Lotti undertake. 

This is middle grade adventure at its best!

This book is recommended fro readers age 9+
This book was an eARC received from Edelweiss+