Thursday, May 28, 2015

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Pages: 406
Rating: PG-13 (It's war. It's graphic. It's violent. It's mature. However, there is another version of this book that is written specifically with a teen audience in mind, if you want your kid to read it but don't think they can handle this version.)

In boyhood, Louis Zamperini was an incorrigible delinquent. As a teenager, he channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics. But when World War II began, the athlete became an airman, embarking on a journey that led to a doomed flight on a May afternoon in 1943. When his Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean, against all odds, Zamperini survived, adrift on a foundering life raft. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

My Thoughts: This book was FASCINATING! In the author's note at the end, Hillenbrand makes the point that when we learn about WWII in school, the main focus is on the European war, which is kind of strange considering that it was Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor that got the US into the war, and our atomic bomb drops on Japan that finally and officially ended the ordeal. How come we never really learn about the war in the Pacific? I had no idea all the crazy stuff that was going on. I mean, yes, Hitler and his minions were pure evil and they were doing terrible things, but crazy crap was going down in Japan and the Pacific Islands too. Here are some amazing things I learned that just shocked me.

1. "Between November 1943 and May 1945, 70% of the men listed as killed in action died in operational aircraft accidents, not as a result of enemy action." How sad is that? We lost tens of thousands of men before they even left for foreign soil, just in training accidents or routine practice flights. The book says that in the air corps, 35,946 men died in non-battle situations. So, so sad.

2. Being in the air corps back then was basically signing your own death sentence. An airman was required to fulfill 40 missions before finishing their tour of duty. There was a 50% chance of being killed before completing that tour.

3. Japan was a BRUTAL enemy. Their prison camps I think were actually worse than Hitler's concentration camps. Although Japan didn't have gas chambers in which they routinely gassed prisoners, they did have doctors conducting gruesome medical experiments on prisoners, and they had something called the "kill-all order." If it looked like the Allied forces were getting close to whatever island a Japanese POW camp was located on, the guards would murder every single prisoner. And in several camps, that's exactly what they did, sometimes in gruesome and sadistic ways.

Louie (from the book) made it farther than most airmen that crashed in the ocean. He survived being adrift at sea for over a month. But then he got stuck in a POW camp, and your chances of survival there were slim to none. One particular guard was so brutal that he would beat men until they passed out, then revive them by throwing water on their faces or patting their foreheads with a damp cloth, and then continue the beatings. Another time, when Louie was caught for a minor infraction, this guard required all the prisoners to punch Louie square in the face. If the prisoner did not punch hard enough, he had to keep punching until this guard was satisfied with the force. The only thing that saved Louie from the "kill-all" policy was the atomic bomb. The war ended just weeks before the prisoners in Louie's camp had been told they would all be executed.

It's just an incredible story, and I think everyone needs to read it. These men went through so much, and it continued after the war. We know a lot more about PTSD now than they did back then, and these poor men suffered without relief. Many turned to alcoholism or drugs. Some committed suicide. The war did not end in their minds and in their dreams. I can't even imagine having to go through such a difficult trial.

And we as Americans currently have no idea what it's like to be in such a crisis. We don't know what it's like to have everything rationed, because the war is taking over every resource. Back then, almost every family in America had lost a father, son, brother, uncle, or cousin to the war. I sincerely hope we never have to go through something like that again. But, we need to not forget what those people suffered. And Louie's story is repeated over and over again for each of the thousands of men that suffered through WWII, whether they survived or not. We don't even know the stories of many of the men who died, what horrors they experienced. It's very humbling.

As I said, I was thrilled to discover that there is another version of this book written especially for teens/young adults. I would highly recommend that to you if you have a teenager or if you just don't want to invest yourself in this longer version. But seriously, read it. It's incredible.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Secret Keeper

Author: Kate Morton
Pages: 481
Rating:  PG-13

During a picnic at her family’s farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson witnesses a shocking crime, a crime that challenges everything she knows about her adored mother, Dorothy. Now, fifty years later, Laurel and her sisters are meeting at the farm to celebrate Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this is her last chance to discover the truth about that long-ago day, Laurel searches for answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past. Clue by clue, she traces a secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds thrown together in war-torn London—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—whose lives are forever after entwined. A gripping story of deception and passion, The Secret Keeper will keep you enthralled to the last page.

My Thoughts: I enjoyed reading this book but it went a little bit too slow for me. I didn't enjoy how it kept going back and forth between Laurel's life in the present and Dorothy's life during WWII. I would have preferred just reading long stretches of Dorothy. And by the way, the crime is...Laurel watches her mother stab a man with a knife and kill him. The scary thing was, the man knows her name. I still really did enjoy this book, it was really interesting. And I do have to say, the ending was not what I expected. I got to a certain point and I thought, ok, ok, I know how this all pans out. But I was dead wrong. It will surprise you.

Hidden Talents

Author: David Lubar
Pages:  213
Rating:  PG
Martin Anderson and his friends don't like being called losers. But they've been called that for so long even they start to believe it. Until Martin makes an incredible discovery: each of his friends has a special hidden talent.

Edgeview Alternative School was supposed to be end of the road. But for Martin and his friends, it just might be a new beginning.

My Thoughts: I really enjoy this little book. It would be good for late elementary or early middle schoolers. Martin doesn't know why teachers always seem to intensely dislike him. He has been expelled from nearly ever school he's ever been to, and is eventually sent to Edgeview. Which is no picnic. There are bullies, the kids there are all sorts of weird, and there's no way out. It's the end of the road. Until Martin discovers that his friends each have a special power. One is psychic, another is telekinetic. With these special talents, they set to work changing the way their school works, and how everyone thinks of them as well. It's a very interesting read, and Martin, as the narrator, is very entertaining and funny.

Until We Meet Again: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Holocaust

Author: Michael Korenblit and Kathleen Jander
Pages: 300
Rating: PG-13 (It's the Holocaust, some scenes are a little traumatic but there was nothing I considered to be overly graphic)

Summary: 1942. A small town in Poland. Two Jewish families flee to hiding places, hoping to evade deportation by the Nazis. At the last moment, 17-year-old Manya makes the heart-wrenching decision to leave her family and join her sweetheart, Meyer, also 17, with his family. For three long years, Manya and Meyer endure the loss of their parents and siblings, separation from each other, and the horror of concentration camps, including Auschwitz - but are helped at key points by courageous Polish Catholics and are constantly sustained by their faith and their love for each other. Co-authored by the couple's son Michael, this absorbing and suspenseful narrative reads like a novel, yet tells a true story of love and horror, sacrifice and courage, with a conclusion that is truly miraculous.

My Thoughts: I. LOVE. THIS. BOOK. I believe it was one of the first Holocaust books I ever read, and got me completely hooked on reading survival stories. I was just so amazed at this incredible story. Manya ends up bringing her brother Chaim with her to hide with Meyer's family, saving his life. Her family's hiding place is discovered and her entire family killed. The really miraculous part is that Manya loses contact with Chaim and neither is able to find each other after the war. For 30 years, they each assume they are the only surviving members of their family, until Manya's son stumbles upon Chaim living in England. Meyer's family also goes through several losses, and he retains only one brother. Their story is so incredibly amazing. In a time where so few Jews were lucky enough to stay alive, somehow, this pair manages it, and they find each other in the end. I can't even imagine going through something so terrible, losing my entire family, and wondering if I will ever see the people I love ever again. It's just incredible. If you're going to read any book about the Holocaust, seriously, read this one. Manya and Meyer beat the odds when the odds were unbeatable. And it never ceases to amaze me.

The Truth About Forever

Author: Sarah Dessen
Pages: 374
Rating: PG-13 (Some language, underage drinking)

Summary: A long, hot summer. That's what sixteen-year-old Macy Queen has to look forward to. Her boyfriend, Jason, is going away to Brain Camp. She's stuck with a dull-as-dishwater job at the library. And all of her free time promises to be spent studying for the SATs or grieving silently with her mother over her father's death. But everything changes when Macy is corralled into helping out at one of her mother's open house events, and she meets the chaotic Wish Catering crew. Before long, Macy ditches her library job and joins up with the Wish gang: bighearted Delia; quiet, introspective Monica; and fun-loving, fashion-conscious Kristy. But best of all, there's Wes - artistic, insightful, and understanding Wes - who gets Macy to look at life in a whole new way....

My Thoughts: I really enjoy Dessen as an author. I own several of her books, and I think they're great teen novels. Macy has not really had it easy since her father died suddenly of a heart attack. Her relationship with her mother is strained, as they both have different ways of dealing with grief, and it is not helping them to connect. I love how this story explores a teen girl's efforts to discover who she really is and what kinds of things she wants from life through the lens of tragedy. Macy has to learn that life is not always going to be under her control. It won't always be perfect and predictable. And that's ok.