Posts tagged ‘War’

The Family Romanov

Family RomanovTitle: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
ISBN: 9780375867828
Pages: 292 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.
Awards: Sibert Honor (2015), YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult Finalist (2015)

Now, learning from advisers that the palace guard had deserted, he finally grasped the situation. There was, he concluded, no other choice. He would have to give in and appoint a government acceptable to the people. He immediately telegraphed Rodzianko with his offer. Minutes later, Rodzianko answered: “His Majesty . . . [is] apparently . . . unable to realize what is happening in the capital. A terrible revolution has broken out. . . . The measures you propose are too late. The time for them is gone. There is no return.” (173-174)

There was no return for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. For years the Russian nobility had turned a blind eye to the crippling poverty overwhelming the populace. Instead of consulting with his advisers, he relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Empress Alexandra, a foreigner who married him under the dark mourning cloud of the former emperor’s death. She in turn was driven by “a deep belief in the miraculous and mystical” and consulted a questionable character named Rasputin, who was also looked upon with suspicion by everyone except the royal family (28). It didn’t help that the heirs were isolated, and the only son’s illness was kept a secret. Breeding suspicion and discontent among the famine, frustration, and fear of the first World War, those feelings soon followed the royal family into hiding, but the worst was yet to come.

Anyone who has seen the movie Anastasia is at least partly familiar with the story of the last Russian Tsar and his family. I had the refrain of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” stuck in my brain through most of my reading. Most people probably never realized how inaccurate the plot of the movie was to history. As always, Fleming’s research is thorough, quoting extensively from the diaries and correspondence that have been miraculously saved for all these years. The details were surprising, including first hand accounts of what happened when the murders took place and a photograph of the room where the deed took place.

It’s an intentionally disheartening read, almost like when reading about the Titanic, because history tells you that this is not going to end well for the family. I found myself shaking my head in amazement that Tsar Nicholas II could be so out of touch and purposely naive regarding his responsibilities, to the point where he stopped opening telegrams from his advisers and took the word of his wife over his generals. Probably the best decision that Fleming made was to include the final chapter regarding life after the Tsar, the rumors of survival, and the final nail on the coffin so to speak when the bodies were revealed, 25 years after their initial discovery. A fascinating read, this one will intrigue and inform.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

It Will Get There — Eventually

I don’t normally do this, but I just recently read two nonfiction picture books that struck me as similar, not because of the format or the topic but because of the actions taken in each story.

Henry and the CannonsTitle: Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution
Author/Illustrator: Don Brown
ISBN: 9781596432666
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Press Books, c2013.
Publication Date: January 22, 2013

Stourbridge LionTitle: The Stourbridge Lion: America’s First Locomotive
Author: Karl Zimmermann
Illustrator: Steven Walker
ISBN: 9781590788592
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, c2012.
Publication Date: March 1, 2012

On the surface, these tales have nothing alike. One tells the story of Henry Knox, who convinced George Washington during the American Revolution that he could transport the desperately needed cannons from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Boston Massachusetts. As the book relates; “300 miles of lakes and rivers, hills and glades, and mountain forests separated Boston from Fort Ticonderoga. Dragging cannons the whole, hard way in winter was impossible.” But Henry did it, rescuing them from ships that were snagged on rocks and at one point sunk, dragging them through mud, lifting them out from the frigid waters when the ice they were traveling on broke, until all 59 were safely delivered.

In contrast, delivering a steam locomotive from England to Pennsylvania seems easy. Horatio Allen traveled to England, purchased several engines, and sailed back to New York City to await their arrival by several different boats. The tracks however were ill-equipped to handle the engine, which weighed almost twice what the gravity powered locomotives held, and ended up sitting idle for most of its time until it took up a new residence in a museum.

The stories I’ll admit have very little in common. Henry and the Cannons is a well told, little-known portion of history during the American Revolution. The pictures are somewhat muted in tone, but they convey the hazards of the journey in a style that is oddly engaging although not incredibly detailed in a way that one might expect. I find myself comparing them to a cartoon that I known I have seen. Schoolhouse Rock comes to mind, but that’s not right. The faces are almost indistinguishable from one another, and yet readers see the ice and snow forming on the row-boat as waves lap and one unlucky sailor bails. We see footprints left behind as the men struggled through the knee-deep mud. When the cannon is fired for show, everyone watching in the background is prepared for the impending sound as they cover their ears with their hands.

The Stourbridge Lion has an uneven hand when it comes to details. While readers see the popped nails from the wooden tracks and I LOVE the fact that there is not one or two but THREE maps to provide context for readers, we really don’t get a sense of how historic this first steam locomotive might have been. Readers are privy to the test run, but not to the actual work, if any, that the locomotive accomplishes. I got the impression that unlike the cannons, which definitely had an impact on the outcome of the war, it seems the importation of the locomotive was ill-conceived and almost pointless, since the tracks, infrastructure, and operators had to adapt before it could serve a productive use.

What links the two of them however is the journey. They actually both used the Hudson River, with 50 years separating the two journeys, which proves the importance of the Hudson River and begs the question of who else and what else has traveled on it over the years. But I kept thinking about how cumbersome, awkward, and difficult it would be to transport each of these shipments in their respective time frames. Both were moved before cars were popular and readily available. Instead, horses and ships were used to haul the two loads. The sheer man power it must have taken to get the cannons over the hills and through the snow is mind-boggling, and the comparison of the ships used to transport the cannons to the ship used to transport the locomotive would be interesting. Reading these two books side-by-side allowed me to make comparisons that I don’t think I would have considered. While I felt the presentation and subject matter of Henry’s Cannons was handled better and made a more interesting read, The Stourbridge Lion brings to light an interesting event where early adapters of a new invention were way before their time.

Have you made an interesting connection between two books recently? What books would you pair together?

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Impossible Knife of MemoryTitle: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrators: Julia Whelan and Luke Daniels
ISBN: 9781480553569 (audiobook)
Pages: 391 Pages
Discs/CDs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 13 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014.
Publication Date: January 7, 2014

Hayley Kincain is starting school for the first time in years in her father’s home town, after spending time on the road with him. Both Hayley and her father suffer memory issues, her father from PTSD after serving time in Afghanistan, and Hayley from the traumatic events following his return. Hayley knows that her unpredictable father is just one small step away from the breaking point, but she’s never quite sure what will set him off. One day he’s shooting hoops, the next day he’s shooting his gun at the television. She hides her situation from everyone, trying to avoid the pitying looks and their inevitable separation. But when a classmate begins showing an interest in her and her circumstances, Hayley wonders if there is a future, or if it’s just one more complication in a world causing her and her father so much hurt.

As always, Laurie Halse Anderson weaves readers into a spell of a story. On more than one occasion I found my heart in my throat as we see Hayley struggle to stitch her life together. You can see that Hayley and her father aren’t bad people, but don’t know how to handle their situation. The title is applicable, as Hayley continuously refers to memories as slicing through her system, and her father would probably describe them in the same way as they spring upon both of them unbidden, altering how they look at the world. You get the sense that they are balancing on a knife point, just waiting for their family to get sliced in half.

A slight spoiler, but Hayley’s classmate Finn has entered my top five list of perfect boyfriends. He pushes for more information, and comforts and aids Hayley as he can, but he recognizes that they are both in over their head at the climatic ending. Their sarcastic, witty back-and-forth banter is the comedy relief that such a serious topic needs, and you anticipate their relationship long before it is formalized. There’s an ongoing gag about their involvement with different covert operations and Finn’s slow driving and derelict car. Hayley’s jaded voice is offset by Finn’s down to earth disposition. His persistence pays off, and their first date is swoon worthy. With all the complications that their families bring to the table, they struggle, and the real question is if they will stay together or not. Can I bring him to life?

Julia Whelan does an excellent job bringing Hayley’s anguish and uncertainty to the narration. She does an admirable job distinguishing voices, and listeners will get caught up in the story. Luke Daniels adds some intermittent insights into Hayley’s father’s head. While I wish there were more, I can understand what the author is doing. We never get a full picture of what is going on in a wounded veteran’s head, so it’s unfair that we would get more information than Hayley has on her own father. The slow drawl and anguished distance that Daniels conveys through those short interludes is terse, tense, and timely to the plot. I’m glad they choose to have two narrators.

The Shadow Throne

Shadow ThroneTitle: The Shadow Throne
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy, book #3 (sequel to The Runaway King)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Map by: Kayley LeFaiver
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545284172 (hardcover), 9780545640060 (audiobook)
Pages: 317 pages
CDs/Discs: 9 hours, 4 minutes, 8 CDs
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2014 (Scholastic Audiobooks, c2014)

With an unsteady voice, she added, “Jaron, do you expect to die in this war?”
My thumb brushed over hers. Not for the first time, I wondered how her skin could be so soft. Then I said, “With the kind of threat we’re facing, I will fight to the death before I surrender. And I don’t see a path to victory.”
“But you’ll find a way. You always do.”
“Maybe Carthya will come through this. But mine has never been the kind of life that leads to old age.” (20-21)

Jaron has every reason to be defeated. After returning home from the pirates camp with a broken leg, he knows war is on the horizon, and receives word of its arrival at the same time he learns of Imogen’s capture. He saved her once, he can do it again, right? With his friends scattered, his country surrounded, and a possible spy in their midst, Jaron is flung into the deadliest battle yet. While he recognizes that he might not make it out alive, he refuses to admit or believe that fate might fall on one of his friends. But will his efforts force him to choose between his companions, his country, or his own freedom?

I posted reviews to the first and second books in the series earlier this year. I still recommend the audiobook versions as an enjoyable listening experience, with Charlie McWade literally providing a voice to Jaron. But with the amount of movement going on between towns and countries, readers might prefer having the map in the print version readily available as a reference of everyone’s destinations and locations. The other thing that I noticed this time around is that the Jennifer Nielsen presents conversations quite frequently as summaries from Jaron’s perspective. I don’t know if she does this to speed the plot or to avoid writing dialogue. I also don’t know if I noticed this more because I was listening to the audiobook rather than reading it. For instance, here are two examples of times I wish I could have “heard” the conversation:

To avoid any argument, I explained only what was necessary of my plans. Mott’s mouth was pinched in a think line of disapproval and Harlowe didn’t look much happier. Tobias clearly thought I had gone insane during my time in captivity, and as that wasn’t entirely impossible, I didn’t contradict him. In the end, they agreed to all that I asked, and Harlowe made Mott and Tobias Promise to keep me safe. Mott replied that he could protect me from everyone but myself, which I thought was a fair compromise. (122-123)

The more we talked about it, the more I was certain that something was very wrong. (194)

Listening to the audiobook, descriptions like the ones just quoted feel as if Jaron is breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the reader. Readers also get first hand analysis of Jaron’s physical and mental state, such as “I was neither the biggest nor the strongest in this battle. My only hope was to be the quickest.” (205) These comments might have read more fluidly if the book had been presented in the third person or if someone else had told Jaron, but from Jaron’s perspective such self-awareness can be slightly jarring.

At other times, these asides are some of the most beautiful and heart-felt portions of the book. I can’t quote any of them without giving away way too much of the plot. Suffice it to say, you’ll know what I mean when you encounter them. Swoon! Balancing the more heart-felt moments, Jaron’s biting sarcasm is a welcome constant in the series. For instance, after encountering a friend, Jaron claims “I need to smile. Tell me something not awful.” After hearing his companions were “miserable”, Jaron arches an eyebrow and says “This is the worst good story I’ve ever heard.” The story continues with an evening rain, making it “cold and so dark we could barely see our own fingers, and the night seemed to last forever.” Jaron responds “I’m beginning to wonder if you understand what ‘not awful’ means.” (94-95) That’s the Jaron we know and love, and those times always brought a smile to my face.

While the print copy benefited from the map, the one benefit of the audiobook was the inclusion of an “exclusive scene” that was not included in the print copy. This bonus scene transports readers to a mid-point in the story and shows an event which Jaron is not present to witness. It explains the actions of another character, and I find myself comparing it to the Harry Potter epilogue at the end of book seven. Some people might like it, but I would have rather been kept in the dark about this character’s motivations than receive this somewhat loose rational behind their actions. It definitely adds more intrigue to the situation. Just like the second book, Jaron paints himself into one corner after another, with no possibly way to get out (at least to everyone else) until some miraculous foresight is revealed that propels him to the next problem. You can’t help but admire his intense planning, but it is also hard to believe a plan this complicated and hinged on so many factors is going to succeed. Still a highly recommended series, this book is Inception meets Princess Bride, and I think fans of both would appreciate the complexities.

Truce

0-545-13049-2Title: Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780545130493
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.

In a matter of days, six million soldiers would find themselves facing weapons of unimaginable destructive power. Many of them would be blasted from the face of the earth, while others would be left permanently wounded in horrible ways. None of these young men realized that their leaders had lied to get them to fight in a war that did not have to happen. Nor could they know that on December 25, 1914, they would openly defy their commanding officers and meet on the battlefield in what can only be described as a Christmas miracle. (x)

Since I’ve read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan I know that World War I started when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated while visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also previously heard about the impromptu truce that was called between troops in order to celebrate Christmas, which when the war started was when everyone thought the war would be over. Little did they know at that point it was just starting. But Jim Murphy glosses over the causes of the war and strives to put the focus on the soldiers involved in the conflict. There are copious photos of soldiers in the trenches, close-ups of the no-mans land that they could not cross, and the aftermath of the futile charges when they did attempt an attack. Soldiers from both sides are quoted extensively, with first-hand accounts taken from journals, letters home, and official correspondence. Even if you’d previously heard about the impromptu and imperfect truce, there’s new insight to be gained.

For instance, did you know that the truce was previously coordinated? Mini-truces had been organized between the troops, as they exchanged songs and sometimes supplies over the crumbling walls. Murphy relates that one area even had a shooting competition, where a target was placed in the middle and each sides shot until it was hit. But arranging the truce depended upon the individual platoons, battalions, and soldiers.

The most surprising thing was that it was frowned upon by the superior officers!

Back at headquarters, [English] General Horace Smith-Dorrien had been disturbing reports all day about strange goings-on at the front. […] The commander of all British troops, Field Marshall John French, was just as angry. “When this [fraternization] was reported to me I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a good deal of trouble.
The German High Command took much the same view and issued a terse order: “Commander Second Army directs that informal understandings with enemy are to cease. Officers . . . allowing them are to be brought before a court-martial.” (82-83)

As a result, some of the opposing officers in the field met to warn their enemies that they’d be resuming their hostilities. Some soldiers initially refused to resume firing, and others warned their counterparts each time they were forced to give the impression that they were still fighting, such as when they were being inspected by higher ranking members. While most places continued to fight by the new year, soldiers stationed on both sides at Ploegsteert Wood kept the friendship until March. I laughed at some of the comments, as I’m sure the commanding generals did not, such as when one captain declared that the men waved at each other and made tea and acted “most gentlemanly” and that “this useless and annoying sniping can have no real effect on the progress of the campaign.” (88)

A truly intriguing idea that begs the perpetual and never solved “What if” question that is probably hanging over the heads of every soldier involved. “What if the fighting had stopped there?” How different would history and the world be? Especially how reluctantly some of the parties were to even get involved in the conflict, I wish the practice of listening to the troops and the people would have enacted some change. As the holidays approach and we hear about “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” consider reading this book and learning about how this idea was practiced in the worst of circumstances.

This was posted in conjunction with Nonfiction Mondays, a drive around the internet to encourage reading and reviewing nonfiction titles.

Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

BombTitle: Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
Author: Steve Sheinkin
ISBN: 9781596434875
Pages: 266 pages
Publisher/Date: Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, c2012.
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
Awards: 2012 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature, 2013 Newbery Honor Book, Winner of the 2013 Sibert Award and the 2013 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, Cybils Top Five Nonfiction Finalist,

This is a big story. It’s the story of the creation — and theft — of the deadliest weapon ever invented. The scenes speed around the world, from secret labs to commando raids to street-corner spy meetings. But like most big stories, this one starts small […] sixteen years before FBI agents cornered Harry Gold in Philadelphia. (7)

Not only is this a big story, but it’s also a complex and sometimes convoluted story, filled with spies and sabotage, intrigue and ingenuity, science and suspense. In 1938, German physicist Otto Hahn was the first to split the atom, an accomplishment that scientists around the world thought was impossible. Less than one year later, President Roosevelt was appraised by none other than Albert Einstein of the possibility of this discovery being used to build a super-sized bomb, and Roosevelt demanded action. Thus began the race for physical, monetary, and intellectual resources to discover the key and build a bomb before any of their enemies. In the shadow of World War II and into the Cold War, scientists worked tirelessly. Robert Oppenheimer’s team in California was the first to crack the code, but the group was plagued with security uncertainties and the government, military, and scientists involved questioned who they could really trust with this deadly and destructive data.

This book has received many accolades, from being a 2012 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature and 2013 Newbery Honor Book to winning the 2013 Sibert Award and the 2013 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. One thing that would have helped this award-winning book immensely is a timeline. As readers bounce from scientists to spies and back again across multiple continents and countries, it was almost information overload. It was difficult to differentiate everyone in the beginning, especially when the forward starts in one year and then you zip backwards in time almost a decade and another part where two people on a sabotage team both had the same first name. But for science enthusiasts and detailed orientated people, this will intrigue and enthrall them to have all the pieces of the puzzle together in one concise book. Sheinkin goes beyond the creation of Fat Man and Little Boy and their deployment on Japan, allowing readers a glimpse into the beginnings of the Cold War.

One scene mentioned in the book that particularly struck me was learning how far America went to determine who was spying on us:

While in the United States, Soviet spies had to use an American telegraph company to send information quickly to Moscow. The KGB probably knew that the telegraph company was making copies of every telegram and handing them over to the U.S. Army. This didn’t particularly worry the Soviets–the messages were always written in an extremely complex code.
In 1949, after years of failure, American code breakers cracked the code. Intelligence began decoding all the messages sent to the Soviet Union during the war. That’s when they came across a shocking note sent from New York City to KGB headquarters in 1944. […]
The 1944 telegram summarized a top-secret scientific paper. The paper had been written by one of the British scientists working with Oppenheimer. A few phone calls later, Lamphere [a FBI counterintelligence agent] had the name of the paper’s author: Klaus Fuchs. (221)

Proving how complex the situation was, the German-born physicist named Klaus Fuchs was working with British scientists in England when his assistance was requested in America, prompting him to spy for the Russian Communist Party. When he is arrested and finally being tried in 1950, his lawyer emphasizes the fact that at the time he was passing secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II, the country and Britain were allies. This made the difference between a maximum 14 years in prison for passing secrets to allies and the death penalty if the two countries had been enemies at the time the crime was committed. Fuchs got out early for good behavior, later moving back to East Germany.

Especially interesting is a peak, however brief, into the political rational of Japan not surrendering after the first bomb was dropped. I would have liked to have read more about the bombs’ effects on the country, but sticking to the facts and not trying to sensationalize the country or its population I feel made a greater impact. The simple statement “Fat Man exploded over the city of Nagasaki with the force of 22,000 tons of TNT. At least 40,000 people were instantly killed, and tens of thousands more fatally wounded or poisoned with radiation.” leaves a power impression. I hope readers considered these stark statistics and allowed them the full attention they deserved. This is not a fast read, but you’ll feel immeasurably rewarded once you get through this dense text that presents the making of the bomb and it’s after effects from all sides.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round-up of all the bloggers who participated, check out Sue Heavenrich over at Sally’s Bookshelf.

This book in particular was read as I participate in YALSA’s 2013 Hub Reading Challenge which challenges readers to finish 25 books by June 22nd from a list of 83 titles that were recognized and published over the last year.

Shadow

Title: Shadow
Author: Michael Morpurgo
ISBN: 9780312606596
Pages: 180 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillian, c2010.
Publication Date: Sept. 4, 2012 (US) (first published Jan. 1, 2010)

I saw then what they had seen, foreign soldiers, several of them, coming slowly toward us. The one in front had a detector–I’d seen them before in Bamiyan–and I knew what they were for. He was sweeping the road ahead of him for bombs. I think it was only then that I put two and two together, and realized what Shadow was doing. She had discovered a bomb. She was pointing to it. She was showing us. and I knew somehow that she was showing the soldiers too.
But they still couldn’t see her. She was hidden from them by a boulder at the side of the road. So I just ran. I never even thought about it. I just ran, toward the soldiers, toward Shadow, toward the bomb.(72-73)

When Aman was just a child living in Afghanistan, his father and grandmother were killed by the Taliban. Forced to flee the country with his mother in the hopes of meeting up with an uncle in England, Aman faced some insurmountable odds. Finally making it across the border with the aid of a unique dog he named Shadow, Aman leads a relatively comfortable life in England. After spending six years in England, Aman and his mother receive the shocking news that their asylum request has been denied and they need to return to Afghanistan. They are locked away, awaiting deportation. That’s when Aman’s friend Matt and Matt’s grandfather make a last-ditch effort to save this family from a separation that could kill them.

Allowing Aman to tell the story in a flashback format prevents the urgency and apprehension from building. We already know that he and his mother make it to England successfully because he is locked there awaiting deportation. By the time readers catch up to present day, there are few pages left to resolve the conflict, and it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen and you’re really not surprised by the ending. While the ending is fairly serendipitous, it’s also realistic, as you generally hear about “Hail Mary passes” being caught by someone and being taken all the way by a network of people.

The characters are likeable enough, but even Aman comes across as somewhat one-dimensional, as the focus is on the journey and not the people. Readers can sympathize with his situation, but you don’t get emotionally involved like some other stories encourage. Matt and his grandfather are supplemental, even though they are the only ones relating “present” events. I think it would have increased urgency if we had seen Aman’s state first hand, like when he was detained in the deportation “camp”.

However, I can see teachers using this in lesson plans about ongoing wars overseas, immigration, refugees, and comparing detention centers of today to other times we’ve had something similar occur, such as during World War II with Hitler’s concentration camps and the Japanese internment camps here in the United States. With short chapters, many of which have a dangling if not a true cliff-hanger ending, it would make an interesting read-aloud during transition times or for several minutes each day. Being written by Michael Morpurgo helps too, especially with the recent release of the War Horse movie generating interest in his war based realistic fiction. He provides some background information about asylum-seeking families and military dogs in his acknowledgements and postscripts. I’m very interested in getting the two movies he sites, Phil Grabsky’s The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan and In this World, directed by Michael Winterbottom, although I’m not finding either at any library locally at this time.

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