Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: The German Girl

The German Girl
by Armando Lucas Correa

Why did you choose this book? WWII era novel with a slant I hadn’t read
When did you read this book? October 2016
Who should read this book? Readers of WWII history  
Source: NetGalley
Here is a synopsis of The German Girl from Goodreads

A stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.

In 1939 before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. Her family moved in Berlin’s highest social circles, admired by friends and neighbors. Eleven-year-old Hannah was often taken by her mother for an afternoon treat at the tea room of the beautiful Adlon Hotel, both dressed in their finest clothes. She spent her afternoons at the park with her best friend Leo Martin. But, in an instant, that sunlit world vanished. Now the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; their fine possessions are hauled away, and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. The two friends make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.

As Hannah and Leo’s families desperately begin to search for a means of escape, a glimmer of hope appears when they discover the Saint Louis, a transatlantic liner that can give Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart from Hamburg on the luxurious passenger liner bound for Havana. Life aboard the ship is a welcome respite from the gloom of Berlin—filled with masquerade balls, dancing, and exquisite meals every night.

As the passengers gain renewed hope for a bright future ahead, love between Hannah and Leo blossoms. But soon reports from the outside world began to filter in, and dark news overshadows the celebratory atmosphere on the ship; the governments of Cuba, the United States, and Canada are denying the passengers of the St. Louis admittance to their countries, forcing them to return to Europe as it descends into the Second World War. The ship that had seemed their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence.

After four days anchored at bay, only a handful of passengers are allowed to disembark onto Cuban soil, and Hannah and Leo must face the grim reality that they could be torn apart. Their future is unknown, and their only choice will have an impact in generations to come.

Decades later in New York City on her eleventh birthday, Anna Rosen receives a mysterious envelope from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father’s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet Hannah, who is turning eighty-seven years old. Hannah reveals old family ties, recounts her journey aboard the Saint Louis and, for the first time, reveals what happened to her father and Leo. Bringing together the pain of the past with the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives young Anna a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.

My Review

There were several reasons I picked this one up. The first was the cover, with the ship — it reminded me of the Titanic, and if you know me, you know I am a sucker for Titanic stories! It wasn’t the Titanic, but a ship named the St. Louis, and of course, you must also know I like anything St. Louis (especially my Cardinals!). Then I learned it was a WWII era novel about the Jews who attempted to flee Germany and were left stranded on a ship. I’d heard about this event, but really didn’t know the details, so I wanted to know more.

Unfortunately this book was not all that I’d hoped it would be. It was very slow to get started and even after 100 pages, I was not fully invested in the story. There are two stories being told at the same time in the book and they take place decades apart. One is the story of 11 year old Ann, set in present day New York and Cuba. Anna has grown up without her father and learns she has an elderly great-aunt living in Cuba. The second story is the story of the great-aunt, Hannah; her story begins  when she was age 11. The story slips back and forth between the two narrators. Usually I enjoy this method of storytelling, but for some reason it didn’t work for me this time. I think it may be because Anna and Hannah were very similar in personality and experiences, and this made it hard for me to remember whose story I was reading at the time.

The story has parallels with world events today and I think this book will make an excellent book club selection. Topics to discuss include the actions of the various characters in the book and their actions influenced the outcome of the story, the events of WWII, and the how the events of the story relate to the current refugee crisis.

You can watch the book trailer for The German Girl below.

Visit the book page on the publisher’s website to read an excerpt or to learn more about the book and author.

My Rating:  ✰✰✰½     3½ Stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy of this book for review purposes.
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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: Gunpowder Girls

Gunpowder Girls
by Tanya Anderson

Why did you choose this book? Civil War events that I was previously unaware of
When did you read this book? October 2016
Who should read this book? readers who want to learn about women’s efforts during the Civil War
Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Here is a synopsis of Gunpowder Girls from Goodreads

Gunpowder Girls is a story of child labor and immigrant hopes and the cruel, endless demands of an all-consuming war. Tanya Anderson (Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to Gettysburg) combines meticulous research and moving narrative to tell the true stories of three appalling Civil War disasters involving girls as young as ten.

With thousands of men off fighting in the Civil War, the government hired women and girls-some as young as ten-to make millions of rounds of ammunition. Poor immigrant girls and widows paid the price for carelessness at three major arsenals. Many of these workers were killed, blown up and burned beyond recognition. Hidden history comes alive through primary-source research and page-turning narrative.

As Steve Sheinkin did with The Port Chicago 50, Tanya Anderson in Gunpowder Girls tells an amazing war story that finally gives its subjects their due.

My Review

One of my favorite periods of history to learn about is the Civil War era. I wanted to read this book because it seemed to cover new territory that I, as least, was unaware of. The book is written at perhaps a middle school level which may cause the reader to think there isn’t much ‘meat’ in the book, but that reader would be mistaken. I couldn’t ask for more in a book — I learned so much. Though a quick read, there is plenty of ‘meat’ in this book, with numerous illustrations and notes to enhance the material. One example; I now know how cartridges were assembled and loaded into muskets to be fired. A well-trained soldier could load and fire 2-3 times per minute, which really puts into perspective what our forefathers had in mind when they wrote the 2nd amendment! And while I knew women had served as spies, nurses, and even soldiers during the war, I did not know how widespread the employment of women in the war effort was at that time!

Learning about these girls and women and their work also brought to mind my aunt, who worked in the ‘lab’ at Olin on ‘Powder Mill Road’ shortly after WWII. I was young and though I knew there were dangers of explosion (and even knew that whistle codes that indicated what building had the fire!) and that Olin was associated with ammunition, I always thought she was a chemist. I now have to wonder if the ‘lab’ she worked in assembled cartridges!

Even though the book is written for young adults, the author has included an extensive bibliography and recommended reading for those who want to learn more. This should satisfy adults who read the book.

You can read an excerpt on the publisher’s website. Below is a book trailer for Gunpowder Girls.

My Rating:  ★★★★★    5 Stars

I received a review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
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Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: Small Great Things

Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult

Why did you choose this book? I routinely read Jodi Picoult’s books
When did you read this book? September 2016
Who should read this book? readers who enjoy Jodi Picoult or contemporary drama
Source: Penguin First To Read
Here is a synopsis of Small Great Things from Goodreads

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years' experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she's been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don't want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy's counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other's trust, and come to see that what they've been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn't offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

My Review

I have read most of Jodi Picoult’s books as soon as they are released in recent year, so I was excited when I saw this one offered through Penguin’s First To Read program and I couldn’t wait to read it. In many ways the synopsis felt like a ‘drawn from the headlines’ story with the racial implications, and in fact, in the author notes at the end, we learn she was inspired by a real incident in that took place in Michigan.

The book was a quick read and a good story. It was easy to like Ruth, the labor and delivery nurse charged with failing to fulfill her duties, though I did question her actions at times when it seemed she purposely made things harder for herself and her son than was necessary. It was so easy to not like Turk, the ‘White Supremist’, or his family. As regular readers of this blog know, one of my pet peeves is books that leave me hanging and wondering what happened next,  so one thing that I really appreciate about this book is that the author gave me a glimpse into the future. I know a little of what happened in the lives of many of the main characters. Some of this seemed to be a bit too neatly tied up, and I would have liked to know how it came about and what happened with some of the lesser characters, but overall, I am satisfied with the glimpse I got.

This is a timely story which includes some difficult conversations about race and about what it means to be racist. I don’t entirely agree with everything said in the book, but I do think the point is well taken that we need to be having these difficult conversations. This book will make an excellent book club selection for the right group, however, I think everyone needs to be prepared to be open-minded and to really listen to what others are saying and feeling. If your book club doesn’t handle controversy well, I’d recommend steering clear of this one. That doesn’t mean that YOU shouldn’t read it, though. This is definitely a book with ‘food for thought’!

My Rating:  ✰✰✰✰½             4½ stars

I received an advanced copy of this book for review purposes through the Penguin First To Read program.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review: Irena's Children

Irena’s Children
by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Why did you choose this book? WWII history!
When did you read this book? September 2016
Who should read this book? Readers of WWII history and the female heroes of the war  
Source: NetGalley
Here is a synopsis of Irena’s Children from Goodreads

One of Kirkus Reviews' Ten Most Anticipated Nonfiction Books of Fall 2016

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Widow Clicquotcomes an extraordinary and gripping account of Irena Sendler—the “female Oskar Schindler”—who took staggering risks to save 2,500 children from death and deportation in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.

In 1942, one young social worker, Irena Sendler, was granted access to the Warsaw ghetto as a public health specialist. While there, she reached out to the trapped Jewish families, going from door to door and asking the parents to trust her with their young children. She started smuggling them out of the walled district, convincing her friends and neighbors to hide them. Driven to extreme measures and with the help of a network of local tradesmen, ghetto residents, and her star-crossed lover in the Jewish resistance, Irena ultimately smuggled thousands of children past the Nazis. She made dangerous trips through the city’s sewers, hid children in coffins, snuck them under overcoats at checkpoints, and slipped them through secret passages in abandoned buildings.

But Irena did something even more astonishing at immense personal risk: she kept secret lists buried in bottles under an old apple tree in a friend’s back garden. On them were the names and true identities of those Jewish children, recorded with the hope that their relatives could find them after the war. She could not have known that more than ninety percent of their families would perish.

In Irena’s Children, Tilar Mazzeo tells the incredible story of this courageous and brave woman who risked her life to save innocent children from the Holocaust—a truly heroic tale of survival, resilience, and redemption.

My Review

My eye was drawn to the cover of this book while browsing NetGalley one day. When I saw it is a story of WWII featuring a woman, and nonfiction, I knew I wanted to read it!

Irena Sendler was a true hero of WWII, saving at least 2500 children from the Nazis. And yet she went unrecognized, and even villainized, for much of her life! I learned from the book how Poland was victimized not only by Hitler and the Nazis during WWII, but also by the Soviets who ‘rescued’ them near the end of the war. The Soviets buried the story of Irena’s heroism for decades. Even after receiving recognition, Irena did not consider herself a hero, or even extraordinary, but instead felt regret over the lives of the children she was not able to save.

One thing I really admire about Irena is that she never blamed anyone who made choices different from the choices she made. She knew how difficult and dangerous life was under the Nazis and she experienced torture by the Nazis, so she knew how difficult it was to refrain from giving up information, and was able to excuse those who were not willing to put the lives of their families in danger to help her cause. (She did not, however excuse those who she felt betrayed Poland to work with the Nazis.)

The author did extensive research about Irena and drew on that research to write very readable nonfiction. The book got a little confusing to me at times because there were so many people involved and sometimes the names were very similar, but the author foresaw this issue and included a ‘cast of characters’ at the end of the book. This not only was helpful to me for referring to while reading, but also served as a nice review after I finished the book. I appreciate that in the author’s notes she explains how she used research materials to write the story and makes clear that some of what she has written may be open to interpretation, and that others may draw a different conclusion. She has also notes and a bibliography for those who want to learn more.

If you enjoy learning about history, want to know more about the role of Poland in WWII, or admire strong women, this is a book you will want to read!

You can watch the book trailer for Irena’s Children below.

Visit the book’s page on the pubisher’s website to view an interview with the author, read an excerpt, see discussion questions, or learn more about the author.

My Rating:  ✰✰✰✰✰   5 Stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy of this book for review purposes.
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