Girl at War

GirlatWar

Girl at War
Sara Novic
Random House
May 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

As a young girl, Ana suffers some very traumatic experiences during the War for Independence in her home country of Croatia, which was still part of Yugoslavia at the time. She comes to live and study in New York City where she has a boyfriend, an adopted family that loves her, and a role presenting to the UN about her experiences as a child of war. Her past is told through flashbacks and the story comes full circle when she returns to Croatia as a young woman to face a past that others tell her she ought to move on from but can’t let go of (she still wakes up screaming from nightmares). In Croatia, she seeks out friends she thought might be dead and revisits places that bring her joy and heartbreak, both through her memories and through the new experiences that bring at least a possibility of closure. Girl at War has an abrupt ending that has the potential to piss off a lot of readers with its open-endedness.

How much do you know about the Croatian War of Independence? Before this book I knew almost nothing. Now, after some Wikipedia and Brittanica browsing, I know slightly more but still probably less than such an event deserves. A few scenes from Girl at War have been haunting me for the last week or so because facing what humans do to each other in war is something I never get used to and hopefully never will. You might want to keep some tissues near by as you read this one.

Audacity

audacity

Audacity
Melanie Crowder
Philomel
January 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the YALSA list of Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Melanie Crowder’s novel in verse tells the story of Clara Lemlich, a women’s labor activist in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. We follow Clara from the Russian shtetl where her family was the victim of pogroms to Ellis Island and a new but still impoverished life in New York. With her father and three brothers occupied studying Torah full time, Clara and her mother must find ways to earn money to support the family. Clara finds work in garment sweatshops with abusive managers, unreasonable hours and quotas, locked doors, child laborers, and unsafe working environments, all to earn less than $10 a week. Seeing the injustice and danger in working in such conditions, Clara sets out to unionize the female workers. She is met with opposition from her family, the men’s union, the managers, and their hired goons who beat her up on several occasions, but she won’t be silenced. At great personal cost, Clara perseveres and makes greater gains than her doubters could have imagined. While Clara’s story is compelling – even more so with the modern fight for wage equality and raising the minimum wage – the end of the book is unsatisfying and feels a bit unfinished. Extensive back matter elaborates on Clara’s story and labor issues of the time.

Clara’s family’s Jewish traditions and lifestyle were particularly interesting to me. I’m currently living in Jerusalem and am learning so much about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Much of it is unchanged from what the book describes in the early 1900s. Still today it’s very common for the men in ultra-Orthodox families to study Torah while the women of the family are the main providers, both financially and domestically, usually for families with 6 or more children. In Israel, the government has a welfare system to make sure these families don’t starve, but it is expensive and these families still live in relative poverty. Keeping Kosher while traveling and working on Shabbat are other issues that modern Jews still deal with, though access to packaged food and labor laws regarding religion make these much less of a big deal than they were for Clara’s family.

My other takeaway from this book – I’m shocked by how much Clara gets beat up! There is some serious violence against women in this book, and it is just amazing to me how this doesn’t scare Clara into silence. She really was so brave. She deserves to be held up as an example of standing up for what you believe in.

X

X

X
Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press
January 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On YALSA’s 2016 list Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Malcolm X is a historical icon of the civil rights movement, but how much does your average person know about his young life that led him there? In X, Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, with co-writer Kekla Magoon, presents a fictionalized telling of her father’s young, fast life and illegal escapades starting in Lansing, Michigan when he is 15, and ending in a Massachusetts prison complex by way of Boston and Harlem. It’s not all jazz bars and zoot suits, though there is a lot of those. Malcolm Little, as he was known then, is also in a lot of emotional pain over his father’s death, his mother’s institutionalization, the killing and oppression of black people in America, and the disappointments and betrayals that seem to meet him at every turn. The story is told first-person by Malcolm, who despite some of the illegal and immoral things he does, comes across as a very sympathetic character, someone to root for in spite of his choices. The Harlem and Roxbury settings come alive with music and dance halls and dodgy characters. The back matter is extensive with several notes about the time period, Malcolm X’s life after the book ends, a timeline, a family tree, and further reading.

 

Salt to the Sea

Salttothesea

Salt to the Sea
Ruta Sepetys
Philomel Books
February 2016
Advanced Reader Copy courtesy of NetGalley

In 1945, thousands desperately flee Nazi-controlled East Prussia (modern-day Northern Poland and Lithuania along the Baltic Sea) ahead of a wave of Russian military invasion that brings looting, rape, and almost certain death to those in its path. Among these refugees are a small, eclectic group – including Joana, a beautiful Lithuanian nurse and leader of the group; Florian, a mysterious German; and Emilia, a strange and frightened Polish girl, all of whom narrate the story in alternating chapters – brought together by their circumstances. The group is picking their way across the countryside toward the port at Gotenhoffen in the slim chance that they can board one of a handful of ships evacuating people to Germany. Only some survive the treacherous journey full of Nazi checkpoints, dangerous crossings, bitter cold, and near starvation, but for those who make it aboard the ship Wilhem Gustloff, the nightmare is only beginning.

I finished this book a few days ago and I cannot stop thinking about it. To say this story is haunting is an understatement. First of all, how had I never heard about this bit of World War II history? Sepetys’s author’s note at the end of the book is fascinating. I read it aloud to my husband at breakfast the morning after I finished the book, punctuated by “can you believe that?” Her research notes and the sheer amount of travel and interviews she did is also amazing.

Second of all, a well written, first-person telling of a major disaster always gets inside my head (Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes about Hurricane Katrina comes to mind). When you hear about big disasters – natural or otherwise – on the news or in a history book, it’s difficult to imagine experiencing something of that magnitude first hand – the pace of the event, the realization of what has or is going to happen, the terror and instinct for survival, the uncertainty and enormity of it all. Hopefully not many of us will experience anything like this for ourselves so reading about it and putting yourself in the character’s place is extra powerful.

ALERT: tiny spoiler ahead, an insignificant one but I’m not trying to ruin anything…

There were a couple things that go unexplained that have been bothering me. How can a day-old newborn survive without his or her mother in the conditions at the end of this book? There’s also a stolen crystal butterfly that appears very briefly and then is briefly mentioned again near the end of the book. I can’t figure out what the deal is with this butterfly despite its being stolen by one of the narrators – a Nazi sailor named Alfred. If I think about it long enough, I can probably find some symbolism for it in this narrator’s back story, but if so, it is subtle. Or I just read too fast. Or it’s just one of those mysterious loose ends intentionally put in the story to remind us that not everything has an answer and not everything can be known, especially under the circumstances of this story.

Youth lit awards season is upon us so I know it’s a bit early. However, depending on what else comes out this year, I think this one has potential to be considered for recognition in 2016.

Read alikes

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

NaNoReadMo: All the Light We Cannot See

all the light

All The Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Scribner
May 2014

The coastal city of Saint-Malo, France, is a stronghold of the Germans in the early 1940s. The book begins with the Americans dropping flyers and then bombing the city where blind teen Marie-Laure hides in her great uncle’s house. She possesses a priceless, possibly cursed gem that that the Nazis, one Nazi operative in particular, would kill to get their hands on. In another part of the city, Werner Pfennig, a orphaned teenage engineering prodigy in the Nazi army, is trapped in the basement of a hotel the Germans were using as a base. Their stories, which the reader gets in chapters alternating between their earlier lives as World War II ramps up and the 1944 bombings of Saint-Malo, couldn’t be more different but both have led them to Saint-Malo where they make choices based on years of loss, forced resiliency, unanswered questions, and questionable decisions but also hope and the possibility of setting things right.

The young characters’ nearly manic obsession with things was something that really stood out for me in this book. Marie-Laure learns about mollusks from her father’s colleague at the National Museum of Natural History, a subject that turns into an emotional and physical refuge when she and her father move to Saint-Malo and a grotto full of sea snails is the only place she can escape the fear that rules the city. Werner and his sister Jutta are captivated by radios – Jutta for their ability to let her hear news and broadcasts from around Europe, sometimes illegally, and Werner for the way they work, the engineering and physics that make radios possible. Werner has a charming but often bullied best friend, Frederick, who has extensive knowledge of and a relentless fascination with birds. It is incredible the amount of depth such singular passions bring to the characters. It also is a testament to the characters’ youth, the compulsion to collect and discover and tinker that many adults don’t allow themselves to give into, especially with war looming among the other pressures of adult life.

While the book was narrated in the omniscient third person, much of the book was focalized through Werner and Marie-Laure, and I just loved to read Marie-Laure’s experience with blindness. It was such an unusual, all-encompassing character trait. Calling it a “character trait” seems trite but I wouldn’t even call it a disability based on the book because it was rarely presented as a disability. With some help from her father, Marie-Laure was an incredibly capable young woman who had nary a shred of self pity about her loss of eyesight at an age when she was old enough to appreciate having been able to see. There were a couple of descriptive passages that were told through Marie-Laure’s experience but that read every so briefly as though certain objects were being seen. Otherwise I was very impressed by Doerr’s writing of a blind teenage girl and constantly reminded of the things I take for granted as a fully sighted person.

As you can tell from my book reviews, I rarely read adult books and even more rarely take the time to review them on this blog. All the Light They Cannot See may be written and published for adults, but I think there is a lot here that teen readers and readers of teen books can enjoy. It was also surprisingly “clean” for an adult book – limited swearing, almost no sex, and isolated instances of graphic violence, which is totally appropriate considering the time period. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ends up in high school curricula or at least on summer reading lists.

Read alikes:

Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers
Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak

Black Dove White Raven

Black Dove White Raven

Black Dove White Raven
Elizabeth Wein
Disney-Hyperion
March 31, 2015
Advanced copy received from NetGalley

In the1930s a tragic plane crash kills Deliah, one of the barnstorming duo of Black Dove and White Raven, leaving Rhoda, the White Raven, to raise Deliah’s African American son, Teo, alongside her own daughter, Em. Attempting to escape the racism of America, Rhoda takes the children to live in a small coffee farming town in Ethiopia where she serves as a nurse and teaches her kids and the locals how to fly her small airplane bought for her by her Italian husband and Em’s father who serves in the Mussolini’s air force just over the border in Italian Somaliland. As war between Italy and Ethiopia looms, the Italians ask Rhoda to betray her adopted home country and use her plane to spy for them. At the same time they have learned a dark secret about Teo’s Ethiopian father that may tear their family apart but may also give Teo the chance to save a culture from destruction as the country spirals into full-fledged war. The story alternates in perspective between Teo and Em through essays, flight log entries, snippets of their own made up stories about heroes of their own creation (also called Black Dove and White Raven), and even a letter to the emperor of Ethiopia. Elizabeth Wein tackles a time period and a war that are likely unknown to most teens and even adults and continues to do what she does best – write historical fiction in which the characters are deeply involved and affected by the history being made and the wars being fought around them. And of course, there are airplanes.

For me, Elizabeth Wein will have a hard time ever topping Code Name Verity, and Black Dove White Raven doesn’t even come close.  However, much like the flights that her characters take, both books have unexpected twists that keep me coming back every time she writes another book.