Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Whistling in the Dark by Shirley Hughes

It's autumn 1940, and for Joan Armitage, 13, and her family - mom, older sister Audrey, brother Brian and 6 year old Judy - living in a suburb of Liverpool, getting by has been hard ever since her dad's Merchant Navy ship was torpoeded by a Nazi U-boat in the Atlantic.

Now, WW(( is in full swing and the house is always cold, curfews have been imposed, there are nighttime air raids and everyone is always hungry because of rationing.  On top of that, a new man, Captain Ronnie Harper Jones, part of the Army Catering Corps stationed near Liverpool, seems interested in mom.  Despite the occassional box of goodies he brings the Armitage family, Joan, her brother and her sister don't like him much,  though Judy does, or rather,  she like the sweets he brings her.

Ironically, though, life is pretty boring despite the war.  Luckily, Joan has a best friend, wealthy Doreen, and both girls love going to the Queensway Cinema to see American movies.  And of course, there is the Saturday morning salvage collection Joan does with friends Ross and Derek.  Best of all, there is her art - drawing and painting are her escape and her passion.

But as autumn passes, the air raids begin to intensify, as the Luftwaffe steps up their bombings over Liverpool.  Even the Queensway becomes too dangerous to go to.  And after hearing about an army deserter who is believed to be in the area, Joan wonders if it is the unknown man she saw staring into the house one night while closing the blackout curtains.  She is shaken, but decides not to say anything and when it doesn't happen again, it gets forgotten amidst rumors of food being stolen and sold on the black market.

At school, the class bully Angela and her gang seem to enjoy picking on Ania, a Polish refugee who arrived in England on the Kindertransport.  When Joan's mom tells her to invite Ania for tea, the normally quiet, shy girl opens up to Joan about what happened to her and her family in Poland.

When Joan is confronted by the mysterious man once again, on her way home one night, one mystery may be solved, but it only leads to the possiblity of more grief.  How is he connected to Ania and what does he want from her?  At the same time, the rumors of the stolen food and black market dealings prove to be true and the outcome is devasting for Joan's family, the communtiy and even her best friend Doreen.

This is the second WWII novel Shirley Hugnes has written.  Her first was Hero on a Bicycle, also a coming of age story that didn't grab my interest quite as much as this on did.  I found this one to be well plotted, with some nice foreshadowing but also some nice surprises.

"Wartime, when it was not frightening, could be very boring" writes Shirtley Hughes in her Author's Note.  And she has done an exceptional job of depicting the boredom of war without making it boring for the reader. The result is an eye-opening look at daily life on the English home front.  Of course, she knows what she is talking about, since much of the book is based on her own 13 year old experiences living in Merseyside during WWII.

One of the interesting aspects of Whistling in the Dark, is how much readers learn about the Merchant Navy, those men who sailed to the US and Canada to bring food and other supplies back to England on unarmed but very vulnerable ships.  Joan's father and Audrey's boyfriend Dai both are part of the Merchant Navy, the real heroes of this story, according to Hughes and the Liverpool docks play an important role in this novel.

When most of us think of the Blitz, we have a picture of hundrends of Luftwaffe planes flying over London, dropping their bombs, bringing death and the destruction of homes, churches, monuments, and institutions.  But the Nazis targeted more than London, including a terrible Blitz over Liverpool from August 28, 1940 to the end of December, the timeframe of Whistling in the Dark, doing incredible damage to the all important docks there.

Whistling in the Dark is a novel that will appeal to young readers interested in historical fiction, coming of age stories and mysteries, as well as fans of Carrie's War by Nina Bawden and Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian

This novel is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Prince Without A Kingdom by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Back in May 2014, I review Vango: Between Sky and Earth, the story of a young man who is trying to solve the mystery of who he is and why there are people who want him arrested or dead.  Set in the early 1930s, I wrote that this was historical fiction at its best and I couldn't wait to read the sequel.

And I am happy to say, the sequel, A Prince Without a Kingdom, is every bit as good as Between Sky and Earth.  The story begins shortly after a brief recap of what happened in Book I, this novel opens in 1936, shortly after the first one left off.  Vango is still trying to solve the mystery of who he is, while he tracks the person he believes had killed his parents back in 1915.  Another question that hangs over this novel - what happened to Vamgo beloved Mademoiselle, who had raised him and cared for him after his parents death on the island of Salina off the coast of Sicily?

Now in New York Vango meets up with his old friend and mentor, Father Zefiro, founder of a hidden monastery located on the island of Arkudah.  Zefiro has been hunting for Voloy Viktor, a Soviet arms dealer and murder, and a master at disguise who also goes by the personas Madame Victoria and Vincent Valpa.  Believing he is now in New York, Zefiro sets up a stakeout in an unfinished building.

Vango is on his own hunt for Giovanni Cafarello, one of the three men who murdered Vango's parents, stealing thier fortune, and who knows the secret of Vango's identity.  But the man incarcerated in Sing Sing prison as Gio Cafarello claims right up to his execution that he is not Cafarello.  Is it possible that Vango came so close to knowing the truth and having his revenge, only to miss it by moments? Or not?

There is just so much to this novel, that it makes it hard to write a fair review without spoilers, and I hope I haven't included any by accident.  A lot of time a sequel doesn't live up to a reader's expectation based on the first book, but I can honestly say that this not only met my expectations, but even surpassed them.  And yet, it is also a stand alone novel.  There is also a helpful list of the cast of characters at the beginning, in case you forgot who is who and why from the first book, or if they are new to you.

And, like the first book, A Prince Without a Kingdom is full of adventure, intrigue, mystery, tension and suspense and coincidence, nail-biting coincidence most times.  The plotting is brilliant, the characters - and there are a lot of them - are well drawn, believable, diverse and global.  In fact, the whole story is global - New York, Moscow, Edinburgh, the Aeolian Island on the coast of Sicily, and New Jersey (yes, Lakehurst, NJ was the landing area for the zeppelins back then and zeppelins are an important part of both novels, including the Hindenburg).  And de Fombelle moves his characters and settings like the most perfect chess game ever.

A Prince Without a Kingdom isn't necessarily told in chronological order, because of its many flashbacks, but though it may sound confusing, isn't at all difficult to follow what is happening.  And the mix of historical figures and events with his fictional characters and events adds to the excitement and interest throughout the novel.  The time frame of the novel begins in 1936 and goes through WWII and the Holocaust.  

I can say that the writing is fast-paced, and beautifully lyrical, yet the story proceeds at a nicely tempered pace, never overwhelming the reader.  Once again, Sarah Ardizoone has given us a flawless translation from the original French and succeeding in carrying forward the flavor and feel of de Fombelle's storytelling.

My only regret is that the story of Vango isn't a trilogy and I have to say good-bye to him.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tucky Jo and Little Heart by Patricia Polacco

In this picture book for older readers, Patricia Polacco tells the story of Johnnie Wallen, a Kentucky boy who manages to get his parents to say he is older than 15 years, allowing him to enlist in the army and fight in WWII.

After basic training, Johnnie is assigned to the Sixth Infantry, Company G, Twentieth Division and sent to the Pacific theater.  On the ship, Johnnie is called "the kid from Kentucky" by everyone because of his youth.  But the kid from Kentucky was an crack shooter by age 10, and now the army trains him as a marksman and for heavy ordnance (explosives).  In now time, Johnnie earns the nickname the Kentucky Kid after proving himself quite adapt at going into the jungle to seek and destroy machine gun nests.

The Kentucky Kid's unit soon finds themselves on Luzon, an island in the Philippines, where they need to level the land to bivouac and to build an airstrip.  It is a hot job in a jungle infested with biting insects, and after a while, Johnnie is covered with bug bites.  Looking for water to cool his bites, he discovers a small native village where women are trying to catch fish with their bare hands.

There, he meets a little girl who shows him how to treat his bug bites with the leaves of a local plant.  Grateful for the relief and the friendly gesture, Johnny repays the young girl's kindness with the chocolate bar from his K-rations, tells her his name was Kentucky Jon, which immediately becomes Tucky Jo when she repeats it, and he begins calling her Little Heart because of a heart shaped birthmark on her arm.

That night, Tucky Jo whittsd a little hinged doll to give to Little Heart, which delights her.  Then, one day when she didn't show up, Tucky Jo goes to find her in her village.  There, her grandfather, who does speak English,explains that she hasn't spoken since she saw the Japanese kill her mother and take away her father and brother.

And, he goes on to explain, the Japanese took all the young men, all the food and all the fishing lines and nets.  As a result, the people in the village are starving.  Well, Tucky Jo is a doer and in no time, the people in Little Heart's village have all the fish they could eat and preserve - how?  You'll have to read the story to find that out.

When Tucky Jo learns his unit is leaving and will be bombing the jungle, he convinces his sergeant to let him evacuate the village first, which  is very successful.  But when the truck with Little Heart pulls away, it is the late time Tucky Jo sees his little friend.  Or is it?

After the war, Johnnie goes home, a highly decorated soldier, marries his sweetheart and raises a family.  As he gets older, and his health fails, he needs to be hospitalized.  Johnnie's nurse is very kind, so kind that he begins to wonder, especially after he sees the small heart shaped birthmark on her arm.  Could it be...?

According to her Author's Note, Patricia Polacco writes that the story of Tucky Jo and Little Heart was inspired by listening to WWII veterans talking about their experiences in the Pacific Theater and is based on the story that Johnnie Wallen related to her.  Of course, there is some poetic license, but the reader will have to figure that out for themselves.

Palacco has created as story about friendship, kindness,and  ingenuity, while at the same time showing the terrible impact that war has on children.  Little Heart has clearly been traumatized by what she had witnessed, compounded by a state of starvation, but Polacco has portrayed these things in such a way that they won't traumatize the reader, but will evoke feelings of empathy for Little Heart.

And there are the signature Polacco illustrations done in color pencil and markers.  The illustrations capture Little Heart's vulneribility and her fragile state, and Tucky Jo's youth and enthusiasm, and his innate kindness that shines in his eyes.

Tucky Jo and Little Heart  is an ideal book for introducing young readers to the war in the Pacific, or for any one interested veteran stories that come out of WWII..

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Johnny Wallen passed away on January 9, 2010.  If you would like to know more about decorated hero of WWII, you can read his daughter's tribute to her father HERE 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Tiger Who Would Be King by James Thurber, illustrated by Joohee Yoon

I always think of James Thurber as a humorist, but there is no real humor in his fable about the pointlessness of war.  The Tiger Who Would Be King was first published in The New Yorker on August 11, 1956.  He hadn't expected the story to be printed because it was considered too "savage" but Thurber himself felt that the violence in his story was OK since he believed that fables were not for children, anyway.  But, it was published and soon found it's way into school curriculum's.

The story is simple and the moral is clear, even before you read it at the end.  One morning, the tiger wakes up and announces to his wife that he is now the king of beasts. When his wife reminds him that the lion is the king of beasts, the tiger tells her that all the other creatures are crying out for change.

Later, when the tiger visits the lion to tell him about the change, a fight ensues between the two big cats.  Soon, all the other creatures are choosing sides and fighting with each other.  In the end, the tiger is the only survivor, but even his days are numbered now.  And the moral: you can't be king if there is no one to rule over.

The Tiger Who Would Be King is a picture book for older readers about the desire for absolute power, and the resulting war, and destruction.  Though Thurber's voice and intelligence can be discerned throughout the story, there is no real message of hope anywhere in his fable except perhaps in the mind of the reader who realizes that the choices we make can have serious consequences.

Artist/illustrator Joohee Yoon has taken Thurber's 60 year old story and given it a new stunningly expressive look.  Yoon's illustrations are hand and computer drawn with only two colors - green and orange which are boldly used on each page and leave much to the imagination.  At the center of the story, there is a 6 page climactic fold out that shows the fierceness of the fight that between the animals who supported the tiger and those who backed the lion.  In their boldness, the illustrations have captured not just the futility of war but also the brutality of it, making this an exceptionally effective picture book for older readers.

I think The Tiger Who Would Be King would pair very nicely with Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle, another story about the desire for absolute power.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark by Deborah Hopkinson

On April 9, 1940, the Nazis invaded Denmark.  Caught off guard, the Danish military was no match for the invading Germans, and the government easily surrendered.  At first, daily life continued almost normally, except for the constant presence of armed soldiers and gestapo everywhere.  But soon, things changed and for the next five years, the peaceful Danish people lived under the yoke of military domination, the constant threat of starvation, and for Jewish citizens, the very real prospect of deportation and death.  But not all Danes were willing to accept their country's surrender and submit to life under occupation and it wasn't long before ordinary citizens became clandestine resisters to the Nazis.

In her newest book, Courage & Defiance, Deborah Hopkinson once again uses her considerable talent  as a writer and researcher to explore the Danish resistance.  Looking at the Nazi occupation of Denmark in chronological order from the first days to the last, Hopkinson introduces the reader to some remarkable people and events.

There is, for example, Niels Skov, a 20 year old apprentice toolmaker, who found himself so surprised, angry and ashamed that people went about their business after the invasion, that he resolved to fight back.  The invaders may haven been mostly apprehensive young men like himself, but they were destroying everything Niels loved about Denmark.  And so, much like the boys in the Churchill Club, Niels began his resistance activities by roaming the streets of Copenhagen seeking out Nazi vehicles he could sabotage- blowing them up and setting them on fire.

Another story Hopkinson explores in detail is that of Jørgen Kieler, a 20 year old medical student who was also outraged by the invasion and ashamed and saddened by Denmark's easy capitulation to the Nazis.  Knowing he needed to do something to resist them, it wasn't until 1943 that Jørgen, his siblings and friends decided to write an illegal anti-Nazi underground newsheet, Frit Danmark, aimed a fellow students.  But soon, writing wasn't enough, and Jørgen became a saboteur as part of the Holger Danske 2 resistance group.

And Jørgen wasn't the only Kieler to act against the Nazis.  Hopkinson introduces readers to his sister Elsebet, who wanted to protest the occupation of her country, but was a pacifist.  When the rumors spread that there was going to be a roundup of Danish Jews, Elsebet, along with the Kieler's friend Klaus Rønholt, traveled around the countryside asking for donations from farms and landowners to help fund a rescue of as many Jews as possible.

And then there is Tommy Sneum, a flight lieutenant in Denmark's air force.  After Denmark's defeat, Tommy left the military and became a one man resistance plan.  Realizing the German's had some kind of early warning system in place around Denmark to warm if any enemy planes are approaching,   Tommy made it his business to find out where these systems were and get the information to Great Britain ASAP.

These are just some of the brave Danes that Hopkinson writes about in this compelling new work.  The book is so well-written and organized, not to mention thought provoking, that it reads as though it were a spy novel, except the people are real and the events really did happen.

Good nonfiction about people, places and events is always so welcomed when it is done well.  And I have been very fortunate to have read some truly remarkable nonfiction for this blog.  Deborah Hopkinson's (Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story) new book becomes a most welcomed addition to those already available.

Books about the resistance activities always begs the question can one person make a difference especially against such a large, powerful, well armed often unscrupulous force that made up the Nazi regime?   I suspect that the resisters you will meet in Courage & Defiance as well as the 7, 220 Jews who were able to escape Denmark with their help just before the Nazis would have rounded them up for deportation would have to say that yes, one person can and did make a difference.

Be sure to visit the other participants on the Courage & Defiance Blog Tour

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was provided by the publisher through Edelweis Above The Treeline

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Alive and Kicking (World War II Book 3) by Chris Lynch

In Dead in the Water, the second book in Chris Lynch's WWII series, brothers Hank and Theo McCallum went off to enlist, Hank in the Navy and Theo in the Army Air Corps, but that novel focused on older brother Hank's experience in the Pacific, eventually finding himself on the USS Yorktown at Midway Island.  So I figured the next book would be about Theo's experience flying bombers.

And it is and it basically picks up where Dead in the Water leaves off.  The McCallum family has received notice the Hank has been declared MIA ever since the sinking of the Yorktown at Midway (I'm sorry if this is a spoiler for you), and Theo is on his way home on compassionate leave.  Though the family is sure that Hank is dead, Theo can't believe that and has convinced himself that because he is MIA, it's just a question of time before he is found alive somewhere.  It makes for a very awkward visit home, and Theo can't wait to get away.

Shortly after returning to his base in Oklahoma, Theo and his unit are sent to an RAF base in Shipham, Norfolk, England.  This will be their base of operations for flying raids over Eurpope.  Theo is a nose gunner on a B-24 Liberator, the youngest member of the crew and because of his interest in baseball and having played some minor league ball in Maryland, they name their plane, rather tongue in cheekish, the Batboy.

Even while holding out hope that his brother will be found alive, Theo and the crew of Batboy fly dangerous daytime bombing raids over occupied France, bombing Hitler's steelworks, engineering factories, and railroad manufacturing.  Theo also keeps Hank alive when he begins to keep a journal of what he experiences are, hoping that his brother is doing the same thing, with the intention that at wars end, they can read each other's journal.

Theo sees a lot of action, winning awards, citations and medals for his part in fighting the Nazis and has proven himself to the quite the soldier.  The book ends with a journal entry to Hank on June 6, 1944.

Alive and Kicking started off a little slowly for me.  It did pick up after Theo returned to his base, but no by much.  I thought that his strong attachment to his older brother acted as a distancing factor, so I never felt that Theo connected with the other men who were part of the Batboy's personnel for all his called them his brothers.

I also found that I couldn't situate myself timewise as I read the story.  I had no real sense of time passing, yet the novel covers almost two years -  the Yorktown was sunk June 7, 1942 and Theo's last entry in his journal is June 6, 1944, which happens to be D-Day.

So, I have to be honest and say that out of all the Chris Lynch books I've read so far, this is probably my least favorite.  I found it to be a bit short on plot and dialogue, and way too long on Theo's repetitive monotone inner dialogue.  A book like this needs to be action oriented and, while there was action, it was all filtered through Theo's thoughts.

There was a lot of good information about gunners and the B-24 Liberator (and I have to confess, since I'm not a military buff, that one bomber is basically the same as another to me), which I actually found interesting.  So much so, I actually looked up information on B-24 Liberators and found this:

A B-24 Liberator
A Cross Section of a B-24 Liberator from
Popular Mechanics, November 1943
There is one more book left in Lynch's World War II series, The Liberators, which I am still looking forward to reading, despite not caring much for Alive and Kicking.  

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press