Tag Archives: war

In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin with photographs by Susan Kuklin

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In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin with photographs by Susan Kuklin
Candlewick, May 2020

Inspired by her grandparents’ flight from Russia and Ukraine, author Kuklin (We Are Here to Stay, 2019) puts a human face on the plight of refugees through the stories of five migrants who have come to live in the United States after fleeing war, violence, and slavery.

Using their own words, with occasional authorial interjections to give context, the refugees, originally from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi, give their moving and often harrowing descriptions of life in their native countries (Yazidi Shireen’s account of her abduction by ISIS is particularly raw and upsetting) along with the long and frustrating process required to become a refugee in the US. Resettled into Nebraska, the refugees and their families show resilience, optimism, and grit as they face the challenges of a new and unfamiliar country and the book includes many joyful photographs of the refugees in their new homes.

Backmatter is determinedly apolitical with information about the refugee process, extensive notes, timelines, further resources, and information about the Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska resettlement agency (which put the author in touch with her interviewees), but does not mention the Trump administration’s “travel ban” on immigrants from 13 countries, nor the reduction in the US refugee ceiling to a low of 30,000 in 2019.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Dogchild by Kevin Brooks

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Dogchild by Kevin Brooks
Candlewick, June 2020

Ravaged by climate change and other environmental and manmade disasters, two groups of humans, possibly the last left on earth, battle for supremacy. But there are also packs of dogs in Deathlands which steal babies from the humans and bring them up as “ dogchilds.” Jeet, raised by dogs and later rescued and “rehumanized” by one of the clans and has been asked by the Marshal of the settlement to record the story of the coming final battle. 

Initially Jeet’s idiosyncratic narrative records everyday life (he has a wide vocabulary but no apostrophes, so “I’d” becomes “Ide.” Youde not be surprised at how irritating this quickly becomes) and he shows the reader a world akin to that of the early pioneers, in which scarcity is ubiquitous and ingenuity is vital. As the humans are mostly just interested in survival they have little use for reading and writing, and Jeet soon realizes that “truth is all gone” and there is no history; the present is all there is and all there ever has been. There are some clues for curious readers – I wondered if the glassrock of the Deathlands could be obsidian from a volcano or maybe Trinitite from a nuclear explosion. 

Jeet is sent on a mission to the rival Dau camp and forms a bond with Chola Se, another rehumanized dogchild. As it becomes clear that all is not as it seems, Jeet and Chola Se use their dog sense to puzzle out what’s really going on and form a strong bond. They come to understand that both clans of humans will always see them as outsiders and scapegoats and that they feel more accepted by their dog packs than the human world. As the final battle commences, the “dogchilds” have to decide where their loyalties lie. 

Though Brooks (The Bunker Diary, Carolrhoda, 2015) deftly explores ideas of identity and what it means to be human, the vehicle he uses is unnecessarily overlong (471 pages) making it ponderous and unwieldy.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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So it’s been quite a while since I posted and I’ve been enjoying the break. I re-read the Harry Potter series which was wonderful, read some novels for adults, and even read some YA novels. It was very relaxing to just read a book without having to keep notes or write a thoughtful review. But I’m back now, at least for a while. I’ve got several reviews ready to go, so there will be one a week at least for the next couple of months, and then I’ll see how I feel after that.

Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, October 2019.

As regular readers will know, I’ve been a long-time fan of Jennifer A. Nielsen, but I feel like I might be coming to an end with her. I did not enjoy a previous historical novel, A Night Divided as much as many, and, in terms of her fantasy novels though I thought The Scourge was excellent, I wasn’t a fan of The Traitor’s Game and didn’t bother with the sequel. However, I was given this book to review and though I loved the idea of it, I didn’t love the execution so much.

In late 19th century Russian-occupied Lithuania, the Lithuanian language, both spoken and written, is banned in an attempt to erase the country and assimilate it into the Motherland.

When 12-year old Audra’s parents are arrested for the crime of book smuggling, Audra joins the resistance, bringing Lithuanian books in from Prussia and distributing them to patriots. As Audra begins to understand how Lithuanian words are their freedom, she realizes how vital her network is to keeping that idea alive.

In tense and exciting sequences, she and Lukas, a boy of her own age, take daring risks to keep the supply of books flowing while being pursued by Cossack soldiers. Though Audra is initially scared and clueless, she credibly gains confidence when she realizes that the magic tricks her father taught her can be used to outwit their enemies.

The prose, plot, and characterization never rise above workmanlike in their service to the fascinating central idea of using language to control the narrative: what can’t be said, can’t be thought. Though Nielsen brings this little-known piece of history to life through Audra, the book lacks further information and resources about the Lithuanian freedom fighters and book smugglers.

Lovely War by Julie Berry

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Lovely War by Julie Berry
Viking, 2018

A gorgeous and lush YA romance set during World War I is framed by a quarrel between the Greek gods representing the novel’s big themes of love, war, art, and death.

When James Aldridge meets piano playing Hazel Windicot at a parish dance, they have only a few days together before he leaves for the front. They are both terribly British: shy and innocent, reticent yet thrumming with interior emotions. They have tea, stroll through parks, and go to a concert, and though they have never even kissed, it’s clear that theirs is a love for the ages.

As James is whisked off to the trenches, Hazel signs up to entertain the troops in France. There she meets up with Belgian Colette Fournier, who has survived a German massacre of her town in which all her friends and family were slaughtered. Through these two women we get to see the confining sexism of the times – neither British nor Belgian women got the vote till after the war, but it’s more the social and cultural norms that chafe here.

They both get to know Aubrey Evans, a black musician (all other main characters are white) who plays with real-life Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry ragtime band aka the Hellfighters. Through Aubrey we see the horrific bigotry that the black soldiers faced from their compatriots. As Aubrey and Colette begin to fall in love, there are warning signs that an interracial romance will be a grenade lobbed into the rigid propriety and attitudes of their “superiors”, so when Aubrey disappears, Colette and Hazel fear the worst.

Both epic and intimate, the novel contrasts the minutely detailed horrors of the trenches with the exquisite intensity of love, particularly during an enchanting interlude when Hazel and James meet in Paris. None of the protagonists are unscathed by the war but, like me, I think many readers will be swept away by the glorious story and the message that, in the end, love conquers war and death.

Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli

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Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O’Brien Carelli
Yellow Jacket, 2018.

There were two historical novels on the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist and they ended up at the bottom of our list – not because they weren’t good, but because we felt that the genre just lacks appeal to many middle grade readers. Skylark and Wallcreeper mixes past and present to interesting effect, whereas Anne Nesbet’s The Orphan Band of Springdale is set wholly in the past. I have enjoyed Ms Nesbet’s books in the past, particularly Cloud and Wallfish but also her earlier fantasies, and I read this one a while ago but did not take sufficient notes for me to write a review. Sorry. Anyway onto a book that I did take notes on.

In 2012, 12yo Lily helps to move her granny, Collette, and the other residents when they are evacuated to the Brooklyn Armory as Superstorm Sandy wreaks havoc on their nursing home in Queens. In the confusion of the move and settling in, Lily loses a fountain pen that is mysteriously precious to her granny and goes in search of it. In a second storyline, Collette is a 12yo in Brume, Southern France, in the final years of World War II and is an active member of the French Resistance.

Parallels can easily be drawn between the two protagonists. They are both persistent, resourceful, independent, and spunky, doing whatever it takes to achieve their goals, though clearly there is a lot more actual danger to Colette. They even look alike, with short hair, as they bicycle around their neighborhoods. Both stories are set in emergency situations in which these young girls are at liberty to make decisions and take actions that they would not normally be able to. Neither girl is given much background or context, though we learn more about Lily’s regular life than Colette’s.

Colette’s chapters are a series of vignettes of her Resistance missions, from the time she is first recruited into “Noah’s Ark” as Wallcreeper. She meets Marguerite, aka Skylark, and together they undertake deliveries, sending messages, and spying, right up to their derailing of a German train. While exciting, this lack of background makes Collette less of a fully-developed character.

Particularly notable is Lily’s empathy and kindness to the dementia-inflicted Colette and the other elderly nursing home residents. But she (and the author) are clear-eyed about these seniors – they are not the cute and funny characters of many books and movies – but are nonetheless regular people with a million stories to tell. However, Lily’s pursuit of the fountain pen is rather forced and there’s an overabundance of coincidences leading to the satisfying conclusion.

Though historical novels can be a tough sell to kids, particularly ones that are not rooted in their own history, they might find the idea of the Resistance has contemporary parallels. The author carefully explains the repugnance felt towards collaborators, and the particular contempt felt towards the Milice, the French military police that supported the Germans. There’s not much light and shade here: the Resistance is good and the collaborators were bad.

I’m not sure how much kid appeal Wallcreeper actually has, and this is not helped by being printed in a large font, making the size of the book potentially quite daunting. However, those who like historical fiction, strong girl characters, and/or exciting adventures will find something to enjoy here.

The Button War by Avi

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The Button War by Avi
Candlewick, 2018

At the start of World War I, in a Russian-occupied remote Polish village, a gang of 11 and 12 year-old boys start a game that quickly spins into something much more serious and dangerous.

The boys set out to “get” buttons from the succession of soldiers of different nationalities that come into their village. Whoever secures the best one (though that is never defined) will become the Button King and all the others will have to bow down to him. The dare is initiated by Jurek, a masterful portrait of a controlling and manipulative bully who knows all the right buttons to push to get the others to follow him. Jurek is powerless in the world, a poor orphan who lives with his uninterested sister, but has great power in the microcosm of the gang. Jurek controls the game, even as the others try to claim victory or walk away: “Jurek invented rules faster than any human being in the world. And they were always about what he wanted.” Like Lord of the Flies, it is easy to forget that these are just young boys.

The others, including the narrator Patryk, all persuade themselves that they’re playing so that they can beat Jurek, but none of them have the agency to turn away from Jurek as he goads them into compliance. Even though Patryk is physically bigger than Jurek, he doesn’t have the single-minded ambition and rage that the other boy is driven by.

The adults that are present are either parents or soldiers. Parents are mostly ineffectual and out of their depth; they know little or nothing of the “far world” (everything outside their village), and have no clue about the tides of history that have washed up in their lives. The soldiers are cruel, thoughtless, and entirely, and deliberately, interchangeable.

This short and stylized novel is a clear allegory for the futility of war, often exemplified by the battlefields of WWI in which hundreds of thousands of men died fighting over a few muddy yards of a field. As one nationality after another comes into the village – Germans, Austrians, French, English, Cossacks – the fallout from the game becomes increasingly serious and becomes one of life and death. This is a pitch-black and thought-provoking novel that doesn’t have an uplifting ending or resolution, so it doesn’t feel particularly suitable or appealing for kids but is an extraordinary work nonetheless.

Grenade by Alan Gratz

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Grenade by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2018

Set in the final days of World War II, this intense middle grade/YA historical fiction takes place during the long and bloody battle of Okinawa. 14-year-old native Okinawan Hideki Kaneshiro is forcibly drafted into Japan’s Blood and Iron Student Corps. He is told that the American soldiers are monsters and given two grenades – one to kill the enemy with and one to kill himself. But when his destiny collides with that of young white Ray Majors, part of the invading American force, he chooses to abandon the fight and find his older sister, the only remaining member of his family.

Gratz (Refugee, 2017) graphically shows the terrors of war through the fears and reactions of his two protagonists. However, the implicit message that soldiers on both sides are ordinary men – husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers – put under such unbearable pressure that they become monsters seems a little disingenuous given Japan’s record of war atrocities.

There is a preliminary note explaining the use of the era’s now offensive terminology and, at the back, an author’s note helpfully elucidates why this island was so important to the US and Japan, what the outcome of this battle meant to both sides, and also provides context about Okinawa’s subjugation to Japan. There will also be a glossary, though this reader didn’t feel the need for one as the Okinawan words and beliefs are fully explained in the text.

Gratz clearly has a feel for this era and showing it through the eyes of teens on both sides makes it accessible history for teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby

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The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby
Candlewick, 2018.

In this middle-grade historical fantasy, set in World War II, the ghosts of London attempt to foil a Nazi plot. Throw in a little Indiana Jones and you have a rather jumbled but sweet tale set during the Blitz.

12 year old Flossie died 16 years ago and is now the turnkey, or protector of the dead, in Highgate Cemetery – one of London’s “Magnificent Seven”. On her wanderings around London she sees a mysterious ghost in an SS uniform who seems to be able to do things that the dead aren’t usually able to. She investigates further and with the aid of the other turnkeys and several Chelsea Pensioners (retired veterans of the British army) she starts to find out what the Nazi has planned. There is also an affecting secondary plot about a young girl whose house is bombed and who hovers between life and death.

Rushby has created an interesting world, though its one in which the rules seem to be made up to suit the plot and coincidences abound. The kindly and gentle characters, all dead and white, seem to come from a nostalgic past in which stiff upper lips and the Blitz spirit were the norm, with the exception, of course, of the irredeemably evil Nazis. The Mayan crystal skull that the SS officer is using has more than a whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Although clearly a labor of love for the author who weaves in many of her personal passions, this feels like it could have been written in the 1950’s and seems like it will have little appeal to American kids.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Balzer + Bray, 2018

The author creates an extraordinary world in this genre-mixing alternate history set after the Civil War.

After the battle of Gettysburg, the dead started rising and attacking the living, so the war between the states turned into the war against the restless dead. The country has turned into autonomous walled city states on the East coast and defended homes and towns elsewhere. The ruling Survivalist party believes that the reason for the dead rising is that the Civil War changed the “natural order” and that only by having White Christian men at the top and everyone else knowing their place would  America be made “safe again”.

This means that the “Negroes” (the official term, less official words used are “darkies” and “coons”) though enfranchised have been forcibly put through combat training school and made to work protecting individuals and cities. Seen as disposable, like animals, and often poorly equipped, they are slaves in another guise, while being told they should be grateful for being taught.

Our protagonist, 17-year-old Jane McKeene is about to graduate from the presitigious Miss Preston’s combat academy. She is dark-skinned and a typical feisty YA heroine who acts before she thinks and is thoughtful, smart, resourceful, and curious. She has her own code of loyalty and self-protection, and while it leads her into some difficult scrapes, the reader is always on her side. Of course she gets into trouble and she, her classmate and nemesis Katherine, a light-skinned beauty, and multiracial Jackson are forcibly sent to Summerland, a new model town which is being built as a model for shambler-free (ie undead-free) settlements everywhere. There are some dark secrets in Summerland and Jane is just the person to uncover them, all the while battling the ever-evolving restless dead.

The characters are all vividly and generously dimensional and there is plenty of thought-provoking parallels to contemporary American society wrapped up in an exciting adventure punctuated with some horrific zombie (though that word is never used) slaying. As the book ends, Jane and her companions are headed off on a new quest and, presumably, for a sequel.

Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin

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Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin
Lion Forge, 2018.

In this elegant graphic memoir, originally published in France in 2015, the white French author goes to Algeria to visit the places her settler family had lived in before they left in the 1960’s after the War of Independence. Olivia has her grandmother’s written memories to guide her along with a local contact called Djaffar.

The novel switches between the present day, her family’s time in Algeria, and Olivia’s and her mother’s early years in France. Olivia’s views on France’s presence in Algeria had been formed by her relatives’ rosy stories of their colonial past, but these were challenged by her school and college friends. It is only now, years later, when she is actually in the country that she can form her own perspective.

A map on the endpapers – clean at the front and marked up with the route and notes at the back – gives a guide to the trip. The detailed black and white illustrations, augmented with the occasional color “photograph” from Olivia’s trip, show the present and the past and their frequent overlap. The scenes of her quest capture the charms of the people, the buildings, and, with an occasional double page spread, the landscape of Algeria and she finally understands why her mother could never find anywhere to settle in France.

As Olivia and Djaffar drive into the Aurès mountains, they find many people who knew her family and are happy to show her their old houses. Even in Algiers, she is welcomed into the family who have lived in her grandparents’ apartment since they left.

Some of this historical background might be a bit challenging for Americans as it assumes at least a basic familiarity with France’s troubled relationship with Algeria, and though there are footnotes to help on specific points, there is no author’s note with some more general background. Nonetheless, it is an evocative memoir about uncovering the past and exploring how it has impinged on the present.