Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sink or Swim: A Novel of World War II by Steve Watkins

Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 17 year-old Danny Graham joins the navy. But before he leaves for boot camp, he and his brother Colton, 12, are out fishing one day when a German U-boot suddenly surfaces, injuring Danny and putting him in a coma.

Angry at the Germans for what happened to his brother, and feeling like there is nothing he can do, Colton decides to take Danny's enlistment papers and take his brother's place in the Navy. Tall for his age, Colton doesn't really look 17, but the country was desperate for fighting men and didn't look that closely at him, although different people do question his age.

Colton, now called Danny, gets through boot camp, and even manages to impress his company commander with his knowledge of knot tying. Along the way, Colton makes two good friends, Josef Straub, legally in the Navy, and Woody, a 15 year old who also lied about his age in order to enlist.  After graduating from boot camp, he is sent to Miami for subchaser training along with Straub and Woody. Subchasing was the job he requested in order to pay the Germans back for what they did to the real Danny.

The three friends are eventually deployed on a patrol craft, whose job is to escort convoys of merchant ships up and down the eastern seaboard, looking for U-boats and wolf packs (groups of submarines), and attacking them before they could attack the convoy. Later, Colton's patrol craft is assigned to escort a convoy in the North Atlantic during the Battle for the Atlantic. Conditions in the North Atlantic are terrible, mostly because of the freezing weather and rough seas, but eventually a wolf pack attacks, and Colton's ship is sunk. A handful of survivors find themselves in the North Atlantic in a lifeboat surrounded by sharks for a number of weeks. Finally, they are rescued along with some captured Germans, and Colton finds himself in a New York City hospital, recovering from a serious leg wound. And then his mother, who has had no idea where her son was or what he had done, shows up...

Sink or Swim is definitely not a character driven story. It is, however, a real action-packed novel that gives detailed realistic descriptions about everything Colton experiences in the Navy. And while this may sound like the exciting Navy adventures of a 12 year-old, there is enough truth in Colton's story to show the other side of war - death, destruction, fighting, and the fact that the Germans they run into are just young teenage boys, too.

I did think that Watkins did a great job of maintaining a certain innocence in Colton. He is, really, just a seventh grader when he joins up. Feeling a tinge of guilt that his mom doesn't know where he is and what he's doing, he dutifully sends home his pay each month, sans $1.00 for himself. Compare that to his friend Woody, who spends it as quickly as he gets it.

Although this isn't a character driven novel, I did like the cast of characters that Watkins put Colton in touch with. Sometimes they could be a bit nasty to him until he proved himself, but for the most part they were a pretty nice bunch of men. It was refreshing to read about men who didn't need to feed their manly egos in war for a change. And I think that helps make this a much more appealing story for middle grade readers.

Watkins includes a nice glossary of Navy terms and of different events, like the Battle for the Atlantic, that might not be familiar to all readers. He clearly did a good deal of research for Colton's story, and has woven in lots of historically accurate facts that make this book so interesting to read. And readers may be surprised to learn in the Author's Note that Colton's story is based on the true-life story of a boy named Calvin Graham. Watkins includes a number of books and articles he read while writing Sink or Swim, including two about Calvin. One of them, "The Boy Who Became a World War II Veteran at 13 Years Old" can be read online.

Sink or Swim is an exciting story that should appeal to WWII buffs, history buffs, and the fast pacing makes it particularly appealing for reluctant readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC sent to me by the publisher, Scholastic Press

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ranger in Time: D-Day: Battle on the Beach by Kate Messner, illustrated by Kelly McMorris

This is the 7th Ranger in Time novel in this series, but I have to confess, it is the first one I've read. The overall premise is simple: Ranger is a golden retriever that has been trained as a search-and-rescue dog but has failed to pass the official test. It seems he keeps getting distracted by squirrels. Ranger lives with Luke and his sister Sadie. One day, while playing in the garden with Luke, Ranger finds a mysterious first aid kit complete with a strap that can go around his neck. Whenever the first aid kit begins to hum, Ranger knows that somewhere, someone is in trouble, and once he has the kit around his neck, Ranger will be transported through time to help whoever needs him.

This time Ranger is transported to Normandy Beach just as the D-Day invasion is beginning. Walt Burrell, an African American soldier in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, is also at Normandy Beach, packed tightly in a landing craft waiting to storm the beach. As part of the 320th, Walt's job is to hoist up the giant barrage balloons once the beach has been secured so that enemy planes can't fly over and bomb the American soldiers.

Meanwhile, Leo Rubinstein is living on a farm just beyond Normandy Beach. Leo is going by the name Henri Blanc to hide his Jewish identity from the Nazis. On the morning of the invasion, the Blanc family prepares to take shelter from the constant barrage of bombs and gunfire. But Leo gets caught in a bomb hit in the house while looking for his sister's cat.

Ranger finds himself on Normandy Beach next to Walt, who figures they brought a dog along to sniff out landmines. At first, Ranger doesn't know why he was sent to this chaotic place, but when Walt realizes his friend Jackson didn't make it to the beach, man and dog race back to the water to rescue Jackson and, thanks to Ranger, two other men.

But even after all that, Ranger knows his work isn't done. Dodging gunfire and avoiding Nazis soldiers, Ranger makes his way to the Blanc farm, where he finds Leo, who is unhurt but knocked out. But when his sister's cat runs away towards the beach, Leo follows and there is nothing Ranger can do to stop him.

Back on the beach, it is still absolute mayhem, with gunfire, shelling, and bombs going off, and then there are the landmines all over the area. But Ranger isn't trained to sniff out landmines. Can Ranger, Walt, and Leo survive the allied invasion?

I've always enjoyed Kate Messner's other books and I really enjoyed reading this one. I found the writing to be clear, with straightforward descriptions, realistic characters and lots of excitement. I think Messner has captured the feeling of finding oneself in the midst of a very scary, very chaotic situation, whether man, boy, or dog.

Ranger in Time is the ideal chapter book for all readers, but the excitement of a time traveling dog and the places he finds himself in may entice even the most reluctant readers. To her credit, Messner makes sure Ranger is always a dog - he doesn't think in words, but goes by his instincts and what he recognizes from his training, making it an even more interesting story. Sometimes, even Ranger doesn't know why he is somewhere, until trouble presents itself.

There is lots of historical fact woven into this D-Day story, and Messner has included a list of sources she used, as well as a list of books for further reading. And while Walt is a fictional character, he is based on a real life hero of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion named William Dabney. You can find out all about him and all the other the research Kate Messner did for D-Day: Battle on the Beach in the back matter or you can read it online HERE.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Holocaust: Racism and Genocide in World War II (an Inquire & Investigate Book) by Carla Mooney, illustrated by Tom Casteel

This history of the Holocaust is such a complicated, often confusing history that teaching it can be difficult - especially to upper elementary/middle school students. Most students have read novels that take place during World War II and the Holocaust, and while they certainly help to explain things, teaching the facts can still be difficult. How do you reckon the intentional destruction of 11 million people, including the attempted extermination of the entire Jewish race, 6 million of whom did indeed die at the hand of the Nazis, with the desire of one man bent on achieving his own ends of creating a master race.

To help students and teachers understand the Holocaust better, Carla Mooney, who has written over 70 books for kids and teens covering science, social studies, and current events, has written a book to help readers learn about the Holocaust. In Chapter One, she begins with a brief, but detailed history of anti-Semitism, a history that began over 2000 years ago when the Romans exiled that Jews after defeating them and taking over their land in the Middle East, then brings the reader through the Enlightenment, the Great War and finally to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party.

Chapter Two traces the rise of the Nazi party, the use of propaganda to sway the German people, the early treatment of Jews, the Nuremberg Laws, and finally the violence of Kristallnacht, including the destruction of Jewish businesses and homes, the arrest of Jewish men, and the killing of other Jews.

Chapter Three details the occupation of different European countries by the Nazis, increased persecution of Jews, the different ghettos Jews were forced to live in until they were ultimately liquidated and the Jews sent "east" to concentration camps.

Chapter Four looks at the Final Solution and the different, inhumane ways the Nazis used for eliminating Jews, including mobile killing squads, slave labor camps, and finally the creation of extermination camps, some capable of killing as many a 6,000 people a day.

Chapter Five covers the end of the war, the liberation of concentration camps and the humanitarian crisis that followed, including the large number of displaced persons.

Chapter Six asks the question how could the Holocaust happen? And there are lots of reasons for it, beginning with the fact that other countries simple did not want to offer refuge to Jewish refugees by increasing their limits on immigration, as well as countries that collaborated with the Nazis.

Chapter Seven looks at the ways people found to resist the Nazis and save some Jews, including children, and Chapter Eight look at the legacy of the Holocaust.

So what makes this book different? The Holocaust: Racism and Genocide in World War II is not a book where the student passively receives information. This is an interactive book that helps readers understand the Holocaust using the Inquire and Investigate section found at the end of each chapter. Students are taught the use and value of primary sources, and there are activities for them that pertains to the particular chapters being studied. Here, for example, are the activity pages found at the end of the Introduction:

In addition to being interactive, you will also find sidebars that give more details, including Vocab Labs, Bear Witness sections, and key questions. There is also a detailed timeline, copious photographs and illustrations, a Glossary and a list of Sources. For students who can't used the QR code scans, there is a list at the back of the book of the websites used.

If you are a teacher or a student, or just have an interest in finding out more about the Holocaust, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Nomad Press

Monday, March 5, 2018

When the Flu Comes Calling...

Before I begin getting back to the business at hand, let me just say I have been sick with flu for the last two weeks (yes, I had the flu shot). I never had the flu before and it was horrible, including two days I didn't think I was going to ever be OK again. If the flu does come calling, take care of yourself and, if you can, take the time needed to recover. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place ( a Flavia de Luce Mystery) by Alan Bradley

This is the 9th Flavia de Luce mystery and the 6th book I've reviewed here. Of course, I do know it is now June 1952, Flavia has turned 12, and that aside from the odd mentions, WWII no longer plays much of a part in the stories.

As I said, it is June 1952, and six months have gone by since Haviland de Luce, father of Flavia and her sisters Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne), passed away after an illness. Though the family estate, Buckshaw, was left to Flavia, her Aunt Felicity, bully and tyrant, arrives from London and decides it is to be sold and Flavia will go to London to live with her. Given six months to mourn, Flavia, Feely, and Daffy, are on a trip planned by faithful retainer Dogger, where, after punting along a river, they land in the village of Volesthorpe, near the notorious St.-Mildred's-in-the-Marsh church. It was here that Canon Whitbread allegedly poisoned three ladies in his congregation with the communion chalice, for which he was hanged. Yes, Dogger certainly does know his Flavia, poisons are her thing.

But when Flavia fishes out the Canon's son Orlando from the river by the church, new questions arise. Flavia cleverly manages to get some stomach fluid from the corpse for later analysis before the arrival of Constable Otter. As clever as he is unfriendly, Constable Otter quickly lets her know that her help is absolutely unwanted, an attitude that causes Flavia's suspicious nature to be on guard.

Away from her own well equipped chemistry lab at Buckshaw, Flavia and Dogger find they must improvise in order to carry out the investigation into Orlando's death. Luckily, Dogger, who seems to have an abundance of all kinds of knowledge, also turns out to be a genius at using whatever is at hand. I loved how Dogger made an improvised microscope (pg 85), especially clever and amusing after Otter condescendingly manplained to Flavia what a microscope is (pg 45). Still, Flavia is disappointed that Orlando wasn't poisoned, but she has become more and more aware that there are, nevertheless, sinister things under foot in Volesthorpe, and she is determined to get to the bottom of them all. And, as it turns out, there is plenty to get to the bottom of.

When I first began reading The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, I was feeling a little disappointed. It definitely has a slightly different feel to it than the previous 8 books. But as I got further into the story, I began to enjoy it as much as the other Flavia books, but it never lost the feeling of difference. I've thought about it and this is what I think:

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place is the next to the last Flavia de Luce mystery and, at 12, Flavia is entering adolescence. No longer a child, she is maturing and it shows - kudos to Bradley for portraying the subtle ways in which this happens. I realized it had actually began in book 8, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd after Flavia returned to Buckshaw from boarding school in Canada. Most notable is the way she now sees Dogger as more of an person in his own right and an equal and less as a servant, and there are changes in her relationship with her sisters, particularly Daffy, whose literary passions turn out to be pretty useful for solving murders. Don't get me wrong, Flavia is still as enthusiastic about solving murders, performing chemical experiments and learning about poisons as ever she was, but now her life is expanding.

Being away from the confines of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacy also allows Bradley to bring in more varied but no less eccentric characters. There is Orlando Whitbread's mentor Poppy Mandrill, former actress now confined to a wheelchair; Arven Palmer, the landlord of the Oak and Pheasant and his wife, Greta Palmer; three roustabouts from the traveling Shadrach's Circus and Menagerie as well as the proprietor, Mrs. "Dreadnought" Dandyman; the village's undertaker F. T. Nightingale, whose son Hob befriends Flavia; and last but not least, Dogger's old friend (?) Claire Tetlock - each with their own secrets to be uncovered.

Like most of Bradley's plots, this one will require you to suspend your disbelief, not because he has delved into fantasy, just into things improbable, exciting but improbable. But is wouldn't be a Flavia de Luce mystery if the improbable were left out, would it?- then it would just be a book about a girl who likes chemistry. If you love a little off the wall, somewhat noir mystery with unconventional characters, this is the book/series for you.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley