This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.
Set in a galaxy far far away, this speculative novel, first in a duology, has some familiar and some new elements from brand name author Veronica Roth of the Divergent series. The world building is far more complex than she has attempted before, which makes the initial chapters are rather laborious and confusing as a plethora of characters, cultures, and political and religious systems are thrown at the reader. Once the novel gets into its rhythm, however, this all makes more sense and there’s some intriguing ideas around “the current” – the major force in this universe – and the currentgifts that each individual develops at puberty.
We are also in familiar star-cross’d lovers territory with the two leads coming from different nations living on the same planet. White Akos is the younger son of a high-ranking Thuvhesit family who is kidnapped by the cruel and ruthless Shotet leader, Ryzek, to be an aide to his sister “medium brown, almost golden” Cyra. The novel is a split narrative, and Cyra’s first person account is much more immersive than Akos’s third person point of view. Despite Akos and Cyra coming from the opposite sides of a planetary civil war, what do you think might happen?
As with Divergent, there are themes of identity, destiny, and how an individual can change and determine these. While high-ranking family members each have a foretold fate, these are ambiguous enough that their apparently obvious meaning may be twisted in a way that makes for a satisfying plot. Despite coming in at 468 pages, the pacing and plot will keep the reader engaged, and looking forward to the completing novel. With more sadism and more complex worldbuilding than her previous series, Carve the Mark will work best for older YA readers.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the youngest son in a large, wealthy, brilliant German family. Born in 1906, he lived through the First World War (in which one of his brothers was killed) and then went into theology, becoming an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime at a time when the Church was, at best, keeping quiet and, at worst, actively supporting Hitler and his decidedly unChristian policies.
Dietrich, along with his one of his brothers and two brothers-in-law plus members of the military all became involved in a failed conspiracy to kill Hitler. Most of them were captured and executed before the end of the war.
After a 1943 prologue in which Bonhoeffer is quietly awaiting the imminent arrival of the Gestapo to arrest him, the subsequent chapters are laid out chronologically, mixing both the events in Germany and Bonhoeffer’s activities and thought processes. This allows the reader to see how he progresses from a brilliant theology student to outspoken opposition, as the Nazis unleash their “Final Solution” and shows his justification for plotting to commit murder.
McCormick does a terrific job of showing how Bonhoeffer’s position was solidified by both his internal threshing through of the issues and by external discussion with members of the Church outside Germany, notably in New York. He had many opportunities to stay out of Germany but his conscience would not let him: “It was not enough to simply “bandage the victim under the wheel” of the government, he said. The church had a duty to jam a stick in the wheel itself.” (Hey – notice any similarities to the present day in the US?).
Throughout the book, the author inserts snippets of a timeline, so the reader can understand the context of what they’re reading, and there are also boxed off inserts which further explain some of the events.
Back matter includes an author’s note explaining how Bonhoeffer’s writings have resonated with oppressed people across the world.
(Note: there is a quotation on the back of the book “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” which is attributed to Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately this appears to be an incorrect attribution.)
Set in World War II Berlin, this exciting, fast-paced adventure story mixes spy story thrills into a well-researched historical setting.
Michael O’Shaunessey is the 13 year-old son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, and the family uses Ireland’s neutral status as a front for spying for the Allies. Michael is at a Hitler Youth school, and under this cover rescues a British airman. Once he has graduated to the SRD (the Hitler Youth equivalent of the Gestapo), he becomes involved in a plot with global stakes.
The reader will be as appalled as Michael by what the Hitler Youth are allowed to get away with and, indeed, what they were used for in the latter days of the war. In the useful Author’s Note, Gratz rightly recommends Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005) for further reading.
Michael himself is not a particularly original character – he is smart, capable with his fists, and an upright and moral boy. He has a handily photographic memory, but has a flaw too – he is deathly afraid of heights (and you’ll never guess what he has to do to overcome the villain!). Much more interesting is his friend Fritz, something of a metaphor for Hitler and other such bullies, who starts as the weakling butt of the Hitler Youth jokes, but rises quickly to become a feared and fanatical leader.
The writing is straightforward and unadorned, and the action races along to a rousingly cinematic, if not entirely credible, climax, but along the way there is some interesting ambiguity. The book is well pitched for middle grade readers who enjoyed the WWII action of Margi Preus’s fictional Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012) and Philip Hoose’s nonfiction The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015)..
Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.
The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.
The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.
Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.
The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.
Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.
(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).
I have really enjoyed Ms Larson’s historical novels, particularly Hattie Big Sky (2008) and The Friendship Doll (2011) (both of which I read pre-blog, so no reviews I’m afraid). Liberty is the third book in a elementary grade series which uses the device of a kid and a dog to explore different experiences in World War II America. The books stand alone, and will appeal to readers who enjoy dog stories and historical settings (duh).
Liberty is a touching story with a boy and a dog at the heart of a tale set in New Orleans in 1944.
White 5th grader Michael ‘Fish’ Elliott is working hard to overcome the effects of polio on his leg, and when he adopts a stray dog, Liberty, she gives him the incentive to try harder. With Pop away building bridges for the Allies, Fish lives with his sister Mo, and Liberty opens up their neighborhood to them.
Larson skillfully squeezes a lot of thematic weight into the supporting characters – enough to be informative and maybe pique some interest for further pursuit, but without getting didactic. Fish’s friend and neighbor Olympia is “dark-skinned,” and through her he sees the prejudices and exclusions of Jim Crow. Mo wants to be an engineer and, though she works for Andrew Jackson Higgins whose company produces the “boats that will win the war,” there is little opportunity for her. Erich is a young German, though not Nazi, prisoner of war at Camp Plauche in New Orleans, and Fish reminds him of his younger brother. All these strands are pulled together when Liberty runs off after a storm.
Fish is an inventor and fixer, inspired by Edison and Higgins: he likes to work through tricky problems and find practical solutions, whether it’s training Liberty or exercising his knee. He is an earnest, engaging character, and his love for Liberty brings out his determination and confidence.
Ms Larson includes information about the era in an Author’s Note. Mo predicts that it will be different for black people and women after the war and, of course it is, to an extent. But 70+ years on, and there are still different standards for black people and women, and the reflective reader will realize that.
400 years ago, the world collapsed into warring factions, and Talis, an Artificial Intelligence, imposed order by keeping the children of the political leaders hostage and under promise of death if their faction declared war. 16 year-old Greta is one of these Children of Peace, kept in a Prefecture in Saskatchewan. When a new alliance is formed that borders on her Federation, and their hostage Elian is brought to their Prefecture, Greta’s fear that she will soon be summoned to die for her mother’s decision seems about to be realized.
Bow (Plain Kate, Levine, 2010) has created an extraordinarily detailed and coherent world. Within a few pages, she answers all my ‘hang on, how does this work?’ questions, and though the logic of these hostages is quite horrible, it also actually makes sense. The decisions that Talis has taken on behalf of the world, in terms of peacekeeping, technology, and infrastructure, are brutally austere, and yet also something that could easily be in our future.
Greta is a challenging character and narrator. She is a rule abider, and follows what is expected of her as both a Princess (the world has gone rather feudal) and a Child of Peace. This makes her initially somewhat stiff and unlikeable, and it does appear that we are going to go down the well-trodden track of her only seeing the error of her ways when the defiant and rebellious Elian turns up. But Ms Bow is far too skilled a writer for that, and the second half of the book is full of thrilling twists and turns, as Greta takes hold of the power she did not realize she had.
The large cast of multicultural support characters, both human and AI, are vividly drawn and fit into the world with ease. Princess Xie, Greta’s roommate and best friend since she first arrived at the age of 5, is emotionally exquisite and is shown to have far greater understanding of the system than anybody else. And Talis, despite being the world-ruling AI, is also hilariously and scarily flippant about his power and decisions.
Talis’s rule is to ‘make it personal’, and Ms. Bow has written a very smart novel about the conviction and perception of those individuals who challenge the imposed solution despite the stupidity of the human race. This is the first book in a series, and fans of intelligent dystopian fiction will love it.