Friday, October 30, 2015

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is the sequel to a book I read and reviewed last year called Prisoner of Night and Fog.  I wasn't too crazy about that book, but I am pleased to say that I liked the sequel much more.

Prisoner of Night and Fog takes place in 1931 Munich, Germany.  Gretchen Müller, part to the inner circle of young girls in the Hitler entourage, has discovered that her father, a strong Hitler supporter, had been deliberately killed in the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch by a fellow Nazi.  Gretchen is determined to solve mystery of who would have done such a thing with the help of Daniel Cohen, handsome reporter for the Munich Post.  It also didn't take long for Aryan Gretchen and Jewish Daniel to find they were very attracted to each other despite their differences. And yes, they solve they mystery together.

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke picks up their story in 1933 England.  Forced to flee Germany after solving her father's murder, Gretchen is living in London with a loving family and going to school, and Daniel is working for the Oxford Mail, writing the society column.  But when Daniel receives a telegram that his cousin Aaron has been attacked by Nazis and is in critical condition, he immediately returns to Germany to get justice to his cousin.

On January 30, 1933 Hitler is named Chancellor by President Hindenburg.  One month later, February 27, there is a fire in the Reichstag, the seat of government.  Hitler blames the Communists for it, even though it has most likely been done by the Nazis for the purpose giving Hitler a strong reason for forcing the passage of the Enabling Act, a piece of legislation that would give him complete power, turning Germany into a Nazi dictatorship.

Then, when Gretchen receives a mysterious telegram telling her that Daniel is in trouble, that he is wanted for murder, and possibly dead, she decides to risk capture by the Nazis and returns to Germany to find him.  There, an old newspaper friend of Daniel's tells Gretchen that the Nazis claim Daniel has killed a young women named Monika Junge and that he had also been beaten and robbed of his money and false identity papers a few days ago, but no one has seen Daniel since.  Next, she calls her old friend Eva Braun and asks her to find out if Daniel has been arrested. Eva tells her no, but that Gretchen must get out of Munich, Hitler is still after her for what she uncovered about him while trying to find out who murdered her father.  Ironically, the murder of Monika Junge leads Gretchen and Daniel right back to the Reichstag fire in an unexpected way.

Gretchen gets on a train to Berlin, and (perhaps a little too conveniently) runs into Daniel.  The two travel together to Berlin and what follows in a exciting journey through Berlin's underbelly and her higher echelons of government as Gretchen and Daniel try to clear his name of the murder charge the Nazis have leveled against him before the passage of the Enabling Act.  Once the Enabling Act is passed, it will be impossible to solve the mystery surrounding Monika Junge's murder because anyone who could help would immediately be arrested (the Enabling Act passed on March 23, 1933).

Blankman used the Reichstag fire and the Enabling Act to create a real nail-biting story.  She also effectively mixes real people from that time with her fictional characters, though there is a fine line between what really may be and what she includes, case in point: what Monika Junge knows and why it is dangerous for a certain important Nazi is pure fabrication.  But she does do a great job of showing why the events she includes are so important in understanding Germany at that time.

But as much as this is an historical fiction mystery utilizing time, place, people and events quite well , it is also a romance novel.  Gretchen and Daniel are very much in love, and that's great.  It doesn't overwhelm the overall story too much, but I have to be honest and say that this romance has gone on since 1931, Gretchen and Daniel have found themselves sleeping together many times when their lives have been in danger and nothing intimate has happened.  It's even mentioned in Chapter 16.  I had to ask myself if this is realistic and I don't think it is, not even for those times.

Blankman also brings in another interesting element of reality to the story - he organized crime syndicate, the Ringvereine, which is something you don't hear about very often.  I've heard of it, but don't know that much about it, only that they did exist and were very protective of their own - and Monika Junge was one of their own.

My only objection to the novel was the end, but I don't want to resort to spoilers, especially not at the end of a story, so you'll just have to read it know what I mean.

Do read the Author's Note at the end to fully appreciate all the history incorporated into this novel, and Blankman's Selected Bibliography for further information.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What's in a name?

Well, maybe not always.  Once I was watching an interview with Lady Gaga on 60 minutes who said that after she became Lady Gaga she felt a certain kind of creative freedom she didn’t feel under her real name - Stefani Germanotta.  That creative Freedom is what I felt when I started The Children’s War.

But then I changed the name to Alex’s Bookshelves and suddenly that creative freedom was gone and I felt like I was dealing with a stranger... What to do?  Return this blog to it’s original name but with a new look.

My apologies for any inconvenience or mix-up my flirtation with a new name caused and now, back to the business of reading and reviewing.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

When the Germans arrive in June 1941, life changed for the Jews living in Prużany, a small town in Belarus.  For 17 year-old Zlatka Sznaiderhauz and her family - mother, father, younger brothers Iser and Lázaro, younger sister Necha - life became more and more difficult.  Restrictions meant no freedoms, no school, no jobs, little food and eventually life in a Nazi-created ghetto.  Before long, daily lists began to be posted for transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  On the third day, the Sznaiderhauz family was on the list.

Separated from her father and brothers, when they arrive at Auschwitz, Zlatka and Necha are sent to the right of the selection, her mother and brother Lázaro to the left and immediate death.

As Zlaka's story unfolds, so does Fania's in alternate chapters.  Fania, 18, is sent away from her home in Bialystok by her family to Augustów in the hope of saving her life since she looked the most Aryan.  Fania is quickly  arrested for being Jewish and sent first to Lomża Prison, later to Stuffhof, where she learns that the Bialystok Ghetto has been liquidated.  Heartbroken, Fania realizes she has lost her entire family.  Eventually, Fania, and the three friends she made in Lomża are transported to Auschwitz.

Finding themselves in the same barracks, at first Zlatka shuns Fania's offer of friendship, but after Necha's death, it is Fania who pulls Zlaka out of what could have been a fatal depression.  The two become friends and family to each other, determined to survive the brutal treatment they are subjected to in Auschwitz.

For Fania's 20th birthday, Zlatka decides to make her an origami birthday heart, an act of defiance that could cost them their lives. Zlatka does whatever she needs to - stealing, bartering, swapping - to get the materials for the heart.  When it was done, it was passed to every girl at their work table, 15 in all, to sign and add their wishes for Fania.  Even those girls who didn't speak Polish understand the importance of signing the heart.

Fania, Zlatka and the birthday heart survived Auschwitz, survived the death marches they were sent on at the end of the war, and survived the war.

Fania's Heart
Paper Hearts is a novel based on a true story.  It is written in free verse and I feel that the
form and content of the story coalesce so beautifully that the reader can almost feel as though they are travelling side by side with Zlattka and Fania through everything.

Meg Wiviott got the idea for this novel after seeing a 2010 documentary film called A Heart in Auschwitz.  The film chronicles the filmmakers quest to find Zlatka and Fania and bring them together again.  Intrigued, Wiviott began her own research, which included hearing Zlatka and Fania's Shoah testimonies (Zlatka's in Spanish, Fania's in Yiddish( and a visit to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre to see the actual heart, which is on display there.

This is a heartbreaking yet beautiful story of friendship, hope and love in the midst of so much brutality, death and hate.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Emperor of Any Place by Tim Wynne-Jones

After his father suddenly dies, Evan Griffin, 16, discovers he had been reading a book written by a Japanese soldier named Isamu Ōshiro, who found himself stranded on a small island in the Pacific during World War II.  The book is a memoir of his life on the island, which he called Kokoro-Jima, and is addressed to his new bride, Hisako, back in Saipan.  But Evan also discovers a letter to his dad from a man named Leonardo Kraft that seems to connect his estranged grandfather, Griff, a career Marine, to the events that are in the book.

Curious, Evan begins to read the Ōshiro's memoir one night when he gets a phone call from his grandfather that he will be at the house in a little while - arriving a week earlier than Evan expected him.  But why?  Clearly it has something to do with Ōshiro's story.  But what?

Isamu's story, framed by Evan's story, is riveting.  He describes his arrival on Kokorro Jima, what he does to survive despite being severely injured, but he also writes about something else.  There are ghostly children on the island who hover close by him, and who Isamu calls his ghostly family.  Soon, however, he begins to notice that there are also zombie-like ghoulish creatures, which he calls jikininki and who feed off the dead.

It is the jikininki who lead Isamu to a crashed cargo plane and the two dead pilots.  Isamu realizes there is a missing person, the navigator, and eventually he finds Derwood Kraft on the beach, seriously injured and who seems to have his own ghost family of children. But along with this gaijin, Isamu also discovers Tengu, a monstrous black creature about to attack the American.

That pretty much sets the stage for this incredibly well-written, well-developed, wonderfully crafted novel.  At the heart of the novel is the mystery of what happened to Isamu and why this is connected to Evan's grandfather.  But Tim Wynne-Jones keeps the mystery going without even a hint of what happens until the very end, and getting there is never dull or boring.

As far as I'm concerned, The Emperor of Any Place is definitely top-drawer fantasy, and yes, it is also very graphically detailed.  The novel switches between the present and past seamlessly, and Wynne-Jones throws in some seemingly unimportant scenes that only serve to deliciously increase the mood and tension.  I'm not much of a zombie fan, but I was totally drawn into this novel and hated to put it down when I had to do something else.

But there is something else that Wynne-Jones wants us to take away beside a great story and that is how tenuously connected the lines between war and peace, friends and enemies, love and hate are and how they impact past to present, generation to generation.  As Griff explains to Evan, "[war] ends and then it starts again, and the end of one war inevitably grows out of the war that can before it."

The Emperor of Any Place is one of those novels that took me totally by surprise and my only regret is that I can't have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again, but I will be re-reading it soon.

The Emperor of Any Place will be available on October 13, 2015.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley