Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Night Witches: A Novel of World War II by Kathryn Lasky

It 1941, and the Nazi have just begun Operation Barbarossa, their invasion of Russia. Nazi soldier have surrounded Stalingrad on three sides (the fourth side is the Volga River), making it impossible for people and supplies to get in or out of the city. After her mother was killed by a Nazi sniper, Valentina Petrovna Baskova, or Valya, 16, sees no reason for not joining her sister Tatyana as a Night Witch, a fighter pilot with the 588th Regiment. Her father, a pilot, hasn't been heard from since he left to fight, and is MIA.

With the help of Yuri, an old classmate now turned Russian sniper, Valya sets off for the river where ferries are rumored to be taking people across in the morning. Unfortunately, so many people are fleeing Stalingrad, that Valya is unable to get on the ferry, and ends up unwillingly manning antiaircraft guns in Trench 301 run by another school friend, Anna.

Valya is stuck fighting in the Trench 301, always looking up into the night sky and wondering if one the Night Witches she sees could be her sister, making her long to be part of it all the more. But no one in the Trench 301 really believes a 16 year old can fly a plane. Finally, it is again rumored that civilians will be allowed to cross it. Valya makes it to the docks, but just as she is about to board, Yuri shows up and pulls her away, saving her life.

It's in the dead of winter that Valya finally makes it across the frozen river, escorted by Yuri, who seems to know exactly where the secreted 588th Regiment is located. At last, Valya makes it to Night Witches, and finds her sister Tatyana. And despite all she has already been through, her real adventure as a Night Witch has only just begun.

Night Witches is a pretty exciting, fast-paced story with perhaps a little poetic license.  Valya is a strong female main character, who exhibits plenty of level-headed self-confidence even in a dangerous situation, yet retains the impulsiveness of her age.  I have to admit, however, her jealousy and the way she constantly compared herself to her older sister annoyed me (um, too close to home, perhaps?). Still, the very strong bond between the sisters which becomes all the more evident when Tatyana's plane is shot down and Valya refuses to believe she could be dead and vows to find her.

The story of the Night Witches is not a familiar story to today's readers, and Lasky's book certainly has a great deal of appeal going for it. Since most WWII books for young readers focus on the home front, the war in European theater, and to a lesser extent, the war in the Pacific theater, Lasky has included some information as part of the narrative to give readers some sense of context. But, the use of female fighter pilots was such an unusual phenomenon in WWII, that I would have liked Back Matter with some addition information about the Night Witches and perhaps suggestions for further reading.  

While there is some strong language, and some of the fighting is a bit graphic, especially while Valya is fighting in Trench 301, it isn't overly done. My first introduction to Russia's women pilots was in an old book called Comrades of the Air (1942) by Dorothy Carter, a story about a female pilot in the ATA who ferries a plane to Russia, so it is nice to read a book from a Russian perspective.

Did you think that Valya was too young to fly? Here is an interesting article about Russia's Night Witches from The Atlantic magazine about the real women pilots who actually did range in age from 17 to 26.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline

Since Night Witches is a YA novel, may I recommend a work of nonfiction as a supplement to those interested in these brave pilots called Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia's Women Pilots in WWII by Bruce Myles and published by Chicago Review Press.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Bloodlines: Heart of War by M. Zachary Sherman

Bloodlines: Heart of War is the story of the Donovans, an American family, and consists of eight stories that cover four generations of that family as they serve in five different American wars.

Each story followers one family member at a particular time in the war they are fighting in, beginning with WWII and Private First Class Michael Donovan, a parachutist in the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment AKA Dog Company. Donovan parachutes behind enemy lines in France, in order to help secure a base of operations in preparation for the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. Of course, nothing is as easy as it sounds, and Donovan lands without his equipment bag, no weapon, and a German patrol passing by. And his story just gets scarier and more dangerous from there, but ultimately, courage and determination guide his actions to the end of the mission.

The second story is also set in WWII and is an exciting saboteur tale. Michael Donovan’s brother, First Lieutenant Aaron Donovan is part of the U.S. Army’s Office of Strategic Services. His mission is to board a German submarine located in Gilleleje, Denmark, sabotage it so that the Germans will have to evacuate the sub, and while that is happening, Donovan and his companion are to steal the new codebooks for decoding the latest Enigma codes. It’s a daring mission, not everything goes a planned, but again Donovan strength and courage win the day.

A third Donovan brother is a U.S. Marine Captain Everett Donovan during the Korean War. Captain Donovan finds himself the only survivor of…what? He couldn’t remember, but he can figure out that he is in North Korea and the temperature is 35° below zero. With the bayonet of a Korean sniper aimed at him, Donovan suddenly remembers his mission - he and his Counterintelligence Marines were supposed to scout the area known as Toktong Pass, making sure it is clear for U.S. and U.N. Forces to advance through in the morning. But this Korean sniper had a real surprise for Captain Donovan.

In this fourth story, we meet the Donovan brothers cousin, Private First Class Tony Donovan of the U.S. Army’s 249th Engineer Battalion, who is also stationed in Korea. When a C-119 cargo plane crashes behind enemy with Donovan and his men on it, they know they had to get out of that area and back to safety as quickly a possible. But first they had to try and repair a jeep they were carrying. And even at that, getting back to safety provea to be a dangerous trek, especially when a North Korean tank gets the jeep full of soldiers in it’s sights. How will they ever survive a hit from a tank?

Next is the story of Everett Donovan’s son, Lieutenant Verner Donovan, Everett’s son, a pilot in the VF-96 “Fighting Falcons” Squadron, part of the U.S. Navy. Verner, known as the “Candy Man” because of his fondness for chocolate, is stationed on a aircraft carrier in Vietnam. When he and his RIO (radio intercept officer) Blem receive a radio transmission from Marine recon unit Razor Two requesting air support after having stumbled into a Vietcong training camp, the two men spring into action. Locating the Marines, they soon discover they aren’t the only ones in the air - so are the enemy and the two men are forced to parachute out of the plane. Now, it is the Candy Man and Blem who need help. Will they make it out of the Vietcong jungle? 

Also in Vietnam is Captain Anne Donovan, a U.S. Army nurse, and Verner’s sister.  Finding herself in a M.A.S.H. unit, providing medical care to badly wounded and dying soldiers, Anne has something to prove - that she has what it takes to be a doctor some day. When she finds herself assisting a doctor during the Battle of Hamburger Hill, she learns the most valuable lesson of all - how to keep her emotions distanced from the carnage all around her in order to be strong for the soldiers who need her.

Lieutenant Commander Lester Donovan, Verner’s son and Anne’s nephew, is a U.S. Navy Seal stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Lester was a by-the-book officer, but the men he commanded wanted to see a little flexibility when needed. When the helicopter carrying Lester, his men and a Taliban prisoner is shot out of the sky, Donovan knows he has a difficult  choice to make - obey orders or defy them and search for his two missing men, taken prisoner by the Taliban and hidden in a dark cave. But which cave? There are so many used by the Taliban. 

This last story also features Lieutenant Commander Lester Donovan, now serving in Iraq. Based on information given to them by Iraqi Police Chief Hakedam, a supporter of Saddam Hussein’s old ruling party, Donovan, two of his men and a CIA agent hope to capture a black marketer and terrorist, Abdul Kasieem, whose stronghold is camouflaged as a goat farm near the Syrian border, and which contains an underground bunker loaded with weapons. But has the Police Chief played the Americans so that they would get rid of Kasieem and he, Hakedam, could be the only black marketer in town? 

Bloodlines: Hear of War is a very well-done collection of short stories for middle grade readers, many of who really like these types of military tales. There are lots of details about the conflicts that the Donovans find themselves fighting in, but they are not terribly graphic, though they are realistic. And even though I’m not a fan of combat stories, I did find them somewhat interesting. I like the way the author connected the family to each other in the stories. I know there are lots of military families like the Donovans, who will also find this and interesting book. 

There not much background as to what each war is about within the stories, however, there is a brief description of each of these U.S. Military Conflicts at the back of the book. I would have liked to see suggestions for further reading as well, but I did read an ARC so many the finished book has these things. Maybe kids who read and enjoy Bloodlines: Heart of War will be inspired to seek out more information about each conflict on their own.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Genevieve's War by Patricia Reilly Giff

French American Genevieve Michel, 13, and her older brother André have been spending the summer of 1939 visiting their rather cold, judgmental grandmother, Mémé, helping out on her farm in Alsace, close to the Germany border.

Now, at the end of summer, André has already returned to the States and Genevieve is set to leave on Normandie, on what may well have been the last passenger ship leaving France before the expected invasion of France by Germany. But at the last minute, Genevieve decides to remain with her grandmother. In September, war is declared, and in June, the Germans do indeed invade France.

Suddenly, everything changes. The are German soldiers everywhere and everyone’s farm animals and food supplies are confiscated. Luckily, Mémé has a secret pantry where she and Genevieve move most of their jars of food. The teacher at school is replaced by a new Nazi teachers, and the French names of the students are changed to German names (Genevieve becomes Gerta), and French is outlawed, only German may be spoken at all times, French books are publicly burned, and a German officer is billeted on the farm, enjoying what little food there is, and complaining about the scarce heat.

Genevieve believes her brother has safely returned to the United States, but when she notices a sweater of his at the village book shop, she becomes suspicious of the owner, Monsieur Philippe, and decides he is not to be trusted, even though Mémé tells her she is wrong. But when the train station is sabotaged, and Genevieve learns that Rémy, a boy she likes very much, is a Resistance fighter and missing since the station was blown up, she has to turn to the bookseller for help. Can she really trust him?

Soon, she finds herself hiding Rémy from the Nazis in Mémé attic. Genevieve and even her grandmother becomes part of the local Resistance, doing what they can. Mémé has always told her granddaughter not to trust anyone, not even her best friend Katrin, but Genevieve’s a naïve, impulsive girl who always thinks she knows better. And Genevieve has to learn the hard way that people are often not who they seem to be, and friends may betray friends, while perceived enemies may turn out to be friends after all.

Until now, I have only read two of Giff’s WWII books, both of which take place on the home front, so this was a change for me. But just as she did in Willow Run and Gingersnap, Giff managed captured what life was life - this time in an occupied country. All the realities of war are there: the constant fear, the constant hunger, the winter cold, the always present mistrust, and especially the presence of an enemy who will not hesitate to use their force or weapons to get what they want. And although Genevieve constantly thinks about what life would be like in Springfield Gardens, Queens if she had gone home, but to her credit, she never regrets her choice to stay with her grandmother in Alsace.

Genevieve's War is told in the first person, narrated by Genevieve so everything is filtered through her experiences. I especially liked seeing her opinion with her grandmother changed over time, as well as how Mémé's judgement of her granddaughter changed. Over the course of the war, Genevieve transforms into a capable, thoughtful young woman who comes to appreciate her grandmother, learns about her deceased father whom she never knew, and discovers a love for farm life. 

Genevieve's War is a thought-provoking novel that explores the themes of courage, defiance, and loyalty in times of peril that still manages to carry a note of hope throughout.

An Educator's Guide for Genevieve's War is available to download from the publisher, Holiday House.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! The Pigeon Who Save the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Robert MacKenzie

During World War I, carrier pigeons were frequently used by the army to deliver important messages because of their innate ability to find their way home, even if it means flying over ground combat and going great distances. For one lost battalion, it was a matter of life and death.

In 1918, a battalion of the US infantry was fighting in France, surrounded by the enemy, when their radio communications went out. No one knew where these soldiers were located to send help and rescue them. There was only one chance to save themselves - send a message back home, attached to the leg of their last carrier pigeon, Cher Ami.

Flying through gun fire aimed at him by a German soldier, Cher Ami managed to avoid being hit and kept flying. Even when the Germans send a hawk after the pigeon, he managed to fly at the sun and blind the hawk just before it could sink its talons into the pigeon.

Arriving at the army's base in England, Cher Ami delivers his message, and as the army prepared to rescue their fellow soldiers, Cher Ami found his nice comfortable nest for a hard earned rest and a job well done.
The message Cher Ami carried that saved the Lost Battalion
There are lots of versions of Cher Ami's story out there, but this one is aimed at young readers who probably don't know a lot about war in general, and WWI in particular. And it really doesn't give much information about war, nor is much needed. What this book does do is give kids a nice, age appropriate fiction biography of one famous heroic carrier pigeon and highlights the importance of the role they played for helping soldiers in dangerous situations (although they did more than what this story shows).

Burleigh doesn't give details about the battle that the battalion was involved in, not does he give names to any of the soldiers. This is definitely Cher Ami's story. Cher Ami's tale is complimented by the realistic illustrations of Robert MacKenzie, which are done in a palette of mainly browns and burnt oranges for the battlefield and dull smoky blue for the sky, presumable from all the weapons being shot.

I do have one problem with this fictional bio. We see Cher Ami being shot at, but the reader is not told that he is hurt. Cher Ami was actually seriously wounded on this trip, which proved to be his last. He didn't die, but one of his legs was badly hurt, so doctors fashioned him a wooden prosthetic leg to replace the injured leg. I would have like to see this within the story, not pushed in an Afterword at the end of the book.

As a book about carrier pigeons and what they are capable of, Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! would be an excellent teaching tool. It would also be useful as part of a WWI unit, but not as a primary resource.

A Cher Ami Coloring Book is available to download for free at the Home of Heroes, where you can also read more about the Lost Battalion of WWI

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnam Boy's Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, art by Brian Deines

The plight of refugees have been in the news a lot these days because of the war in Syria. As more and more borders are closed to them, it might be a good time to remember another group of refugees who arrived on North America's shores and have contributed so much to their adopted country.

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, and the communist government took over South Vietnam, daily life became so difficult and unbearable that families were willing to risk escaping their country in rickety boats not made for long sea voyages. But these boats were the only way out, unless you were rich.

In the Ho family, six year-old Tuan's father and older sister Linh were had escaped Vietnam in 1980 and made their way to Canada. Now, in 1981, it is Tuan's time to escape with this mother and two sisters, Lan, 9. and Loan, 10. His youngest sister Van, 4, would  have to be left behind for now. She is just too young for the trip. No one, not even the neighbors must know what Tuan and his family are up one dark night as they sneak out of the house.

Their journey to freedom begins after a truck drops them off close to the water's edge. Running for their lives, dodging soldiers and their gun fire, they are picked up in a skiff. Still dodging bullets, the overcrowded skiff takes them to a fishing boats further out in the sea.

It is hot and humid and there isn't much drinking water. When the boat springs a leak, Tuan's mother and aunt help bail out the water as quickly as they can. On the third day, the boat's engine dies and the refugees find themselves adrift on the huge and unpredictable Pacific Ocean. One day six, an American aircraft carrier is spotted and the refugees are welcomed aboard.

The Ho family, we learn, survives they harrowing ordeal, and are reunited with Tuan's father and sister in Canada. And yes, Van and her grandmother both arrive in Canada in 1985, safe and sound.

Adrift at Sea is told from Tuan's point of view, and aimed at readers about the same age as he was when he escaped Vietnam. Such a young narrator may not capture the truly difficult and risky trip in the kind of detail a book for older readers might, but he still very clearly depicts the fear, the hot sun, lack of water, and relief at being rescued at an age appropriate level that any young reader will be able understand.

Skrypuch has included a number photos of the Ho family, both in Vietnam and in Canada. She has also included a brief history of the "boat people" as the refugees came to be called. The refugees faced not only the kinds of problems that the Ho family dealt with, but there were storms, pirates and always the threat of dying of thirst and hunger, and sometimes, they found that they were not welcomed everywhere.

Using a color palette mainly of oranges, yellows and blues, Deines's highly textured oil on canvas illustrations capture all the secrecy, fear, and perils, all wrapped up in the dangerously hazy, hot, and humid weather that these refugees faced in their desire for freedom and a better life.

Adrift at Sea is a powerful historical nonfiction story that can certainly help shed light on events of the past that share a similarity to those that are happening in the world today.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Pajama Press