Tag Archives: WWII

Projekt 1065

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13-year-old Michael O’Shaunessey is the only son of an Irish diplomat and his wife, living in Nazi Germany during WWII.  Michael is a member of the Hitler Youth.

But not only is he a member of the Hitler Youth. He is a member of the most elite arm of the organization, the SRD. He is one of the boys other boys run from. His presence invokes terror and respect. Because all who see him know that he would die for Hitler, that his life means nothing to him. He was born to serve the Nazi Party.

Except that he wasn’t. He and his family despise everything the Nazis represent. Ireland may be officially neutral, but Michael and his parents aren’t.  His mum is a spy, and she trains Michael to do the work with her. His photographic memory and innocent eager demeanor prove valuable in their clandestine fight against Germany. But when an unlikely friendship leads him to the discovery of Projekt 1065, it puts him in the dangerous position of having to prove his loyalty to Hitler.

The characters in this novel are interesting. Michael came to Germany as a young boy, and having Irish parents, is not indoctrinated into the Nazi beliefs. But he still must survive in Germany and must blend in so as not call attention to his mother’s activities. The boy has a strong moral compass and knows he is witnessing evil firsthand. But he is still a boy and still craves friendship and action.

He is faced with moral dilemmas ranging from witnessing the killing of Jews on Kristallnacht to the mistreatment of a teacher by fellow Hitler Youth. But he is so immersed in the romance and adventure of playing spy that it isn’t until a person he deeply cares for is sacrificed does he realize that it truly is not a game. He learns that choices have to be made for the greater good, no matter the personal cost, which can sometimes be unbelievably high.

His parents are present throughout the story, and his father constantly questions the need for his son to be further endangered. But his mother recognizes the value of a child is in the intelligence game is that no one would suspect him, leaving him free to listen and look where others couldn’t.

Fritz is Michael’s friend and ally in the Hitler Youth, although Michael has a hard time believing that someone who likes western detective novels and has a hard time participating in the book burnings can ever be a true believer. But Fritz is, and his fanaticism is spot on. He and the other boys with whom Michael interacts are blindly devoted to Hitler, and willing to die for the ideology of the Third Reich.

The plot is engaging and fast moving. With a setting like Nazi Germany during the war, it can hardly be anything else! The story takes place over just a few weeks, with everything from the discovery of the plans to the rescue of a downed pilot, his escape, and Michael’s urgent trip to Switzerland crammed in.

All this is good. But there are still a couple of weaknesses in the novel that make it a good read when it could be a great one.

The first problem is stylistic. Chapters are short, sometimes only a page in length, and did not always need to be broken up. Which made me think that either the author had trouble moving from one scene to the next, or just liked the look of short passages. Although the war is a great setting and things changed so quickly, it made for choppy reading.

The second criticism is of the content. Nazis were bad. I know that, you know that, I think even those unfamiliar with WWII and all its details know that. But author Gratz felt the need to make sure that Michael said or thought, almost once every very short chapter, that he hated the Nazis and everything they stood for and he couldn’t believe that some people worshipped Hitler. I do not need to be beaten over the head with the information. It felt like Gratz was trying to force me to find Michael likeable. Michael is likeable. But he is also a boy that has lived half his young life surrounded by Nazi propaganda. While his parents can set an example and tell him that Nazis are bad, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that he get a bit caught up in SOME of it, while still recognizing the inherent evil.  And that would not make him bad. It would make him human.

In World War II Nazi Germany all boys were compelled to serve in the Hitler Youth. In fact, many prominent world figures of the past half-century were forced to serve in the various units. This novel makes a really good middle-grade companion to the non-fiction histories written about the time. Well researched, it is packed full of action and adventure and is an interesting way to learn about a fascinating and fanatical organization.

Projekt 1065 was published October 11th, 2016 by Scholastic Press.

Flygirl

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Once you start this one, you won’t be able to put it down.

Ida Mae Jones is 17 years old when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour. She works endlessly as a housemaid to save money, trying to earn enough to travel from Louisiana to Chicago to get her pilot’s license. She can’t get one in her hometown, now matter how skilled she is. She is a girl, and she is black. But her daddy was a pilot and a black man, and she knows she has it in her as well.

After the US enters the war, she watches as her dreams of flight get even further out of reach. She is needed at home, earning money and helping to run the family berry farm after her older brother leaves his medical studies to enlist as a medic. But as the war continues years after year, the Army has to free up more men to fight and so creates the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The WASP. Their job is to ferry planes across the country, test out new designs, and take the place of men who could then be released to fight.

Correction. White women can ferry planes and free up men to fight.

Ida Mae’s dreams return, and now being a woman is a positive. But she is still black, and has no chance of being accepted to the program. So she decides to “pass.”  Being light-skinned, she can act the part of a white woman, claiming Spanish heritage to those who look too closely. But passing also means forgetting where she comes from, and denying all those important to her. It also means denying herself. Will it all be worth it?

So much going on in this book!  I have always loved the story of the WASP, and the fight they had to be accepted by the military and by society. But this is a new twist. As a teen, I devoured everything I could get my hands on about the organization, but there was never anything like Flygirl.

So well written. So well researched. Such a believable main character and believable story. With the WASP as the backdrop for Ida Mae’s journey, author Sherri Smith captures the time and place and societal norms perfectly. Wartime, racism, sexism. While the war may have broken down a lot barriers, some were still left firmly in place.

Ida Mae is a strong, smart, independent, young woman who is willing to do what it takes to achieve her dreams in the face of prejudice that I cannot even imagine. She is confronted with incredible challenges and the stakes are immeasurably high if her race is discovered. Her gender has her at a disadvantage to begin with, and her race only lengthens her odds even more.

Her cast of friends is varied, as is her interaction with them and her family. Jolene, her boy-crazy best friend from back home who is deeply hurt when Ida Mae leaves, and her two new sisters-in-arms, Patsy and Lily, who have their own histories they have to overcome. Even with Jolene, Ida Mae can only be slightly more honest about herself than she can be with her white friends, albeit for different reasons.

The family dynamic is interesting and familiar. Her Mama wants to forbid her joining up and flying; knowing a bit more about the world than her daughter does, she sees the pitfalls. Her younger brother and Grandy support her and think she should do what to takes to get ahead, while her older brother is proud but thinks her place is at home. Each in their own way, they know there is a line that cannot be crossed. And the idea that once Ida Mae had passed she could never return to her roots never occurred to me. Her choice to fly meant more than just tough training under horrible circumstances, but a loss of friends and family.

The language, the writing, the descriptions, and the pacing are excellent. Time skipped around a bit during the training – some periods took a long time, others seemed over in a flash – but given that the training is just the back drop to Ida Mae’s journey and the reader doesn’t need a detailed list of every flight the trainees took to get their wings, it all works.

If I have any criticism, it is that that the ending is a bit abrupt. It is not a cliff-hanger or a resolution, nor does it give any indication as to which way Ida Mae would live her life after the war. Does she go home or does she continue to pass? The book just ends. But that small disappointment aside, Flygirl is a great read for anyone.

A wonderful story about a little known organization in American history, about a time when black women faced even more prejudice, and an incredible story about overcoming odds that seem insurmountable. The hurdles these women of colour overcame, including in some cases the need to turn their backs on their families in order to achieve goals, are remarkable.

Smith has included an extensive bibliography at the end of the book, for those who wish to learn more.

Flygirl was published January 22nd, 2009 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

The War that Saved My Life

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I cannot count the number of times I ended up in tears reading this novel. Which made traveling the subway a little embarrassing, and working out on the treadmill downright dangerous.

In 1939 London, 10-year-old (maybe) Ada has lived her life in pain, due to a foot deformity and the mental and physical abuse inflicted by her mother. Neglected and mistreated, she has never been outside her Mam’s one room apartment, never seen grass or a tree, has never learned to read, doesn’t know her own age or birthday, and is ignorant of practically everything that anyone else would take for granted. Ada spends her time looking out her window onto a cheerless laneway, and looking after her little brother Jamie while her mother works in the pub below the flat.

When WWII looms, she and Jamie escape to the country with the child evacuees, hoping to leave their cruel mother behind.

This may be a middle-grade book, but absolutely nothing is unsophisticated about the writing or the emotions in this story. Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written an incredible story about family and hope.

Ada and Jamie and their reluctant hostess Susan are beautiful characters. And while Ada is the central figure in the story, the other two complete the circle. The depth of the children’s neglect and abuse is detailed naturally in their conversations and actions, without horrific description. Susan is not painted as the perfect substitute mother; rather she is a lonely and bitter woman, who has lost love, trusts no one, acknowledges her inability (and lack of desire) to care for children, and embraces her darkness. Her former relationship with her “dear friend” Becky is clear without being gratuitous and offers great context for her withdrawal.

All three grow and change during their life together, with the relationships deepening as the trust develops. What starts as an arms-length relationship when the world is sunny and war is far off, changes to a deep affection and attachment as the world darkens around them. Ada and Jamie learn that there can be safety and kindness and that determination and confidence can help change the world. Or at least, their small corner of it. Susan realizes that she has been holding the world at arms length, rather than the world pushing her away.

There are many types of wars; those between nations, those of ignorance, and those that are fought with oneself. Ada fights pain and ignorance and lack of self-worth, Jamie fear, and Susan loneliness. Surrounded by conflict, each fights personal battles against a backdrop of great evil and terror.

And the evil and terror are accurately depicted.  WWII England was waiting for an invasion in 1939-40, hearing about Hitler’s march through other nations, and wondering if their great country would fall.

The War that Saved My Life celebrates families of all kinds, those you are born into, and those you choose. One is not necessarily superior, but the novel also does not shy away from darkness; sometimes, blood is not a barrier against neglect and hatred. Sometimes it is a perfect cover.

It is a book about hope and kindness. It is about love and finding your place. It is about learning and accepting that you deserve goodness.

And yes, these themes are common in middle-grade fiction, and we have all read the story before. But there is nothing common about this book. Anyone can read it, and should, with a box of tissues alongside.

The War that Saved My Life was published January 8th, 2015 by Dial Books.

Front Lines (Soldier Girl #1)

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In 1942, the Nazis, the greatest fighting force mankind has ever seen, sweep through Europe and North Africa, seeking no less than world domination. But this time, women face them alongside men.

Rio Richlin is 17 years old, just too young to join the fight. But a gold star is sewn on the service flag of her parents’ home, signifying the ultimate sacrifice. And Rio wants to avenge her sister’s death. Her best friend wants to escape her home, and convinces her to enlist. Frangie Marr is a young black woman from a family on the edge of losing their home. She dreams of being a doctor, a tough sell in segregated America. She joins up as a medic, and fights a war within a war. Rainy Schulterman is a Jew in New York. She volunteers, hoping to enter the intelligence service, hoping to find out why her family no longer hears from relatives in Europe, hoping to use her brilliant mind to make Hitler suffer. None believe they will see the front lines.

But nothing ever goes as planned. Or, in the language of the Army, the girls learn quickly, it is FUBAR.

The book is not a short one.  Well over 500 pages in length, it takes the reader through the background, decision to enlist, and the initial training for each girl, before even discussing the war, which happens about halfway through. But the story does not drag. I was captivated from the first page onward.

I LOVE that Michael Grant wrote each girl equally. They are each the heroine of their own story, their narratives intertwining, and each strengthens as they come to know and lean on each other. Throughout the novel, they grow and change as each faces the reality of war. Rio thinks she can avenge her sister as a sharpshooter, until she has her sights trained on an actual soldier. Frangie learns to trust her hands, when her brain betrays her as the guns fire all around. And Rainy learns that all her plotting and planning is carried out by real people, it is not just lines on a map.

Grant’s description of the battles and beach landing ring incredibly true, and illustrate his tireless research. (He includes an extensive bibliography following the story.) Capsizing troop transports, bullets spraying sand, bodies falling as they reach the shore. Grenades exploding in foxholes, loss of limbs and life; blood and horror and thirst and cold and noise and silence.

The language and attitudes are definitely of the time. Rampant racism, sexism and anti-semitism are prevalent in the story, and provide a tough social commentary. It is shocking and thought-provoking, and highlights the battles fought within their own units.

I have only one minor criticism of the story. I found the scattered narration from the mysterious young woman unnecessary and gimmicky. She is only present about 3 times, and yet it is written that she narrates the entire story of these girls’ lives as if she is present throughout. The whole “Gentle Reader” thing annoyed me and was unnecessary to the story.

That picky issue aside, book one in the Soldier Girl series is an important and unusual YA story, and a fantastic way for teens to learn a little about that dark time in our history.

After perusing Grant’s bibliography, if you want even more information about the time and battles (and you will want to learn more, after reading this book!), especially at Kasserine Pass, read Samuel Fuller’s incredible and autobiographical The Big Red One. There are shades of the iconic WWII novel in Front Lines, with the bonds of sisterhood forged through training and in war.

Front Lines was published January 26th 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

Between Shades of Gray

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Ruta Sepetys bases her debut novel on her own family’s history in Lithuania during WWII. It is part of a history that has been overshadowed by the other horrors witnessed during the war years.

Can a book about abuse and starvation and labour and imprisonment in a Siberian work camp be lyrical? This one can. The story about the atrocities committed by Stalin against so many during the war is evocative and beautiful and horrifying and soul crushing and stunning. It takes away hope with one hand, and lets it shine thorough with the other.

15 year old Lina is an artist, looking forward to a life at art school, and all the joys and trials of being a teen. But it is 1941, and she lives in Lithuania, and her life is about to come crashing down. Soviet secret police barge into her home and grab her family; Lina, her mother, and her young brother are separated from her father, sent north on a crowded train, and eventually end up at a work camp in Siberia.

There, Lina witnesses the worst of humanity, and the best. She documents her experiences through her art, in the hope that she can get word to her father where she and her mother and brother are being held. In the hope of seeing him again, and in the hope of maintaining her soul through her sketches. She wants to honour their fight for survival, whether or not they make it out alive.

The title of the book perfectly captures her long imprisonment. She is terrified by the evil which surrounds her, and lifted up by the moments of goodness displayed at the most surprising times.

SO beautifully written. The flashbacks, Lina’s perspective, the way Sepetys documents the day to day life in the camps is more than compelling. She dragged me kicking and screaming into the crowded trains and barracks and freezing fields, right into the fight for food and medicine and life. The bone-numbing cold and the growing pile of corpses, the loss of friend after friend after family member is heart-wrenching and horrifying.

The characters are vivid and so well written.  The toll of their imprisonment, the strain of the adults trying to shield their children, the children being forced into early adulthood, and even the innocent romance between Lina and Andrius; the characters lose hope even as they continue to fight for their lives, and Sepetys writes them all so clearly.

This is a tough book about a horrific subject. But it is still a YA novel, and can be read by the entire age range.

Between Shades of Gray is published by Philomel Books.

Wolf by Wolf

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So much for a nice, light read. Wolf by Wolf will grab your heart and leave you gasping for breath. This is one that you will not be able to put down.

In 1956, in the capitol of the alternative reality Third Reich, Yael carries the hopes and the weight of the resistance on her shoulders. As the survivor of a painful medical experiment in the death camps, she escaped with the ability to change her appearance at will, or skinshift.  This supernatural ability is her hope for a successful mission to change the world.

The victorious Third Reich and Imperial Japan control half the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia after WWII, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race from Germania to Tokyo, 20,000 kms long, with the best of the best of elite teenage racers competing. The victor is honoured with wealth and celebrity, and the chance to meet with Hitler himself.

Yael has one goal: win the race and kill Hitler. Avenge and honour the lives of millions, but specifically the four lives that haunt her, and the one life that taught her to live again. But she can’t race as herself; she does not exist. Yael must become another in order to compete, she must stand out to blend in.

Yael is an amazingly relatable character, given the torment and torture that defined her childhood.  With her ability to skinshift and take on new faces and personas, she must find a way to define herself beyond her physical presence. She learns to channel her pain, not to leave it behind, and to use it to fuel her purpose.

The various supporting characters are as alive as Yael. With a few strokes of her pen, author Ryan Graudin paints vivid characters that fight and race and scheme and die around the reader. The five wolves that mark Yael are as distinct as the rest of the cast; while their actual appearances in the story were necessarily brief, their images haunt throughout.

The world building, difficult to do in a “what if” recent past, was impeccable. Graudin transported me to the dark streets of Germania, dingy beer halls, arid deserts, exotic cafes and humid jungles. The various scenes had me on the edge of my seat, and I can say with complete honesty that the ending was a total surprise. I did not know who to trust, and who to avoid. I did not know if Yael would be successful in her mission; Graudin gave nothing away. The twist at the end left me reeling.

There will be a second book – thank goodness! I need more.

This is an excellent book, but with dark imagery of death camps, medical torture and wartime. It may not be for everyone.

Wolf by Wolf is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Rose Under Fire

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The follow-up to Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire picks up the story shortly after the first book ends. You will plunge right back into the horror and heroism of the war right from the opening words.

18 year old Rose Justice is an American pilot flying with the ATA (Air Transport Auxilliary). She has been in England for just over a half a year, is friends with Maddie, and is learning about loss and friendship.

Doodlebugs and buzzbombs – funny names for such lethal weapons of destruction, the German flying bombs.  Not only did they destroy so much of England on the ground, but they were also a danger to the pilots flying above.  Rose learns of a method some of the fighter pilots use to tip the bombs harmlessly into fields, and finds herself presented with the opportunity to try.  It works, but at such a cost to herself.

While flying an Allied plane from liberated Paris back to England, she follows such a bomb, loses her way, and is captured by the Nazis.  She is sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, forced to live with the atrocities that she herself had once denied could happen. No one, not even the Nazis, could do what the reports said.

Rose is a poet.  The book is filled with her words, describing the horrific conditions and experiences of her six months in the concentration camp.  Her words also describe the incredible bravery and friendship of the women she was interned with during the last months of the war.

Rose’s time immediately post-war, as she lives in the Ritz in Paris and tries to come to terms with her experiences, will break your heart.  It takes a visit from Maddie on V-E Day to drag her from her cocoon, and start her on the slow road to recovery.  If it is even possible.

Beyond anything, Rose Under Fire is about the resilience of the human spirit, the strength of friendship, and how hope can triumph when all seems lost.

Wein has written another masterpiece of research woven with imagination.  Her words evoke unimaginable suffering, but even when the reader wants to stop, to not know, you have to continue. “Tell the world!” is the battle cry of the prisoners.  Wein has done that; even more than 70 years after the war, her words shock and horrify.

Read Wein’s personal chapter at the end, to understand her research methods and motivations.

Rose Under Fire is published by Doubleday Canada.