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