“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.

 

“Accidental” Alex Richards

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. ebook. Bloomsbury Publishing. To be published July 7, 2020.

AccidentalJohanna is sixteen-years-old, has two best friends, lives with her strict, old-fashioned grandparents and is drooling over the very handsome new guy at her fancy private school. Though her mother died in a car crash when she was little, she barely remembers her or the father who abandoned her when she was little. She’s always been with her grandparents, and everything was fine until suddenly nothing was fine.

Her estranged father sent her a letter wanting to reunite, so Johanna decided to take him up on it. When they met he told her she’d killed her mother by shooting her with a loaded gun she’d found under the bed. He was remorseful that he’d left his loaded gun in a place where a toddler could reach it, but that didn’t stop Johanna from going into a tailspin. Furious at her grandparents for lying to her for years she cuts off communication, but also can’t forgive herself for killing her own mother. Though everyone tells her it wasn’t her fault she doesn’t believe them, and neither do the students who start bullying her at school and online.

Gun violence, unsecured guns, statistics for family shootings, and gun control are just some of the topics readers will learn about as Johanna fights a battle to heal her damaged soul. Her story may give readers the impetus to think about ways to raise awareness for these societal issues.

Recommended for ages 14 and older.

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. 

 

 

“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.

“The boy on the bridge” M.R. Carey

Rated 4 stars **** ebook. Orbit (Hachette Book Group). 2017.

The boy on the bridgeA group of 12 scientists and soldiers set out from the last city left in Great Britain in an armored research vehicle, nicknamed Rosie, tasked with searching for specimens that had been left behind a year earlier by another group of scientists. They’re hopeful that also sampling “hungries” on the journey will help them find a cure for Cordyceps, a disease that has turned almost everyone on earth into “hungries,” zombies who seek anything alive. Time is of the essence or mankind, as they know it, will disappear.

Stephen Greaves is a fifteen-year-old genius autistic brought onto the trip by his mentor. On one of Rosie’s stops he notices a child who eats like a hungry but acts and thinks like a human. He slips out to look for her in the nearest town, and finds a band of them. The next day his plan to study them is interrupted when a child is killed by one of Rosie’s soldiers, who is also killed. Stephen takes the body and hides it aboard Rosie. Soon Stephen makes an incredible discovery, but the band of hungry children start tracking Rosie through the wilderness. He knows they want the body and will do anything for its return.

This book was written after “The girl with all the gifts,” and is supposed to be its predecessor. There are a few things explained from “The girl” that were a little questionable, but “The boy” left its own set of unanswered questions. I’m wondering if the author is planning on doing a part 3. I liked “The boy” more than “The girl” because Stephen was a strong character and made me feel more involved in the storyline. However I still have questions about the time span between the two books, and what happened in those years to make Dr. Caldwell decide to study the children.

Despite this, I will go ahead and recommend it for Adults.

“The kept” James Scott

Rated 2 stars ** 2014. HarperCollins. 354 p. (Includes “Insights, Interviews & more.”)

The KeptIt’s Elspeth and her twelve-year-old son Caleb against the world of 1897 after three men killed her four children and husband when she was away from home. Only Caleb survived so, bonded by revenge, the two of them struggle through the wilderness seeking the nearest town. There Caleb gets involved with the local gangsters while Elspeth tries to survive the guilt she feels, knowing she was the reason her family was killed. Both she and Caleb have to control their demons if either expects to reach closure.

I was not a fan. The book meandered too much, and many questions weren’t answered. What was Elspeth and Jorah’s relationship in the beginning? Why did her father beat her so terribly if all she said was hello? I especially did NOT like the ending because, after taking readers through a convoluted path to get where Caleb and Elspeth finally arrived, why end the book so openly? These were just a few of my disagreements with “The kept.”

So, though I didn’t like it, I will leave it up to you Adult readers to decide if you want to read it or not.

 

“I belong to Vienna: A Jewish family’s story of exile and return” Anna Goldenberg

Rated 3 stars *** Translated from German by Alta L. Price. ARC. ebook. New Vessel Press. To be published June 9, 2020. Includes Period photographs and “Archival sources and references.”

I belong to ViennaIn 2012 Anna Goldenberg moved to New York to attend graduate school and, while there, felt out of place among American Jews for being an Austrian Jew.  As time passed she missed her Viennese family so much she became interested in her family history. Through relatives who had immigrated to New York, Anna pieced together stories about her great-grandparents and grandparents. As she dove into old family letters and did research, she uncovered information about what it was like for them during the Holocaust, and what they had endured during the Nazi occupation of Austria. As Anna uncovers their stories, and their love for Austria, she uncovers her own mixed feelings about her homeland.

I understand and admire Anna’s need to piece together her family’s past so she could honor them through her future. However I felt the many transitions from memories to the present and back again gave the book a disjointed feeling.

Recommended for Adults.

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

“The bridge home” Padma Venkatraman

Rated 5 stars *****. 2019. Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House). 187 p. (Includes “Glossary” and “Author’s Note.”)

TheBridgeHomeEleven-year-old Viji and twelve-year-old Rukku’s mom was abused by her husband, but always believed him when he said he was sorry. Viji knew Rukku had special needs, and had always taken care of her older sister but, when her father hit them in a fit of rage, she knew they’d have to run away.

With nowhere to go and only a bit of money, they bus to the city where Rukku becomes attached to a homeless puppy, and they become friends with two homeless boys living on a bridge. There they build their own ramshackle tent, and the boys help her forage for recyclables in stinking trash dumps with other homeless children that they sell for pittances.

Hunger dulls their strength but, as time passes, the four forge strong bonds of friendship. Though they wind up living on a grave under a tree in a cemetery after marauding men destroy their home on the bridge, Viji tries to keep believing in her dream of becoming a teacher. Each day of looking for food in trashcans, and hoping to earn money on the dump, makes her dream seem impossible.

This moving story, based on real children’s first-person accounts, is an eye opener for many who might be unaware of the plight of over 1.8 million children living on the streets of India, working and eating from its many garbage dumps while trying to avoid abuse and slavery.

Recommended for ages 10-14.

“The debt of Tamar” by Nicole Dweck

Rated 5 stars ***** St. Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books) 2015.

The debt of TamarIn 1544 Portugal José, his rich aunt Doña Antonia, and his cousin Reyna find themselves caught up in the “Death by burning” of six Jews condemned as heretics in the Portuguese Inquisition. Deeply moved José tries to get involved, but his aunt forcibly restrains him. Later she reveals that they’re Jewish – including the parents he’d never known. Stunned by the knowledge his aunt had kept secret for so many years, José dedicates himself to learning everything he can about his Jewish faith.

When it’s discovered that the family is Jewish, they’re forced to run for their lives. Eventually they arrive in Istanbul, where the reigning Sultan allows Jews to safely worship. In time José marries Reyna. Their child Tamar falls in love with the Sultan’s son, but José is unable to bear the thought of her marrying outside of the faith. He banishes her to an unsettled land, allowing everyone to believe she died from a fever. With that act a curse is placed upon his ancestors that isn’t broken until centuries later when readers are introduced to the last Sultan of Istanbul.

Reading how all the generations since José were tied together, of loves lost and found, and learning about the Ottoman Empire was fascinating. I was glad the Sultan allowed his land to be a place of refuge for the Jews when other countries were kicking them out. It’s too bad that goodwill between the two countries has been deteriorating in the past few years.

Recommended for Adults.