Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon

I absolutely loved reading Timothée de Fombelle's two historical fiction novels, Vango: Between Earth and Sky and Vango: A Prince Without a Kingdom, so when I saw that he had another new work I couldn't wait to read it, too. And it was, quite simply, wonderful.

de Fombelle has spun a mesmerizing tale that seamlessly weaves together the world of fairy tales and the real world over different time periods. He begins his tale, in this world, with a 14 year old unnamed, unreliable narrator, who heart has just been broken by a girl who once was a fairy, stumbling upon the house of a recluse named Joshua Pearl. Inside the house, the narrator discovers hundreds of suitcases collected by Joshua Illiån Pearl. Asked what is in the suitcases, all the narrator is told is that they contain things needed for him to return to where he came from.

Who is Joshua Pearl and where did he come from? The narrator writes "the only thing I'm sure about are these first words: "Once upon a time." A young boy standing outside a marshmallow shop in Paris in 1936 is taken in by a man and his wife, owners of Maison Pearl, a couple whose son, Joshua, had died two years earlier. Not knowing how he ended up at the shop and with only bits of memory from his past life, the boy stays with the couple, who treat him like their own son. During Christmas, 1938, the boy found his first link to where he came from in a book of fairy tales that mysteriously appeared in the the kitchen of Maison Pearl while he was cleaning up. He knew then that he had to leave to find his way back to where he came from.

Meanwhile, fascism is on the march in Europe, and when war breaks out, the boy secretly enlists in the army under the name of Joshua Pearl. In June 1941, Joshua and a companion are captured by the Germans and sent to a prison camp in Westphalia, but not before telling his companion the truth about himself. In the camp, Joshua discovers a man wearing a mermaid's scale around his neck, a second link to his former life. Eventually escaping the stalag with the mermaid's scale, Joshua ends up fighting in the resistance. There, his captain tells him that the war will stop only when the world is really to believe, but they are not ready yet, so they must have tokens of proof about what is happening.

It is these words and having already acquired the Mermaid's Scale that sets Joshua Pearl on the quest of collecting tokens of proof that will take him back to the Kingdoms, back to where he came from.

In between the tale of Joshua Pearl, whose real name is Illiån, the reader also learns the story of Oliå, the fairy that Illiån loves and wants to return to, not knowing that she had given up her powers as a fairy to be near him in the real world. But before she did that, she was cursed and told that the moment he looked at her, she would disappear forever, she could only see him from a distance. Despite their love, they could never be together.

As for Illiån, before he became Joshua Pearl, he was the younger brother to Iån, who seized power to rule over the Kingdoms from his father, the King, at age 13, with the help of Taåg, an old genie, and Iån's godfather and adviser. Iån orders that Illiån be killed because he has also fallen in love with Oliå. But Taåg disobeys Iån and banishes Illiån to a far away world from which there is no return.

Or isn't there.

Three intertwined stories lines over three time frames makes for a difficult novel to review without spoilers, though I've tried not to include any. If I have, I apologize in advance. I know this sounds like such a complicated novel, but it is a such skillfully and meticulously crafted, that the readers goes from story to story, time period to time period without getting confused. Not that it is a flawless work, but the flaws and holes in the plot are minor enough that they don't take away from the story at all.

Each character is well defined, and each world is totally imaginable. At times, de Fombelle keeps the reader in such suspense about what will happen next, it is hard to put down. I began reading this on the train from NYC to Washington DC, and I could have ridden for as long as it took me to finish in one sitting (alas, that didn't happen and I had a busy few days ahead of me with not much reading time).

In the end, it is that 14 year old boy, now a man with a wife and family of his own, who goes back to that house of the reclusive Joshua Illiån Pearl, and who ultimately writes this story using those precious tokens of proof.

The Book of Pearl does an absolutely brilliant job of asking the reader to consider this: do we create stories or do stories create us, or perhaps, is it a combination of both.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Promise by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabella Cardinal

On the night that the Nazis took all the adults in their town away, sisters Rachel and Toby are separated from their parents but not before they are given a shoe paste tin with three gold coins in it. Not knowing what is going to happen to them, they are told to use the coins only if they have to, that they would know when the time was right. And most importantly, they must promise to try to always stay together.

Two years later, the sisters are now in Barrack 25 in Auschwitz, along with many other Jewish girls. Every other day, the girls build a wall of heavy fieldstone, and then, they tear it down only to begin again. When a girl gets sick, she is taken to the hospital and never seen again. Everyone in the barrack knows what has happened to her and do their best not to get sick, despite insufficient clothing, food, and bedding in bad weather.

When Rachel becomes ill, there is nothing Toby can do to prevent her from being taken to the hospital while she is working. Discovering Rachel gone when she returns, Toby knows she needs to do something quickly, or she will never see her sister again. Is this the right time to use the gold coins her parents gave them?

Using her wits, some clever planning, some luck, and the gold coins, Toby manages to get Rachel out of the hospital and back to the barrack. But the next day at roll call, she pays dearly for what she has done when the guard sees Rachel on line but not in her roll book. The guard whips Toby on her back with the leash of her dog, but she didn't send Rachel back to the hospital. Both sisters survive the war and walk out of Auschwitz together.

The Promise is a compelling and inspirational picture book for older readers about the importance of keeping promises, of family, and of the strength of sisterly love, particularly under the kinds of circumstances Toby and Rachel found themselves in trying to survive Auschwitz. And although it is a fictionalized biography, it is based on the real life experiences of sisters Toby, mother of author Margie Wolfe, and Rachel, mother of author Pnina Bat Zvi.

Photos of Toby and Rachel
The illustrations by Isabella Cardinal are done in a mixed-media of collage and photos together with textural drawings and finished in Photoshop, and really capture the emotions that sisters were feeling, and the anger and hate the guards had for them. The Holocaust was a very dark time in history and the illustrations aptly reflect that.

Holocaust picture books are always a difficult subject for young readers - how much graphic description to include. If too much is included there's the risk that the young reader will be so traumatized by what they read, that they never want to read about the Holocaust again. And although Toby and Rachel, like everyone in a Nazi concentration camp, faced beatings, brutality, starvation, and death everyday, Wolfe and her cousin Bat Zvi have managed to find a balance between the mistreatment and the love and resilience that kept these two sisters fighting for their lives.

The Promise is an important addition to the literature of the Holocaust, especially as it recedes into history. Keeping the Shoah alive by remembering it is so important now.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

You can read in interesting interview with authors Margie Wolfe and Pnina Bat Zvi and illustrator Isabella Cardinal HERE

Monday, May 7, 2018

The War Below by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

The novel Making Bombs for Hitler is the story of Lida Ferezuk, who was taken from her home in the Ukraine, put in a cattle car and sent to a slave labor camp, where she eventually ended up making bombs for the Nazis. In that same cattle car was Luka Barukovich, also taken from his home in Kyiv, Ukraine. Lida and Luka become friends and watch out for each other in the slave labor camp, but when the opportunity for escape arises, Luka decides to risk it at Lida's urging.

The War Below begins in 1943 with Luka hiding in a truckload of corpses, hoping to escape the camp, return to his home in Kyiv and find his father, who had been taken away by the Nazis and sent to Siberia. Now, wounded, wearing a hospital gown and bare foot, Luka jumps from the truck about two kilometers from the camp, in the rain, and finds his way to what appears to be an abandoned farm. The farm, however, is the home of Helmut and Margarete, an elderly couple who feed and clothe Luka, and urge him to remain with them until spring. But when he discovers that their son is a power-hungry officer from the camp he has just escaped, Luka decides it is time to leave.

By now, the Nazis are losing the war, and there is constant bombing around Luka by the British and Americans. Sticking to wooded areas, Luka meets Martina Chalupa, a girl who has been living and surviving in the woods for a while. The two decide to continue on together, and between Luka's knowledge of natural medicines and remedies (thanks to his pharmacist father) and Martina's survival skills, the two do well together.

Eventually, Luka and Martina run into members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an underground (literally) resistance group. Both Luka and Martina decide to stay and fight with the resistance, Luka as a medical helper and Martina as a soldier. Luka stays with the resistance until the end of the war in 1945, when he is told to head west rather than east. Stalin has decided that if Russians and Ukrainians were captured by the Nazis, put to work and survived, they are traitors to the Soviet Union and are put to death.

Eventually, Luka makes his way to a displaced persons camp, where he begins searching for  his mother and his friend Lida, in the hope that they both survived the war. Eventually reunited with Lida in the DP camp, he is lured away again with the promise that his father has been found and is living in Kyiv. Anxious to see him, Luka boards a truck with other Ukrainians returning home. It very shortly turns out that they have been duped by NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and the plan is to kill them as traitors. But if you have read Making Bombs for Hitler, you pretty much know how Luka's story does not end on that truck.

The War Below, originally published under the name Underground Soldier, is every bit as solid a novel as Making Bombs for Hitler. Both books have been reissued, and they are part of a trilogy. The third book, called Stolen Child, is the story of what happens to Lida's younger sister Larissa, and, I am sorry to say, it is the only one I haven't read yet, but I am hoping it will be reissued as well.

Luka is a strong, resourceful, compassionate character, though he is also racked with guilt at not being able to save his friend David, killed in the Nazi massacre of Babi Yar in 1941, and at leaving Lida behind when he escaped the labor camp, and at not being able to help Martina more. Skrypuch very cleverly incorporates background information about what Luka experienced in Kyiv when the Nazis arrived, so that the reader really understands what is going on for him.

When I wrote about Making Bombs for Hitler, I said it was a real eye-opener for me in terms of what went on in the Nazi slave labor camps. I had the same reaction with The War Below. I haven't really read much about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), and how they operated and found it fascinating. Yes, I've written about other resistance groups, but I find they are all unique (see Uncle Misha's Partisans by Yuri Suhl, also about the Ukrainian resistance)

The novel is narrated in the first person by Luka, and it is a captivating novel. From the moment I began reading, I couldn't put it down. And, although there is a lot of overlap with Making Bombs for Hitler, repeating information you might already know, it really doesn't take away from the story at all, but also means this can be read as a stand alone novel.

Skypuch is not afraid to confront and interrogate the cruelties of the Soviet and Nazi regimes, and I again feel that I should warn readers that there are some graphic descriptions that might not be suitable for some sensitive readers. But, I also have to say that the overall story is one that shouldn't be missed, mostly because the Eastern Front is not one most of us are terribly familiar with, though that is beginning to change.

Be sure to read the Author's Note at the back of the book, and you might also find the brief description of the certain historical events included in The War Below to be helpful.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book is an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

To Die But Once (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #14) by Jacqueline Winspear

It's May 1940 and, while Britain is at war with Germany, nothing much has happened so far on the home front, except lots of talk about the possibility of England being invaded, and continued preparations for the war. But now that the so-called phony war has ended, things are heating up.

For 15 year-old Joe Coombes, already an apprentice for Yates and Sons, painters and decorators, it now means a job painting the buildings at every RAF airfield in the country with a special new fire-retardant paint. But the vapors from the paint give Joe headaches, and when he is found dead from an apparent fall, it's all chalked up to being a suicide rather than the fatal blow on the head he received from the two men following him as Joe was out walking one night (NOT a spoiler - it happens in the Prologue).

Joe's parents, owners of a local pub, ask Maisie to investigate what happened to their son, and Maisie readily accepts, having watched all the Coombes children, Joe, Archie, and Vivian, grow up in their close-knit family. The family has always been well provided for, but now, with the war finally beginning to heat up, Maisie notices that both Archie and Vivian are living better than most people, always wearing fashionable clothing, having nice living conditions, and even smoking expensive cigarettes from packs of 20 instead of cheap Woodbines, "sold by the one's and two's" and not even bothering to finish them.

Luckily, Maisie still has gas coupons, so she drives several times down to Hampshire with her assistant Billy Beale, the last known area Joe had worked in, and begins questioning everyone who had contact with Joe, including his fellow workers, his landlady and the air force. Everyone liked Joe, but no one can help much. And Maisie notices that she is now being followed by a car with darkened windows, all the way back to London.

Meanwhile, Maisie's best friend Priscilla Partridge has been having a problem with her middle son, Tim, ever since his older brother joined the RAF. Tim also wants to be involved in doing work for the war effort, but is still too young. She asks Maisie is Tim might visit Chelstone, Maisie's country home inherited from her deceased husband. The hope is that Maisie can talk to him, her father will keep him busy with farm chores, and her young evacuee Anna, 5, will be thrilled to have him there as she recovers from measles. 

The war in Europe isn't going well for the British and French, and they soon learn that the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) are being driven to the coast of Dunkirk by the German Army and are basically sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe. But when a call goes out for any craft that can cross the English Channel in an attempt to rescue the stranded soldiers, Tim and his friend Gordon Sanderson suddenly go missing as does one of Mr. Sanderson's boats.

As if the death of Joe Coombes and the possibility that Tim went to Dunkirk as part of the rescue flotilla isn't enough, Maisie has also decided to begin looking into the possibility of adopting Anna, though things don't look good for her as a single woman. 

And just how does that nice man living in the same building as Maisie's office fit into the plot?

I really enjoyed this Maisie Dobbs mystery. There is lots of interesting every day information about life on the home front included as the Germans get closer and closer to the English Channel and the possibility of invasion become real. Invasion was something people really worried about during WWII, with good reason, considering the number of countries Hitler had already invaded. On top of that, there is worry about the sons who have already enlisted and are fighting in France - Billy's son Billy Jr. in the army, Tom Partridge flying in the RAF, both boys Maisie is quite fond of.

I found the mystery interesting and there were quite a few surprises I don't see coming - which I like in novel. And the subplot of the missing Tim allows Winspear to include a lot of information about events in the spring of 1940, just before the Battle of Britain began.

And as much as I loved reading the three Maisie Dobbs novels that take place just before and during WWII, and plan to read any future mysteries of hers in this time period, this novel made me realize that I don't much care for Maisie's character. I find she is too perfect and that she has too much of a flat affect - she never gets angry, or has a good laugh, or a good cry. Sometimes, when she thinks about her late husband and the child she lost, there is a sense of tearless sadness, or when she is with Anna a kind of motherliness about her, but even at that, I don't get a feeling of warmth. Odd that, to like the books in a series so much, but not the main character. Even odder, it doesn't spoil the novels for me at all.

What I did find interesting, and you may as well, is that the the story of young Joe Coombes is based in part on Winspear's father's WWII experiences as an apprentice painting building at military airfields with a new fire retardant emulsion. You can read what Winspear writes about this on her website HERE.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did, and I can't wait to see what Maisie's next novel will bring.

This book is recommend for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from EdelweissPlus

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Interview with Kirby Larson, author of Code Word Courage (Book 4 of Dogs of World War II)

It's September 1944 and fifth grader Billie Packer is anxiously awaiting her big brother Leo's visit, the first one since he joined the Marines. There's so much she wants to talk to him about, like how to get Hazel to be her best friend again. But when Leo arrives, much to Billie's disappointment, he isn't alone, he's brought his buddy Denny, a Navaho, and an injured dog they found near the highway. It doesn't take long for Billie to get friendly with Denny, and to fall the dog, that Denny had named Bear. 

Before Denny leaves, he tells Billie that he thinks Bear's purpose is to help her find what she is looking for. Soon, Leo ships out to the Pacific, Denny is recruited as a Navaho code talker, and Billie's life settles into a routine of school, chores, taking care of Bear, and hanging out with Tito, a Mexican boy in her class. Although Billie has been bullied by two boys in her class, their real target is Tito. When the bullying gets ugly and something happens to Tito, Billie finally realizes what she has been looking for, thanks to Bear. And thanks to Bear, in the middle of a battle, Denny also learns what is important to him.  

Readers who have read any or all of the previous Dogs of War series, which includes Duke, Dash, and Liberty, will surely enjoy Code Name Courage. Readers new to this series will find that their is so much to learn about the home front in these novels. They are all so well-written, well-researched, and historically accurate. In the following interview, I asked Kirby Larson about her research, what inspires her and what she hopes readers will get from her books. 

Did you always want to be a writer?
Though I have always loved reading and writing, I never knew writing was a career option until college; and then, it was journalism, which became my major.
Kirby Larson

Were you always partial to historical fiction? Why?
When my daughter was in 6th grade, she introduced me to the historical fiction of Karen Cushman (Catherine, Called Birdy) and Jennifer Armstrong (the Mary Meahan series). I fell in love with those books, wishing such rich treatments of history had been available when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I heard a snippet of my own family history, however, that I was drawn to writing historical fiction. That first foray turned out to be Hattie Big Sky and I haven’t looked back since.

Can you tell us something about your research process for your historical fiction novels?

Oh dear. What don’t I do during the research process?! I read every single first- hand account/primary document I can get my hands on, including recipes! I interview experts, and those who have lived through the time periods/experiences I’m writing about. For example, for Dash, I spoke to women who had been incarcerated in war relocation camps during WWII. And for my latest book, Code Word Courage, I read every Navajo Code Talker memoir published. I also interviewed a Code Talker, as well as the son of a Code Talker. I read old newspapers, read books published during the time periods I’m writing about, collect old maps, train timetables – you name it. I do whatever I need to do to feel confident I can recreate a slice of the past for today’s young readers.

I wonder, what were some interesting or surprising things you discovered during the research process for Code Word Courage and the other Dogs of War novels?

There are so many surprises – I’ll share a few. I was astonished to realize that normal American families loaned their pets to Uncle Sam during WWII (Duke); I was amazed to learn that, despite being sent to horrible, barren places, the incarcerees of Japanese descent created beauty with scraps of lumber, or found shells or greasewood branches (Dash); I was astonished and humbled to discover that 400 Navajo men helped to create a code based on the language they once had been punished for speaking (Code Word Courage). 

Each of the Dogs of War stories feature a triangular relationship between a young person, their dog, and an older person. What inspired you decide to write a series of WWII stories where a dog is the catalyst for the strong bond that develops between the three of them?

The honest truth is that the first book written, Dash, (the second book published) was inspired by the love of one person for her dog. Once I had written that story, inspired by Mitsi Shiraishi, I knew each of the stories that followed would also involve a dog. It was one of those serendipitous gifts that writing can bestow.

In Code Word Courage, you tell both Billie and Denny’s stories in the first person. I can understand how you could write Billie’s story but I wonder what sources did you draw upon to get into the mind and heart of a Navaho Code Talker?


As I mentioned above, I read every single first-hand account, memoir, newspaper article, etc. to help me understand the factors that would have shaped the character I’m writing about. I also rely on my imagination and empathy to put myself in any character’s shoes. Though those who were part of WWII are diminishing in number, there are still a few veterans surviving. I was able to interview Dr. Roy O. Hawthorne, whose experiences as a Code Talker shaped the creation of Denny’s story. In addition, Michael Smith, son of Code Talker Samuel “Jesse” Smith Sr. read my manuscript for accuracy. 

I laughed when I read Hobie Hanson, the main character in Duke, wore PF Flyers (my own personal sneaker choice). All of your Dogs of War stories (in fact, all your historical fiction) have this kind of authenticity to them without overwhelming readers with too many normal, but accurate details about what life was like for kids on the home front. How do you know when you’ve included enough realistic details?  And how do you decide on what to include, considering most of today’s readers may not be familiar with many of them?


I am so lucky to have a terrific first reader, and a terrific editor who kindly but firmly tell me when I am shoehorning in too many of the great facts I’ve learned about a past time and place. If it were left to me, I would share EVERY fascinating detail I uncover. But then my stories would read like history books and that’s not what I’m trying to create. As for deciding what to include, I have tremendous respect for my readers who, even if they might not understand every detail in a book, are smart enough to figure out the essence of each story.

What do you hope today’s readers will take away from your WWII stories?

One of my goals as a writer is to leave room for my readers to take away from each story what they need to take away. That being said, I wouldn’t be disappointed if my readers felt inspired to be kinder and more tolerant after reading one of my books.

I have really enjoyed reading all four of the Dogs of War stories. Will there be any more Dogs of War books?
I have learned never to say never but, at this point, I am ready to step away from WWII for a time. I am working on a novel with a slightly older main character (16) set in pre-crash 1929. After that, who knows?!

One last question - do you have a favorite dog story not written by Kirby Larson?
Oh my goodness. Must I choose only one??? I can’t, so, here are a few: Love that Dog (Sharon Creech); How to Steal a Dog, and Wish (Barbara O’Connor); and Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate Di Camillo). Books about dogs I haven’t yet read but are on my nightstand: Chasing Augustus (Kimberly Newton Fusco); Good Dog (Dan Gemeinhart) and Following Baxter (Barbara Kerley). 

Thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about my passion – writing historical fiction for young readers. I am grateful for your interest.

Kirby

Thanks you, Kirby.