fiction · graphic novel

Book Review: White Bird by R.J. Palacio

At some point, I learned about the existence of White Bird by R.J. Palacio (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019) and looked for it at the library, but it never seemed to be in, and since I never formally added the book to my TBR, I kind of forgot about it. But my daughter has discovered a love for graphic novels, and on our last trip to the library, I finally found that elusive copy of White Bird. Into my bag it went.

It’s been quite a few years since I read Ms. Palacio’s Wonder, so I didn’t quite remember Julian, Auggie’s bully, but he’s back in White Bird, interviewing his grandmother Sara, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the kindness of a local family. (The story stands alone, so reading Wonder beforehand isn’t necessary.) Julien is the boy who sits next to Sara at school. He’s survived polio and uses crutches, making him a target of many of the other students, but Sara’s never really spoken to him. The day that the Nazis come to take away the Jewish students, Julien helps Sara to hide, then takes her to his home, where her parents stash her in the barn.

As the war rages on, the two children grow, mature, and establish a firm friendship, and Sara comes to understand her prior selfishness and immaturity. But there are few Holocaust stories without loss, and through Sara’s story of survival, her grandson Julian learns what true friendship is, and how we can’t change the past, but we can move on as better people.

A beautifully drawn graphic novel, White Bird would make for a gentle introduction to an emotionally charged subject. The Holocaust and all its devastation and atrocities isn’t easy to introduce to children, but it’s a vital part of history that needs to be taught. Parents, you wouldn’t be remiss in checking this out of the library and just leaving it around the house. Odds are your kids will spot it and dive in. There’s nothing graphic or too overtly scary, but there are mentions of death; I’d put this as okay for mature fourth grade and up. Be prepared to have some discussions with your kids about the book afterwards; they’ll likely have a lot of big feelings when they turn the last page.

This is a fast read, but the story, though fiction, will stay with you. The drawings are simple, allowing Sara and Julien’s story to take center stage, and placing the reader in its various settings: running from the Nazis at school, hiding in a bale of hay in a barn, struggling to keep terror and an overwhelming sense of loss at bay. I’m glad I finally came across a copy on my library’s shelves, and I’m glad that it’s such a popular choice that I did struggle to find it. White Bird shouldn’t be missed. Especially not now that it’s being released in movie format on October 14, 2022.

Visit R.J. Palacio’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

World War II! Rationing! Making do in trying circumstances! From the moment I learned about The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Ballantine Books, 2021), I knew I would enjoy it. I’m fascinated by all things rationing (check out a review I did of a book about the subject, Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations, forward by Jill Norman) and have been ever since I was introduced to the subject as a young girl in one of my favorite books in the world, Back Home by Michelle Magorian. The Kitchen Front didn’t disappoint; it was as charming as I suspected it would be.

It’s wartime Britain, and the BBC has introduced a new contest on its show dedicated to helping housewives learn to deal with wartime rationing. The Kitchen Front’s contest is looking for the best rationing chef, and four women are desperate to win. Audrey is a widowed mom to three boys, struggling to stay afloat ever since her husband was killed in the war. Gwen, Audrey’s image-obsessed social climber sister, is hiding her unhappy reality behind an icy-old façade. Nell, an orphan-turned-maid, is scared of her own shadow, but cooking brings out the best in her. And Zelda, a professionally trained Cordon Bleu chef, will do just about anything to win – but will the secret she’s carrying ruin everything for her?

A ruthless beginning eases into something with softer edges as the women are forced together and begin to understand each other’s stories. Rifts will be mended, new bridges forged, and brand-new paths forward will appear amidst the strain and struggle of wartime. The Kitchen Front is full of charm, friendship, and the can-do attitude that gave British women the reputation for strength and fortitude of character that pulled them through the long years of rationing.

What a lovely book. The characters are all with their own personal struggles, but each is so determined to triumph despite them, that you can’t help but root for every single one, even when some of them sink to some truly low levels to win. The research put into this story is evident, with characters foraging for wild-grown ingredients, substituting local ingredients for little-known ones, and utilizing cooking techniques and recipes known to the era. (A few of the lines mentioned in the book, particularly about manner of dress for women at the time, I had learned just days before while watching episodes of Horrible Histories with my daughter!) This was very obviously a labor of love for the author, and it shows in her respectful treatment of all of the characters and how they came together in the end.

If you’ve read other books by Jennifer Ryan, I’d love to hear if you enjoyed them! I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, and I tend to be kind of picky about the fiction I do read, so if you’ve got recommendations here, I’d love to hear them! Her The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle looks particularly interesting!

Visit Jennifer Ryan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Third Daughter by Talia Carner

I belong to a few different book groups on Facebook. I’m not hugely active in any of them, but it’s always interesting to see what everyone’s reading and what they think about it as I scroll through my feed (although, annoyingly, there’s a lot of, “Has anyone else read fill-in-the-blank-with-this-New-York-Times bestseller???” and a weird amount of apron-string-strangling posts like “Is Great Expectations an appropriate read for my 17-year-old son?” ARE. YOU. SERIOUS.). A few weeks ago, someone in my Jewish women’s book group mentioned how much she was enjoying The Third Daughter by Talia Carner (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2019), so I looked it up, and whoa. Historical fiction about a period of Jewish history I had never heard of. Onto my TBR it went.

1890s Russia. Life is bleak for Jewish peasants. Pogroms are raging, poverty is rampant, hunger is the norm. Batya and her family are barely managing to eke out the most meager of livings when a rich Jewish man appears in town, offering marriage and a better way of life for the whole family. Though Batya is only fourteen, her parents agree to send her off to America with him, and that’s when the nightmare begins. This man is not a potential husband, but a pimp running a brothel in Buenos Aires, where prostitution is legal and young Jewish girls are trafficked in unimaginable conditions thanks to a Jewish crime ring known as Zwi Migdal.

Batya learns to cope with her life of being trafficked, depending on the support of the girls who live in the brothel with her, but she never loses the spark of what makes her her, and when the opportunity comes to take Zwi Migdal down, she warily agrees, on the condition that she finally get her family out of Russia.

This book obviously comes with many, many content warnings. Rape features heavily throughout this story, as do the various consequences of being trafficked in the 1890s. This is emotionally a very heavy book, so if you’re already dealing with a lot and can’t handle more, be kind to yourself and put this book off until you’re able to manage.

I knew nothing about this period of history prior to picking up this book; I hadn’t known that Buenos Aires was a hotbed of human trafficking, nor had I ever heard of Zwi Migdal. What a horrifying, soul-crushing nightmare the lives of these young women turned into. Their lives were constantly at risk from disease and murder (from their pimps, from their clients) and death due to being thrown out on the streets. After they’d outlived their usefulness to the brothel, there was nowhere else for them to go; even their own community misunderstood what was happening to them and refused them any sort of help or support. Devastation abounded for these women, and the best most of them could hope for was to be kept as someone’s mistress on the side, thus freeing them from a lifetime of forced prostitution to a parade of men.

Batya is a strong character. She’s far from perfect; she develops a tough exterior in order to survive, and this doesn’t always serve her well, but it keeps her adapting and alive. The conditions Ms. Carner describes are deplorable and frightening. While historical fiction often suffers from a sort of literary distance, the writing in this book keeps it feeling immediate and urgent. You’ll fly through the pages, desperate for some sort of positive resolution, because for anyone to live like this otherwise is unthinkable. That this story is based on the real lives of thousands of young girls is utterly heartbreaking.

Although this is an incredibly heavy book, it’s ultimately triumphant, though bittersweet, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s painful, but it’s a story that deserves to be told, read, shared. I’m glad it’s a book I spent time with.

Visit Talia Carner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Some books just sit on your TBR for ages for no particular reason; The Guest Book by Sarah Blake (Flatiron Books, 2019) was one of them. My library only had an ebook version of it, and I tend to use my kindle in fits and streaks. I’ll read a TON of kindle books, then not touch it again for another six months. (I checked out a library ebook today, thinking it was a kindle- my Libby account is supposed to only check out kindle books- but it turned out not to be, and now I’m waiting for my ancient iPad to charge so I can read it on there, sigh.) But I reorganized my paper TBR list so it’s less messy and fresh and clean, with all the books I’ve already read and crossed out taken off, and all the ebooks I had on there were reeeeeeeeeeally bothering me, so I decided to start tackling them. The Guest List was the first available book.

The Guest List tells the story of three generations of the Milton family, East Coast blue bloods who helped the US out of the Great Depression…but by what means, exactly? Kitty and Ogden Milton’s early years are marred by tragedy; this tragedy echoes into the future and has serious consequences for other people, ones that Kitty is loath to admit until she finds the perfect dumping ground for her secrets. Joan, her daughter, burdened with epilepsy, has an entire life unknowingly affected by said tragedy, and it isn’t until Evie, Kitty’s granddaughter, is a middle-aged adult that all the secrets come to light when she and her cousins are trying to figure out how to handle the family island.

Yes, family island. Ogden and Kitty had bought an island off the coast of Maine in the wake of their tragedy. This island will become a source of joy and healing, but almost immediately a source of remembering of things Kitty would rather forget, things that paint her in a way she would rather not see herself. For Joan, it will shape the course of her life; for Evelyn, it is her family, but it also reveals uncomfortable truths about what her family is and has always been, both good and bad, because people are complicated and can be multiple things at once.

This is one of those books where the setting is as much of a character as the people. Crockett’s Island becomes monolithic, looming over everyone in a variety of ways. If you’re a reader who really enjoys stories with a strong sense of place (or you’ve just always wanted to inhabit a world where people are rich enough to own their own islands), this would be a great choice for you.

Content warning for the accidental death of a child shortly into the book, and some post-World War II-era antisemitism; if you’re not up for reading these things at this time, put it away and find something that better suits your needs at this time. Be kind to yourself. Life is tough enough already.

Kitty is a complex character. She’s definitely a product of her time and class (class is a huge factor in this book), and most of the time I massively disliked her. She has a few redeeming qualities, and then she comes around and opens her mouth and ruins it all. Joan is more sympathetic, to a point, and therefore more tolerable to read. Evie is written in the modern era and has more progressive and acceptable attitudes, and I enjoyed her storyline most of all (although I did enjoy Joan’s as well; there were a few things at the end that soured it for me).

There are other characters- Reg and Len- that really made the story tolerable for me. They added a touch of reality that you just don’t get when the story solely focuses on a family that owns a freaking island, and they end up providing the key as to the hows and whys the island ownership came to be in the first place. Without them, Evelyn may never have known, and that made this all the more interesting. What this book ends up being is a deep look at the attitudes towards race and religion that shaped the past and the ways they’re still shaping the present, and it asks how we plan to move forward from that. There’s a lot going on in this book, which is, again, more literary than I usually go.

Not my favoritest (TOTALLY A WORD) of books, and it solidified my resolve to never turn into the kind of person that the original Miltons were, but it was an interesting read that asks a lot of important questions, which I love.

Visit Sarah Blake’s website here.

fiction

Book Review: The Book of V by Anna Solomon

I occasionally just dig through what my library has to offer (both online and in person, though not often in person these days. Still trying to be careful until my daughter can be vaccinated…), and that’s how I discovered The Book of V by Anna Solomon (Henry Holt & Company, 2020). A story that combines the narratives of a woman struggling with the demands of motherhood in modern-day New York, a Rhode Island senator’s wife in the 70’s, and the biblical Queen Esther? That sounded interesting. On my last library trip, this was the first time this book had been in when I checked the shelves, so into my bag it went.

The Book of V is a multiple-narrative novel that braids together the stories of a group of women, wrapping itself fully around the story of Queen Esther, who, as the story goes, took a major chance to save the Jewish people, her people. But maybe that’s not exactly how the story went. And what happened to Vashti, the beautiful woman who was queen before her?

Lily is a woman in her mid-40’s, struggling with two young daughters and her lack of identity after leaving her career to stay at home and focus on them. Her husband works long hours, there’s never *quite* enough money for them to feel totally comfortable, and Lily never feels as though she fits in with the other moms. Her attempts to connect with a local group of moms as she learns to sew Purim costumes for the girls is thwarted by her mother’s sudden illness, and all of this stress combines to her losing focus and heading into dangerous emotional territory.

Esther is a beautiful young Jewish girl offered up as a sacrifice to the king. No one truly knows where his wife went; Esther only knows she doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t want to have the chance to marry him, only wants to go back to her people, who are being persecuted by the villagers. The restrictions on her life mirror those placed on Vivian, a senator’s wife, whose marriage isn’t quite the picture-perfect match it looks like from the outside.

The Book of V tells the tale of how women’s lives continue to be defined by others’ expectations and demands, the struggle to live freely (at least emotionally, if not physically) and the difficulties of maintaining an identity of our own choosing.

This isn’t a straight retelling of the story of Esther; liberties have been taken and changes have been made, so if you’re looking for something more akin to The Red Tent, you’ll be disappointed. The Book of V skews far more literary than I usually read, and in that aspect, it wasn’t really the book for me. It’s very obviously a strong and well-written novel, but I’m just not a fan in general of literary fiction; the style always seems so detached to me. I prefer my fiction to be more emotionally available, with a little more humor and everyday life sprinkled in. Literary fiction always seems to include constant talk about affairs and immediately sizing every single side character up in terms of their sexual prowess. Is this a thing people do in real life? Do women go to the store and immediately start thinking about what the produce guy stocking the onions or the dude fixing the lights would be like in bed? Is everyone having an affair but me? *squints* I just have a really hard time relating to this particular style, and my inability to connect here is completely on me and has nothing to do with this particular book.

If you enjoy literary fiction however, especially multiple narratives, you may want to check this book out. The Book of V is definitely well-written and thought-provoking, asking deep questions about feminism, identity, and women’s roles and places in society, both in the past and in modern day.

Visit Anna Solomon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Who doesn’t love reading about a good plague? (Just open any news site, and…) I was waiting for my next interlibrary loan holds to arrive and grabbed a book off my own shelves, one that’s been sitting there for quite a while (as have most of them, sadly!). The book happened to be Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Books, 2002). I’d barely gotten into it before I realized the story was set in a small English town in 1666…during the time of the Bubonic plague. Yiiiiiiiiikes. I momentarily considered choosing another book- haven’t we had enough plague already???- because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle it, but I decided to keep going, and I’m glad I did. I’d read and enjoyed Ms. Brooks’s People of the Book a few years ago, and I’m pleased to say that my enjoyment of her writing as a whole continues. Despite its heavy subject matter during these times, Year of Wonders is a beautifully written novel.

Anna Frith is a young widow, living in a small English village with her two young boys in 1666. Cobbling together an existence from her flock of sheep and her work as a servant for one of the wealthier families in town and at the rectory, she finds joy in her sons but keeps mainly to herself. She takes in a boarder, a young male tailor, in order to supplement her meager income, and just as it seems as though the two of them might have a future together, he succumbs to a terrible illness. Soon, as more people fall ill, rumors begin swirling that people are fleeing the bigger cities, trying to outrun this deadly disease, and the town’s minister helps the townspeople come to an agreement: they’ll seal off the town and remain within its borders in order to prevent the spread of disease to the towns and villages beyond.

What follows is a tale of terror and exhaustion, one far too many of us know well after this past year, of death beyond measure, of people acting hysterically and abandoning their fellow man in his hour of need, of taking advantage of others’ fears and pain. But it’s also a story of bravery, of care and love beyond what could possibly be expected, of pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion in order to provide what others cannot. Anna’s deep friendship with Elinor, the minister’s wife, provides moments of solace and hope; her growth throughout the novel reminds readers of what they’re capable.

This is a beautifully written book. Normally, I tend to shy away from novels that skew more toward the literary end of the spectrum, but with Year of Wonders, I can confidently call myself a fan overall of Geraldine Brooks. Her skill in immersing the reader in the year 1666, of painting such vivid pictures of the landscape and houses and possessions of the people who lived at this time is remarkable; this is an easy book to get lost in, and the amount of research necessary to so fully recreate such a world must have been staggering. What a gift Ms. Brooks possesses.

I worried that the exhaustion of the past year would have made this difficult to read, but there are enough differences in the behavior of today versus the behavior of Anna’s fellow townspeople that I needn’t have been concerned. Over half the people in Anna’s town died, and they do so at home, in full view of those who live there, compared with today, where we tuck the sick away and have laws about patient privacy (and thus we haven’t seen much of what Covid wards actually look like, which conceals a lot of the horror from Covid deniers). Regular townspeople are tasked with burying the dead; there are no crematoriums on the edge of town that people can ignore and pretend aren’t in operation day and night in order to keep up with the exploding death toll. In some ways, perhaps forcing people to confront the reality of the situation is a more effective means of dealing with a deadly epidemic (although, given the article I saw where a woman shrieked at the medical staff on the Covid floor where her husband had just died, that they were all a bunch of crisis actors and Covid wasn’t real, perhaps not…). There’s a bit of a twist at the end that I didn’t quite see coming, but that I felt fit in well with the rest of the story, and it wound up making the ending much more pleasant than I had foreseen.

I never expected a book so full of terror and death to be so beautiful, but Ms. Brooks’s writing makes it so. This is only my second Brooks book; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books, because I’ve enjoyed the two that I’ve read so very much. The Secret Chord is specifically on my TBR, so that’ll probably be my next of hers.

Visit Geraldine Brooks’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

A reread! I don’t often reread books, mostly because there are just so many books out there I haven’t read, and I have a limited amount of reading time (especially these days!), so I have to spend it wisely. But my parenting group’s reading challenge this year included a prompt to reread a book by a favorite author. There were so many ways I could have gone with this, but I ended up killing several birds with one stone here by choosing The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). It’s a book I’ve already read by an author from whom I’ve read and enjoyed multiple books in the past, it’s a book from my own shelf (woohoo!), and it’s a beautifully written example of modern-day feminist midrash (Ms. Diamant has argued that her story doesn’t count as midrash, but others disagree, and that’s okay! I love seeing the difference of opinion here; it makes my soul so happy!).  

The Red Tent is a retelling and an expansion of the biblical story of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob. Dinah is best known, sadly, for being raped, and little else is said about her. Anita Diamant has reimagined and expanded upon the story of Dinah’s life, painting a vivid picture of what her days were like growing up the only daughter, with four mothers and an entire pack of brothers, and has given her more agency, instead of being seen solely as a victim. The complex relationship between Leah and Rachel features heavily, as does Dinah’s observations of her father and his relationship with each of his wives.

Dinah’s rape is retold as a love story misunderstood by her brothers and father, and the effects of this are massive and widespread. It changes everything about everyone’s lives, and though it isn’t easy and it takes many years, Dinah is able to rebuild her strength and her life, with the help of the strong women she’s lucky to meet and with the gifts she received at the feet of her mothers.

I first read this back around 2008, but to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did during this reread. These days, I’m much more familiar with the stories and Biblical characters depicted in this book; I understand the concept of midrash a lot better; I’m a better, deeper reader, more mature in years and more focused than I was during my first read. This has been an excellent example of how we bring so much of who we are to the books we read, and how we read a book and what we get out of it changes as we change. There are some books that I find something new in each time I reread them: The Great Gatsby is one of those; Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel is another. I think The Red Tent will have to go on that list as well. I love Ms. Diamant’s ability to recreate Dinah’s world, expanding upon her story while also bringing all the women’s stories, so long ignored or silenced, come to life.

The book was made into a two-part television miniseries that was originally broadcast on the Lifetime Network. If you managed to catch it, I’d love to know what you thought. It appears my library has it on DVD, so I may grab it at one point to watch when my husband and daughter go camping!

Visit Anita Diamant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I’m absolutely trying to be better about reading books from my own shelves, but when I ran across a copy of Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic Inc., 2018), it leapt from the library shelf directly into my bag and there wasn’t anything I could do about it, sorry. I read Ms. Nielsen’s A Night Divided in 2018; it’s a novel about life behind the Berlin wall, something I knew very little about, and I was hooked. I was curious to see if her skill from that book transferred to this one (and my goodness, check out this powerful cover!).

Chaya Lindner is Jewish in Poland during the second World War, and she’s on the run, working with the resistance as a courier. She passes easily for Polish and is able to smuggle food, medicine, and papers into the ghettos where her people are struggling to survive and the death counts mount on a daily basis. It’s difficult and dangerous, made more so by the separation from her parents (who seem to have given up on life) and the likely death of her two siblings, but Chaya refuses to give in.

Being teamed up with Esther, an inexperienced courier who doesn’t pass as well as Chaya does and who fumbles often in ways that place their group in danger, doesn’t bode well for Chaya’s hopes of living through the war, but a terrifying new mission is assigned to the two girls: sneak into the Warsaw Ghetto to determine if there’s enough will to launch an uprising there. The risks are massive and their lives are on the line with every breath, but Chaya’s willing to risk it all for her people. Is Esther?

This is pretty close to edge-of-your-seat reading, so if you’re not ready for that right now, hold off. Chaya finds herself in a dicey situation in nearly every chapter; there’s an occasional moment of downtime, but it’s rare and doesn’t allow the reader many breaks, placing you right there beside her, on the run for your life and for the lives of the Jewish people. It’s cold, relentless hunger, murderous Nazis, and indifferent townspeople at every turn. On occasion, Chaya and Esther do run into someone who wants to help, but even that is fraught with fear: are these strangers really helpful, or are they trying to trick the girls into revealing their identities? No one can be trusted outright, and Ms. Nielsen illustrates the exhaustion inherent in living this way on every single page.

Being set where it is, during this time period, and among people fighting with everything they have just to exist, there’s a lot of death in this book: death by starvation, death by disease, murder, and all of it caused by outright cruelty or indifference. Chaya is sixteen but has been forced to abandon every vestige of childhood in her fight to live; I’d put the audience for this book at mature fifth grade on up due to its setting and themes of violence and suffering, but there’s a lot to learn and understand  for all mature readers.

No matter how much I read about this period of time, I don’t ever feel like I understand it, or that I ever will. I understand the townspeople who felt helpless and felt as though there was nothing they could do- I’m sure it’s a similar feeling to how I feel when I read about some of the atrocities our own government commits against both immigrants and citizens alike; I do what I can in terms of contacting legislators and supporting people who can protest (I don’t trust my bad back), but it’s not enough, it’s never enough when human suffering is on the line. I don’t understand not caring, I don’t understand ambivalence, I don’t understand the hatred some people feel for others simply for existing. I don’t know that it’s possible to fully understand something so terrible, but I’m thankful for Ms. Nielsen and other authors who continue to try to understand and who try to help us understand. We’re obviously in dire need of constant reminders these days.

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