Book Review: Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

Almost Autumn
Marianne Kaurin
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-88965-0
Hardcover

The world we live in today is so ‘moment-to-moment’ in terms of information, we feel saturated and overwhelmed when evil things happen. It was markedly different for fifteen year old Ilse Stern, a Norwegian Jew. When the Nazis occupied her country in 1942, one of the first things they did was force everyone to turn in their wireless receivers (radios), effectively shutting off the most available information flow.

Ilse lives in a cramped fourth floor apartment with her parents and two sisters. Sonja is older and over-responsible, trying to keep the household running as well as do what she can to help her father keep his tailor shop afloat. Miriam, age five, is quiet and loves to draw pictures with her trademark sun featured in each. Mother is somewhat dour and constantly finds fault with Ilse, who’s a dreamer and avid reader with a big crush on teen neighbor Hermann Rod.

The Nazi occupiers’ squeeze on Jewish citizens begins gradually with a requirement that they have new registration papers stamped with a red J. Overly frequent requirements that Jewish men report to authorities coincides with a spike in verbal attacks and defacing of property. It becomes so bad, Mr. Stern leaves an hour early to remove the words written on his shop windows so Ilse and Sonja won’t see them when they arrive to help out.

Meanwhile, Hermann has gotten involved in the resistance, but must cover this activity by pretending he’s apprenticing to a painter across town. His involvement causes him to stand Ilse up for their first date, a night at the local cinema. For the next month, neither quite knows how to break the chill that follows this.

At the same time as the two teens are dancing around their feelings for each other, the campaign of terror has been ramped up by the occupation forces and in short order, the tailor shop is forced to close, all savings accounts and safe deposit boxes owned by Jewish citizens are ordered closed and all adult Jewish males are arrested and taken to a secret location.

Ilse and Hermann run off for a day of skiing and reconciliation. While gone, her family is taken into custody as are most other Jewish citizens. After a horrific sea voyage and a frigid train ride, with all packed tighter than cattle, they end up at Aushwitz. The description of what happened during these trips, as well as their reception at the prison camp, are low key, but still leave the reader feeling chilled.

If you want to learn what happened to Ilse, read the book. It’s an excellently understated story of how a large number of innocent human beings were terrified before being carted off to be executed simply because of their ethnicity. We need books like this to remind those who have forgotten and make aware those who never knew. Highly suggested for any school or public library collection.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, November 2017.

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Book Review: A Good Place to Hide by Peter Grose

A Good Place to Hide
Peter Grose
Pegasus Books, May 2016
ISBN: 978-1-68177-124-3
Trade Paperback

The period between 1939 and 1944 in Europe was not smooth and elegant. Relative calm settled over France as the Vichy Government moved to solidify itself and accommodate German occupation in the Northern Zone. As author Peter Grose notes, the central figures were Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Winston Churchill. War was the order of the day and as competing armies surged across the land, residents of a small, almost unnoticed group of farm villages found themselves responsible for a large humanitarian effort.

It didn’t seem to matter that for a thousand years the Huguenots had been persecuted for their religious and social beliefs. They were prepared to hide Jewish refugees at the drop of a trigger. And because of Haute-Loire’s proximity to Switzerland, they became a conduit for protection and saving of thousands of Jewish refugees from all over Europe, hiding them and moving them on to safety in neutral Switzerland.

The book is at times mesmerizing with it’s incredible tales of seventeen-year-old Piton, a guide who made the perilous journey perhaps a hundred times, to Virginia Hall, an American woman who asserted herself into the fabric of Resistance command and directed dozens of parachute drops, movement of large amounts of cash, rescue of prisoners and destruction of key transportation links to disrupt German military operations.

The book is over-long in some details and in places needs trimming to increase its impact. But it is a strong inspiring tale of man’s humanity toward man and a detailing of some clever and scary maneuvers by those same humans. It was hard to put down and is a grand testament to the women and men of Haute-Loire villages who refused to bow to the fascist German fist, who saved almost a generation of Jews.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, January 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: The Bid by Adrian Magson and Jacqueline by Jackie Minniti

the-bidThe Bid
A Cruxys Solutions Investigation #2
Adrian Magson
Midnight Ink Books, January 2017
ISBN: 978073875043
Trade Paperback

Modern warfare is a featured bit player in this novel of suspense. The story opens a window on a rich theme of warfare and crime in the coming twenty-first century and beyond. Indeed, one of the problems with the novel is the number of possibilities it raises for both criminals and law enforcement.

The target is no less than the President of the United States and the process of funding and carrying out the assassination is a clever idea rooted in very modern financial life. The author, an experienced British crime-novelist, has written over a dozen thrillers, most would be classed as spy or conspiracy thrillers. The action is tension-filled, mostly consistent and relentless. The writing is top-notch, the characters are mostly interesting and/or intriguing and the settings are appropriate.

A business consultant with operations in the US and overseas has a specialized insurance contract on his life. If he goes missing for a short period of time, unusually trained operatives go active, searching for the client and setting up protection for the client’s family. It sounds expensive and I wanted more explanation of the basis for the character, James Chadwick, to buy what must have been an expensive policy. The policy is administered by a company called Cruxys. This interesting security policy allows the writer to introduce a pair of company operatives who soon fly off to the US where most of the action takes place.

Over several chapters we learn that the company seekers, Ruth Gonzales and Andy Vasilk, have unusual and relevant training and employment backgrounds, including the ability to take lives when necessary to protect their employer and themselves. It is easy to see the range of possibilities for this free-wheeling pair to get into trouble and to rescue clients from a wide range of dangerous circumstances.

Were it not for the author’s penchant for slipping strong critical editorial commentary into the narrative voice from time to time, the pace of the novel would make this book truly a compelling page turner. One wonders if there is anything about American life he finds favor for. In spite of these asides, The Bid is enjoyable, attention-holding and well-worth the readers’ time.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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jacquelineJacqueline
Jackie Minniti
Anaiah Press, July 2015
ISBN
Trade Paperback

Jacqueline Falna of the title is a French child, twelve years of age, living in Rennes, France. When the story opens, in 1943, she and her mother have just learned that her father, a French aviator, is missing in action. Now they must cope with poverty, the Nazi occupiers, the coming of American forces all while maintaining a semblance of normal chiildhood.

Jacqueline, bright, energetic, with all the attributes one hopes to observe in a daughter or niece, is desolated by the news, but holds to the thread of possibility that her father may have been captured and will one day, after the war return to their home in Rennes. When a nearby family of Jews is abruptly taken away, the boy, David, remains and is hidden by Jacqueline’s family with help from neighbors.

In a simple, straight-forward style, through the eyes of this twelve year old child, we follow her daily challenges to help her mother find food, keep themselves warm in the winter and for Jacqueline, school and church. The novel is written for a middle school audience but the author’s craft does not pander, assuming readers may occasionally have to struggle with the language and some of the more mature considerations.

This is a fine, realistic novel, very well balanced with tragedy, happiness and it will not only engage readers in this age range. It also provides a way for young people to learn something about World War Two on an important personal level. Finally, after reading the novel, you may want to remind yourself of the name of the author.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Third Knife by Pamela Boles Eglinski

the-third-knifeThe Third Knife
Catalina & Bonhomme Series #1
Pamela Boles Eglinski
LWF Publishing, October 2015
ISBN 978-0692549087
Trade Paperback

Catalina’s parents send her away from their vineyard farmhouse into the night with a guide to escape the advance of the Germans into Italy. She is sent to find her mother’s relatives in France who can help hide the family’s fortune, a blue diamond necklace that’s been in the family since the French Revolution. Germans are on the trails, however, and the journey doesn’t go as planned. Catalina ends up as a young maquis, a French Resistance fighter.

This World War II tale is three narratives in one. First, it’s the story of a young Italian signorina who escapes from the Germans to France with her family’s fortune around her waist and finds her first love in the process. Next is a passionate story about a group of young French resistance members, the maquis, and their dangerous campaigns against the Nazis. Finally, there’s a tale of French and Italian wines and the vintners who produce the grapes.

We are educated about the period, the land, and the war even as the story pulls at our heartstrings, horrifies us, pulls us into the plot, and leaves us with a lasting impression of characters we learn to love and admire. There are maps and explanations at the end of the book and an introduction to the book, Return of the French Blue, to which The Third Knife is the prequel.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, September 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Reviews: Blue Madonna by James R. Benn and The Fixer by Joseph Finder

blue-madonnaBlue Madonna
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #11
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61695-642-4
Hardcover

Billy Boyle has received all kinds of assignments in his capacity as a special investigator on Eisenhower’s staff. But few, if any, match the bizarre task before him in the Blue Madonna.  To begin with, he is arrested, tried on trumped up charges and stripped of his Captaincy and sentenced to time in the stockade for black market activities.  (This, of course, a subterfuge to provide a cover story as part of an investigation.)  Then he is sent behind enemy lines to rescue a downed airman who is needed to testify against a black market gang.

No sooner does Billy arrive in occupied France than he finds himself investigating two murders of airmen being hidden in a chateau.  And he even participates in partisan operations, blowing up railroad tracks and bridges.

The Billy Boyle series takes him through various phases of World War II.  This novel takes place as Allied troops sail for Normandy on D-Day, giving the author the opportunity to describe conditions in Occupied France, how the partisans operated, and what was done to return downed airmen through clandestine networks.  The Blue Madonna, a valuable piece of art, is an example of how many Jews and others attempted to prevent the Nazis from stealing their possessions by hiding them in such places as the chateau, which also secreted parachuted Allied fliers.

As were the first 10 books in the series, Blue Madonna is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2016.

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the-fixerThe Fixer
Joseph Finder
Putnam, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-4514-7257-3
Mass Market Paperback

What would you do if by some off-chance you broke into a wall in your home and discovered $3.7 million in cash?  That is the good luck that befalls Rick Hoffman, erstwhile unemployed journalist.  And then the bad luck follows.  Rick begins to wonder where the money came from.  He can’t ask his father, whose house it was, because the latter was left speechless and partially paralyzed by a stroke about two decades before.  Rick was once an investigative journalist, and uses these talents to find answers.

He soon discovers that his attorney father was a fixer, paying off various persons to ward off claims against powerful Boston figures.   And for his efforts he is beaten severely, almost killing him, as was his father before him, to stop Rick from pursuing his investigation.  But he perseveres.

The story moves ahead in a straightforward manner, with each step along the way uncovering additional information, until Rick can prove where the money came from and why.  But more importantly, as Rick explains, he continues because he wants to know how the story ends.  And so will you.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2016.

Book Review: The Darkest Hour by Caroline Tung Richmond

the-darkest-hourThe Darkest Hour
Caroline Tung Richmond
Scholastic Press, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-80127-0
Hardcover

Lucie Blaise becomes a female Indiana Jones or Dirk Pitt as she battles the Nazis in France during World War II. The sixteen-year-old lies about her age and becomes a special agent trainee for the Covert Ops section of the OSS in Paris. She’s unsuccessful at first, despite the intensive training she’s received, but because she’s perfect for the job—a strong, young, French-speaking U.S. citizen—her handler gives her a second chance.

Motivated by the memory of her soldier brother, killed by the German Army, Lucie’s incentive to become a top-notch secret agent and kill German collaborators is strong. Much to her frustration, she is unable to kill without shaking, and that causes her to botch another assignment. She’s put on desk duty.

That boring duty doesn’t last long, though, when an important and urgent situation develops and requires all of the agents to go into the field. Dressed in one of her disguises, Lucie travels to Cherbourg with another young female agent, a person with whom she’s had multiple conflicts. Nothing goes as planned, Nazis are everywhere, and the two young, female super-agents fight and flee from one death-defying situation to another.

The characters are intriguing, the compelling action is non-stop, and the history appears realistic. The author made up the despicable plot described in the story, and the agents and their covert operations facility are fictional. But the characters are based upon the lives of actual women spies who worked for the Allies during World War II and a couple of actual situations.

I didn’t want to stop reading at chapter endings, because I wanted to find out how Lucie and her fellows agents would fare and how they would stop the reprehensible Nazi plot they had discovered. I recommend the thriller.  Of course, for young people who read this historical fiction, several questions bear discussion: is killing considered “murder” when it’s done during wartime, is being a double agent for pay worse or the same as being a double agent for patriotic reasons or to save family members, and is it reasonable that a teenager would be strong enough or have the mental resolve to survive all of Lucie’s adventures?

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, August 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Reviews: Death Takes Priority by Jean Flowers and World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

Death Takes PriorityDeath Takes Priority
A Postmistress Mystery #1
Jean Flowers
Berkley Prime Crime, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-425-27910-6
Mass Market Paperback

One of my dearest friends works for the Post Office, so I was pleased to find this book about Cassie Millar, who trades life as a manager in the Boston Post Office for a job as postmistress in her small hometown in the Berkshires.  Cassie’s been away for a long time, so she’s only gradually finding old friends and making new ones.  She loves her new job, though, until the day she unlocks the door and finds that someone has stolen several stacks of phone books.  Why?

Then a body turns up in the nearby woods, and Cassie’s lunch date, a handsome antiques dealer, is arrested.  Concerned for her new friend, Cassie starts asking questions.  She finds answers, new friends and some very dangerous people before she’s done.

I enjoyed spending time with Cassie and learning about the workings of a small town post office and will certainly buy the next book.

Reviewed by Marilyn Nulman, December 2015.

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World Gone ByWorld Gone By
Dennis Lehane
William Morrow Paperbacks, January 2016
ISBN: 978-006-235181-4
Trade Paperback

The life Joe Coughlin has lived began in The Given Day as a young man rebelling against his stern police captain father in Boston, and continued in Live By Night as he turned to a life of crime, rising in the ranks to run the rackets in Florida and elsewhere.  Now, World Gone By brings the story to a conclusion.

This segment takes place around the time the United States entered World War II and takes a deep look at Joe’s machinations as he operates between the various elements of society, government and the disparate areas of their less reputable members with whom he comes into contact.  At the same time, we see Joe as a doting father of a motherless son, having lost his Cuban wife in a horrible murder at the end of the last novel.

For all his money and power, the fear of death always pervades a gangster’s life, and the plot has Joe learning that a contract has been taken out on his life, his murder scheduled for Ash Wednesday, less than a week away.  The steps Joe takes to learn of the plot and what to do about it has ramifications for the remainder of the story, which is as about well-written and -plotted as anything recently read.

This novel, as the entire trilogy, is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2016.