Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Soldier Bear, by Bib Dumon Tak (Eerdmans Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

In this charming novel for children, Dutch author Bibi Dumon Tak fictionalizes the true story of an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub who's adopted by a group of Polish soldiers during World War II, eventually becoming the unit's beloved mascot.  The mischievous bear cub was named Voytek (smiling warrior) by the soldiers.  As the soldiers journeyed through Iran and Iraq on their way to their assignment in Palestine to join their Brtish allies, even the officers softened at the adorable teddy bear of a cub.  But of course, cute little cubs soon grow big, and Voytek soon is getting into plenty of trouble, especially with the resident monkey, Kaska, who loved to throw stones, sand, or whatever she could find at poor Voytek's head.  But that wasn't the whole menagerie that followed the soldiers around; there was also a dog named Stalin, who Kaska liked to hitch rides on, and a dalmatian who loved to romp around with the bear.

Tak writes about the soldiers and their animal friends with such good humor that I found myself laughing out loud at their antics, especially touching in the middle of a war.  When the soldiers are sent to supply Allied troops in Italy, Voytek takes his place helping to move live artillery shells, when he's not stealing food from the cook or sliding up and down cranes like an acrobat, stopping traffic as soldiers stopped to cheer him on.

While a story of a tamed bear who's goodnaturedly given chocolate, beer, and cigarettes isn't quite "politically correct" for today's American audience, I was charmed by the story of Voytek, his animal friends, and the soldiers who loved them in the middle of wartime.  The book is greatly enriched by the pencil drawings of Dutch illustrator Philip Hopman, which perfectly capture the humor and pathos of the story.  Any animal lover will be delighted by the story of lonely soldiers, little more than boys themselves, cuddling up at night with a furry bear, who liked to suck on their fingers at night as a sort of human pacifier.

The conclusion of the book includes some photographs of Voytek with his soldier buddies, as well as an afterword about Voytek's true story.

For more on Voytek and his soldier friends, see this website set up by the son of one of the soldiers from Voytek's unit.  The website offers plenty of photos of the real bear as well, including this one:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Alicia Alonso Prima Ballerina, by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Marshall Cavendish, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.  

Alicia Alonso is one of the most famous ballerinas of the 20th century.   This new picture book biography by award-winning author/poet Carmen T. Bernier-Grand tells the story of her life in free verse, complemented by the graceful tropical colored illustrations by award-winning illustrator Raul Colon.  Gifted as a child, Alicia dances her first solo at age eleven, and even though her feet, legs, and arms hurt, "ballet dancing/tastes better/than chocolate ice cream."  At the tender age of fifteen, she left Cuba with dancer Fernando Alonso to study in New York, where she marries Fernando and has a baby, leaving childhood and Cuba behind.  But when she and her husband get jobs with Ballet Caravan, her daughter can't go with, and is sent to live with her grandparents in Cuba.  Her career is almost finished when her retinas become detached, and she loses her side vision.  Doctors tell her that her dance career is over.  But Alicia is determined to dance again, and soon she is "America's finest Giselle," flying through the air in Colon's exquisite two-page spread.

Returning to Cuba, she forms Ballet Alicia Alonso, soon renamed Ballet de Cuba.  But politics interfere with her plans, and she refuses to dance in Cuba under the Battista regime.  When Fidel Castro leads a successful revolution in Cuba, Alonso returns there, and dances all over the world, but is exiled from the United States.  Despite the controversy, she was finally invited to dance in the U.S. again in 1975.  The story concludes b showing us Alonso still alive at 90, although no longer performing.

The book includes extensive back matter:  the author includes a detailed biography in an afterword, which provides further details about some of the incidents outlined in the free verse of the main part of the book.  She also lists some of the ballets danced by Alonso, some of her awards and recognition, as well as a list of some of the ballets which she has choreographed.  There is also a glossary, a list of sources, websites about Alonso, and notes and references. 
Alicia Alonso in 1955

This book is likely to be of most interest to aspiring ballerinas and other children interested in dance and ballet.  With the material in the back of the book, this 64 page volume provides enough material for a biographical report for school use.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: The Last Musketeer, by Stuart Gibbs (Harper Collins, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

As a Three Musketeers fan since I was twelve years old, I was of course excited to read this new time travel story, in which a 21st century boy travels back to France of the early 17th century, befriending the future musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  Author Stuart Gibbs' fast paced, action-packed tale may well appeal to today's tweens, but I couldn't help but be disappointed in the way he interprets Dumas' classic story for the 21st century.

The story starts off strong, with a terrific first sentence that will grab any young reader:  "Clinging to the prison wall, Greg Rich realized how much he hated time travel."  On a trip to Paris with his family to sell the family's treasured heirlooms to the Louvre, Greg and his parents are pulled through a time warp, winding up in 1615.  When his parents are falsely imprisoned for trying to kill the young Louis XIII, Greg must rescue them--by meeting up with three teenagers like himself, Aramis, a young cleric, Athos, a soldier from the lower social classes, and Porthos, a foppish rich young nobleman who's the life of the party.  Greg himself becomes known as D'Artagnan (in the original a fish-out-of-water himself, as a bumbling, hot-headed young man from the distant province of Gascony.  Mix in a nefarious brother of Cardinal Richelieu (the Cardinal being a central character in Dumas' novel), and a young Milady de Winter (the original villainess in the Three Musketeers), some tropes of fantasy fiction (a stone that grants eternal life), and voila!  a 21st century musketeer rehash.

Gibbs does a good job with the whole fish-out-of-water time travel tropes, with Greg disgusted by the smells of Paris, the privies, and the fleas, among others.  The book of matches in his pocket make the 17th century characters he meet think he's a magician, as does his ability to swim.  There's plenty of action, as Greg and his new-found friends swashbuckle their way to saving Greg's parents.  At the end, they don't go back to the 21st century, which makes me think that Gibbs has a sequel up his sleeve.

While I can't help but appreciate any author that brings Dumas' characters to the attention of 21st century kids, I couldn't get over several changes to the original story that drove me crazy.  First of all, the author keeps referring to Greg being in medieval Paris.  While the streets of Paris might have been similar to the way they were in the Middle Ages, 1615 is definitely not considered the Middle Ages, and I wonder how such a glaring error could have escaped the Harper editors, not to mention the professor of French history who Gibbs thanks in his acknowledgment for vetting the manuscript.  Second, and what bothered me more as a fan of the original novel, which I couldn't help wondering if Gibbs had actually read, he changed many key elements of the musketeers' personalities.  For example, Athos, or the Conte de la Fere in the original, was a member of the nobility, not a common soldier, as Gibbs makes him out to be.  Appearing as a young girl, the character of Milady de Winter doesn't make sense with that name, since she is supposed to have married an English lord after having been married to Athos as a young girl.  Also, it's not very believable that 14-year old boys would be made guards of the king!  Any young person who reads this and goes on to read the original Dumas is going to discoverer the many inconsistencies, which I just don't think were necessary.   And by turning the somewhat ordinary Greg into D'Artagnan, Gibbs eliminated one of the funniest and most memorable characters in the book, the young Gascon around whom the plot unfolds.

In short, while I enjoyed the concept of this story, I believe the execution could have been much better, simply by keeping more to the original outlines of Dumas' immortal characters.  Unfortunately, I don't think that Gibbs' changes to the basic characters really added to the story, but rather detracted from it.  It will be interesting to see if a sequel is in the making.

Has anyone seen the new 3-d Musketeer movie?  I haven't yet, discouraged by the terrible reviews!  My favorite film version is still the Richard Lester version with Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, and others from 1973. Although this version made changes from the original, it was very much in the sprit of the original novel.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt, 2011)

Recommended for 14 and up.

In a vague way, most of us have heard of John Brown and his famous raid on Harper's Ferry that preceded the Civil War.  Best-selling nonfiction author Tony Horwitz points out that the event merits a mere six paragraphs in his son's 9th grade history textbook.   In this compelling new work, Horwitz examines not only John Brown's own history and background but the forces in society that led to his carefully plotted conspiracy.

A descendant of the Puritans, Brown was a committed abolitionist who was not afraid to use violence to help overthrow slavery in the United States.  He and his many sons participated in the pre-Civil War fighting between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in Kansas, before spearheading the formation of a private army.  His ultimate aim--no less than seizing the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, and freeing all the slaves.   How this conspiracy developed and its high profile aftermath is the subject of Horwitz' riveting new work.

Through contemporary eyes, Horwitz notes, we are tempted to see John Brown as an al-Queda type of terrorist, a "long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power."  In this book, Horwitz paints a much more complex picture of a charismatic leader of a large family, a man who mixed with prominent industrialists who supported him financially as well as intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau. He examines John Brown's early life and the events which led to his taking up arms against his own country.

Although the insurrection was quickly put down by future Civil War leader Robert E. Lee, the case mesmerized the nation, polarizing North and South, abolitionists and those who supported slavery.  He became a hero to many in the North and a traitor to those in the South.  Horwitz remarks "Harpers Ferry wasn't simply a prelude to secession and civil war.  In many respects, it was a dress rehearsal. "
John Brown

I have been a fan of Horwitz since reading his earlier book Confederates in the Attic, in which he tries to understand Americans' ongoing obsession with all things Civil War.  Unlike many of his earlier works, which merge personal narrative with historical passages, this book about John Brown is more of a traditional narrative non-fiction history work.  Horwitz' elegant prose reads like a novel, and this book offers an in-depth and fascinating portrait of one of history's pivotal characters, and an important epoch in American history.  While this is an adult title, I would highly recommend it to high school students with a strong interest in history as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: Caleb's Wars, by David L. Dudley (Clarion Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Caleb's Wars, released last month by Clarion Books, is an intriguing teen historical novel set in the Jim Crow South during World War II.  As the novel begins, two new businesses are opening in 15-year-old Caleb's rural Georgia town:  a new restaurant for whites only, the Dixie Belle, and a POW camp for captured Germans, brought to Georgia to do farm work and replace Americans in the service overseas.  Author David Dudley paints a harsh but undoubtedly true-to-life picture of life for African-Americans at the time.  Caleb has to act carefully around the white people in the town, making sure not to offend anyone or even look a white man directly in the eye.  His family life's no piece of cake either.  His father whips him for disobeying and getting into a fight with some white boys from the town.  "Don't you know by now that white folks'd just as soon kill you as look at you?" he tells Caleb.  His brother's in the military, in the segregated army, and about to be sent overseas, and his mother takes solace in her faith.  Against his father's wishes, Caleb takes a job working at the new whites-only restaurant, where he works washing dishes along with the African-American kitchen workers and a German POW, Andreas, who's been assigned to the restaurant. Caleb can't help but be drawn to the friendly young German, who's supposed to be the enemy.  But when German POW's are allowed to eat at the Dixie Belle, where he and his friends can't be served, it's more than Caleb can take.  How will he come to terms with the many contradictions in his life?  

This novel mixes historical fiction with Christian themes as well, sometimes in a way that seems a bit uneasy.  Toward the beginning of the story, Caleb, largely to please his very religious mother, agrees to be baptized.  During the ceremony, and again after, he hears a voice saying "Behold my servant."  Is it the voice of God?  Caleb is as shocked as anyone, and thinks the whole thing is a practical joke by one of his friends.  But when Caleb is able to mysteriously heal the crippled hands of an elderly man, what exactly does it mean?  Is Caleb now a prophet of sorts?  This religious aspect of the story is never fully developed, and seems to fit awkwardly with the historical fiction themes.

Despite its flaws, I found the book stimulating reading that could provoke interesting discussions for a book group or book talk.   One caveat:  Dudley does not shirk from using the "n" word in his dialogue, which of course was widely used at the time this book is set and is historically appropriate.

Disclosure:  review copy provided by publisher.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Jingle Bells: How the Holiday Classic Came to Be, by John Harris (Peachtree Publishers, 2011)

Recommended for ages 5-12.

No matter what our religious affiliation, we all know the much-loved holiday song, Jingle Bells, a favorite not only for Christmas albums but also sung at every elementary school sing-along.  But how did this famous song get written?

Author John Harris was inspired by a historic marker he saw on a visit to Savannah, Georgia, to do a little investigating as to the history of the classic tune.  He saw a marker about the history of the song, written by James Pierpont, music director at the Unitarian Church in Savannah in the 1850's.  This story is fictional, but inspired by actual facts.  Harris imagines that Pierpont composed the song in the middle of a Savannah heat wave.  Pierpont, in Harris' story, is an abolitionist, worried about violence surrounding his church because of their anti-slavery policies.  He's homesick, too, for New England, and tries to explain to his young daughter what snow is like, and the sound of sleigh bells.  Suddenly, he's inspired to write a new song for the Thanksgiving day concert at church!

llustrator Adam Gustavson's lively images enhance this charming book, a great read-aloud for the holiday season, especially for elementary school classes learning to sing this classic tune!

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Vietnam Book One: I Pledge Allegiance, by Chris Lynch (Scholastic, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 to 14

The first in a new series on the Vietnam War for young readers, I Pledge Allegiance introduces us to four ordinary guys who are best friends:  Rudi, Ivan, Beck, and Morris, our narrator.   Morris is haunted by nightmares about Vietnam, visions of "torn flesh and burned flesh and the end of everything we know, all dying there in the scorching jungle of Vietnam."  The friends have a sacred pledge--if one of them gets drafted, they would all be drafted, even if they weren't serving together.  And when Rudi is drafted, each of them enlists in a different branch of the service.  Morris picks the Navy, where he thinks he can somehow watch over his friends and keep them safe.  But can he stop his nightmares of death and destruction from coming true?

This short, action-packed novel (under 200 pages) is perfect for reluctant readers, even those in high school.  Told in the first person, we can easily identify with Morris and his fears and insecurities.  Lynch does a great job evoking the close bonds between the four friends, as well as the atmosphere of serving on a Navy missile cruiser:  the day to day routines, and the terror of actually seeing action in Vietnam.  Boys will be particularly attracted to this new series.  I was not able to find any information on the rest of the series, but I'm betting that there will be three more volumes, each concentrating on a different one of the four friends, thus profiling a different branch of the service.  This new series is an excellent addition for school or public libraries.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day Guest Post and Giveaway: Author Monika Schroeder: After the War Was Lost

Author Monika Schroeder (and Frank)
Thanks so much to author Monika Schroeder for supplying a thoughtful guest post for Armistice Day, better known in the United States as Veteran's Day.  Monika's new book, My Brother's Shadow, deals with the critical period in German history at the end of World War I.   I am also delighted to be able to offer a giveaway of this new young adult novel.  If you'd like a chance to win, please leave your name and e-mail address in the comments below!

After the War was Lost –

Germany, my home country, has started two World Wars in the last century. Both wars not only brought death and terror to large parts of Europe, but also ended in defeat followed by fundamental changes of the political system. I have tried to imagine how regular people dealt with these changes. I find it fascinating that a German person born at the beginning of the 20th century could have experienced a monarchy, a failed democracy, a fascist dictatorship, 
a socialist totalitarian regime and then again a democracy, just within one life span.

In my first novel, THE DOG IN THE WOOD, I wrote about the end of World War II and how people in a small village in eastern Germany experienced the arrival of the red Army. This story was based on what my father had told me about the end of WWII and how his family was affected by it. My new novel, MY BROTHER’S SHADOW, is set in 1918, another important transition time in German history. I tried to imagine what it might have been like for a young man who had grown up under the Kaiser to see the monarchy disappear and to be confronted with socialist ideas and women’s emancipation.

Nothing is the way it used to be for Moritz, the 16-year old protagonist of MY BROTHER’S SHADOW. His mother and sister attend illegal socialist meetings and talk about how the Kaiser needs to abdicate and the war needs to end. His older brother, Hans, returns from the war, maimed and bitter, blaming Germany’s defeat on Jews and socialists. Then Moritz meets Rebecca, a Jewish girl, who is also a socialist, and he can’t stop thinking about her. When a revolution sweeps away the monarchy he has to make a choice between his dangerously radicalized brother and his love for the women around him who are working to usher in the new democracy.

The stipulations of the Versailles Treaty left Germany humiliated in the eyes of many of the returning veterans. These young soldiers, like Hans in my book, had no work and couldn’t find their place in the new Germany. Looking for scapegoats, they blamed socialists and Jews for Germany’s defeat. Politically the country was divided between the extreme right, represented by militarists who didn’t shy away from violence, and the left. Soon after my novel ends, in 1919, communist politicians Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated. A civil war ensued and the weak economy helped the rise of the National Socialists who promised a new “strong Germany.” In addition, the structure of the Weimar Parliament gave room for too many small political parties, making it hard to form coalitions and maintain a stable government.

Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, marked the end of a long war and today many countries commemorate the victims of World War I. For Germany it was also the beginning of a new democratic era. But when Friedrich Ebert, the first democratically elected president, signed the peace agreement in February 1919 in Compiegne, France, the seeds for the destruction of the young German democracy had already sprouted.

Don't forget to leave a comment with your e-mail for a chance to win Monika's newest book!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schroder (Frances Foster Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Set in Berlin in 1918, in the final days of World War I, this new novel tells the story of sixteen-year old Moritz, whose family's existence, like that of everyone else in Germany, has been ravaged by the effects of the seemingly endless war.  His father was killed on the battlefield, his older brother, Hans, is serving in the trenches on the Western front, his little sister has died of illness, and his mother spends all her time either working at an ammunition factory or attending socialist party meetings.  There's little to eat, with food rationed, and everything tasting of turnips, and people butchering horses who fall dead in the streets.  Moritz, who works as an apprentice printer, tries his best to make sense of it all, wondering who is right--his brother, who says it's an honor to serve the Kaiser, or his mother, who bemoans the fact that her husband "died for our foolish Kaiser, who loves his uniforms and his yachts."  Soon Moritz is given a chance to work as a journalist for one of Berlin's daily papers, covering the very socialist rallies where his mother and others are speaking out against the Kaiser and capitalist injustice. 

When Moritz's brother Hans returns from the front with horrible injuries, missing half his arm and blind in one eye, Hans is plagued by nightmares about the war, and sees the Jews as scapegoats for all of Germany's problems.  Morris, on the other hand, is having his first romance--with a Jewish girl.   The book's ominous conclusion foreshadows the increasing persecution of the Jews that will happen in Germany during the 1930's.

Author Monika Schroeder, who grew up in Berlin, provides an author's note discussing how the fall of 1918 was a pivotal time in German history, with the end of the "Great War," the Kaiser's abdication, and the establishment of a democratic government in the beginning of 1919.  With the Germans' humiliating defeat, conservatives and military leaders began blaming the Jews, the socialists, and the communists for all of Germany's woes, laying the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power.

My Brother's Shadow is a very thought-provoking and well-written book about a period ignored in most young adult fiction, which more typically focuses either on World War I or World War II and the few years immediately preceding that conflict.  We can easily identify with Moritz, whose story is told in the first person, and his divided family loyalties.  While the book covers some weighty issues, Moritz is also a typical teenage boy, interested in his first kiss with a girl.  We can sympathize with Moritz's mother as well, a strong character who is very involved in politics, and even his brother Hans, whose bitter experiences and injuries at the front have transformed his personality.  This novel would be a good choice to read along with Russell Freedman's outstanding nonfiction book on World War I published last year, The War to End All Wars:  World War I. 

Below is the book trailer for My Brother's Shadow:

On Friday, November 11, The Fourth Musketeer is pleased to have a guest post from author Monika Schroeder and a special giveaway of this excellent novel (U.S. and Canadian addresses only). Please see Friday's post to enter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Happy Haulidays Contest from Chronicle Books!

Chronicle Books is hosting its 2nd Annual Happy Haul-idays Giveaway for the blogging community. This year, they're not only giving away up to $500 worth of Chronicle books to one lucky blogger and one commenter on the winning blog post—they're also asking the winning blogger to choose one charity to receive up to $500 of books.  It's so much fun to imagine spending $500 on their terrific titles, stationery, calendars, and other items!

If I were lucky enough to win, my charity of choice would be Reading by 9, a literacy initiative aimed at kids in grades K-3 that is spearheaded by the Los Angeles Times.  

Here's the list of what I would get for myself (an eclectic mix if I do say so!):

The Onion 2012 Daily Calendar                                $12.99


Boo: The Life of the World’s Cutest Dog                    $12.95

City Walks: Los Angeles:  $14.95

Mini Goals Notepad
By Mary Kate McDevi  $9.95

Hope Valley Sticky Notes & To-Do's

By Denyse Schmidt  $12.95

Out of Sight

By Pittau & Gervais  $19.99

Ivy and Bean Boxed Set 2

By Annie Barrows
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall $19.99

The Ivy and Bean Secret Treasure Box

By Annie Barrows
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall $19.99

Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types

By Sharon Werner
and Sarah Forss  $19.99

I Know a Lot of Things

By Paul and Ann Rand  $16.99


By Taro Miura  $15.95 

Mini Masters Boxed Set
By Julie Merberg
and Suzanne Bober  $19.99

Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then

By Harriet Ziefert
Illustrated by Karla Gudeon  $17.99

Let Freedom Sing

By Vanessa Newton  $16.99

Giant Pop-Out Farm  $10.99

Photobooth Dogs

By Cameron Woo  $14.95

36 1/2 Reasons to Laugh

By Rick Adams $12.95


By Lisa Finander  $16.95

Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey Treats for Kids

By Jill O'Connor
Photographs by Leigh Beisch $19.95

L.A. Bizarro

By Anthony Lovett
and Matt Maranian  $19.95

Hooked on Hiking: Southern California

By Ann Marie Brown


Moleskine 2012 18 month weekly planner pocket black soft cover $14.95

Typewriter Ecojournal:  $10.95

Total:  $498.99

Leave a comment below for your own chance to win if I'm the lucky blogger winner!