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review 2019-01-12 12:56
Auschwitz Lullaby by Mario Escobar
Auschwitz Lullaby - Mario Escobar

Based on the true story of a brave German nurse tasked with caring for Auschwitz’s youngest prisoners. Auschwitz Lullaby brings to life the story of Helene Hannemann—a woman who sacrificed everything for family and fought furiously for the children she hoped to save. On an otherwise ordinary morning in 1943, Helene Hannemann is preparing her five children for the day when the German police arrive at her home. Helene’s worst fears come true when the police, under strict orders from the SS, demand that her children and husband, all of Romani heritage, be taken into custody. Though Helene is German and safe from the forces invading her home, she refuses to leave her family—sealing her fate in a way she never could have imagined. After a terrifying trek across the continent, Helene and her family arrive at Auschwitz and are thrown into the chaos of the camp. Her husband, Johann, is separated from them, but Helene remains fiercely protective of her children and those around her. When the powers-that-be discover that Helene is not only a German but also a trained nurse, she is forced into service at the camp hospital, which is overseen by the notorious Dr. Mengele himself. Helene is under no illusions in terms of Dr. Mengele’s intentions, but she agrees to cooperate when he asks her to organize a day care and school for the Romani children in the camp. Though physically and emotionally brutalized by the conditions at Auschwitz, Helene musters the strength to protect the children in her care at any cost. Through sheer force of will, Helene provides a haven for the children of Auschwitz—an act of kindness and selflessness so great that it illuminates the darkest night of human history. Based on a true story, Mario Escobar’s Auschwitz Lullaby demonstrates the power of sacrifice and the strength of human dignity—even when all hope seems lost.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In the year 1943, Helene Hannemann is getting her husband and five kids ready for the day one morning when SS officers burst in and demand that the husband and five children be taken into custody. Helene's husband is Romani (making the children half so) but Helene is German, so she is encouraged to leave them and start a new life elsewhere. What kind of self-respecting mother abandons her family though? To the officers' bafflement she stays put, insisting she goes wherever her family goes. 

 

I always wanted to believe that people would wake up and see what Hitler and his followers represented, but no one did. Everyone went right along with his fanatical insanity and turned the world into a starving, warring hell.

 

The entire family is put on a train headed to the concentration camps. Mother and children are sent to Auschwitz... or more specifically, Birkenau (aka Auschwitz 2), the Romani division of the imprisoned. Helene's husband, Johann, is sent elsewhere but where exactly takes some time for Helene to discover. In the absence of her husband, Helene's eldest son, Blaz, takes up the "man of the house" position, covertly eavesdropping / spying around camp for any intel that may help keep the family safe. The span of the novel covers Helene's time in the camp from May - December 1943. *Note: Chapter 15 jumps to 1944.*

 

He was still beautiful to me despite being battered by life... it was the beautiful face of the man I loved... it was incomprehensible to any but a woman in love who had just found her long-lost beloved.  When you find the one you love, everything is on fire. The half of you that was destroyed and abandoned fits together again, and the pain and suffering become ghosts from the long-distant past. 

 

When news gets out that Helene is a trained nurse, it reaches the ears of Dr. Josef Mengele. Helene is put to work in Mengele's hospital. She's heard stories of his evil side, but wants to do everything in her power to protect the innocent children in the camps.

 

Impressed by her skills, he offers her another position: he wants her to be the director of a school / nursery he is creating for the children of the camps. Though Helene has an inkling of suspicious regarding his motives, she remains optimistic that some good can come from such a project. For one, she's been promised that her children may be moved to a cleaner, safer housing area... so she hesitantly agrees. From then on it is a constant struggle for her, fighting for the welfare of the children while not angering Mengele too much to potentially hasten the end of her own life. 

 

The novel opens and closes with the thoughts of Mengele, his memories of Helene, but the bulk of it is Helene's tale to tell. And what a story this is! As this is based on a true story, many of the "characters" you'll get to know here were actually real, documented people experiencing this time in history. 

 

Sometimes the things we lack or the obstacles we face become allies that help us endure. I decided then and there I would not be beaten. I would fight to the last breath. With the world falling to pieces around me, I would stand firm.

 

Escobar's writing is concise yet quietly powerful, unshakeable, and moving. Parents and non-parents alike, Escobar has his readers thinking on how much we do and would sacrifice for our loved ones, the ends of the earth we would gladly travel across if it meant we could lighten their load even a little bit. Escobar gives Helene just the right blend of motherly warmth and inner heartbreak to instantly endear her and her struggle to nearly any reader. Nurses or nursing students will also empathize with her professional struggles, the situations she is forced to stomach. Particularly heartbreaking is the 5 day rule: any patient in the hospital still sick or injured after 5 days was recommended to the "elimination" list. Helene describes a child she'd grown attached to who was sickly but on the mend... but her bedrest had extended this 5 day rule. Imagine having to stomach this kind of scene!

 

This story is the quintessential lesson in familial loyalty, love and sacrifice. Helene's story as a whole burrowed into my mind long after I finished that last page. It's true what they say, not all heroes wear capes! 

 

This novel is a perfect candidate for potential book group picks. For those interested, a list of discussion questions is included in the back of the book. 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy  of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

 

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review 2019-01-10 10:33
The Orphan's Wish - Melanie Dickerson

Orphaned and alone, Aladdin travels from the streets of his Arab homeland to a strange, faraway place. Growing up in an orphanage, he meets young Lady Kirstyn, whose father is the powerful Duke of Hagenheim. Despite the difference in their stations, Aladdin quickly becomes Kirstyn’s favorite companion, and their childhood friendship grows into a bond that time and opposition cannot break. Even as a child, Aladdin works hard, learning all he can from his teachers. Through his integrity, intelligence, and sheer tenacity, he earns a position serving as the duke’s steward. But that isn’t enough to erase the shame of being forced to steal as a small child—or the fact that he’s an orphan with no status. If he ever wants to feel equal to his beautiful and generous friend Kirstyn, he must leave Hagenheim and seek his fortune. Yet once Aladdin departs, Lady Kirstyn becomes a pawn in a terrible plot. Now, Aladdin and Kirstyn must rely on their bond to save her from unexpected danger. But will saving Kirstyn cost Aladdin his newfound status and everything he’s worked so hard to obtain?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

In this re-imagining of the classic tale Aladdin, Dickerson takes Aladdin out of his original setting and moves him to Hagenheim, Germany in the 1400s, where he finds a place of sorts with the Duke of Hagenheim's family. Aladdin, orphaned at a young age, is taken in by the priest of Hagenheim Cathedral. Through this connection, Aladdin meets Lady Kirstyn, the duke's daughter. Both little children at the time, Aladdin comes to her rescue one day during a game where he thinks she is being bullied. Moved by his attention to her, Kirstyn befriends him and the two fast become constant companions. 

 

Fast forward a few years, and Aladdin now works as the duke's steward while also being Kirstyn's best friend, indulging in her many privileged whims. While he cares for Kirstyn, Aladdin does find enough of a sense of fulfillment from his current life situation. He explains to Kirstyn that he does not wish to be seen merely as a lowly servant his entire life, but instead wants to make something of himself, find success (and hopefully wealth) on his own terms. He breaks it to her that he intends to leave town to find his fortune. Rather than being encouraging and understanding, Kirstyn falls into a whiny fit and makes it all about her, only focusing on how this change will affect HER and HER wants. (Trust me, you'll be begging for a Jasmine return during this ridiculous pout fest). As kindly as possible, in so many words Aladdin tells her she'll just have to get over it because his mind is made up.

 

He goes off, finds work apprenticing with a merchant in Lüneberg, a neighboring town. Aladdin moves in with the merchant's family and is soon doing quite well for himself. He proves to have quite the business & finance acumen, inspiring the merchant to suggest Aladdin one day being his successor. For years, Aladdin had silently been throwing around the dream of one day marrying Kirstyn but previously had felt that to be impossible, with their difference in class stations. But should he do well with this business, it may be an opportunity after all! The thought drives his dedication to only work harder.

 

All is going very nicely until Aladdin gets word that Kirstyn has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. From there, everything else is dropped, so beginning Aladdin's efforts to bring his maybe-one-day-wife back home to safety. 

 

Ohhh, the issues I had with this book. First off, the quiet but annoyingly present whitewashing of one of my favorite childhood fables. Good lord, could this have been made any more white-bread boring?! I've been working my way through Dickerson's Hagenheim series --- the whole series meant to be re-imaginings of classic stories --- and while some of them have been just okay, some have been really enjoyable. So while I had my doubts about this one, I gave her the benefit of the doubt since the one I read before this, about a landlocked Little Mermaid, was actually a lot of fun (even though, again, I had my doubts about that one, taking a mermaid out of the water... but Dickerson made that one work, surprisingly!).

 

Let me just say, I'm not hating on the German setting itself. I married into a German family, clearly I'm down with the culture :-) But Germany in the context of ALADDIN -- an ARABIAN fable --- nah, didn't work for me. All the magic, allure, sand, desert winds, mystical stories ... all gone here. Instead, Dickerson gives us a whiny, spoiled brat of a female lead, her family all-around serving a heaping helping of white saviour complex,  and pretty much all the non-white characters have been made servants or criminals. Aladdin falls in love with Kirstyn in all her blonde-haired, blue-eyed glory. Later on, when the merchant's daughter develops an interest in him, Dickerson writes of how Aladdin finds her "pretty" with her dark hair and small mouth, but not nearly as beautiful as Kirstyn with her "pale blond hair, full lips and large blue eyes". YAWN. Aladdin has had his traditionally Muslim beliefs canceled and is now preaching the importance of strict Christian morals. There is virtually NO trace of the original story except for the use of the names Aladdin and Abu (Abu here is a small homeless child Aladdin looks after). Maybe, if you really stretch, you could liken Kirstyn's kidnapping to the time Jafar tried to keep Jasmine captive... but that's about it.

 

Beyond that, let's talk about the writing itself:

 

* Historical "say what now?" moments:  IE. Dickerson writes, regarding Kirstyn, "She was only sixteen and marriage seemed like something far in the future." Marriage at 16 far-fetched in the 1400s? Where if you took good care of yourself, you MAYBE made it to 40?! LOL 

 

* The dialogue in general: UGH, SO MELODRAMATIC. Reminded me of silent film emoting. Not every moment of the day is that *OMG* *SWOON* *SCOWL* *GASP*

 

* All around boring or head-knock-into-wall inducing characters: IE. Anna to her violent boyfriend: "You promise not to hit me again?"... proceeds to believe him... *eyeroll*

 

* The same few sentiments are repeated over and over again to convince the reader that Kirstyn and Aladdin are totally headed for forever love: Mainly, 1) They love long walks in the woods and 2) They of course understand each other better than anyone else in the world. Problem is, they spend the majority of the book spending ZERO time together, sooo... 

 

Lastly, while I understand this book is published through a Christian publisher (so some religious elements are to be expected at some point), here the religious undertones were not well done (as to feel natural to the story's enviroment / set up), instead coming off much too forced. The ending scenes are especially heavy-handed.

 

I'll continue on with the series installments, but this one was a definite disappointment.

 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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review 2019-01-09 05:30
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys's reputation was made upon publication of this passionate and heartbreaking novel, in which she brings into light one of fiction's most mysterious characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. A sensual and protected young woman, Antoinette Cosway grows up in the lush, natural world of the Caribbean. She is sold into marriage to the coldhearted and prideful Rochester, who succumbs to his need for money and his lust. Yet he will make her pay for her ancestors' sins of slaveholding, excessive drinking and nihilistic despair by enslaving her as a prisoner in his bleak British home. In this bestselling novel, Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind. 

~ back cover 1982 Norton paperback edition

 

 

 

 

So you've recently read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and you think to yourself, "I really want to know more about the story behind Rochester's first missus!" Well, aren't you in luck! Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea takes a stab at what that story might have been. Taking the reader away from all they know & remember at Thornfield Hall, Rhys has us visit 1830s Jamaica (Dominica), introducing us to pre-Mrs. Rochester Antoinette Cosway (aka "madwoman in the attic"). 

 

Young Antoinette grows up loving the lush climate of her native land, the warmth, the abundance of creature comforts... but some years into her youth, things turn ugly. There is much tension around the family, what with Antoinette's parents being slaveholders. The time of Emancipation rolls around, bringing several riots and all-around domestic upheavals to the area. In one instance, even one of Antoinette's own friends attacks her! Fearful that the employees will turn on the family, Antoinette's mother, Annette, makes the choice to burn the house down. Annette becomes mentally unstable after the fire and Antoinette is enrolled in a convent school. This pretty much makes up Part 1 of the novel.

 

"I am not used to happiness... it makes me afraid." 

~ Antoinette Cosway

 

Part 2 is where we first meet Rochester and hear of how Antoinette came to be sold into marriage to him.  (Part 3 of the novel is basically her life as the first Mrs. Rochester, though the novel periodically rotates between these three periods of her life as the story progresses). Rochester and his new Mrs. seem to get along pretty well in the beginning but the choice to return to the Cosway family estate as their first residence after marriage proves problematic. The whole place seems to make Rochester increasingly restless, but it doesn't seem to be the sole source of his unease. Any number of things appear to trigger his dark moods. Still, outwardly Rochester admits to liking the natural environment of Jamaica (even if he is giving off that "great place to visit but wouldn't want to live there" attitude). Meanwhile, there are momentary glimpses into Antoinette's character that suggest a true genetic struggle with mental illness of some sort, but there's a sadness to it, as behind her words and mannerisms, she gives off something of a sad, confused, scared little girl trying to figure out what happened to her life. Where did her sunlight go?

 

Antoinette's half-brother, Daniel (same dad, different moms), writes a discreet letter to Rochester warning him of the "mad" family he's so casually shackled himself to. Rochester shrugs the dark warning off at first, but as the story moves along, we start to see that that letter actually did quite successfully leave its mark on his mind, gradually driving him into his own unique madness. He becomes consumed with anger and righteousness until he comes to the decision to imprison Antoinette as punishment for her family's history with slave trading.

 

I'd say Rhys does a respectable job staying true to Eyre's Rochester, at least to a point. He still carries a certain level of charm, still somewhat child-like with his petulant moods. But this story takes him to an even darker place. Rhys forces the air of mystique around Antoinette a little too hard at times, making the reading experience annoying at times with the over-reliance on cryptic behavior or speech.

 

The few pages that make up Part 3 take the reader back to Eyre's setting, first getting impressions from Grace Poole, attendant to Antoinette all that time she was locked up in the tower. The very last pages are given over to Antoinette once again to offer her final say before we bring things back to Eyre's scene of the fire.

 

It's a decent prequel to a beloved classic. Not earth-shattering, but entertaining in the ideas it presents. I noticed in the list of discussion questions at the very end, one opens with "In Jane Eyre, the madwoman in the attic is a very unsympathetic character...". I can't help but disagree with that. Sure, she comes off as insane when we first meet her in Bronte's book, but even so, I myself wouldn't go so far as to say I found her unsympathetic. Isn't that why we are compelled to pick up Rhys's book in the first place, because we were left wondering what drove Rochester to have her secreted away all those years? He gives Jane a much sanitized version of events, or so we readers suspect... which is why so many classic lit. lovers can't help but have this on their TBRs at some point in their reading lives.

 

As humans, it unnerves us to think that criminal behavior is entirely senseless, without root. There is a small measure of comfort in being able to say, "Yes, this person was undoubtedly mad, but look at what they were driven to... they just snapped... it's tragic!" That need to have everything compartmentalized, explained, rationalized... Even in the worst of stories, we don't want to think of souls coming into this life with a purely demonic makeup... sometimes we can't help but feel the need to understand, rehabilitate, counsel. Even in Eyre's story, there was something to "the madwoman" that left me thinking some earlier version of her had been deeply wronged to have ended up so... seeing how Rhys wrote a whole novel on this premise, looks like I wasn't the only one feeling a sad question mark around such an "unsympathetic" character! 

 

 

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review 2018-12-24 18:21
Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff
Gingersnap - Patricia Reilly Giff

It's 1944, W.W. II is raging. Jayna's big brother Rob is her only family. When Rob is called to duty on a destroyer, Jayna is left in their small town in upstate New York with their cranky landlady. But right before he leaves, Rob tells Jayna a secret: they may have a grandmother in Brooklyn. Rob found a little blue recipe book with her name and an address for a bakery. When Jayna learns that Rob is missing in action, she's devastated. Along with her turtle Theresa, the recipe book, and an encouraging, ghostly voice as her guide, Jayna sets out for Brooklyn in hopes of finding the family she so desperately needs.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

After years of moving through a number of foster homes, orphaned Jayna finally gets the chance to live with her older brother, Rob, now old enough to become her legal guardian. While it might not always be the most financially comfortable situation in their home in upstate New York, they are happy to have each other. Then everything changes with the arrival of World War 2. Rob gets drafted, leaving his sister in the care of their landlady, Celine. Before he leaves, Rob mentions a recipe book he came across belonging to their French mother. Inside the recipe book, Rob had found a Brooklyn address, possibly that of their grandmother neither of them have met, Elise Martin.

 

After Rob's departure, Elise doesn't have much interest in sticking around with the landlady she believes doesn't like her much. She decides to set out on a journey to uncover the story behind the recipe book and who this Elise Martin really is, maybe even uncover some answers about Elise's parents, who were killed in a car crash when she was very young. Throughout the course of the story, Elise is surprised to receive guidance from an unnamed female ghost (the ghost doesn't remember her own identity either). One thing though, the ghost appears to have the ability to read Jayna's thoughts. This spirit also seems to like rifling through Jayna's clothes and using her nail polish without asking. Manners these days, I tell ya! So, added to the answers she wants to find for her own questions, Elise is also curious to find out the identity behind this disembodied voice. The ghost doesn't play a huge role in the story, at least not until near the end, but it was an enjoyable element of mystery for Giff to weave in. 

 

In between the chapters are a few of Jayna's pseudo-soup recipes, ones she creates to distract her from life's disappointments. (If you're trying to figure out the significance of the title btw, "Gingersnap" is Jayna's nickname).

 

 

 

Celine, the landlady, gets a bit of a bad rap thanks to Jayna's perspective. I found Celine to have a bit of a hard exterior, true, but we later get little bits about her that suggest she feels deeply but struggles to be comfortable sharing what she feels with others... so it can come off as her being a little abrasive. Being the same way myself, I sort of understood her. That line when she sighs, "someday I'll get my life back..." Man, have I felt that on so many levels at various times throughout my life! Plus, I found her funny with her "almost genuine" Ming vase. 

 

But it's also easy to feel for Jayna in this situation. Who wouldn't want to know the answers to the story of where they came from? Jayna can have her difficult moments too, but in the end, all these characters want the same thing: a cohesive, supportive, caring family unit... in whatever form that takes. This is another one of those great stories that illustrates how family can be made up of anyone you choose, blood or not. Sure, you can't choose who your blood relatives are, obviously, but outside of that, you can call whomever you like "family". It's an empowering thing, that realization! 

 

 

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review 2018-12-24 14:55
R My Name Is Rachel by Patricia Reilly Giff
R My Name Is Rachel - Patricia Reilly Giff

Rachel, Cassie, and Joey live in the city with their Pop, until Pop's search for work lands the family on a run down farm. Dreamy Rachel loves to read, and doesn't know much about the country. Times are hard there, too—the school and library are closed.  When Pop gets work near Canada, he has to leave the children on the farm alone. For two months! But Rachel's the oldest, and she'll make sure they're all right. Somehow.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Rachel's family is struggling to survive the Great Depression. Her mother deceased, Rachel lives with her father, brother, and sister in the city, but the cost of things is getting to be too much of a struggle. Her father hears of a possible job offer at a bank in the country, so the family packs up their meager belongings and takes up residence in a run-down farmhouse. Unfortunately that also means leaving behind good family friend Miss Mitzi, who runs a flower shop in the city, a woman who has served as a kind of surrogate mother to Rachel since her biological mother's death. 

 

The transition from urban to rural life is tough on the kids, even more so when Rachel is left to look after her siblings when that bank job offer falls through and their father has to set out to find work even farther away. With no other adults regularly around, the children find themselves having to be resourceful in finding means to feed and care for themselves. Rachel's sister, Cassie, grows into a bit of an infuriatingly selfish princess (but does have growth in a more positive direction later on). As a way to vent, Rachel writes to Miss Mitzi of all the things giving her anxiety. 

 

"Sometimes when I remember happy things, it makes me sad." 

~ Rachel

 

As another form of escapism from daily stress, Rachel also enjoys reading and learning as much as she can, but with the Great Depression came the closure of most schools and libraries (not enough money to go around to pay for salaries). The one book Rachel has to make due with is a copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a going-away gift from a former teacher. She means to space out the reading of it, only intending to read 3 pages a day to make the story last, but thanks to a snowstorm Rachel burns through 53 pages in the first day! All of us bookworms have been there!

 

... it's so late and I need to sleep. Almost dreaming, I remember that old self of mine, writing letters, reading...

 

"She's not gone," I whisper, "not gone...."

 

Just as in Winter Sky, Giff writes of a girl struggling to grow up without a mother. Also like Winter Sky, our main character finds herself caring for a stray animal who naturally becomes the family pet. The story here is stronger, more compelling than Winter Sky. While this novel may be historical fiction, the themes are universal... the struggles of life situations unfortunately forcing you to grow up quick, the complicated beauty of family bonds, those important, moving times --- even in a family that chronically argues --- where differences are set aside and you come together for the good of the whole group rather than the individual. The bookish aspects of Rachel's personality are an extra fun element that keeps the story moving along nicely and instantly warms you to her. 

 

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