Defend or Die

I don’t know what I expected here, but even if I had bothered myself to read the back cover I’m not sure it would have helped me. This is a book about a prison camp! Prison camp! And oh my god, so gory. It’s good, don’t worry, but…maybe don’t read this around a mealtime.

Defend Or Die: The Siege of Hong Kong, Jack Finnigan, Hong Kong, 1941¸Gillian Chan, 2015.

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I need to stop thinking that the I Am Canada books are all boring, because this was a lot of things, but boring is not on that list. Gripping, yes. Disgusting, yes (in places). Gory, oh my lands, yes. Incredibly sad, yes. But boring, not so much. I mean, you’d probably get more out of this book if you had a passing familiarity with the role Hong Kong played during the Second World War, but hey, even if you don’t, still good!

If you happen to have a 12-year-old boy handy who’s a reluctant reader but easily lured by some gory war stories, this is the book you’ll want to give him. As I mentioned, not a great idea if you have a weak stomach, or you just don’t want to read about lots and lots and lots of violence. And death. And violent death. This is going to be your only warning.

This is one of those books telling one story broken up into two chunks—current, and how we got here. Jack is in a prison camp on Hong Kong Island by January of 1942, and they’re already being starved and forced to go out on work parties and generally miserable. Then we flash back to October of the previous year when Jack is shipping out from his home in Toronto after finishing his basic training. And apparently there’s some bad blood there between him and his girlfriend’s family. I’m sensing a star-crossed-lovers type thing, since his girlfriend Alice is apparently a very sweet girl and Jack beat up her brother at one point. But Alice comes to see him off on the train, but Jack’s brother stops her, and they don’t get to say goodbye to each other after all. This is literally the most cheerful thing that happens in the entire book, so if you want to back out now, this is your warning.

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Wait For Me

I almost never review brand-new books, but I just had to make an exception to recommend this one!

Wait For Me¸ Caroline Leech, 2017.

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It just came out a few months ago so I won’t do a full-fledged recap with spoilers, but I just could not pass this one up. I blew through it in a weekend because I just could not manage to put it down! Partly because it’s like someone wrote a book to spec for me (it’s my favourite subgenre of People Having Romantical Troubles During Wartime (thanks, Fug Girls!)—People On Opposite Sides of Conflict Falling In Love, which is a surprisingly hard genre to find and even harder to find done well—and I don’t want to think about what this says about my psyche, probably nothing good), and partly because it’s just a ripping good tale. It’s a sparkling example of what I feel there isn’t enough of these days—good old YA historical fiction with a side of romance. No magic required, no Gossip Girl-style intrigues, no dystopian steampunk reimaginings of the period, nothing. I love it. God, if only the world would publish more so I can get my fix!

Lorna, our protagonist, lives on her family farm in Scotland, working away and going to school after both her brothers have gone to war (one on the front lines, one in London). She’s scraping by with her father, the housekeeper, and their Land Girl, when her father applies for and receives a German prisoner of war to help work on the farm. Luckily for everyone, Paul speaks some English, and things go about as you can imagine from there. (Spoiler alert: love story.) I love that this book takes place at the end of the war—there have been about a million and eight books written about the outbreak of the war, the Blitz, the evacuations from London, and so on, but not nearly as many about the dragging end.

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Sink and Destroy

I thought this book was going to suck and I was proven horribly, amazingly wrong. Is this going to make me less of a snob about these books? It should!

Sink And Destroy: The Battle of the Atlantic, Bill O’Connell, North Atlantic, 1940, Edward Kay, 2014.

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I’m the worst. This is the second I Am Canada book I have read, and I thought they were going to be awful, but I’ve been very favourably impressed by both of them. I should get my act together and read the rest of them now! I will, when I get there, it’s just that I’m so horribly bored by most of the topics that it takes me forever to even crack one open. Anyway, this one is great. But full disclosure, I wrote most of this review while watching Das Boot, because it reminded me how much I liked it, and also because I used to love that movie. That was my favourite movie! What was wrong with me? What 20-year-old girl’s favourite movie is Das Boot? This does not say anything good about my psyche, I’m sure.

Another full disclosure: the first good chunk of this book is pretty dull. It does take a while to get going. There’s this whole boring segment where Billy is fishing away, which is how you know some bad shit is going to go down. Whenever there’s an idyllic family fishing scene you just know people are going to die or have something brutal happen. Anyway, Bill is a poor kid from Iroquois, which is right on the St. Lawrence River, who has two older brothers, a younger brother, and a younger sibling. He works on a merchant ship as a teenager, and there’s several boring pages that more or less just recap the war. Invasions, bombings, blah blah blah. Things finally get going when Bill enlists in the navy, much to his parents’ dismay, and we’re finally off!

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Blitz

We’re back in the Second World War with another Blitz evacuation novel! I feel like I’ve just done one, but Exiles from the War last month is on the opposite side of the evacuation. I just finished reading (for my own enjoyment, not the blog) The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and while I enjoyed it, it was so reminiscent of Goodnight Mister Tom that at several points I caught myself going “I feel like I’ve read this before.”

My Story: Blitz, A Wartime Girl’s Diary, 1940-41, Vince Cross, 2001.

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This is one of those books that isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t knock-your-socks-off amazing. It’s more of a “well, that was interesting, I guess.” I know that doesn’t sound entirely promising, but it’s not that bad! It’s just a little on the bland side. If terrible Dear America and My Story novels are the equivalent of, I don’t know, spoiled fish seasoned with lawn fertilizer, and really outstanding ones are chocolate mousse cake with whipped cream, this is…instant oatmeal. It’s not bad, it’ll feed you when you’re hungry in a pinch, but no one is going to mistake it for haute cuisine. Although no one is going to mistake it for fish food, either, so…win-win?

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Exiles from the War

This is honest-to-goodness one of my favourite books in the entire Dear Canada/Dear America series. Jean Little, as I have mentioned before at length, is an absolute national treasure, and writes so beautifully with so much feeling and attention to detail, and nothing ever comes across as deliberately tugging on the heartstrings or using anything as a teaching moment. I think this one is the crown jewel of all her books in the Dear Canada collection, possibly because it’s drawing on her own experience of growing up during the Second World War. It’s wonderful.

Exiles from the War: The War Guests Diary of Charlotte Mary Twiss, Guelph, Ontario, 1940, Jean Little, 2010.

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You know, to start with, the whole concept of war guest children is viscerally upsetting, and barely covered but at all in American history curriculums. I think the only place I ever encountered it as a kid was in the American Girl Molly books, which was a pretty milquetoast version. And then in university I did a major term paper on perceptions and memory among children who were sent away from London during the Blitz, and read Goodnight Mister Tom (among others), and cried and cried and cried. It was hard enough for kids who were sent away to the English countryside, but I cannot even imagine being sent to another country. The entire concept is deeply upsetting for everyone involved: the parents who are sending their children away in the hopes it will protect them; the kids who have to leave their homes for new ones for an indeterminate length of time; the families who are taking in total strangers.

The British My Story series has a book from the point of view of a girl sent to the countryside, but Exiles from the War opts to use a Canadian protagonist—which I think is a very interesting way to look at it. Charlotte, our protagonist, lives with her parents and elder sister Eleanor in Guelph, while her older brother George has gone to work at a farm, when she learns that her parents have applied for a War Guest child—and hopefully a girl around her own age, so the girl will have some company. Before this, the war seems fairly distant—dramatic, of course, and scary and exciting—but ultimately something that’s happening a long, long way away.

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Pieces of the Past

Buckle up, it doesn’t get much darker than this.

Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, Carol Matas, 2013.

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I feel like Dear Canada’s normally-depressing books just weren’t depressing enough, so Scholastic said “let’s just go for broke and write a Holocaust book to really round it all out.” But how would they write a book about the Holocaust—which, as you’ll remember, took place in Germany—in Canada? Easy, they’ll write a book about a horribly-traumatized girl adopted out as a refugee to a Canadian family in Winnipeg! Too easy. (Spoiler: Nothing in this book is easy. It’s brutal.)

One of the things I like the most about this book is that Rose, our protagonist, isn’t really all that likable. This is something that YA and children’s books have started to steer away from now, but when I was growing up, it seemed like every protagonist of every book was fun and smart and kind and if not popular, still had a core group of amazing friends. There were not a lot of books about girls or boys who were mean or lonely or dumb or just kind of sucked. Not that Rose is any of those things—she’s not—but she’s severely traumatized and not really interested in making friends or socializing with anyone except the other orphans she knows. Which is a very refreshing point of view, if that’s not too strange of a word to use here.

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Number The Stars

We’re back in with the absolute classics!

Number The Stars¸ Lois Lowry, 1989.

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I understand they’re reissued this with a blue/gray cover, but this is the cover I grew up with and was on every school library bookshelf. I feel like the red and black is a particularly scary, and by scary I mean good, choice. This is a Newbery Medal winner, and an all-around wonder of a book, but I think the real beauty of this book is that it’s much, much scarier to adults than it is to kids. When I first read this book, I was probably around nine or ten, which is the age of Annemarie, the protagonist, and while I enjoyed it, I think I missed a lot of the subtler scariness. But now I’m nearly thirty and reading it is far, far worse, and it makes me want to cry.

Annemarie lives in Copenhagen with her parents and her younger sister, Kirsti. Since Copenhagen is under occupation by the Nazis, things are somewhat strained to say the least, but most of this goes over Annemarie’s head other than the soldiers on every street corner. Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, is Jewish, and presumably a bit more worried about the state of affairs, but they still go to school and run races and generally behave like children. Annemarie used to have an older sister as well—Lise—who was engaged to be married when she was killed in a car accident two years before. Ever since, Lise’s fiancé Peter comes around to visit, but Annemarie notes how much older he seems ever since then.

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