Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy is a home front novel like no other home front novel I've ever read. It begins in 1940 on such a high note as Veronica Grace, aspiring journalist, is graduating from Hunter College (my alma mater) and about to begin working as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine after winning their annual competition. 

But all that comes to a crashing end when Mademoiselle's editor in chief calls on graduation night and tells Veronica will not be welcomed as their guest editor after learning about an affair she had with a married man, who happened to be married to a woman, Mrs. Applebaum, whose father is a "titan of New York City publishing." In a call to Mrs. Applebaum, Veronica is told she will never get a job in publishing in New York City, and to just get out her the city.

When Veronica tells her mother and her Uncle Wally what happened, it is decided that she and her mother, Mrs. Violet "Vi" Engle Grace, would immediately leave NYC for Santa Monica, California. There, they could live in her uncle's summer cabin rent free. 

Vi's husband had been in the Navy, but she's been widowed for the last 6 years earlier. She's an accomplished seamstress and embroiderer and has considered opening her own atelier. Her parents were both born in Germany and needless to say, both Veronica and Vi look like perfect Aryan woman. 

It doesn't take long for the Grace women to be approached by some of the other woman of German descent, who wish to have Vi do some embroidery for them - swastika's and other Nazi symbols. Meanwhile, Veronica is having trouble getting a job in journalism and is referred to a Mr. Donald McDonnell who needs someone to take dictation and type. It turns out McDonnell and his wife Harriet produce a pro-Nazi tabloid and other Nazi propaganda. Veronica, who does not support the Nazis in any way, tries to report what she learns to the FBI, who don't seem very interested in Nazis, instead focusing on communists per instructions from J. Edgar Hoover. 

Discouraged and annoyed at the FBI, Vi makes a call to one of her husband's colleagues in the Navy, Commander Ezra Zabner, to tell him what they suspect about their new acquaintances. Zabner is interested and introduces Vi and Veronica to Ari Lewis. Lewis, along with his friend Jonah Rose, are trying to learn what fifth columnists like McDonnell and his fellow Nazis are up to and they enlist Veronica and Vi to gain the confidence of these traitors,while they are in reality spying on them and reporting back to Ari and Jonah. A dangerous job for this mother and daughter? You bet, but it makes for some very exciting reading. 

When I said that this book is a home front novel like no other, what I meant is that rather being a story  about fifth columnists and quislings, MacNeal takes the reader right into the heart of one such America First group to give them a clear picture of how those groups worked, their anti-Semitic beliefs, their efforts to keep America out of the war in Europe, and how they recruited more members through the connections that Veronica and Vi make once they get to California. Persuasion propaganda is an interest I developed as a student in Hunter College (thank you, Serafina Bathrick, "Propaganda and the Mass Media") and continue to have an interest in, so this novel was right up my alley. This is, to say the least, a well researched, well written novel that I found I couldn't put down.

Mother Daughter Traitor Spy is based on a real mother-daughter team, Sylvia and Grace Comfort, as are all the other main players, giving the story the in-depth sense of authenticity because so much of the Grace's undercover work and the content of America First's beliefs are taken from reality. Added to this is such a strong, almost cinematic sense of time and place, that I felt transported back to 1940s New York and California. MacNeal's use of fashion throughout adds even more flavor to the book's historicity.  

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I first heard that MacNeal's next book was going to be a stand alone novel and not a Maggie Hope mystery, which I've been enjoying since Maggie first appeared. But Mother Daughter Traitor Spy has turned out to be a thrilling spy novel about two courageous women involved in some extraordinary work, and yes, there is some love interest, too. By the end, I found myself wondering if MacNeal would perhaps grace her fans a sequel to Veronica and Vi's story. Maybe? 

Thank you, Katie Horn at Random House Group, for providing me with a copy of this novel to review.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Resist: One Girl's Fight Back Against the Nazis by Tom Palmer

A few years ago, I read a book called Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen, so I knew about her experiences during the war. What I didn't know when I started reading Resist, the new WWII book by Tom Palmer, was that it is a fictionalized story inspired by Audrey's life during the war. 

It's 1943, and Edda, 15, has a sheaf of illegal resistance newsletters stuffed inside her socks to be delivered to certain addresses. The delivery is her first her first resistance assignment and Edda is nervous, knowing if she were caught, it would mean death at the hands of the Nazis. Edda volunteers at the hospital, and had  asked Dr. Hendrik Visser't Hooft, a leading figure in the resistance, if she could help there, too. Years of studying ballet in England had given Edda an excellent memory, and she proved herself able to easily memorize the addresses for the newsletter delivery.

The Nazis had been occupying the Netherlands since 1940, forcing Edda's brother Alex to go into hiding to avoid being picked up by the Nazis and sent to a slave labor camp in Germany, and her Uncle Otto was one of 460 men who had been arrested and executed by the Nazis. So imagine Edda's stunned surprise when she sees her mother's name listed as a Nazi sympathiser in the newsletters she's carrying. How could Edda possible prove that her mother wasn't a collaborator?

When Dr. Visser't Hooft asked Edda if she would be interested in dancing as part of an evening of entertainment, a secret performance done after dark, to raise money to help people in hiding. she thinks this would help prove her mother's support for the resistance. But when she asks her mother's permission, Edda was told no, she could not participate, it is just too dangerous. After the Germans pick up her other brother Ian, 17, to send to Germany, Edda's mother has a change of heart and gives her permission to perform. On the way home from the performance, Edda finally asks her mother why she had been listed as someone not to be trusted and is relieved to learn that her mother feels it was a mistake to support Hitler and is now on the side of the resistance.

By 1944, the Dutch are hearing on illegal radios that the Allies are moving closer to Holland. But the Germans are getting desperate and are stealing most of the food for themselves and letting the Dutch starve. When the British finally arrive not far from Velp, everyone begins to hope the war will end for them soon. But the British are defeated, as is the hope of the Dutch. Then, one day, Edda is caught by German soldiers along with other girls her age. Afraid she would be sent to Germany like her brother Ian, Edda takes a chance and runs away, knowing how to avoid the soldiers because her resistance activity had taught her all she needed to know about the streets of Velp. 

When her mother hears what happened, Edda is sent to the cellar for her own safety with the rest of her family as the war continues above them. Early one morning, there's a knock on their front door,  and after her mother and grandfather go see who it is, they return with a box of food, apparently from the American army. Could it be that the war and the Nazi occupation in the Netherlands is finally coming to an end? And will Edda ever see her brother Ian again?

Resist is an interesting story, in part because I knew it was inspired by Audrey Hepburn's family and her resistance work. More importantly, however, Palmer shows his readers, without being too graphic, just what it was like for the Dutch people under Nazi occupation - the cruelty of the Nazi soldiers, the disregard for the lives of the Dutch people, and the extent of the starvation they were subjected to. 1944 was infamously known as the Hunger Winter. And just as importantly, the strength of the Dutch during that time. At one point, Edda, already an accomplished dancer, even gave ballet lessons to the local children. 

Palmer's portrayal of Edda is sensitive and I think true to who the real Audrey Hepburn was. He has brilliantly captured her thoughts, her fears for herself and her family, her anger at the Nazis for what they have done to her beloved country, friends and neighbors, and her need to resist the occupiers. These are the same qualities that followed Audrey Hepburn throughout her life, and lead her to do so much humanitarian work as well as acting.  

Back matter includes information about Audrey Hepburn as the inspiration for Edda, the occupation and starvation of the Netherlands, resistance activity there, a bit about Audrey Hepburn and Anne Frank, Audrey Hepburn and her work with UNICEF. and finally, Tom Palmer's research for this novel, including several biographies of Audrey Hepburn, and recommended children's books, such as Tamar by Mal Peet, among others. 

Resist is published by Barrington Stoke known for their books that are adapted for dyslexic and reluctant readers. and as a dyslexic, I can't recommend them highly enough.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Agent Most Wanted: The Never-Before-Told Story of the Most Dangerous Spy of World War II by Sonia Purnell

Virginia Hall may have been born into a family that believed they were obligated "to restore the family to the heights of Baltimore society" but she had no intention of obliging her mother's wish of marrying into money. Virginia was too free spirited to settle down into a society marriage. She loved excitement and living in NY while attending to Barnard College provided her with plenty of that. Virginia was also able to go to Paris when she  was 20, enjoying the art, literature, and meeting all kinds of interesting people, and travelling around Europe for several years. 

When Virginia returned home in 1929, she immediately applied for at job at the State Department, hoping for a diplomat position. Despite stellar qualifications, the State Department rejected her application, but she did get a not-terribly-interesting post, first in Warsaw, Poland and later in Smyrna, Turkey, both at the U.S. Embassies. While in Turkey, she had a shooting accident and lost her left leg below the knee as a result. 

Undeterred, and despite an uncomfortable prosthetic leg, Virginia was determined to return to Europe, and got another posting with the US Consulate in Venice, Italy. But with fascism on the rise in Europe, in 1936, Virginia again applied for a position as a diplomat. This time, with the help of President Roosevelt, she finally found herself as part of the US legation in Tallinn, Estonia in 1938. But after a year of secretarial work, Virginia resigned. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, she planned on going to London, but instead ended up in Paris, where she signed up as an ambulance driver with the French Ninth Artillery Regiment. 

A chance meeting with someone who was impressed with her courage and who had connections, led Virginia to Nicolas Bodington, senior office in the French section of Britain' s newly formed Special Operations Executive. After some hesitation, Virginia was off to learn the basics she would need to become an effective intelligence agent for the British in France. When she arrived in southern  France, she registered at an American correspondent with the Vichy government. 

Despite the pain caused by her artificial leg, the danger of being a spy, and being isolated in a hostile environment, Virginia Hall managed to accomplish amazing things for the duration of the war. Once she arrived in Vichy, France, Purnell meticulously documents Virginia's resistance work, both her successes and her failures, answering the question: How did Virginia Hall became the agent most wanted and why the German Gestapo considered her to be the most dangerous woman in Europe during WWII?

Though nonfiction, the history of Virginia Hall's life during WWII reads like a thrilling novel, full of dangerous adventures and frustrations befitting the life of a spy. Virginia's is a story that has been relatively untold up to now. Purnell, in this biographical work, shows how Virginia was continuously belittled, often rejected, and discriminated against because of her disability, yet she never gave up pursuing her dreams, and how, despite everything, she may have been one of the best spies in WWII.

This is a book that will appeal to young readers who are history and WWII buffs. Back matter includes Chapter Notes and a select Bibliography. Agent Most Wanted is a young readers adaptation of Purnell's original book A Woman of No Importance

Sunday, August 21, 2022

American Shoes: A Refugee's Story by Rosemarie Lengsfeld Turke and Garrett L. Turke

In 1930 Rosemarie Lengsfeld, affectionately called Rosel by her family, was born in New York City to parents who had emigrated to the United States from Germany and were awaiting their final citizenship papers. Despite that, they decided, in 1935 when Rosel was four-years-old, to return to Germany to visit family in Breslau. It was to be only a short stay, but lasted longer than expected, so when it came time to return to the US, the family discovered that their tickets would not be honored. Adolf Hitler, then Chancellor of Germany, had closed the borders so that German citizens could not leave the country. At first, Rosel enjoyed being with her extended family in Germany, and her parents soon welcomed baby Eleonore into the family. But when the war began, the family found themselves struggling to stay alive without enough food to eat amid bombing by the Allied Forces. 

Finally, in 1946, with the war over, Rosel received a letter telling her she could return to the United States. Convinced that this would include her parents and now nine-year-old Eleonore, the family showed up at the American Embassy and were told only Rosel, 15, could return home, since she was the only American citizen - her parents and sister were German citizens. 

Making a snap decision to go it alone and hopefully find a way to bring her parents and sister to the United States, Rosel finds herself traveling across the ocean on a 10 day trip aboard the SS Marine Flasher, a former troop transport ship along with other American citizens who were stuck in Germany and "surviving Jews and other displaced persons..." On board ship, Rosel meets the mysterious Liesel, another American with German parents, a few years older Rosel, who is traveling with her brother Kurt. She also meets David, a talented musician who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. As the ship gets closer and closer to the United States, Rosel begins to fear that no one will believe that she is American, that she will be branded as a Nazi because of her German accent. 

It is during this journey at night when she is alone in her bunk bed that the reader discovers what life was like for Rosel, her family and others living under the horrors of Hitler's dictatorship before and during the war. Interestingly, she never talked about her experiences until she was 85 years old and therefore it is all based on her memories, but told in the first person from her 15 year-old perspective, and, in my opinion, making her something of an unreliable narrator. Even so, it's hard to imagine a 15-year-old making the kind of decision Rosel was forced to make that day in the Embassy, leaving her parents and sister behind, traveling alone to who knows what future, and at the same time, dealing with the trauma of the war as it returned night after night on the trip to the US. But Rosel's story is definitely one of courage and a different kind of true WWII story in that it is told from the point of an American child. It is often not an easy book to read, but I found it hard to put down. 

American Shoes is a book that will appeal to readers interested in WWII, the post war experience, especially the experiences of Americans can in Nazi Germany, and war-related trauma. Back matter includes maps, a glossary, an author's commentary on WWI, WWII, and the Holocaust, and thoughts by the author's son about writing this book, as well as extensive Discussion Questions. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Pax, Journey Home (Pax Book #2) by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A year has passed since Peter, now 13, was forced to release his beloved pet fox Pax into the wild when his father decided to join in the war that was happening. Now, the war is over and Peter has returned to Vola, a former soldier with a prosthetic leg who had taken him in after he was injured while looking for Pax. 

During the year after his release, Pax had finally found his place with Bristle and her younger brother Runt. And now Pax had a family of his own after Bristle gave birth to three kits, two males and one female, a curious vixen who immediately became her father's favorite, the one towards whom he feels most protective. But when Pax decides his family needs to find a new, safer home, he and the little vixen set out to find one. Those they face many dangerous obstacles, the worst is the contaminated water that makes Pas's daughter very sick.

Peter, meanwhile, has learned that his father did not survive the war. Now an orphan, he decides to join the Junior section of the Water Warriors, a group whose purpose is to "repurpose the training, the equipment, and the workforce of the military to repair the damage done in the war" and kids could help to clean the now contaminated water. 

As Pax and his increasingly ill daughter make their way back to Bristle, Peter, filled with guilt, realizes he must face his past and stay in his childhood home, then stand in the spot where he let Pax go and later lost his father. Embarking on their respective journeys home, Peter and Pax each faces obstacles and choices that could change their lives forever. Peter's journey could be one of redemption, Pax's journey one of forgiveness. But does Peter have the courage to do what he must do? And will Pax be able make a desperate decision to try to say his daughter's life? 

Pennypacker has kept to the same format as the first book, telling Peter and Pax's respective stories in alternating chapters. Reader's of Book #1 know that Pax is not an anthropomorphized fox (which would definitely have spoil the whole ambiance of the books). Instead, Pennypacker has again used italicized  words to represent the "vocalization, gesture, scent, and expression of fox communication. 

Whereas Pax is a wartime story, Pax, Journey Home is a post war story, and includes all the useless destruction and loss war brings. And while Peter is seeking personal redemption, he is also redeeming the land that was destroyed by soldiers like his father. And what of the wonderful Volo, who has taught Peter so much about rebuilding his body and his life, she's still there and waiting for Peter to find home. 

I didn't really expect there would be a sequel to Pax, but I'm glad there is. I didn't realize I wanted closure after finishing book #1 until I finished the perfectly titled Pax, Journey Home


Thursday, August 4, 2022

Mordechai Anielewicz: No to Despair by Rachel Hausfater, translated by Alison L. Strayer

Four hundred thousand Jews who had been living in and around Warsaw, Poland were herded into a ghetto created by the Nazis in the autumn of 1940.  Locked up in the overcrowded, unsanitary ghetto, people were cold, hungry, and sick, and death was everywhere. Most knew it was just a matter of time before they were sent to Treblinka and certain death. Feigele was a 12-year-old smuggler who was rescued by a young man one evening whole sneaking food back into the ghetto. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis initiated an Aktion, in which three hundred thousand Jews were rounded up and sent to Treblinka, including Feigele's entire family. Later, when she was 14, Feigele was recruited by her rescuer Mordechai Anielewicz to join his band of resisters and it is Feigele, devoted to Mordechai, who narrates the story of his final days in the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Knowing there was no chance of escaping the deportations that had finally begun to happen, Mordechai decided he would rather choose how he would die and go out with dignity than let the Nazis choose for him. And he wasn't the only one who felt that way. Soon, he had amassed an army of Jewish children between the ages of 13 and 24 who were still left in the ghetto and were willing to fight to the end. They were organized to find weapons outside the ghetto any way they could, and runners who were smuggling letters, provisions and guns into the ghetto. 

Mordechai was only 24 years old when he made his fateful decision on April 18, 1943. Knowing the Nazis were about to enter the ghetto, knowing that they would all die, that their struggle is hopeless, Mordechai refused to give into despair and declared war on the Germans. The next day, armed with tanks, machine guns, and planes overhead, 2,000 Nazi soldiers march into the ghetto and are repelled back by this small band of fighting Jews. No one was more surprised than Mordechai when the Nazis were repelled, and continued to retreat from the ghetto day after day, until the Nazis finally demolished it in May 1943.

Though this is a work of historical fiction, it is based on the real life of revolutionary Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the true hero of the Warsaw Uprising. Mordechai, Feigele tells the reader, had been bullied as a child and learned how to organize his friends and show their local tormentors that Jews can and will stand up for themselves when the need arises. And it was those skills he learned as a young boy that Mordechai called upon when he decided he would not let his Nazi captors choose the time and method of his death. 

Feigele's belief in and support for Mordechai never wavers and it is a testament to his courage that she was such a willing fighter along with the other revolutionaries in the ghetto. Additionally, her narration gives us a detailed picture of life in the ghetto, and the way people were forced to live. The story is well researched and Feigele's voice is quite compelling. I found I could not put the book down and read it in one sitting and even though I knew how the Warsaw Ghetto uprising ended, I found there were som facts I didn't know. 

Mordechai Anielewicx: No to Despair is a fascinating fictional biography that should appeal to anyone interested in the Holocaust, heroes of the Holocaust and Jewish history, as well as WWII. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Key to Deceit (An Electra McDonnell Novel #2) by Ashley Weaver

It's September 1940 and it's only been a few weeks since Ellie McDonnell helped the handsome, aristocratic Major Gabriel Ramsey break  into a house to retrieve some important blueprints before they could be given to the Nazis in A Peculiar Combination. Naturally, she's antsy for another chance to work with Major Ramsey, but first a little background information for those who haven't discovered this great series: Ellie was raised by her Irish Uncle Mick in London after her mother was arrested and imprisoned for supposedly killing Ellie's father, Uncle Mick's brother. Uncle Mick is a locksmith by day, and He, his three sons and Ellie were a safe crackers by night until Major Ramsey caught them in the act and gave the McDonnell family an ultimatum: live on the straight and narrow and help in the war effort or go to prison. I guess you can figure out which choice they made.

Luckily, Ellie doesn't have to wait long for the Major to need her safe cracking skills. A woman found dead floating in the Thames is wearing a curious bracelet - it's a thick cuff that is locked to the wearer's wrist. Ellie is a little queasy about picking the lock on the wrist of a dead woman and stalls by going over her clothing, which was new and expensive. Once Ellie has picked the lock open, they determine it contains a miniature camera. Major Ramsey dismisses Ellie and sends her home, but not for long. Turns out the clothing description helped them determine that the woman was doing something underhanded - there was a bag of precious gemstones hidden in her coat. 

Ellie and her sorta, kinda boyfriend Felix Lacey call on a pawnbroker friend to help them identify and figure out the source of the gems, the women, now identified as Myra Fields, had hidden in her coat. Myra was engaged in espionage for the Germans and the photographs she had taken would be very useful to the Germans should they ever begin bombing London. They also learn that she had been staying in a boarding house run by a Mrs. Paine. 

Ellie and Major Ramsey decide to visit the boarding house as an engaged couple and cousin of Myra's, to see what they can find. And in the midst of gathering evidence of a possible spy ring, the Nazis begin bombing London. Once bombing begins, not knowing who is part of the spy ring or how large it is makes the need to capture the spies taking pictures of possible bombing sites and their ring leader even more imperative. 

There's a lot going on in this novel and it moves at a pretty quick pace, but it is by no means overwhelming. In fact, some of it is a nice break from the mystery at hand. First, there is the relationship between Ellie and Major Ramsey. She is feisty, and can be a buster, while he is aristocratically uptight. Yet, there is chemistry brewing between them and Ellie's family would be pleased a punch to see her involved with him. And Ellie does think about it, but wait, what about Felix? He's so sweet and things could get more serious between them and he is more her sort, criminally speaking. Then, there is the case of Ellie's mother, who maintained her innocence right up until her death from the flu epidemic. Can Ellie find a way to clear her mother's name? And of course there are the everyday changes that war brings on in people's lives. I just love details. 

All in all, I found The Key to Deceit an enjoyable mystery, with lots of details and good plotting so that when the culprit was finally revealed, I was surprised.  The fact is that I was a little skeptical about the Electra McDonnell series when I first heard about it, but after reading these first two novels, I can't wait for the third book. 

Thank you, NetGalley, for supplying me with an EARC.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Lion Above the Door by Onjali Q. Raúf

Every year for my birthday, I throw a few books I want to read into a shopping cart and say Happy Birthday to myself. One of the books I chose for my last birthday was The Lion About the Door. It's a contemporary WWII story by Onjali Q. Raúf, who have become a real favorite author of mine. 

Leo Kai Lim and his best friend Sangeeta Singh are both looking forward to their class trip to the RAF Museum and Rochester Cathedral (in Kent). They've been studying WWII in school and even though the two friends know that they are probably the only ones in their class who don't have a personal connection to anyone who fought in WWII, they are excited to see the planes on display. Leo's parents are from Singapore, and Sangreta is Indian descent. 

Leo and Sangeeta are the only two kids in their school who look like them and of course, there is a bully named Toby who never tires of going after Leo. He's kind of an Eddie Haskell character in that he acts sweet and innocent in front of teachers and parents, but all that changes in the school yard and sometimes in class. He makes fun of the Singaporean food Leo brings for lunch, pushes and shoves him and the morning of the school trip, Toby hits Leo hard several times with a tennis ball. As a bruise developed on his leg, Leo thinks about the bruise inside him that never seem to heal, getting hit over and over. Leo is convinced his inner bruise will only heal if "something big and unexpected and brilliant happened." But the chances of that happening were zero as far as he was concerned, after all, he and Sangeeta "were too different for brilliant things to ever happen to us. And the bruise knew it." (pg27) 

But imagine the surprise Leo gets when he sees the name Leo Kai Lim DFC and a golden lion above it carved into the marble with other names of other soldiers who were WWII heroes. Stunned by this discovery, Leo promises to find out all he can about this soldier. 

Back at school, Leo's teacher Mr. Scott announces that for Remembrance Day, their class has been selected to take part in TV's Real Kidz Rule competition, a program everyone loves. For Leo, it becomes the perfect opportunity to research all he can about Leo Kai Lim DFC and keep his promise. Unfortunately, finding information about this hero pilot of WWII turns out to be quite difficult. Sangeeta is also excited about the competition since it will give her an opportunity to research Indians who participated in the war for the British named Singh, as well as the contributions of Indian women. Could good things be coming Leo's way finally? Will his bruice have a chance to heal? Or is Leo headed for a big disappointment?

I really enjoyed reading The Lion Above the Door and found myself reluctant to put it down when I had to do other things. Leo's first-person narration is appealing and so endearing in its innocent truthfulness, even as Raúf threw themes of family and family history, cultural underrepresentation, contemporary and historical racism, perseverance, courage, and teamwork his way, but all with a sensitive hand and a combination of seriousness and humor. 

And because this is a Onjali Q. Raúf novel, there is one surprising turn of events when Olivia Morris, the coolest most popular girl in class offers to help Leo and one very zany episode when Leo and Sangeeta break into the RAF museum. 

I did like that Raúf allowed her characters to be flawed. For example, Leo had trouble with his dad's never standing up for himself or Leo until he learns why, and Mr. Scott is not always the most culturally sensitive person but he does learn to be more aware of it thanks to Leo and his project.

Back matter in this book includes information on racism and prejudice, now and during WWII, as well as the real forgotten heroes WWII included in this book.

The Lion Above the Door is one of my better birthday books and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in WWIIs ignored heroes, or for anyone concerned about cultural underrepresentation. Both Leo Kai Lims are heroes in my book. 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Where I've been...


One of the ways I put myself through college and grad school was by doing freelance research for other people. And I've had a lot of interesting jobs, have met some really great people, and my fees paid the bills. I learned my way around a number of libraries in New York City, including the research branch of the NYPL (my favorite), the NYPL for the Performing Arts, Columbia University, Columbia Law School, Hunter College (which at that time had a phenomenal library), Hunter School of Social Work Library, the Library of Congress (my second favorite), among others. I also did research for graduate students who, for one reason or another, needed assistance (one student needed someone who knew Latin) or who were unable to do their own (usually through Student Disability Services). 

I had kind of given up freelance research when I began teaching. Now, I only teach part-time, so when the opportunity to do some research for someone came along, I realized how much I missed doing it and accepted the job. It sounded kind of easy and interesting - researching this person's family history, something I'd done before and I've always loved working in the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, part of the research branch of the NYPL. It's very peaceful and the librarians are always so helpful. 

What I wasn't expecting was how involved I would get in this latest project. It's turning out to be absolutely fascinating...and time consuming. But the good news is that I have been doing lots of reading and will be posting my reviews more frequently (I hope).

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue written and illustrated by William Grill


Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue
written and illustrated by William Grill
Flying Eye Books, 2022, 80 pages

I wanted to read this book before I knew anything about it simply because it is about Asian elephants, I loved the colors and arrangement on the cover and it is by William Grill. What I didn't know is that it is also an interesting true World War II story, as much as it is about James Howard Williams and the elephant he bonded with. 

Grill begins by giving some background information about animal and forest life in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the important role Asian elephants have always played in its economy, especially when it came to harvesting and transporting of timber. 
After serving in World War I, Williams applied for a job with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation. He became the overseer involved in cutting down and transporting the giant teak trees found in Myanmar and responsible for 70 work elephants. Impressed by these animals, Williams took the time to learn all about them. Here Grill digresses with a series of 2 page spreads giving general information about elephants, facts about elephant behavior and history, a description of the demanding job of being a timber elephant, the job of the ooziers or the men who are elephant riders, trainers and keepers and an accounting of how the timber is transported, how elephants are captured and trained, and introduces readers to Po Toke. 

Po Toke was a young oozier who raised a young calf named Bandoola with a kindness and patience unusual for that time.. Po Toke introduced Williams to Bandoola and the three of them had an instant connection and bond. Seeing how well Bandoola responded to Po Toke's gentle training, he and Williams opened an elephant school devoted to training elephants compassionately. The school was soon followed by an elephant hospital. 

But, by now the Second World War had begun and in 1942, the Japanese began an invasion of Myanmar, putting elephants, ooziers and everyone else in the camp in danger. 
In 1944, Williams was order to evacuate and travel to Assam, India where he would be safe. But Williams wasn't willing to leave the elephants in his care to their fate at the hands of the Japanese army. It was decided that a party "of 64 women and children, 53 elephants, 40 armed soldiers, 90 ooziers and assistants, and four British military officers" would also leave the Myanmar jungle and travel to safety. To get to safety, they would face "190 kilometres [about 118 miles] of perilous jungles, with countless towering mountains, as well as the very real threat of attacks from tigers or human enemies." 
How did they get across those mountains? To help readers understand just what an arduous journey Williams and his party faced, Grill details the difficult terrain in a 2 page spread. The terrain was difficult, but a wall of rock felt like a real impasse. And Williams came up with an impossible plan - build an elephant stairway, with Bandoola leading the way. 

Amazingly, Williams' plan worked and the arrived in India three weeks after leaving Myanmar. 

I found this to be such a fascinating story that I've reread it a number of times, even renewing my library copy several times (I think it might be time to buy my own copy). The text is spare but no word is wasted, with Grill letting the illustrations tell half the story. Yet, he has really captured the bond between Williams, Po Toke and Bandoola. The escape and rescue of the elephants is a thrilling and scary part of the story, especially when I think about those magnificent animals walking on a narrow path on the side of the mountain, with a sheer drop if any had lost their footing.

Grills illustrations are done using color pencils and are mainly in shades of greens and yellows which really give you a sense of being in a jungle. Other pages are done in pinks and blues reflecting the jungle's amazing sunsets. Grill points out that Williams' compassionate approach to the training and care of elephants is still being used today, but that elephants are still not completely safe. But though the elephant population has diminished, Grill ends on a hopeful note for the future relationship of man and elephant. 

Back matter consists of an illustrated glossary, an appendix and suggestions for further reading, as well as a variety of websites. I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

World War I: The Great War to End All Wars by Julie Knutson, illustrated by Micah Rauch

I don't think that anyone expected World War I to be as far-reaching and as devastating as it was. Now, though, as it recedes into history, it becomes more and more important to understand how be began, how it expanded and what the cost was in terms of human life. You can read novels about the war, like the one I recently reviewed, Lines of Courage by Jennifer A. Nielsen, but no matter how good they are, they can only provide a limited idea of what WWI was like. And that is true for nonfiction works about this war, or any war, for that matter. What sets this new work from Nomad Press apart from so many other books about WWI for young people is the stress on using primary sources. In her introduction, Knutson talks about their importance and how primary sources used in this book can be accessed using the provided QR codes found throughout the book, or, if you don't have a smartphone, the links to websites where the information comes from.

To understand just how the world ended up in a war that began on 28 September 1914 and was supposed to end by Christmas, Knutson takes the reader back to the globalizing world of the 19th century in Chapter One, Alliances Between Nations. She shows that some of the factors that led to WWI in the late 1800s were the unification of Germany, making it a stronger, more powerful country; new and better advanced military technologies and the itch to test them out; disenfranchised groups, such as workers and women, organizing, making them a strong enough force to throw the balance of power off in many countries; the rise of nationalist groups; and the economics of the Industrial Revolution that helped the rich grow richer, and the poor remain poor. 

Chapter Two, The Dominoes Fall, looks at impact the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajo by a Bosnian Serb political activist had on the already strained relationship between the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and Serbia. Feeling that Serbia needed to be put in its place, Franz Joseph, the reigning monarch of Austria-Hungary, issued an ultimatum to Serbia - aside from taking responsibility for its terrorist activity and issuing an apology, Serbia would agree to be annexed by Austria-Hungary. The ultimatum already had the support of Germany, and both empires knew that Britain, France and Russia would never support it. And they were right - Knutson shows quite clearly how quickly Europe mobilized and sides were taken.

In Chapter Three, All's Not Quiet on the Western Front, Knutson explores the war beginning with the invasion of Belgium by Germany's powerful military with the intention of using Belgium as a way in to conquer France. The fighting was brutal and bloody, even with the help of the British. Soldiers dug deep  trenches across No Man's Land from each other, and though the war didn't end by Christmas, it was the year of the famous Christmas Truce. 

Chapter Four, Old Strategies, New Tech, Knutson shows that despite all kinds of new weapons, that from 1915 to 1917, neither side on the Western Front made any real advances since both sides had these new, powerful weapons. It was a war the introduced air power, U-boats, and tanks, but also a poison gas that not only destroyed the enemy, but settled in the land and water making them lethal. Gas masks were developed for protection but the gas lingered in the air. Armored vehicles, or tanks, were also developed to enable crossing No Man's Land areas. And U-boats were used for torpedoing ships carrying supplies. 

While the war raged on the Western Front, Chapter Five looks at The Eastern Front and Revolution in Russia. Russia may have been part of the Allied forces, but as Knutson shows, they left a trail of starvation, death and destruction as they advanced. Russian troops were particularly brutal towards Jewish residents wherever they went, believing that Jews were "to blame for the wrongs of the world." (pg. 79) Additionally, the Ottoman Empire, which had never trusted Armenian Christians, claimed they were to blame for losses during the winter of 1914-1915. Arrests and executions of intellectuals and community leaders began, and later women, children and the elderly were forced to relocate in the Syrian desert, resulting in the deaths of thousands. Then, Knutson describes how, in 1917, Russian revolutionaries fed up with the Tsar and the war began protesting aided by former soldiers who were now police officers. Once the Tsar's rule was toppled, a provisional government was set up, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the Bolshevik revolutionaries refused to continue taking part in the war. 

Chapter Six, Neutral No Longer, looks at the United States participation in WWI. Up until 1917, the US had remained neutral, though they did send supplies to the Allied countries. What happened that cause America to finally enter the war? According to Knutson, the US had a policy of staying out of European politics since George Washington's farewell address. Because of that, it didn't maintain a strong military and was not prepared for war. But in 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk the passenger ship the RMS Lusitania, and by 1917, Germany let the world know that from now on merchant and passenger vessels were fair game. This was followed by the Zimmermann telegram, sent from Germany to Mexico and promising that if the US entered the war, and Mexico sided with Germany, they would help Mexico recover lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Now, many Americans wanted the US to enter the war, but as it shown, not all of them.

Chapter Seven, A Fragile Peace, focuses on how peace was finally brokered and what that meant after everyone stopped fighting. An accounting shows that the number of human lives lost because of this war was staggering and not always on the battlefield. But, as is also shown, the war changed "the economic and social character of the world." (pg 115) The dollar became the new global currency, women received the vote, but African American soldiers were welcomed home with increased violence from whites who were afraid they would claim rights and take jobs away. And sadly, peace wasn't to last before the world found itself at war again.

Overall, Knutson has shown how World War I had a far reaching impact of the world in general and individuals on every continent in ways that make this complicated war really understandable for young scholars.   

Like the previous books in this Inquire & Investigate series, this is an interactive text that invites readers to dig deeper into each aspect covered to really understand what the war was like for those who experienced it. Along with photographs and maps, each chapter has sidebars with additional information and vocabulary labs, key question, and prompts for more exploration. There are also pages with projects about different aspects of the war to inquire about and investigate: 
In addition to the projects found within the chapters, the is a timeline and map in the front matter and an extensive Glossary, a list of Books and Websites for further exploration, a Selected Bibliography and a QR Code Glossary. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Lines of Courage by Jennifer A. Nielsen

It should have been an exciting visit to Sarajevo with his father, but
instead Felix Baum, a 12-year old Jewish boy, witnesses the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, and feels he is a coward for not warning anyone when he saw the assassin with a hand grenade. Returning home, the Baums are visited by Major Dressler and his daughter Elsa from Germany, who gives Felix the gift of a carrier pigeon . War is soon declared, and Felix's father is called up. Learning that the Russians are coming, Felix and his mother try to leave Lemberg, but instead run into the cruel Russian Captain Garinov. Felix manages to irritate Garinov and pays dearly for it. Luckily, Elsa and her mother rescue Felix and his mother, enabling them to escape to Vienna.

Kara Webb, 13 almost 14, wants to be a Red Cross nurse more than anything, just like her mother. Allowed to accompany her mother on the Red Cross Ambulance train traveling throughout France picking up the wounded at Casualty Clearing Stations, Kara may only act as an orderly, never leaving the train. When the Germans begin using poison gas, the number of wounded increase, then the rail line are destroyed, so everyone has help carry soldiers from the battlefield to the train. When an orderly is injured, Kara is finally allowed to help. But when she rescues and hides an injured enemy soldier named Baum, she is no longer allowed to do anymore work on the train, even after Sergeant Baum leaves. Reaching Verdun around Christmas, Kara meets Juliette Caron, selling items to get money for her family to bribe a German guard to get her father out of their prison. Kara buys a bright red hat, but gives it right back to Juliette.  

Juliette and her family try to leave Verdun, but are soon caught by the Germans. Juliette manages to hide in the woods, but the Germans set up camp so close she can't run away without being seen. After falling asleep, she wakes up on Kara's Red Cross train, but now she doesn't know where her mother and two younger brothers are. After two months, Juliette leaves the train, searching for her family and hoping to free her father. In Lille, she runs into an old friend, Monique, who brings her home, but double crosses Juliette, taking her money. Then, the girls are captured by Germans and taken to a farm to work. Monique does help Juliette escape the farm, but then she runs into Major Dressler, who knows and admires her father. Dressler lets her go instead of sending her back to the farm, and she finds herself back on the ambulance train with Kara. Two months later, Juliette is on the road again, looking for her family when she sees an injured young boy and rescues him, bringing him to the cave she has found shelter in. 

The boy's name is Dimitri Petrenko, 14, and he's been serving in the war under Captain Garinov, now a Bolshevik who intensely dislikes him for supporting the Tsar. Garinov sends him into no man's land to get a rifle, where he is knocked unconscious and left for dead. After Juliette nurses him back to health, he returns to his unit, knowing what he now wants is freedom. But as soon as Garinov sees him, he orders Dimitri to lead a charge, one that costs him dearly. When news of the Russian Revolution reaches the trenches. Garinov refuses to fight anymore, wanting to return to Russia. After Garinov's mutiny, Dimitri finds himself fighting with the French in Belgium, where he is taken prisoner by the Germans. Taken to Major Dressler's home to work in Freiburg, Dimitri runs into Captain Garinov, also a prisoner. When Garinov finds an old medal in Dimitri's pocket, he tries to get him in trouble, but Elsa Dressler recognizes the medal as belonging to Felix's family. Convinced he didn't steal it, Major Dressler arranges for Dimitri to be driven to the French border and released. Meanwhile, Garinov has stolen a horse from Dressler and run away. 

The medal that is found on Dimitri is a red thread running through this story and connecting each of the main characters to each other. Felix refused the medal when his father offered it to him. Sergeant Baum had taken it with him to war as a reminder of his own father's courage. He had given it to  Kara, who gave it to Juliette. Later, Juliette gave it to Dimitri and Elsa had recognized it. 

The novel begins in 1914, with the assassination of the Archduke and goes through to November 11, 1918, the end of the war. It is a well-researched work and includes information I did not know, for example, the Red Cross Ambulance Train.

But...
I've always enjoyed Jennifer Nielsen's historical fiction for young readers, but I'm sorry to say, for me, this is not one of her best books. Writing a story about five very different characters from different countries who are connected to one another and including Dressler and Garinov in the mix is hard to do because so much much depends on coincidences not found in reality. And the novel is so filled with coincidences plus the improbability of its five characters running into each other the way they do was just too hard for me to believe. Nielsen does include some interesting WWI history in the story and in her Author's Note, but the multiple story lines overwhelmed me. I felt like she had five short stories and decided to turn it into a novel by knitting them together using a medal from an earlier Austrian conflict, but it just didn't work for me.

I think that given what is going on in Ukraine right now, this would be an interesting novel for anyone interested in history and especially WWI as long as the coincidences doesn't bother them. It is of note that so many young teens were asked to do the job of adults in this war. I can't imagine sending 14-year-olds to war, but I know it could happen again. 

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and Scholastic Press for providing me with a digital review copy of this novel.

Monday, June 6, 2022

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv by Erin Litteken

If you have been following the invasion of Ukraine by Putin's Russian army, you may find this to be a very interesting and compelling story, even though the events take place in 1930s Ukraine. The story introduces readers to Katya in 1929, 15 and surrounded by a loving family, and a future husband name Pavlo she is passionately in love with, and a table filled with an abundance of wonderful Ukrainian food, breads (Ukraine is, after all, the breadbasket of Europe). and delicacies. 

Six months later, in January 1930, Joseph Stalin begins his invasion of Ukraine, which was already part of the Soviet Union, but his goal is to get rid of the Ukrainians by starving them to death. Stalin's activists encourage the people to join them and become part of their collective farming scheme, but Katya's family resists. Those not joining the collective have high taxes inflicted on them, then their food, farming equipment, and farm animals are taken in lieu of the tax money the Russians know they don't have. The resisters begin to disappear. As things become worse, Katya's father is arrested. And it is decided she will marry Pavlo, and her sister Alina will marry his brother Kolya. But when Pavlo hears that a resistance movement is being put together in the next village, he decides he must go and fight.

Flash forward seventy years to Illinois. Cassie, a widow who lost her husband a year earlier in a car accident while take their daughter out for ice cream, has all but withdrawn from life. But then her mother convinces her to move in with her Ukrainian grandmother, whom she calls Bobby, because of her age and her recent odd behavior. Cassie hears her taking to herself, and then begins to find food hidden all around the house and yard. She also finds a diary her grandmother has been writing in, but it is in Ukrainian. Luckily, there is an unattached, handsome man named Nick living down the street who is friends with her grandmother and who knows Ukrainian. Eventually, her grandmother decides that her story needs to be told and gives Cassie permission to work on it with Nick. 

Ultimately, the two stories, told in alternating chapters, come together, and I don't think you will be very surprised to hear that Katya and Bobby are the same person. If I sound like I am making light of this novel, I am not, I just don't want to give too much away, and there is a lot going on. I found myself so drawn to young Katya's story, but some of the details were really difficult to read. I knew that Stalin was cruel, but I didn't know that he had committed genocide through starvation in Ukraine (the Ukrainian word for this is the Holodomor). I felt exactly like Cassie when she learned what her grandmother had survived "How did I not know about this?" And it certainly compelled me to do some research of my own to find out more about the Holodomor.

On the other hand, I have to be honest and say I wasn't particularly interested in Cassie's story. As soon as I read about Nick, I knew where things where going to go. So yeah, that part was predictable. But she was a good vehicle for adding more information about Bobby into the story. Trauma just doesn't go away and Bobby's life after she left Ukraine up to the present needed to be included.

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv is a book that I definitely recommend and I believe it will appeal to history geeks like myself, to anyone who have been following events in present day Ukraine, and there is even enough romance for fans of that genre.

Thank you, NetGalley and Boldwood Books for granting me a review copy of this book. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Just a Girl: A True Story of World War II by Lia Levi, pictures by Jess Mason, translated from the Italian by Sylvia Notini

Born in 1931 in Turin, Italy, Lia lived a pretty comfortable life with her parents, younger  sisters Gabriella and Vera, and Maria, their nanny. Lia was a shy girl so when Mussolini declared that Jewish children could no longer attend Italian schools, she is quite happy. That is, until she finds out that she would be attending a Jewish school. It isn't long before Lia's father loses his job because he is Jewish and the family is forced to live on their savings. 

When war is declared by Germany, Italy joins with Hitler and goes to war also. Within three hours of declaring war, French planes are dropping bombs in Turin. When Lia is in third grade, the family savings run out, and her Papa needs to find a job, but no one is allowed to hire Jews. The family decides to move to Milan, but when a promised job for Papa falls through, they are on the move again. This time, they are off to Rome.

Lia and her sisters have a grandmother who isn't Jewish and their first summer living in Rome, they are sent to stay with her during their summer vacation for three months. But the following summer, the war is getting closer to Rome, with the Americans landing in Sicily. And one night, they wake up to learn that Mussolini is no longer Italy's prime minister. Which should have been good news for Italy's Jews, except the Germans moved in and occupied the country. And where the Italians weren't always so good about enforcing Mussolini's laws, the Germans are quick to enforce Hitler's. 

Lia's parents decide to send her and her sisters to  live in a Catholic boarding school for safety's sake. By now, Lia is in her second year of middle school. She is given a false last name, Lenti instead of Levi, and must learn Catholic prayers. Then, in October, Lia's mother shows up at the school. She tells them that the Germans raided the Jewish quarter in Rome and took everyone away, but she doesn't know where her husband is. Luckily, they are all able to spend the rest of the war living at the boarding school.

This memoir, translated from the Italian by Sylvia Notini, is told in simple language though the deprivations, fears and anxieties the family experienced are made very clear. Graphic details are not included, and has caused one of my colleagues to complain that she felt it diminished the Holocaust. I don't agree. It is a unique story, but it is one person's actual experience and until Mussolini was removed from office, things were not as bad for Italian Jews as for Jews in Nazi occupied countries. 

I did like reading Lia Levi's recollections about living through the war. I thought she included a lot of small, but interesting details about what life was like for her family which are parts of history the books don't always tell you about. And Levi used two voices to tell her story - one is the first person account of young Lia and the other is the first person memories of the older Lia giving more information that the younger Lia wouldn't have known, but which helps readers to understand what was happening. My only complaint is that the timing was hard to follow. There aren't many dates mentioned and a timeline would have been very welcome. 

This is a poignant narrative, full of love, laugher, sadness, and loss, but an ideal way to introduce the Holocaust to young readers. And, right now, I think these stories need to be told and read.

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