“Letters from Cuba” Ruth Behar

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House). To be published August 25, 2020.

Letters from CubaEsther’s father left his family behind in Poland and headed to Cuba, intent on earning enough money to give them a better life. Though he had been working for 3 years, he only had enough money for one of them to make the trip. Esther begged to be allowed to make the trip and, when she arrived, she was entranced. Cuba’s friendly neighbors made her feel welcome, everyone called her a little Polish girl instead of Jew, the weather was balmy, and the sea was breathtaking. It was wonderful!

Esther decided to tell her story in daily letters to her sister that she saved for when they’d be reunited. Though her father had been a peddler before she arrived, Esther was able to earn more money designing and selling her own dresses. As they worked to earn money to reunite the family, she learned about the heritages of the people in their small village. As Nazi beliefs began to invade their village, former slaves, Chinese Cubans, rich sugar mill owners and poor sugar cane workers were united in their belief that Esther and her father should be protected. Through faith and hope, they all learned that love could overcome evil.

This beautiful story told in letter form recounts many parts of Ruth Behar’s own family history, told from her grandmother Esther’s memories of leaving Poland and arriving in Cuba. Though Ruth and her mother were both born in Cuba, and they immigrated to the United States when it became Communist, Cuba is always in her heart. After reading Esther’s story, her memories will stay in her reader’s hearts too.

Highly recommended for ages 11 and older.

PS – I believe “Letters from Cuba” should be a contender for the treasured Pura Belpré Award, to be announced at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in January 2021. Remember when Ruth Behar wins an award there that you read it here first!

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

“The snow fell three graves deep: Voices from the Donner Party” Allan Wolf

The snow fellRated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Candlewick Press. To be published September 8, 2020. (Includes Maps and extensive back matter: “Author’s note: Narrative Pointillism,” “Select character biographies,” “Native Americans and the Donner Party,” “The Donner Party by the numbers: A miscellany,” “Time line 1846 and 1847,” “Donner Party members by family,” “The rescuers and the rescued,” “Donner Party deaths,” “Reality checks,” “Murder and the mysterious Mr. Wolfinger,” “About the documents,” “Special terms from this story,” “German words from this story,” and “Read more about the Donner Party.”)

In Markus Zusak’s award-winning book “The book thief,” Death narrates as other characters live the story. Wolf uses a similar approach in “The snow fell.” Here Hunger narrates, while members of the 1846 ill-fated Donner Party tell their poetic verse stories of survival, starvation, and cannibalism during months spent trapped in horrific snowstorms on the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Wolf’s detailed research shows in his descriptions of what led up to their entrapment, who survived (and who didn’t), and how they endured. His extensive back matter gives many opportunities for readers to learn more about the Donner Party before, during and after their horrific ordeal.

The only thing bad I can say about this book is that Candlewick declined to release the ARC in a digital format readable by Kindles. I had to download Adobe Editions to read it on my tablet, which made turning pages and enlarging the print very difficult. It took me twice as long to read this on my tablet with Adobe Editions than it would have taken on my Kindle. As a result, I will never download a non-digital ARC ever again.

Highly recommended for ages 16 and older.

I received a non-digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

 

 

“Ghost boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Rated 5 stars ***** 2018. Little, Brown & Company (Hachette Book Group). 214 p. (Includes Afterword,” “Discussion questions,” and Further resources for parents and educators”

Ghost boysTwelve-year-old Jerome is bullied daily at school because he’s smart. He eats lunch in the bathroom, trying to avoid getting beat up. Carlos, a new kid, comes to school and, though he’s never had a friend, Jerome befriends him. The bullies find them in a bathroom and start beating them but Carlos scares them away with a toy gun, which he gives to Jerome to play with because he’s his new friend.

Jerome doesn’t usually play outside because his neighborhood is dangerous, but is excited to do so with the gun. While playing with it, he’s shot in the back by a White policeman and dies on the street. Now a ghost, Jerome sees his families’ grief and watches the preliminary hearing where a judge decides the officer who shot him shouldn’t be charged with wrongdoing – even though he shot him in the back from inside a moving patrol car without warning, and neither he nor his partner offered any aid while he was lying on the ground still alive.

Sarah, the police officer’s daughter, can see and communicate with him and Emmett Till, another ghost boy. Jerome realizes there are thousands of ghost boys who were also killed early in life, and struggles to understand why they’re still wandering the earth. Emmett tells him the story of how he died; helping Jerome realize they’re still on Earth because they’re all bearing witness to the injustices they suffered due to racism. Though upset at her father, Sarah channels her anger into telling the stories of the ghost boys and also bearing witness for them.

Told through flashbacks and the present time, Jerome’s sad and painful story is very timely for the days in which we currently live. It is excellent for a book club or for a whole class, as it has much material that needs to be discussed.

Highly recommended for ages 12 and older.

“Eventide” Sarah Goodman

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Tor Teen. To be published October 6, 2020.

EventideIn 1907 seventeen-year-old Verity and her little sister Lilah set out from New York City on an orphan train to find a new home. Verity was bitter because she hadn’t been allowed to care for her sister. She was almost eighteen, and had taken care of her ever since their mother died and their father started to go insane. However, she was still underage, so they had been forced to go to an orphanage when their father was taken to an asylum.

When they arrived in the small town of Wheeling Arkansas Miss Maeve, the local schoolteacher, adopted Lilah. Desperate to stay near her sister Verity allowed herself to be indentured to a couple that needed help on their farm. As she struggled through her chores, the thought of being able to leave forever with Lilah in a few months enabled her to get through the days in this little, superstitious town.

Verity couldn’t understand why everyone was afraid of the woods, and why she’d been warned to stay away from it. When she decided to explore it for herself she couldn’t understand why it suddenly became freezing cold and foggy, nor could she explain the presence of a little girl who disappeared when Verity tried to follow her. As Verity learned more about the people in the small town she began to realize that Lilah was in grave danger. Verity will do anything she can to protect her sister – even if it means giving up everything she once held dear.

I loved this book! It was suspenseful, spooky, thrilling and kept me up turning pages until late at night. I did have some questions about the ending that I would love to ask the author but, because they might reveal spoilers, I can’t ask them on this blog. However, I would love it if Sarah Goodman contacted me on the “down low” so I can unburden myself and get the answers I seek.

Despite my questions I highly recommend “Eventide” for ages 16 and older.

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

“Don’t tell the Nazis” Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Rated 5 stars ***** 2018. Scholastic Press. 226 p. (Includes “Author’s note.”) [Originally published in 2017 by Scholastic Canada as “Don’t tell the enemy.”]

Don't tell the NazisWhen the Soviets left Krystia’s small town in the Ukraine, everyone cheered. It was 1941, and they’d already endured two years of brutality. They were sure the incoming Germans would allow their country to rise up once again. Unfortunately, the Germans were worse. Soon they started creating lists of Jews and, as more Germans poured into town, Ukrainians and Jews were pushed out of their homes to make room. Soon the Nazis began to execute the Jews, then forced almost 1000 of them to live in crowded, squalid conditions in a Ghetto.

As the Nazis continued to abuse the Jews, Krystia was desperate to help her Jewish friends. Her aunt and uncle were in the Resistance, and provided forged documents she passed on to help some escape. Though no food was available and everyone was starving, her mother found ways to get food and she found ways to sneak it into the Ghetto while keeping up a show of normalcy for their suspicious neighbors. With Nazi spies everywhere can Krystia save her friends before it’s too late?

This sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat book is based on the true story of Kateryna Sikorska and her eight-year-old daughter Krystia who both performed heroic actions during the Nazi occupation of their town. It’s amazing to me that Krystia could have been so brave and clear thinking at such a young age. “Don’t tell the Nazis” is a wonderful testament to their courage, as well as to the bravery of their fellow Ukrainians (recognized in the Yad Vashem) who also stood against the Nazis.

Highly recommended for ages 14 and older.

“The House of Five Fortunes” Amanda Hughes

Rated 3 stars *** ebook. 2016. Lillis and James. Bold Women of the 20th Century #3. 2016.

The House of Five FortunesXiu’s mother bought an opium den, The House of Five Fortunes, in San Francisco after her husband fell ill and could no longer support the family. When she died Xiu inherited it, but was forced to hide the leadership skills she’d learned due to a possessive and tyrannical husband. Her mother had worked hard to make the business a success, even though there were few women business owners in Chinatown, but Xiu passively allowed her husband to hold the reins of her life and her empire because she loved him.

When he was killed Xiu took control again and, with the help of her friend Nuan and Madison a famous actor, they raised The House of Five Fortunes to greater heights. Though there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment, that didn’t stop Madison from falling in love with Xiu but, due to her being Chinese, they were not allowed to marry. When random murders began to be committed, the police and local Whites blamed the Chinese. Madison knew Xiu wasn’t safe but, when a massive race riot began in Chinatown, their lives were soon endangered along with all of the town’s inhabitants.

Though this book is in the Bold Women of the 20th Century series, I didn’t see Xiu as very bold. Her mother was strong, but I saw Xiu as weak and easy to manipulate. I thought her mother, Nuan, and Dandan the cook were strong female characters, not Xiu. In fact the strongest character in the book was Madison, and he was a man!

Descriptions of the United States in the 1870’s, life during the gold rush, and the building of the transcontinental railroad by Chinese immigrants were interesting to read. I was saddened to read of the many ways the Chinese were mistreated – ways that are mirrored in anti-Immigrant policies today. Our country may have travelled far during the past 150 years, but many unpleasant reminders from the past still rear their ugly heads.

Recommended for Adults.

“The book of lost names” Kristin Harmel

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster.) To be published July 21, 2020.

The book of lost namesIn 2005, Eva Abrams sees an article in the New York Times seeking the owner of a rare book that had been looted by the Nazis. Eva knows it’s her book that she’d thought was lost long ago, and that it contains a secret she’s waited 60 years to find. With single-minded purpose she books a trip to Berlin to claim it, hoping it might contain a message from her long lost lover who died in 1944.

From Florida 2005, readers are taken to 1942 Paris where we’re introduced to Eva Traube. She and her parents don’t believe there’s going to be a roundup of Jews but, when her father and thousands more are taken, she and her mother escape to Free France where they planned to continue on into Switzerland. Instead, against her mother’s wishes, she becomes involved with the French Resistance. In the hidden library of a Catholic church her artistic skills are put to use forging identity documents for hundreds of Jewish children escaping to Switzerland. There she and Rèmy, a fellow forger, develop a secret code based on the Fibonacci sequence and use a rare book to record the real names of the children to whom they were giving false identities.

Through flashbacks between the past and present readers learn of the difficulties Eva faced by falling in love with a Catholic, the battles she had with her grieving and bitter mother, and the hard work she did to save the lives of many children. We see the ways in which the Catholic church was involved in saving lives, the love she held for Rèmy, and how she’d hidden her true self for many years. It is a story of love, hope and faith, in the midst of despair, that rings true to its time and place.

Highly recommended for Adults.

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Elizabeth I: The making of a Queen” Laura Brennan

3 stars *** ARC. ebook. Pen and Sword History. To be published July 19, 2020. (Includes lists of primary and secondary sources, as well as period photographs).

Elizabeth IThis book about Queen Elizabeth I is divided into several parts, concentrating on historical and political events from before Elizabeth was born, before she became Queen, and that transpired during her 45-year reign. She saw how her father, King Henry VIII, treated his wives and watched men conspired against their wives, leaving them powerless. This inspired her to remain single, and keep her own power. England’s religious battles, and the strained relationship she had with her sister Queen Mary I are also detailed. Thus, as Queen, Elizabeth used the experiences of her past and present to help her become a strong willed Queen.

Learning about Queen Elizabeth I was interesting because I believe that it’s important to “put [what is being studied] in its time and place,” a quote attributed to my former college professor. However I disliked how Brennan jumped from one event or person to another, then circled back again a few chapter or paragraphs later with information that would have been useful to know when she first began talking about that person or event. This made the book feel disjointed.

There are interesting facts about Elizabeth I mixed in with everything else, so I will recommend it to Adult readers who want to know more about this monarch.

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Lady Clementine” Marie Benedict

Rated 5 stars ***** 2020. Sourcebooks. 310 p. (Includes “Author’s note,” “Reading group guide,” and “A conversation with the author”)

Lady ClementineAlmost everyone over the age of 50 has heard about Winston Churchill, and how his speeches, tenacity and love for country led Great Britain through World War II. Despite all of the historical information available on Churchill, his wife has remained a shadowy figure. “Lady Clementine” seeks to address this oversight, and does so in a very enlightening manner.

Benedict focuses on the Churchill’s from their 1908 marriage through the end of World War II in 1945. Important historical events, family life, the ups and downs of Churchill’s political career, and her own battles are told from Clementine’s point of view. Constantly at Churchill’s side, she evaluated his speeches, made speeches of her own on topics near to her heart, and worked tirelessly behind the scenes for her husband. In that time period, being a strong minded and strong willed female in a man’s world often led to ridicule by his associates and her peers for her “unseemly behavior.” Despite naysayers, Clementine continued to further the cause of women’s equality and was a powerful, yet largely unknown, force behind Churchill’s greatness.

This enthralling, quick moving novel about an important women in history who had been largely unknown, kept me reading late into the evenings. I love historical fiction (especially when rich with historical details) and Benedict did not disappoint. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Highly recommended for Adults.

“Ghosts of Harvard” Francesca Serritella

Rated 3 stars *** ARC. ebook. Random House. To be published May 5, 2020.

Ghosts of HarvardSeventeen-year-old Cady is determined to attend Harvard because it was where her older brother Eric committed suicide. Since she blames herself, she is determined to figure out why he killed himself.  While at school her studies take a back burner to the nagging questions that arise about Eric’s schizophrenia.

As memories of good and bad times with Eric fill her mind, Cady begins to hear voices and music from a bygone era. Afraid she is heading towards the same path of mental illness, she has a small measure of relief when she figures out the voices are the ghosts of a former Harvard slave and two students who attended the school many years ago.

She enjoys having them as company, learning historical aspects about the school that she’d never known. However, as she uncovers more about Eric’s last days, she soon figures out he was hiding something. When his secret is finally revealed, her life is forever changed in even more ways than she’d thought possible.

I enjoyed the historical aspect of “Ghosts of Harvard,” especially since I once worked on campus, and didn’t know about many of the hidden gems revealed in the book. I now want to travel back to Massachusetts to take a leisurely stroll and go to the places mentioned in the book. The storyline about Eric, his secret, and the ghosts seemed a bit farfetched, but the troubling aspects of suicide, mental illness and its weight on families were truthfully articulated.

Recommended for ages 16 and older.

I received a digital advance reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.