Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis by Susan Hood with Greg Dawson

When her 13-year-old granddaughter Aimée wrote her a letter asking about what life was like for her when she was the same age in 1940, Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson didn't know how to answer her. There was so many long-buried horrors, so much humiliation, so much running to escape capture by the Nazis. But a granddaughter has a right to know and so that part of her family's history unfolds in this gripping free verse biography. 

Ukrainian born Zhanna was a headstrong little girl who used to love wandering the streets of Berdyansk, a resort town on the Sea of Azoz. One day, while wandering, she heard a small band playing music in a funeral procession and fell in love with what she heard. But the Arshanskaya home was already filled with the music of, among others, Rossini, Vizet and Tchaikovsky. Because Zhanna was so headstrong about wandering the streets, her father decided maybe piano lessons would rein her in. Soon the five year old was playing Chopin, Brahms and Beethoven. It didn't take long to realize that Zhanna had a true gift for music. 

But Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator of the Soviet Union, had a plan to modernize Ukraine and get rid of the old ways through starvation - in what was the "breadbasket of Europe" people were starving to death as part of Stalin's Five-Year Plan. When Zhanna was eight and her sister Frina was six, the family, having hit hard times, was forced to leave Berdyansk to live in Karkov. Yet, despite now living in poverty, their father had high hopes that both Zhanna and Frina could audition for two spots with scholarships at a renowned music conservatory. Both musically gifted girls were immediately accepted and it was here that Zhanna found her signature piece, Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu. This piece of sheet music became her most prized possession, carried all through WWII.

Musically things improved for the family, but financially things got worse and then, in 1941, the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union and the country was officially at war. The Germans wanted all of the Soviet Union, but without its Jews. Shortly after arriving in Kharkov, the Nazis order Jews to gather in the center of town to prepare for evacuation. In snow and numbing cold, the Jews, now prisoners of the Nazis, were marched through the streets to an abandoned tractor factory. After a few weeks of living in abysmal conditions, the prisoners were rounded up and march to Drobitsky Yar. Suspecting what was about to happen, Zhanna's father bribed a young guard to let her escape. When the guard looked away, her father whispered "I don't care what you do. Just live." It was the last time Zhanna saw her parents, but not her sister. 

Finding refuge at a friend's home, Zhanna was reunited with her sister. But Frina refused to talk about how she had gotten away and what happened to their family. Now, the sisters were on their own, and they could be easily recognized by the people in Kharkov who had been to their concerts. What they needed were new names and identity papers. But to get the papers, they would have to be admitted into an orphanage. It was easy to become Anna Morozova and her younger sister Marina, finding places in an orphanage was not so easy. But first, they had to get out of Kharkov. 

Could the sisters survive the war, running and hiding from the cold-blooded Nazis and collaborating Ukrainians, doing what needed to be done to "just live" as their father had said?

Susan Hood has a way of making a person's history come to life in her lyrical, well-researched verse biographies (see Lifeboat 12) Reader's come away knowing not just Zhanna and Frina's struggles and how they were able to survive, but also some needed background history of the Ukraine under Stalin and later, Hitler.  

Interwoven throughout the poems are quotes from Zhanna herself, taken from her oral history recorded by the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, as well as from interviews with her son, Greg Dawson. Other quotes used are well-documented in Hood's copious Back Matter. Most of Zhanna's story is written in free verse, I liked that Hood also included various poetic techniques and poetic forms, which always adds a certain level of energy and richness to a work written in verse that mirrors the musicality of the two talented sisters.   

And, of course, there are recent events in Ukraine that make us realize that the past is never past. The attempted invasion of the independent state of Ukraine by Russia has brought not just the geography of this nation to the fore, but also some of its history dating back to World War II when the Nazis invaded. For example, knowing that the Russians had bombed Ukraine's Holocaust memorial at Drobitsky Yar and reading about it in this book made me that much more aware of the dangers of greedy dictators (Stalin, Hitler and Putin) and the 16,000 Jews who were murdered in that ravine, including Zhanna and Frina's family, where the now damaged memorial stands in Kharkiv. 

Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis is a true testament to the courage, cleverness, persistence, talent and strong will to survive of both Zhanna and Frina. And perhaps a warning from the past for us all to heed.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Great or Nothing by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood

My first memory of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is my older sister sitting in an easy chair in the living room and crying her eyes out while reading the book. When I asked why she was crying, she just said "You'll see." And I did indeed  discover why a few years later when I read Little Women in fourth grade. And I've never re-read it. But I have been enjoying some of the new retellings like So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Murrow, More to the Story by Hena Khan, and Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy by Rey Terciero, among others. The latest retelling, Great or Nothing, takes place during a war like the original, but this time it is World War II.

The story begins in the spring of 1942. The United States has entered the war and people are still adjusting to the change. And that includes the March sisters, who are also still reeling from the recent death of their sister Beth. Now, their father is has enlisted as a Navy chaplain, Marmee is overly involved in charity work, and Laurie is a pilot stationed overseas. Laurie had asked Jo to marry him before he left, but she said no. Jo loved Laurie just not romantically. Then, she and Meg had harsh words. Jo couldn't understand why Meg would give up everything for math teacher John Brooke, and Meg couldn't understand why Jo had refused to marry Laurie. 

Unable to write after Beth's death and needing to get out of the house after her fight with Meg, Jo is living in a boarding house, while working in a factory producing airplanes. But when she meets Life reporter Charlotte "Charlie" Yates, and helps her write a story about the airplane factory, she realizes that she also needs to sort out her feelings for Charlie.

Meanwhile, Meg is still at home with Marmee, continuing to teach, content to wait for John, whom Amy called "that boring old fuddy-duddy," to come home and to get married. But when an old "friend" decides Meg needs to party, to have some fun, and to meet other more exciting men, she begins to question whether she would really be happy in a quiet marriage with John.  

Amy, who has been crushing in Laurie since she was a child, is supposed to be studying art in Montreal. Instead, unknown to her family, she has decided to join the Red Cross. At first turned down for being too young, Amy fortuitously finds another girl's application and uses that at another recruiting station, where she is accepted. After training, Amy is sent overseas with other recruits to work in a mobile canteen, where they serve coffee and donuts to American servicemen in London. And she runs smack into Laurie.  

And Beth? She's there, a spectral poetic voice following her sisters adventures, providing insight, and giving unheard, unheeded advice about life in between the chapters. 

Needless to say, as the story unfolds, it is clear that each sister has some big problems to deal with and some big challenges they need to overcome while navigating the war and their profound grief. 

I really enjoyed reading Great or Nothing, finding it a thoughtful, appealing story that could be seen as simply a YA wartime romantic novel, but it is actually more elevated than that. Racial and sexist issues are introduced in both Meg and Amy's stories. Meg has a student who is Japanese American and Amy encounters an African American soldier who is not totally accepted by everyone, including Amy's friend Edie. And then there is Jo, who finally figures out who she is and why she didn't have romantic feelings for Laurie.  

I also enjoyed some of the details included, like Victory Gardens, Victory Red lipstick, and of course, how women arranged their hair in Victory rolls, as well as the impact that shortages and rationing had on everyone. There isn't a lot of action to this story, but plenty of coming-of-age drama. And if I remember right, there wasn't much action in the original Little Women. I also felt that the original message about the importance of family bonds wasn't lost in this novel, even though the March sisters were scattered for much of the story. Sometime, you just need to get away from the security of home family to find yourself and appreciate what you have.  

The story is told in alternating chapters, each character written by a different author who a different voice and point of view to each of the March sisters. In case you are wondering who wrote who - Beth is written by poet Joy McCullough, Amy by Caroline Tung Richmond, Jo by Tess Sharpe and Meg by Jessica Spotswood.  

Lastly, there are some delightfully wonderful Easter eggs to be found throughout Great or Northing. Happy hunting!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

A Sunlit Weapon (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #17) by Jacqueline Winspear

It's October 1942, and Maisie Dobbs is now Mrs. Scott, having married her American beau Mark Scott, investigator with the U.S. Department of Justice and not a political attaché in the American embassy. And now that the United States has entered the war, Maisie just might need her husband's help with her new case. 

Jo Hardy is pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary, or ATA, ferrying planes wherever they are needed in England. While flying a Spitfire to Biggin Hill in Kent, she heard a sound in the plane aft, as if she were hit by a bullet. Sure enough, circling back, Jo noticed a man standing outside a barn with a gun aimed skyward. A few days later, Jo and her friend Diana returned to the area, and to Jo's surprise, she discovered an African American soldier, Private Matthias Crittenden, bound and gagged. Taking him back to Biggin Hill, the soldier was immediately taken by the American MPs. It seems his white companion, Private Charles Stone, is missing and they think Mattias may have killed him. 

Jo's fiancee had been killed when his plane had crashed in the countryside. Now, after being shot at herself, and then hearing that another ATA pilot had crashed on her way to Biggin Hill two days later, Jo has her suspicions about what might have happened. And she turns to Maisie Dobbs in hopes of getting some answers.  As she begins her investigation, there seems to be two plotlines going on - who is shooting at planes and what happened to Michael Stone.  And the more Maisie investigates, the more these two plotlines begin to come together. 

Into the mix of plotlines comes Eleanor Roosevelt, in England to a goodwill tour and to meet with women doing war work, such as the pilots of ATA. This is a visit that Mark Scott is involved in, making sure that security is tight because there is a evidence of German plot to kill Mrs. Roosevelt. 

At the same time, Anna, Maisie's adopted daughter, has gone from being a happy 7-year-old who loved going to school and had lots of friends there to being a clingy, unhappy child with bruises on her body and who has lost all her friends and no longer likes school. It is another problem for Maisie to get to the bottom of. 

I found this 17th Maisie Dobbs mystery to be every bit as compelling and as rich and vibrant as the previous novels in this series. In fact, I actually found myself liking Maisie more and in a different way than she was in the previous books. Maisie seemed happier and less formal than before. Perhaps it is her American husband, and/or her adopted Italian daughter. whatever it is, I really like it. 

And because the American military are now in England, it is a good opportunity to explore racism and  segregation in the United States, both at home and abroad. I thought Winspear did a pretty good job of showing how the English were accepting of Black Americans in ways that the US, including the military abroad, were not, but also how the English had their own issues about race when Maisie's daughter became a target because of her dark hair and olive complexion, and assumed to be something she isn't. 

Winspear nicely brought in the work of the ferry pilots, showing the dangers these woman faced every time they got into a plane that carried no weapons they could use should they be attacked by a German plane, or even someone on the ground. And readers meet a group of Land Girls working on a farm to help with those chores. I was glad that the farmer they worked for turned out to be a good guy instead of one who took advantage of these young women. I loved all the little details Winspear threw in about both of these wartime jobs. 

On the whole, A Sunlit Weapon is imminently readable and I am still amazed at how, after 17 books, each one still feels fresh and exciting. I can't wait to read #18. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Always (Book #7 in the Felix and Zelda Family of Books) by Morris Gleitzman

I have to admit this was one tough book to read, mainly because I knew it was the end of the Felix and Zelda Family of Books. If you have read all 6 of the previous novels in this series, beginning with Once, you have gotten to know a mighty fine boy who grew up to be an outstanding man. 

Always, like book #3 Now, is not narrated by Felix alone but also by a young biracial boy named Wassim, living in Eastern Europe with his Uncle Otto now that he parents are both dead. Wassim owns a book his grandfather, Amon Kurtz, had given to him called William Does His Best by Richmal Crompton, along with a note that tells him if he is ever in big trouble to get in touch with Wilhelm Nowak. Wilhelm Nowak, readers of Then may remember, is the name on Felix's false identity card given to him by Genia and Amon was a reluctant Hitler Youth boy who had befriended Felix because of their mutual love of Richmal Crompton's books. Wassim knows that Wilhelm is really Felix Salinger, who, he learns, is 87-years-old and living in s retirement home in Australia. 

This is good because Uncle Otto, who by the way is white, is being used by a violent gang known as the Iron Weasels to store their stolen goods in his garage, and Wassim is being bullied by them because of being biracial. When things begin to heat up, and the Weasels almost kill Wassim, Uncle Otto, who knows about Felix, takes him to Australia and leaves him there.

Wassim tells Felix why he has come to him for help, and though Felix feels a strong bond with him, he is at first reluctant to return to Eastern Europe until the long racist arm of the Weasels extends into his personal life. But can an 87-year-old man and a ten-year-old boy fight a prejudice that is so rabid, so deeply rooted and just as violent as the Nazis had been? And can they also solve a mystery about property stolen by the Nazis and never found?

I couldn't wait to read this book, and even ordered it from England as soon as I could, then I read it in one sitting and afterwards I was sorry because it is the end of the Felix saga and I will miss looking forward to the next part of his story. 

This is an intriguing story and, yes, you have to suspend your disbelief in part of it, but that was ok for me. Wassim is an endearing, optimistic, hopeful boy, with lots of personality similarities to Felix when he was young. Felix knows that Wassim will be facing some real hard truths about his life when they return to Eastern Europe, but he's there for him and he knows that so is gruff Uncle Otto. There is a part of me that is hoping Gleitzman to carry on the Wassim story since I would like to know him better. 

Gleitzman does make a lot of references to the past Felix books, but I don't think that would be a problem for those who may not have read all of them. I'm not a big re-reader of books, but I am thinking I might re-read all seven Felix books. 

What really makes me sad is how Gleitzman has brought the same themes of racism, bigotry, and hated full circle,  and that they are still so much a part of our society.

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

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin by Kip Wilson

April is National Poetry Month so what better time to read this novel-in-verse by Kip Wilson, author of the excellent White Rose. Like me, Kip has a PhD in German Literature and also seems to have an interest in the Weimar years and its aftermath. After all, how could you write two novels that are this good without some serious interest in this time period?

The story begins in February 1932. Eighteen-year-old Hilde has just aged out of the Catholic orphanage she has lived in since her mother's passing eight years ago, leaving with the clothes on her back, a few possessions, and some Reichsmarks in her pocket. After sleeping a few nights in a park, unable to find a job, Hilde discovers and wanders into a Berlin cabaret called the Café Lila after getting drenched in a rainstorm.

Feeling out of place, but before she can leave, Hilde is stopped by Rosa, a beautiful performer and waitress at the café. Before she knows it, Hilde is waiting tables, serving round after round of drinks to the patrons and, at the end of the night, hired on the spot. Realizing that Hilde has no place to go, Rosa takes her to the home she shares with her Tante Esther. 

It doesn't take long for Hilde to realize that Rosa and her aunt are Jewish, that the Café Lila is a queer cabaret, and that she is attracted to Rosa. But, while Hilde quickly finds herself feeling at home in the café, making friends with the other women and working hard waitressing tables, she learns that she is also expected to perform. Although Hilde has a beautiful singing voice and would like to pursue a career in music, she is hesitant to perform at Café Lila.

As Hilde begins to come into her own as a queer woman, and her relationship with Rosa begins to become more mutual, outside in Berlin, things are heating as the political climate changes and Hitler's popularity grows, especially after the runoff election in April 1932. Soon, Brownshirts are everywhere, spreading hate and violence. But when Brownshirt violence comes into Café Lila, will Hilde lose everything she loves and for which she has worked so hard?

I really enjoyed reading The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin. I've read a lot of books that were written and set in those turbulent last days of the Weimar Republic and this book felt like it could have been written by anyone of those authors. The research is so impeccable that Hilde's Berlin became another important character for me, not just a good setting for a novel. Little details like the park Hilde slept in, or walking alone the Kurfürstendamm, the newspapers of the time, and so much more give the story a real sense of authenticity. I even pulled out my 1928 street map of Berlin to follow Hilde's footsteps whenever possible.

The Weimar period is really an interesting study in contrasts. On the one hand, there were those who wanted the conservatism of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, on the other, there was the sense of openness and freedom to be who one really is, and as Hilde tries navigate this new-to-her Berlin, I think that Wilson has absolutely captured that dichotomy, presenting the two differences very realistically.  

The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin is a poignant novel, taking place between February and August 1932, and written in spare free verse. Each poem adds to an at times broad, at other times personal picture of the dying of Weimar Republic and people's reactions that Wilson has so brilliantly created. Today's readers will most definitely have no trouble relating to Hilde's coming-of-age story, whether or not they are part of the LGTBQ+ community, and given the times we are living in now. Confession: the biggest surprise for me is just who the most dazzling girl in Berlin turned out to be. I wasn't expecting that. 

Be sure to read the back matter, which includes the author's inspiration for this novel, an explanation of what is factual and what is fiction, and a glossary of German words and phrases. You might also be interested in checking out the author's blog for a more personal look at her research and a playlist on Spotify.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a digital ARC

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves by L. M. Elliott

No sooner had the United States entered World War II than German U-boats began cruising the waters off America's eastern seaboard looking for cargo ships carrying desperately needed supplies to Europe to torpedo. And Hitler's "wolfpack" were very successful. And now, for 13-year-old Louisa June Brookes, living in Tidewater Virginia, the war has really come home.

Her older sister Katie is off to welding school in Newport News and older brothers Will joins the merchant marines and Joe joins the navy. When a crew member becomes ill, her father, a tugboat captain, suggests her brother Butler replace him on a trip pushing barges to Philadelphia. Butler is set to graduate high school and begin studying at the College of William and Mary in the fall and it's a good opportunity to earn money for food and books. Of course, this leaves Louisa June and her mother to take care of their 70 acre farm. 

Louisa's mother has always suffered from bouts of what the family calls "melancholy" which has recently become more serious now that the war has arrived in Tidewater Virginia. It's Louisa's goal to try and get her mother to smile when the melancholy hits, and since this is a literary family, a good story will often do the trick. 

But when tragedy hits the convoy of barges they are pushing, Butler is killed, but  his dad survives. Louisa's mother goes into a full on depression, grieving for Butler. Blaming her husband for his death, and despite the seriousness of his injuries, refusing to allow him back in the house, forcing him to live in the barn.  Luckily, elderly Cousin Belle Archer, who has a few of her own war stories from WWI, is aware of Mama's melancholy, and is only too happy to help Louisa out with food, books and kittens now that running the house and taking care of her parents has become her responsibility. But Louisa wants to do more to help the war effort, like her friend Emmett does, keeping an eye out for Nazis in the waters around the Tidewater. 

On what was supposed to be a fun day out, Louisa and Cousin Belle witness a U-boat attack a convoy of merchant ships out in the Chesapeake Bay while relaxing on the beach at Old Point Comfort. They both immediately spring into action to try to help save some of the men. Before long, however, it becomes a family affair, but will it bring the Brookes family some closure on Butler's death and bring them together again or will it split the family even further apart?

I have always enjoyed reading L. M. Elliott's historical novels and this is no exception. And the German submarines lurking in the waters so close to shore isn't a topic that often makes its way into middle grade novels. The story is narrated in the first person by Louisa, who has quite a way with description. And describe she does - giving the reader not just everyday details about what it was like in those early days of the war, but wonderful details about living in Tidewater Virginia. I could almost hear the cry seagulls and smell the salt water. 

I also felt that Elliott did a great job tackling the subject of Louisa's mother's depression and how it impacts the entire family. I grew up with a mother depressed over the loss of a child and I could completely empathize with Louisa's attempts to try to lift her mother's moods, not realizing (as I didn't) that she really needed professional help. 

Be sure to read the back matter which gives information about some of the topics covers in this book, including German submarines and the merchant marines, kids becoming plane spotter, woman welders like Katie, experiences like Cousin Belle's in WWI, and of course depression. 

Louisa June and the Nzies in the Waves is a wonderful companion to L. M. Elliott's earlier novel Across a War-Tossed Sea and I highly recommend both.

Thank you Edelweiss+ for granting me access to a digital version of this book.

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

Saturday, March 19, 2022

We Are Wolves by Katrina Nannestad

Despite the war, the Wolf family - Opa, Oma, Papa, Mama, Liesl, 11, Otto, 7, and baby Mia - had lived a relatively comfortable life in East Prussia. But now it is October 1944, the Russian army is advancing westward, and in desperation, Hitler has called up teen boys, older men, and those who are disabled to fight to save his Reich. Papa, who was injured in WWI, is drafted and by Christmas Eve, he is missing in action.

Soon after, the family learns that the Russian army has broken through German lines and are advancing in East Prussia. Everyone to told to quickly flee because it was well known that the Russians have been doing terrible things to German men, women, and children, as they advanced. Luckily, Opa manages to find an old car, but that only takes the family so far, and soon they are fleeing on foot in blizzard conditions with so many others. Soon, Opa and Oma decide they need to rest and will catch up with the family later. Opa tells them to head for the Vistula Lagoon and to try to get on a ship to Denmark.  Mama and the children get separated trying to cross the frozen lagoon on a sled, but by the time Liesl, Otto, and Mia make it to the other side, Mama has disappeared from the ice. 

Liesl had already promised Mama that no matter what, she would take care of the brother and sister. While staying in an abandoned house, they are discovered by some Russian soldiers. Luckily, one is a kind man and he takes them to a Russian army camp where they are treated with some kindness, but when Liesl realizes that the Captain has designs on taking Mia away from her and sending the baby to his wife in Russia, she knows it is time to take her siblings and run away. And the only place to run to is the forest. There, they discover they are not alone when they meet other homeless children trying to survive on their own in the woods and stay out of Russian hands. 

Life in the woods isn't easy, continually foraging for food and some measure of shelter. But long the way, they also meet Karl, who helps them learn the ropes, even if it sometimes means learning how to steal what they need to survive. Learning that there is food in Lithuania, Liesl and Karl decide they should try to get there and plan on jumping into a train as it moves out of the station. Karl and Otto make it, but Liesl, holding Mia, doesn't. Thinking she's lost Otto, Liesl is surprised when he comes running back, having jumped off the train. When they finally do make it to Lithuania, Mia is quite sick and Liesl isn't sure she will survive. But, they are taken in by a couple, Magdalena and Dovydas, who help nurse Mia back to health. And while their situation is comfortable and safe, Liesl wonders if they will ever be reunited with their family again. 

Nannestad's book highlights a phenomena that occurred toward the end of WWII when East Prussian children were separated from their parents for one reason or another as the Russian army advanced and took to living in the forests to survive. These homeless children became known as Wolfskinder or wolf children. Some were adopted by Lithuanians, despite harsh punishment by the Russians if they were found helping Germans, even if the Germans were only children.   

I thought We are Wolves did a great job at depicting the harsh conditions and difficulties the Wolf children faced from the moment their family decided to flee until they were finally taken in by kind Lithuanians. I liked the way Nannestad explored themes of family, courage, resilience, and identity (especially important given that the Wolf children had to have their names changed in Lithuania for safety's sake). I also like the way the name Wolf was capitalized on throughout the novel as Liesl kept reminding herself and her siblings that they were Wolfs, and each section was captioned using the word wolves, for example: Proud Wolves, Wild Wolves Vanishing Wolves.

The Wolfskinder may be a little known aspect of WWII, but given what is happening right now in the Ukraine, I believe We are Wolves will definitely resonate with today's readers, who are seeing for themselves what the ravages of war does to families. I highly recommend this book.

This book was purchased for my personal library.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Rose Code: A Novel by Kate Quinn

The Rose Code is one of those books I've been wanting to read ever since I first heard about it, but it just seemed like I could never find the time. Well, since I found myself with lots of time this past February, it was the first book I reached for. And I'm so glad I did.

The story revolves around three very different women who become friends after they begin working on code breaking at the Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England during World War II. Mab (rather than Mable) Churt was born and raised in a cramped flat with a shared bathroom in Shoreditch in London's East End. Wanting more out of life than what her mother settled for, Mab worked hard to self-educate, reading the classics and she had even come in tops in typing and shorthand. Now, with war, she was ready to do her part for king and country.

Osla Kendall's upbringing couldn't be more different than Mab's. A society debutante, her mother hadn't really wanted her around, and had shipped her off to cousins in Canada. Now, Osla was back in London and dating a navy lieutenant named Philip Mountbatten (formerly Prince Philip of Greece). But once her mother cut off her allowance, Osla realizes she needs a job. Thanks to a German governess, Osla can speak fluent German and Philip suggests she use that skill to help the war effort.

After having mysterious interviews in London, Mab and Osla meet on the train the Bletchley, and instantly become friends, having received almost identical and very mysterious letters telling them where to go once they arrive. 

After another interview and signing the Official Secrets Act, the two women are taken to the Finch home where they will board while working at Bletchley. There, they meet Bethan Finch, the 23-yer-old daughter of their nosy, overbearing and overly critical landlady, Mrs. Finch. Meek and shy, Beth might have been beaten down by her mother, but she also is a whiz at crossword puzzles, able to finish the Sunday crossword in eight minutes. As Mab and Osla get settled into their respective jobs at Bletchley, they become more aware of what is going on in the Finch household, including the way Mrs. Finch abuses Beth. Thanks to Osla, Beth is soon working in Bletchley for expert cytologist Dilly Knox

Though Beth has always been shy and withdrawn, she shines at her job breaking codes at Bletchley. She even joins the book club that Mab and Osla start for the workers there. Then, on June 5th, 1944, as Beth is working on a difficult cipher file she had come to think of as Rose because the short messages reminded her of the way a rose's petals wrap it, she discovers that there was a traitor at Bletchley, but no matter what she says, no one believes her. The next day, as the Normandy Invasion was taking place, Beth finds herself committed to Clockwell Sanitarium for a supposed nervous breakdown. 

Now, it's 1947 and Beth is facing a lobotomy and desperately trying to get her former friends, Mab and Osla to come to her rescue. If they could decipher the Rose Code, they could expose the Bletchley traitor. But would they come? And if not, why not?

The Rose Code is a long, detailed, multi-layered novel and I couldn't put it down. The three main characters are so clearly defined and so deliciously flawed, as different from one another as they are united in their desire to do their part for the war effort. I loved the inclusion of real people like Dilly Knox and Prince Philip and even a mention of Alan Turing, but the other minors characters also fit the story so well. In fact, I became invested in everyone's story very quickly (even the horrible, abusing Mrs. Finch). Bletchley itself is so well depicted it felt like another character instead of just the place that brought everyone together for the sake of the story.

Beth, Mab, and Osla's stories unfold in alternating chapters, as well as in chapters where they all play a part. And the narrative covers two timelines - the war years, while the women were working at Bletchley, and 1947. Actually, 1947 covers only the weeks leading up to the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (yup, Osla's old love interest). 

The Rose Code is a sophisticated, well plotted, well researched and well written novel My only objection is that I didn't really get why the traitor did what they did. I didn't like the character, but I also didn't suspect them yet I wasn't surprised when I found out who they were. 

The Rose Code was one of ten winning titles for ALA's 2021 Alex Award - adult books that also have appeal for young adult readers ages 12-18.

This book was purchased for my personal library.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

What's been happening...

You may have noticed that I've been away from blogging for a while and it 's because of illness. No, it
wasn't COVID-19 (I'm vaccinated and boostered), or the flu (had my annual flu shot, too), or a heart attack, or a stroke, but it was serious and required hospitalization. I've always been fortunate enough to have good health, so I knew that one day something would find me and it would be bad. And it was!

Well, now I'm on the mend and I hope to get back to blogging regularly again, especially since I've had lots of time to do lots of reading. 

See you soon!

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron

I usually think of Sharon Cameron as a writer of science fiction not historical fiction, but she has really outdone herself with The Light in Hidden Places. It is a fictional account of the life of Stefania "Fusia" Podgorska and her yonger sister Helena who were ultimately named as Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem for hiding and saving the lives of 13 Jews during the Holocaust. 

At age 12, Fusia decides to leave her family's farm to live with the Diamants, a Jewish family that runs a grocery store in Przemsyl, Poland. Welcomed into the family, Fusia lives there for 3 happy years, during which a secret attraction developes between Catholic Fusia and Jewish Izio Diamant. But in September 1939, Poland is attacked and invaded by the Nazis and life changes for everyone. 

In April 1942, the Diamants are forced to move into the Przemsyl ghetto. Fusia is tasked with helping them survive by bringing what she could sneak in by squeezing through the fence. But then she learns that the Nazis have killed Izio, Grieving, Fusia decides to go back to the family farm. There she finds everyone gone, except her 6-year-old sister Helena, whom she brings back to Przemsyl with her. 

One night, in November 1942, Max Diamant shows up at Fusia's door and asks to stay the night. His parents and some of his siblings had already been rounded up in a Aktion, and sent to their deaths and he and his brother have escaped the ghetto. When they decide to stay with Fusia and Helena, Fusia realizes she needs a larger place for hiding them. She finds a small cottage and before she knows it, Fusia is hiding 13 Jews in it. Then, the Nazis build a hospital across the street and move three nurses into the cottage, as well. Fusia begins to panic, but the nurse only stay seven months. 

Fusia's story held me spellbound from start to finish. I kept thinking what a brave young woman she was to take the kinds of risks she continually chose to take for the family that had shown her so much more love and kindness than her own family had, spending her pay to by food for everyone, and risking death if caught. The novel reads like a taut drama, filled with tense moments and events throughout. Then I remember much of what I'm reading really happened.

Cameron's research for this story is impeccable. Through interviews, research trips to Poland and Stefania's own unpublished memoir, Cameron has woven together a coherent, reality-based Holocaust narrative. She includes extensive back matter, including photos and information about what happened to the Jews Fusia hid after the war ended and they were liberated.  

This book was gratefully received from Edelweiss+  

Monday, January 31, 2022

Love in the Library by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, illustrated by Yas Imamura

 

Love in the Library by Maggie Tokuda-Hall,
illustrated by Yas Imamura
Candlewick Press, 2022, 40 pages
This is such a sweet fictionalized story of two people, the author's grandparents, who found love despite having been sent to Minidoka, a Japanese incarceration camp located in the middle of nowhere in Idaho after the nation of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

Tama was a young woman who loves books and reading and who took a job as librarian in the camp library despite not knowing how to be a librarian. George was a young man who seemed to like books, because every day he was at the library door with a big stack of books to return.

George and Tama, and all West Coast people of Japanese descent were sent to different incarceration camps despite having never committed a crime. Minidoka was unbearably hot in summer, and bitter cold in winter, and muddy in fall and spring because of rain. And there was virtually no privacy.

Tama loved to read and could get really lost in some of the books she read. But unlike George, Tama found it hard to smile, not at her books or the boys playing baseball outside the library. When George asked what was wrong, Tama couldn't find the right words to tell him. But George knows exactly the right word to describe what Tama was feeling: human. 

And that's when Tama discovered that the reason George spent so much time in the library wasn't because he was a big reader, but it was because of her. In a place that tried to dehumanize them, it was a miracle to fall in love in Minidoka, but that's just was George and Tama did. And it didn't take long for them to get married despite the terrible circumstances they were living in and had their first son in the camp. 

This is such a wonderful book for introducing young readers to what happened to people of Japanese descent once the United States entered WWII. The author never minimizes Tama's despair about how her life suddenly changed with her incarceration in Minidoka, or the terrible, unjust conditions under which people were forced to live, but she still manages to offer readers an optimistically hopeful story, all the more wonderful because it is based on a true story. 

The text is complimented by detailed gouache and watercolor illustrations, reminiscent of the period and done in a palette of desert browns and tans broken by the more colorful clothing the inhabitants had brought with them.  

Back matter consists of an Author's Note with more age appropriate information about how Japanese Americans were sent to the camps in the first place, and how it was done as well as more information on the real Tama and George.

Love in the Library would be a excellent addition to any school library or home library. And you can download a Teacher's Guide from the publisher HERE

This book was an eARC gratefully received from Candlewick Press

Sunday, January 16, 2022

37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 by Barbara Krasner

This is the second book by Barbara Krasner that I have read about the 938 European Jews who set sail in 1939 aboard the M.S. St. Louis hoping to escape the Nazis and find safety in Cuba. The first book was called Liesel's Ocean Voyage. It is a fictionalized story based on the real experiences of Liesel Joseph Loeb (1928-2013) and I highly recommend it, and in fact, I would read it in tandem with 37 Days at Sea to get a broader picture of a voyage that began with so much hope ended in such disappointment. 

Here, Krasner introduces readers to Ruthie Arons, 12, from Breslau, Germany. The decision to leave and eventually settle in America came shortly after Kristallnacht, when their beautiful home was ransacked by Nazis who broke into Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany, stealing, breaking and destroying everything in their path. 

Now, onboard the M.S. St. Louis, missing the family they had to leave behind, Ruthie, a somewhat mischievous girl thinks that  "Adventure/ across the Atlantic Ocean beckons." And indeed it does, when she quickly makes friends with Wolfie, a twelve-year-old Jewish boy traveling with his mother and whose father is already living in Havana.

Secure in the knowledge that they have the necessary papers to enter Cuba, people on the ship enjoy a wonderful voyage of good food, entertainment, and friendliness, including Captain Schroeder. And although the crew wear their NSDAP pins, there is a problem with only one, Kurt Steinfelder. Ruthie's mother suffers from seasickness and her father, an attorney, is busy with some other business, so that leaves her plenty of time to hang out with Wolfie, exploring the ship and getting into mischief: "Grown-up, watch out. We/ are a band of trouble,/ and by we, I mean/ Wolfie and me." (pg 24)

There is a, however, a very concrete reminder of what was left behind in Germany, when a group of men with shaved heads come on board and Ruthie's father must explain to her about concentration camps and the arrest of so many Jewish men on Kristallnacht, including him. Some were released, others sent to camps, released with the promise never to return.

After two weeks at sea, on the fifteenth day, the M.S. St. Louis enters Havana, Cuba but it doesn't take long to realize that there is more trouble ahead for these Jewish refugees. No one is allowed to disembark and enter Cuba, including Wolfie and his mother, even though his father is already there. Negotiations take place, the United States refuses to help and eventually the ship is forced to return to Europe. Needless to say, the trip back is nothing like the trip to Cuba.

37 Days at Sea is written in free verse from Ruthie's first person point of view, which gives it an interesting perspective. Ruthie may have experienced some of the cruelty of the Nazis in Breslau, but she was younger and her parents seem to have been able to shield her from some of the worst events. The trip to Cuba and the return to Europe makes this a kind of end of innocence story, but the beginning of understanding the seriousness of what was happening to the Jews in Europe for Ruthie (and hopefully today's reader).    

Krasner used a few different poetic forms, and although the free verse is sometimes a little off, it is still an important book for young readers, especially in the lower middle grades. She really knows how to build the excitement and expectation of landing in Cuba and being free to come and go as they please as the ship travels to its destination, and the disappointment and dejection the passengers feel when they are forced to go back. The first half of the books is devoted to the trip to Cuba, and the second half covers the trip back, which I think is an important part of the story to include. 

Back matter includes an Author's Note, a Timeline of Events, suggestions for Further Information including Films, Oral Testimonies, and Books.

This book was a digital version purchased for my personal library.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Stealing Home by J. Torres, illustrated by David Nmisato


Stealing Home by J. Torres,
illustrated by David Namisato
Kids Can Press, 2021, 112 pages

It's summer 1941 and the Asahi Baseball team is the pride of Powell Street in Vancouver, BC, "the champions of the Japanese community." For young Sandy Saito and his dad, Dr. Saito, that means going to games together and cheering their heroes on and later, playing catch in the backyard together. 

But all that changes on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Sandy's dad was short tempered and didn't want to play catch anymore. The kids in school, who had been Sandy's friends, turn on him, calling him names and refusing to let any Japanese kids play baseball with them, even throwing rocks at them. 

Soon, Japanese persons are forced out of some areas of British Columbia and moved to "camps" in old, abandoned mining settlements, including the Saitos, but not before Dr. Saito goes out on a house call and doesn't come home. All his family knows is that the government sent him to "where he was needed most,"
leaving Mrs. Saito, Sandy and his younger brother Ty to cope with being relocated to an internment camp in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, with no electricity or running water. 

Adjusting to their new life isn't easy, but eventually Sandy and Ty make friends and have some fun. But it is all work for their mother and the other women, who need to find ways to keep their children warm in the coming winter, plus they now have to share their small shelter with another family, including a baby. However, it turns out that some of the players for the Asahi Baseball team are also at the camp. Is it possible that baseball can provide some sense of normalcy and happiness for Sandy and the other people in the camp?

J. Torres provides readers with a very clear picture of what life was like for Canadians of Japanese descent after the United States entered the war, in this graphic novel told in the first person from Sandy Saito's perspective. Interestingly, the Canada had entered the war immediately after Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 and yet had left Japanese persons living on its west coast along until Pearl Harbor. 

Torres has really captured the fear and confusion that Sandy felt about why things changed so abruptly because of events he doesn't completely understand, and his hurt feelings as his beloved father becomes more stressed and short-tempered. 

I find it interesting that baseball played such an important role in the lives of both Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians during the war. Perhaps because it is a game of skill and both players and spectators can really get lost in, enabling them to escape their new reality of losing everything they had worked for and being put into slapped together internment camps in the middle of nowhere.

Stealing Home is a wonderful vehicle for introducing younger middle grade readers to this part of the history of WWII. I read a black and white ARC and so I can't comment on the final art, but the illustrations are detailed and not frighteningly graphic. 

You can learn more about the Asahi Baseball Team HERE

 This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Blitz Bus by Glen Blackwell

The Blitz Bus by Glen Blackwell
Zoetrope Books, 2021, 218 pages
NetGalley E-ARC 

When his teacher assigns her class to write a fictional diary entry of a WWII evacuee, Jack, 12, just can't think of anything to write. Somehow, the war seems so long ago and he just can't relate. And now, he's going to be late meeting his best friend, Emmie Langford after school. Being a good friend, Emmie has been waiting at their bus stop when Jack finally shows up.

Everything seems normal until they reached their stop and notice a new blue storefront with a mannequin wearing a long coat and a gas mask in the window. Suddenly, there is a flash of light and it begins to rain heavily, so they head to the nearby Tube station for shelter, along with everyone else.

Everything at the Tube station feels like it's out of time, causing Emmie to think they are in the midst of a film set in 1940. But gradually she and Jack realize they have landed in the midst of a WWII air raid, instead, and that somehow they have traveled back in time. With no money, no food, and no friends, Jack and Emmie begin to try to figure out how they can return to their own time. Along the way, they become friends with Jan, a Polish boy who arrived in England a few years earlier on the Kindertransport. The three discover an old Anderson shelter behind a bombed and abandoned house as Jan helps them navigate this unfamiliar London. When they discover what appears someone trying to build a makeshift radio, they are convinced the mysterious boy/man they have noticed is a German spy. 

The German spy turns out to be Stan, who also arrived in London on the Kindertransport, but unlike Jan, whose foster family is quite kind, Stan's treats him terribly. As they become friends with Jan and Stan, can Jack and Emmie trust them with their secret and perhaps get some ideas of how they can return to the own time? Or will they be stranded in 1940 forever?

The Blitz Bus is an interesting time travel novel that points out how as things recede into history, they don't carry the same level of interest or impact that they once had. Jack may live in East London, which had been heavily bombed and damaged during the war, but he's interested in video games and football, not history. I thought that Blackwell portrayed what London in the Blitz was like quite well, layering it with the different experiences of the two Kindertransport kids, their loneliness and homesickness, emotions Jack comes to appreciate firsthand. 

The novel also points out how people were so suspicious of foreigners during the war that they often suspected them of being spies, just as Jack, Emmie, and Jan thought that about Stan. 

Interestingly, the Tube station that Emmie and Jack shelter in was the Bethnal Green Station which was destroyed in 1943, killing 173 people. Blackwell includes more about it in his back matter, that also includes information on the Kindertransport, and instructions for making the kind of radio out things found, similar to the radio Stan builds to listen to new about Poland. 

I have to admit that I was hoping that once they returned to their own time, Jack and Emmie would try to find out what happened to Jan and Stan, whether they were living, and if they were, did they remember their two time traveling friends? 

Readers looking for a time travel adventure, as well as those who enjoy historical fiction set in WWII will no doubt enjoy reading about Jack and Emmie's exploits in this imaginative novel.

This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley