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The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

Historical fiction set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. Or is it magical realism? The horses featured in the story are very, very intelligent, crafty, and communicative. Then, there’s the question of whether this book is middle grade fiction or young adult. The main character, a Jewish girl named Kalinka, is young, maybe twelve or thirteen? But a lot of what happens in this World War II-setting novel is very, very dark. I don’t exactly know how to classify this book, and that ambiguity in being able to pigeon-hole the book into “YA Holocaust novel” or “middle grade horse book” or “magical horse story” or something else makes it that much more intriguing to me.

Kalinka’s entire family has been annihilated by the Nazis. Max, the wildlife manager at Aksaniya-Nova wildlife preserve, is pretending to cooperate with the Germans so that he can protect the animals he loves, especially the rare and wild Przewalski’s horses. As Kalinka forms a bond with the horses out on the snowy plains where they live, Max forms a plan to save both Kalinka and the horses from the German soldiers who have been ordered to wipe out both the Jews and the ancient breed of Przewalski’s.

The style of writing in this novel comes across as very Russian (Ukrainian?) to me. The writing is rather simple and unadorned, and Max’s philosophy of “live and let live” and “persevere to fight another day” strikes me as typical of a Ukrainian peasant, at least the Ukrainian peasants I’ve read about in Russian novels. Something about the way the book is written, the characters, and the descriptions made me eel as if I were in Ukraine in the winter of 1941, watching the events unfold. Even when the events that unfold are borderline unbelievable (a horse that counts and strategizes?), I wanted to believe. And when the plot turned to harsh, violent, and tragic, I wanted to close my eyes and disbelieve that things like genocide, animal cruelty, bombings, and attempted cannibalism really could happen. But those latter things, the ones I wished weren’t at all possible, were the ones that did happen, and probably still are happening.

I would recommend this book for older teens who can handle the horrors and can yet still suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a semi-happy ending.

Kalinka’s (nick)name comes from an old Russian song by composer and folklorist Ivan Petrovich Larionov:

And here’s a short video about Przewalski’s horses:

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

I really enjoyed certain aspects of this murder mystery set in 1932 among the rich, royal, famous, and impecunious of England. It had the flavor of I Capture the Castle mixed with Downton Abbey mixed with a little P.G. Wodehouse. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of Glen Garry and Ranoch, aka Georgie, finds herself unmarried, without funds, and without a real goal in life. She decides to leave the drafty castle in Scotland that belongs to her older brother the duke, aka Binky, and try her luck in London, unchaperoned and completely unsure about her future plans.

“I reminded myself that it is the 1930’s. Young ladies were allowed to do more than embroider, play piano, and paint watercolors. And London was a big city, teeming with opportunities for a bright young person like myself.”

Georgie, in addition to being of the aristocracy, is also a (very)minor royal, thirty-fourth in line to the throne. The title and the relations don’t get her much in the way of money, but she does get a summons from the queen (Queen Mary, wife of George V) and a commission to do a little bit of harmless spying on Prince Edward and the American woman he seems to have become involved with. However, Georgie finds that surviving on one’s own is more difficult than she had imagined, and spying on a prince comes with its own hazards.

Georgie is a wonderful character, intelligent but innocent. I liked her, and I liked seeing her navigate her way through the perils and amusements of a certain segment of London society. However, the minor characters are not so delightful. Georgie takes up with an old school friend whose constant advice is that Georgie must lose the dreadful “burden” of her virginity as soon as possible. Georgie doesn’t take her friend’s advice, but she is sorely tempted. And she never really mounts any kind of a moral or philosophical defense against this promiscuous and shallow idea of what life is all about.

So, I liked the setting, the plot was OK, and the main character is fun to watch, even if she is a little too easily influenced by foolish and unsavory characters. But the constant drumbeat of propaganda in favor of promiscuous, unattached sexual encounters spoiled the rest of the story for me, even though the actual sexual escapades in the book are limited in number and off-stage. I probably won’t read the rest of the series.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I didn’t know until the very end of this book what the title “the green glass sea” meant, but it turned out to be an appropriate name for a particularly enjoyable book. The Green Glass Sea was the winner of the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, an award presented to a children’s or young adult book published in English by a U.S. publisher and set in the Americas. I certainly concur with the award committee and with several reviewers who liked the book a lot, including Kelly at Big A Little a, Bookshelves of Doom, and Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 (that last review is where I think I heard about this book and put it on my TBR list several years ago.)

Published in 2006, the book’s setting is World War II, 1943-1945, in Los Alamos, NM. I learned a lot, painlessly, about the Manhattan Project and the background to the development of the atomic bomb just from reading this book. I didn’t know that Los Alamos didn’t even appear on the map during the mid-1940’s, and that the project was such a secret that the scientists who were working on it had to live in a place called the Hill (Los Alamos). In the book kids and adults were told, “Off the Hill, you can’t tell anyone where you live, or who you live with, or what you see or hear.”

The setting and the characters drive the plot in this rather quiet story about an eleven year old girl, Dewe Kerrigan, who comes to I’ve with her scientist father on the Hill. Dewey is delighted to live in this math and science town as she gets to question famous scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Dick Feynman and scour the town dump for cast-offs for her mechanical projects built out of spare parts and ingenuity. However, Dewey’s scientific and mechanical interests make her something of a misfit with the other children in Los Alamos who call her “Screwy Dewy,” and when tragedy strikes, Dewey is not sure where she can turn for help.

The author makes some odd choices about verb tenses. The book starts out in third person, but told from Dewey’s point of view, in present tense, and continues that way for the first 37 pages. Then, it switches to third person, another girl named Suze’s point of view, past tense. The story alternates between Suze’s thoughts and feelings and Dewey’s, staying in past tense. Then later in the book, the author throws in a couple of pages here and there where we’re watching Dewey again, and her story is told in present tense again. I’m not sure what the point was. Maybe someone else can explain?

Such a great story, though. Dewey, and later the other main character, Suze, are very real characters with quirks and changes in attitude and demeanor throughout the book. There is some cursing in the dialogue in the book, which may bother some young readers, but it wasn’t overdone, just enough to be true to the times and the atmosphere. Suze’s mother smokes like a fiend, and the adults all indulge in the occasional beer or other alcoholic beverage of choice, again very true to life. I enjoyed getting to know all of the characters in this book, and I didn’t want it to end. So I’m glad to find out that there’s a sequel called White Sands, Red Menace. Dewey is a young lady I really want to know more.

Oh, and by the way, I loved the ending—very realistic in the characters’ obliviousness to the import of the news they hear on the radio about some place in Japan called Hiroshima.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks

One of my favorite YA novels is The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. So, when I found another YA novel by Mr. Brooks at the used bookstore the other day, I snapped it up immediately.

Midnight Hour Encores is about a cellist, Sibilance T. Spooner, not a basketball player. And it takes place in the mid 1980’s (published in 1986) as the aforementioned Sibilance asks her leftover hippie father Taxi to take her to San Francisco to meet her mother. Taxi, despite his love for 60’s music and culture, has been the responsible parent in Sib’s life, the one who took her to cello lessons, gave her a home, and gave her plenty of space to grow up into one of the world’s most promising cellists and a very confident and prepossessing sixteen year old woman.

However, as Taxi and Sib travel across the country in an old VW bus, they find that each of them has been harboring a few secrets. And when Sib finally meets the mom who left them when Sib was a baby, things become very complicated.

This book was not as good as The Moves Make the Man, at least not as good as I remember that book to be. (I haven’t read it in twenty years, but I liked it a lot.) Midnight Hour Encores did have its moments, and the emphasis on the idea that people grow and change and that people are complicated and hard to pigeonhole—that was good. The casual acceptance of kids and adults having casual sex was a minor aspect of the book, but I could have done without the assumptions. The ending surprised me, in a good way.

If you’re interested in the 1960’s or in the world of top-flight teen musicians or in complicated family relationships, you might enjoy Midnight Hour Encores. If you haven’t read The Moves Make the Man, I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in basketball whatsoever.

The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier

Wow! This one ranks right up there with Rebecca as one of Du Maurier’s best novels of intrigue and suspense, with plenty of twists, turns and unexpected revelations to keep the pages turning.

“Two men—one English, the other French—meet by chance in a province railway station and are astounded that they are so much alike that they could easily pas for each other. Over the course of a long evening, they talk and drink. It is not until he awakes the next day that John, the Englishman, realizes that he may have spoken too much. His French companion is gone, having stolen his identity. For his part, John has no choice but to take the Frenchman’s place—as master of a chateau, director of a failing business, head of a large and embittered family, and keeper of too many secrets.” ~From the blurb on the back of the book.

The initial premise is a little shaky: can two people who are not twins really look so much alike that a switch will fool even their closest friends and kin? However, given that postulation, the story is incredibly insightful as John realizes that he is bound to the past decisions and mistakes of the man he is impersonating in such a way as to make him almost unable to act in any way except the way that the Comte Jean de Gue would have acted in the same situation. John struggles to become Jean—and to keep from becoming Jean. Then, John must decide whether to let himself care about Jean’s family and Jean’s community, thereby running the risk of hurting them and they him, or whether he wants to withdraw and run away from the responsibilities and possibilities that his new life has thrust upon him.

Several questions infuse the plot with significance:
To what extent am I compelled to be the person that others expect me to be?
Can people change?
Is anyone wholly evil or wholly good, or are we all some admixture of both?
To what extent does a person become what he pretends to be?
Do good intentions redeem mistaken actions that hurt others?
Does the past pre-determine the future?

I just found this review by Helen at She Reads Novels in which she says that “[t]here is also another way to interpret the story, one which goes deeper into the psychology of identity.” I must say that I think I know what she is hinting at, but I hadn’t thought of this alternate theory of what happens in the novel until I read Helen’s review. It’s an interesting thought, and it makes me want to go back and re-read the entire novel to see if it really can be read the way I’m thinking. Enigmatic enough for you?

If you like psychological suspense and the philosophical exploration of sin, history, and identity in your novels, you won’t want to to miss The Scapegoat.

D-Day: Books for Children and Young Adults

D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 by Rick Atkinson.
The Story of D-Day: June 6, 1944 by Bruce Bliven, Jr. (Landmark Book #62)

Mr. Atkinson’s story of the events of D-Day was “adapted for young readers from the #1 New York Times–bestselling The Guns at Last Light, D-Day.” Guns at Last Light is the third in a trilogy of books by Mr. Atkinson called the Liberation Trilogy. The three books in the trilogy chronicle the history of the liberation of North Africa, Italy, and Western Europe, respectively. This children’s version of a portion of the third book was published in 2014 by Henry Holt and Company. Rick Atkinson won Pulitzer prizes in both journalism and history, so he would seem to be well-qualified to write on the subject.

I found the book somewhat appealing, especially the photographs, but it was heavy on the details and statistics. I got lost in some sections of the book because of my lack of military expertise in general and my lack of knowledge about World War II and D-Day in particular. The book felt like what it was: a compilation/abridgement of details from a narrative that probably flowed much better and was more understandable in the original, adult version. Young readers (and I along with them) would need both more explanation and less detail in a narrative written just for them.

Mr. Bliven’s Story of D-Day is a part of the classic Landmark series of books on U.S. and World History. Bliven tells the story of D-Day as a story. He fills in background about the war, the troops, and their weapons as the narrative progresses, and the tension and force of the story are preserved in a way that includes plenty of statistics and details, but doesn’t become entangled in them.

Mr. Bliven’s narrative flow is just better than that of the newer book by Mr. Atkinson, probably because Mr. Bliven wrote his book as a whole book for young adults while Mr. Atkinson’s book is an abridgment of a longer work for adults. Also, Mr. Blivens had the advantage over Mr. Atkinson; Bliven was a part of the Allied force that landed in Normandy on D-Day.

“Mr. Bliven wrote briefly for a newspaper in Stroudsburg, Pa., and for The Manchester Guardian, the British paper, before graduating from Harvard in 1937. He then wrote editorials for The New York Post, leaving to serve in World War II.
‘I was a lieutenant in the field artillery and took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy and wrote a children’s book about it a dozen years later to find out what happened,’ he said. That book was ‘The Story of D-Day, June 6, 1944′ (Random House, 1956). ~From a NY Times obituary article about Bruce Bliven, January 14, 2002.

Even though, as Blivens makes clear in his book, most of the men who were in the first wave of soldiers on the Normandy coast on D-Day had no idea about what was going on in the overall invasion, or even what the plan was for the entire operation, Bliven was able to reconstruct the story of D-Day and make it clear for young readers and for adults like me who need lots of “hand-holding’ background and explanation embedded in an absorbing narrative story.

I highly recommend the 1956 The Story of D-Day, or possibly (I haven’t read it) the updated version of Bliven’s classic account, Invasion: the Story of D-Day, which was published by Sterling Publishers in 2007.

Poetry Friday: Hosie’s Aviary by Tobias and Leonard Baskin

Hosie’s Aviary is a book of bird poems and drawings. It’s a lovely collection, a family project, and a delight to the ear and the eye. For example, the poem “EGRET”:

Long hair
and pencil bill,
does this egret write poems?

Leonard Baskin was planning and studying to become an Orthodox rabbi like his father until at age 14 he saw a sculpture demonstration in Macy’s department store, and he began studying art instead. Baskin became a famous sculptor and also illustrated many children’s books; however, it was for Hosie’s Alphabet (Viking), text written by his children Hosea and Tobias and by Lisa, his second wife, that he received a Caldecott Honor in 1973. In 1979, Mr. Baskin illustrated and published Hosie’s Aviary, also published by Viking Press and also written by his children Tobias, Lucretia, and Hosea, and by Lisa Baskin.

Leonard Baskin, who died in 2000, seems to have been a fascinating man. He was a friend of Ted Hughes, for whom he illustrated the poetry collection, Crow. The first Crow poems were written in response to a request by Baskin, who had at the time produced several pen and ink drawings of crows. Hughes’ wife, Sylvia Plath, dedicated one of her poems, “Sculptor”, to Leonard Baskin. Mr. Baskin was the sculptor for one section of the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

Tobias Baskin, who just happens to have been born the same year I was, became a “self-directed learner” much like his father. He is now a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the following video, he gives an acceptance speech to a homeschool group called North Star in Massachusetts which gave him an award for self-directed learning, or as he says, for dropping out of high school:

Tobias Baskin, 2010 from North Star on Vimeo.

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

A best-selling author of adult women’s novels and a picture book author, who happen to be married to each other, team up to write a middle grade time travel adventure. It sounds as if it might be a good idea.

However, I just don’t think they pulled it off. The plot is fine: Margaret’s only hope to save her father from dying for a crime he didn’t commit is to go back in time and stop the chain of events that turned her father’s harsh judge into a merciless tyrant. Luckily for Margaret and for her dad, time travel runs in the family, even though the family members have all made a solemn vow not to use their time-travelling abilities.

It’s not the plot; it’s the characters themselves and their motivations that are clunky and unreal. Lucas, the unjust judge, becomes a minion of the very forces and people he wanted his father to fight against, and he loses faith in his father with very little warrant. Margaret’s father is sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of little or no evidence, and the fact that the “company”, Victory Fuels, owns the town and is out to get him doesn’t really seem plausible. They’ve bought not only the whole town, but also the entire state of Arizona it seems.

The authors live in Delaware, and their concept of the backwardness of Arizona, both in 1938 and in 2014, just doesn’t ring true for me. Hove they been to Arizona? Of course, I’ve never been to Arizona myself, so I could be wrong. Maybe Arizona is just full of towns owned by energy companies who are evilly fracking away the environment and railroading whistle blowers into long prison sentences on trumped up charges. After all, it’s Arizona. Villainous energy companies. Anti-environmentalists. Corrupt justice system.

Then, to top it all off, Margaret and her friends Josh and Charlie are able to effect a complete turn around in the judge’s character and actions with an insignificant little historical artifact. Just as Lucas Biggs became a father-hating minion of evil on the basis of very little evidence, he also repents and does a 180 without much reason to do so.

I just couldn’t swallow this one. But the time travel aspect is handled well.