Book Review: Imprisoned: Drawings from Nazi Concentration Camps, Arturo Benvenuti (2017)

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

#Resist

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, as well as an electronic ARC on Edelweiss.)

Humanity continues to kill, to massacre, to persecute, with increased ruthlessness. Before eyes that are increasingly indifferent, passive. When not complicit. There’s no pity for the elderly, for women, for children. There’s no pity for anyone anymore. Man is wolf to man, today as much as – and more than – yesterday.

The older generations seem to have learned very little; the new ones don’t seem to want to learn any more. Wars continue to sow slaughter. Behind the barbed wire of new concentration camps, it has gone one; humanity has gone on being suppressed.

Most of all, this book aims to be – attempts to be – a contribution to the just “revolt” on behalf of those who feel like they can’t, in spite of everything, resign themselves to a monstrous, terrifying reality. Those who believe they must still and always “resist.”

– Arturo Benvenuti, “Without Words”

Born in 1923, Arturo Benvenuti – poet, painter, researcher, accountant, and banker – was just a young man during World War II. Yet his lack of civil engagement haunted him for decades, and the feelings of guilt and powerlessness – reflected in his poetry – eventually proved the impetus for the KZ Project.

In September of 1979, at the age of fifty-six, Arturo and his wife Marucci loaded up their camper and began what would become a lifelong journey: traveling throughout Europe, visiting former Nazi concentration camps (including Auschwitz, Terezín, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald), and meeting with as many survivors and veterans as he could. He also combed through local history museums, public libraries, and public archives, trying to piece together “visual testimonies” of the camps.

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Book Review: Blood For Blood (Wolf By Wolf #2), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Now this is how you end a series!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including scenes of war. This review contains spoilers for WOLF BY WOLF, the first book in the series.)

The world heard it. People of all stations, colors, creeds . . . Aryan mothers and fathers with broods of blond children, a balding shisha merchant in Cairo, an oily-faced adolescent in Rome. Many stared at the screen—mouths slack, stunned eyes—trying to process what had happened. Others who watched understood. This was the signal they’d been waiting for. One—a frizzy-haired Polish woman by the name of Henryka—even smiled at her television, whispering, “That’s my girl,” before she stood and got to work.

“Monsters cut children open and call it progress. Monsters murder entire groups of people without blinking, but get upset when they have to wash human ash from their garden strawberries. Monsters are the ones who watch other people do these things and do nothing to stop it. You and I are not monsters. If anything, we’re miracles.”

Yael almost rolled up her sleeve there and then, almost pointed to the loping lines of Aaron-Klaus’s wolf, almost told Luka everything she was. But Luka was playing with his father’s dog tag again. And Yael found herself wondering if Kradschützen troops had rolled through this very village, letting their motorcycles idle as the SS made it a pile of bones. She wondered if Luka had any idea how their pasts tangled and tore at each other’s throats.

When last we saw concentration camp survivor/skinshifter/member of the resistance/trained assassin Yael, she had just shot Adolf Hitler. Or rather, the man she believed to be Adolf Hitler. Before he died, the Führer’s doppelgänger revealed his true face; flashes cycled through so quickly that only Yael was able to process and make sense of them.

This not-Hitler was, like her, a product of Experiment Eighty-Five: Dr. Engel Geyer’s attempt to make Jews and other ethnic “undesirables” more Aryan in appearance. The experiments succeeded, and then some: with changes in Yael’s skin and eye color came the ability to change her appearance, drastically and at will. In a delicious twist of fate, Yael employed this newfound skill to escape from the camp – and, eventually, masquerade as Victor Adele Wolf, enter the 1956 Axis Tour, and get close enough to Hitler to shoot him three times at point-blank range. Or so she thought.

Though she didn’t win the race – thwarted as she was by Luka Löwe, 1954’s Victor and the boy Adele betrayed to win in 1955 – Yael still scored an invitation to the Ball, thanks to lovesick Luka. Yael ripped his heart out and waltzed all over it at the end of Wolf by Wolf – not because she doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but perhaps precisely because she does, and nothing good can come of it. And so Yael is cruel to be kind, dumping Luka in the harshest of terms before gunning down not-Hitler. Only this doesn’t save Luka from becoming embroiled in her mess; quite the contrary. The guy who brought Hitler’s assassin to the ball? Well, the Gestapo’s going to want to have a word or two with him, and Luka knows it. So when Yael runs, Luka follows.

Luka isn’t the only boy Yael left behind. There’s also Felix Wolfe, Adele’s twin, who Yael bound, gagged, and abandoned in his room at the Palace. Now he’s fallen into the Gestapo’s hands. Though Yael revealed her true identity before shooting Hitler, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other to the Reich. They need a scapegoat, and it’s going to be Adele and the Wolfe family. That is, unless Felix can gain Yael’s trust and infiltrate and betray the resistance.

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Mini-Review: Iron to Iron (Wolf By Wolf #1.5), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

“Iron called to iron, and there was always something more.”

five out of five stars

Once upon a different time, there was a boy who raced through a kingdom of death. He wore a brown jacket where all others were black, and it was said that his face could snare the hearts of ten thousand German maidens at first sight. His own heart? Hidden behind layers of leather and sneer and steel. Untouchable.

Until it wasn’t.

— 4.5 stars —

Set a year before the events of Wolf By Wolf, this novella takes us back to the infamous 1955 Axis Tour: when a sixteen-year-old fräulein named Adele Wolfe, masquerading as her twin brother Felix, materialized from seemingly nowhere to take the Iron Cross. To do so, she not only beat out top contenders Luka Löwe and Tsuda Katsuo – who won the cross in 1953 and 1954, respectively – but circumvented the Führer’s ban on female competitors. The risk paid off: Hitler was so smitten with his newest Victor that he requested a dance with her at the Victor’s Ball. (This proximity, of course, inspired the resistance’s plan to steal Adele’s identity and enter its own racer/assassin in her place in 1956. But I digress.)

To win a grueling, 20,780 kilometer, cross-continent race, a girl’s got to break a few hearts. Iron to Iron follows the competition from Luka’s perspective, from his temporary alliance with the silent and secretive Wolfe boy to his burgeoning romance with Adele Wolfe – and his eventual, inevitable betrayal on the final leg of the tour.

Graudin does an excellent job of adding depth to Luka’s character, softening his harder edges, and establishing his mindset (REVENGE!) when we meet him in Wolf By Wolf. Perhaps more importantly, she satisfies our curiosity about What Happened Between Luka and Adele in the previous year’s race. The betrayal is marginally worse than I expected – a little more violent and sudden – and, while my heart ached for Luka, I couldn’t help but side with Adele.

After all, Luka said it himself: “He didn’t need to win. Not the way this girl did.” Impress your abusive, impossible-to-please father – or escape a life spent popping out babies to feed to Hitler’s empire? It’s kind of a no-brainer. And yet, instead of handing the Iron Cross over to his new love, Luka offered to help her win…next year.

Asking women to sublimate or defer their goals for the good of men? How very 1955. Luka didn’t give her any choice, really.

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Book Review: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, Megan Shepherd (2016)

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

“But there must be more out there. There must be brighter things.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

When the princess had this place built, did she imagine that one day children would die here, crying so loud you could hear it even over a screaming kettle? Did she think, while she threw open the doors and let music pour onto the back lawn, that one day a black winged horse would circle around and around the roof, tirelessly, always on the hunt?

I eye him sideways. He doesn’t look like the type to fatten children for witches, but who does?

Young Emmaline is one of twenty-odd patients at Briar Hill hospital in Shropshire, a sort of emergency quarantine hospital for children suffering from tuberculosis – or “stillwaters,” as Em calls it. Their only companions are Sisters Constance and Mary Grace, who run the show; Thomas, the one-armed caretaker; Dr. Turner, who visits once a week to dispense medication; and the many animals who live on the estate: Bog the dog, the sheep and chickens – and the magical winged horses who live in the mirrors.

Emmaline is the only one who can see those last, of course. Mostly the horses ignore her and go about their business on the other side of the mirror. That is, until one winter day when she finds a winged horse in the sundial garden, injured and stranded. The mystery deepens when Emmaline begins receiving letters from the Horse Lord imploring her to keep Foxfire safe. She is being pursued by the Black Horse, who hunts by moonlight and has but one weakness: color. Emmaline must surround Foxfire with all the colors of the rainbow. But where can she find color – vibrant, lively colors – in her dreary world, ravaged by sickness and war?

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Book Review: Wolf By Wolf (Wolf By Wolf #1), Ryan Graudin (2015)

Monday, October 19th, 2015

“The wolves of war are gathering…”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them – made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same.

Her story begins on a train.

Babushka – the one who gave her purpose.

Mama – the one who gave her life.

Miriam – the one who gave her freedom.

Aaron-Klaus – the one who gave her a mission.

Vlad – the one who gave her pain.

These were the names she whispered in the dark.

These were the pieces she brought back into place.

These were the wolves she rode to war.

An exhilarating and imaginative fusion of alternate history, science fiction, and historical fiction, Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf mines the many what ifs? surrounding World War II: What if the United States had held fast to an isolationist foreign policy? What if the Hitler had successfully executed Operation Sea Lion? What if the combined forces of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan had won the war, painting most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa red? What if Nazi scientists successfully found a way of “curing” Untermensch, making them at least appear more perfectly Aryan on the surface? What if these experiments surpassed even Dr. Mengele’s wildest dreams, creating mutants who are able to change their skin at will, the way you or I would change our clothes?

While the first three scenarios were arguably possible at one point or another in history – and Nazi scientists did indeed try to tinker with eye color – that last what if is what catapults Wolf By Wolf into the realm of science fiction/fantasy. And is it glourious. (Misspelling intentional.)

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Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Emma Hooper (2015)

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

“…there are reasons to come home.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

He didn’t ask, where are you going, or why are you going. He turned back around to face where the deer might be. She walked on, east. In her bag, pockets, and hands were:

Four pairs of underwear.
One warm sweater.
Some money.
Some paper, mostly blank, but one page with addresses on it and one page with names.
One pencil and one pen.
Four pairs of socks.
Stamps.
Cookies.
A small loaf of bread.
Six apples.
Ten carrots.
Some chocolate.
Some water.
A map, in a plastic bag.
Otto’s rifle, with bullets.
One small fish skull.

One morning, Etta Gloria Kinnick (“of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.”) wakes early, before sunrise, well ahead of her husband Otto (“Vogel. Soldier/Farmer.”), and decides that she wants to see the ocean. Specifically, the Atlantic. Born and raised in land-locked Saskatchewan, she’s never dipped so much as a toe in such a vast body of water; let alone the Atlantic, which has nevertheless managed to play a major role in shaping the course of Etta’s life from afar.

When her older sister Alma became pregnant – back in the “good old days,” when unwed mothers were to be shamed and pitied – she fled to a convent on Prince Alberta Island, in order to have the baby in secret and put him up for adoption. Etta never saw her again.

During Alma’s brief stint as a nun, she witnessed a wave of young men – boys, mostly – depart Canada’s shore, swarm over the island, and drift out to sea. Out to war, many of them never to return; the rest, finally coming home bloodied and broken. Among them was 17-year-old Otto – Etta’s former pupil and eventual husband. When he left, she promised to write to him – so he could practice his underdeveloped English skills. They fell in love from opposite sides of the globe.

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Book Review: To Find a Mountain, Dani Amore (2014)

Monday, December 8th, 2014

A Fictional Look at Rural Italy During WWII

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

My children know very little of what happened to me during that time. The parts I have told them are the truth, but I have not told them everything. […]

They do not know how close to death I came. They do not know how close to death their father came. They do now know how close to death my entire village came – all because of the events that took place in my house the year the Germans arrived.

My children will learn that wars are fought not just on the front lines, but also in the dirt streets of poverty-stricken towns like Casalvieri, Italy.

They will learn that their mother killed a man during the war.

The year is 1943, and Nazi forces have just arrived in the small Italian town of Casalvieri. Located several miles north of Mt. Cassino – the single highest point in central Italy – Casalvieri is, much to its residents’ detriment, a strategic asset in the war for Italy. Seemingly overnight, the town is overrun with Germanesi, demanding food, housing, and – worst of all – male bodies to sacrifice to the German war machine.

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Book Review: The One I Was, Eliza Graham (2014)

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

All the world’s a stage.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)

Germany, December 1938. Only weeks after Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass,” an orgy of organized violence against Jews in Germany and Austria), eleven-year-old Benjamin Goldman boards a Kindertransport train for England. Carrying just his school satchel and his cherished leather football, Benny is traveling light; with his father long since imprisoned by the Nazis, and a mother who lay dying of diphtheria, Benny has no one to see him off, and is eager to put his life in Germany behind him.

Once in England, Benny is “adopted” by Lord Sidney Dorner and his young wife Harriet. The wealthy couple pledged to sponsor twenty Jewish refugees; the best and brightest six boys are to stay at their Fairfleet estate, where they’ll receive a top-notch education from university professor Dr. Dawes. For the next six and a half years, Benny tries his best to assimilate into his new, adopted country. Having always felt an outsider, he’s determined to shed his German roots and become a “proper” Englishman. From day one at Fairfleet, Benny struggles to speak in English rather than German, even outside of the classroom. He excels in his studies and forms tentative friendships with his dorm mates.

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Book Review: Katusha Book 2: The Shaking of the Earth, Wayne Vansant (2013)

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Coming of Age inside the Well of a T-34

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

Roughly 800,000 women served in the Soviet Armed Forces during World War II (also known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War): as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members, and partisans. Of these, a quarter were decorated, and 89 received the highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

A number of children also fought in the war. Prior to WWII, the age of conscription for men was 19; just before the war began, it was lowered to 17. Teenagers and children fought in insurrections, belonged to youth movements, and in some cases, orphans were allowed join the Red Army in an official capacity. (See e.g.)

In the graphic novel series Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War, Wayne Vansant shines a light on these lesser-known aspects of World War II.

Refugees from their native country of Ukraine, Book 2: The Shaking of the Earth sees Katusha and her adopted older sister Milla (“Big and Little Tymoshenko”) arrive in Russia just in time for the bombing of Stalingrad on August 23, 1942. The young women quickly graduate from partisans to militia members, as they’re recruited to defend the women and children still remaining in the city. In an attempt to keep them safe (wherein “safe” is a relative term), their father later arranges for them to attend tank driving school in Chelyabinsk. After several months of study, they’re sent to the front lines to fight with the Red Army, where Milla earns the honor of Hero of the Soviet Union for her bravery at the Battle of Prokhorovka in July 1943.

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