Tag Archives: orphans

Ice Wolves (Elementals, Book #1) by Amie Kaufman

Through the use of two rugrats, Amie Kaufman has found the means to introduce a new world. In Ice Wolves, Book One of the Elementals Trilogy, twelve year old orphans, Anders and Rayna, are swiftly making their way over the garden-like rooftops, avoiding the increasing number of check points on the streets, to the town square where a large group has assembled, perfect for their daily antics. Pick pocketing is an indispensable lifestyle to ensure survival on the streets where Rayna distracts while her twin brother extracts some coins from the victims’ pockets. Unfortunately, circumstances necessitate a change of plan and the two find themselves amongst others their age reaching for the staff which will determine their fate. So far none that day had been successful in their quest to become a part of the Wolf Guard, so Rayna, without a family history (at least none of which she is aware), is stunned when she shape-shifts into the enemy, a Scorch Dragon. Anders, beside himself, reaches for the staff, expecting to follow her as the same, but instead he shape shifts into one of the revered, an Ice Wolf.

How can this be? The role of Ice Wolf is inherited while only traitors become Scorch Dragons. Anders must muster up all his courage and find his sister who he knows is not the enemy, even though as an Ice Wolf he is required to destroy the evil dragons. Assigned to Ulfar Academy, full of the luxuries (like food, clothing, and a warm place to sleep) his former way of life lacked, the shy Anders must learn all that he can to find a way to rescue his beloved sister. He develops some friendships in his pack where loyalty and obedience are a key requirement. Yet, where should your loyalty lie when you discover that there’s more to the story and the fight against the Scorch Dragons might be based on politically motivated disinformation and prejudices? All Anders knows is that his fealty will always be with Rayna, and his number one goal must take precedence over his role as Ice Wolf.

Ice Wolves follows the basic formula for preteen readers – youngsters (after discovering the deceit of adults) take it upon themselves to save the day. Kaufman has a talent for bringing the characters alive and connecting them to the readers who find themselves rooting for a successful outcome. This will definitely appeal to the middle school crowd, including some advanced elementary aged students, as well as those in high school. Its short length is a plus with an ending which will draw them into the next book of the series. Adults, once they accept the premise that twelve year olds rule, might also appreciate this well written tale.

Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite the spate of novels recently published dealing with the topic of WWII, the subject matter never gets boring. There are so many facets to the war that each book can easily tackle a new concept to explore. In Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly the author utilizes the lives of three intersecting characters to explore the Holocaust, two based on real people and one a fictionalized version representing true events.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite devoting her life to helping the orphans in France. Working full time as a volunteer at the French Embassy in New York City, she assisted individuals in securing visas in order to escape France before the war began. In German occupied Lublin, Poland, Kasha Kuzmerick and various friends and family members get swept up as political prisoners. Sent to Ravensbruck, Kashia and her sister Zuzanna, end up the subjects for a medical laboratory experiment involving battle wounds, which leaves Kashia with a permanent limp. The surgery is performed by Herta Oberheuser, one of the few female doctors in Germany, who was recruited to work at this Women’s Concentration Camp and assigned to perform the operations which permanently maimed or killed the Polish “Rabbits”. Her attitude is fascinating as Herta convinces herself that working for the Nazis is a positive position which furthers the aims of the Fatherland. Yet before the Allies take control, she is involved in a plot to hunt down and murder these covertly hidden patients in order to remove the evidence of her actions. Even at the Nuremberg Trials, Dr Oberheuser still refuses to accept blame for her inhumane behaviors and resents her prison sentence.

The Lilac Girls also explores the after effects of WWII, both immediately following the war and ten years later. Unfortunately, society wanted to move forward and forget the atrocities, but luckily there were many philanthropic individuals ready to help the afflicted integrate back into a somewhat normal life. While this was possible in parts of Europe and the United States, the countries taken over by the Soviet Union, including Poland, went from one oppressive state to another. Caroline, with her connections, is able to find a way to coordinate medical treatment for the “Rabbits” in the United States and encourages the bitter Kashia to find closure.

Alternating between the three female characters, Kelly integrates fiction with information from historical documents to create a realistic scenario. It is heartwarming that women such as Caroline and her mother were able to use their influence for the public good with a focus on those suffering abroad. At the same time, one wonders how Herta could reconcile her actions with her conscience. There is evidence that her outward bravado covered a guilty heart when her visit with a psychiatrist revealed a predisposition for self mutilation (cutting her arm). The fictional sisters were an astute representation of the Polish girls who survived the “Rabbit” experience. While it was heart wrenching to read about their treatment in Ravensbruck, it is a reminder that war can bring out the evil in people, especially when dealing with prisoners of war who are viewed as subhuman. This is definitely not a book for those with sensitive stomachs.

I have several confessions to make. First, I did not necessarily read the chapters in order. Kelly often left a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then jumped to one of the other women, but I was impatient and skipped over to the continuation of that particular plot point, then went back to pick up the storyline. I also thought the entire book dragged at times. I didn’t mind the fictional romance for Caroline, but for a book close to 500 pages, I thought some of the irrelevant details could have been eliminated. There was plenty of subject matter without adding fluff. The most compelling part of the book was the girls’ daily trials in Ravensbruck which were both difficult to read and, at the same time, hard to put down. While the therapeutic visit to the United States was anticlimactic, the concluding chapters seemed a fitting way to wrap up the loose ends. I appreciated all the specifics in the author’s note which indicated the amount of research (including interviews and traveling to the various locales) necessary to blend real events with her imaginings, although to get further details about the inspiration for this book you need to go to Martha Hall Kelly’s website. Ultimately, the entire reading experience was worthwhile, especially since I learned something new about the Holocaust. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Brown-Eyed Earl by Anna Bennett (The Wayward Wallflowers, #1)

William Ryder, the Earl of Castleton, has had a thing for Miss Margaret Lacey since they were young, so he was astonished when she staunchly rejected their fathers attempt to arrange a marriage between them (not that he was pleased that his disreputable dad was choosing his bride-to-be). Now, seven years later, he finds Meg in his home applying for a job as governess for the set of six year old twins recently dropped off at his door. The precocious Valerie and Diana are the illegitimate offspring of his cousin who died in a freak accident. Their mother, his cousin’s mistress, threatened to place them in an orphanage if he wasn’t willing to provide for them. The honorable Will would never abandon his best friend’s children to such a fate, but the rambunctious girls obviously needed a steady hand. The Earl, whose own father has been indifferent, fears he doesn’t have the ability to be a good parent, so he turns to what he hopes is “professional” help. Unfortunately, Meg has zero experience, just a need to earn some money to keep her sisters and uncle out of the poorhouse. Of course, once she realizes the potential boss is her former jilted fiancĂ©, she is ready to decline the position. Yet, Will is intrigued and makes her an offer she can’t refuse, so Miss Lacey finds herself wrapped up in the lives of her two charges as well as garnering the attention of the distinctly handsome Castleton.

My Brown-Eyed Earl by Anna Bennett is book one in The Wayward Wallflowers series. Meg and her younger sisters Elizabeth and Juliette have been living with their Uncle Alister, Lord Wiltmore, the only family member willing to offer a home to all three girls after the tragic death of their parents (killed in a storm on that fateful night Meg rejected the marriage proposal). Full of guilt, Meg stoically believes it is her obligation to care for the family. While the somewhat oblivious Uncle Alister has provided them a loving home, his limited funds do not allow for luxuries like fancy gowns. That’s why the sisters have been dubbed The Wilted Wallflowers by The Ton and despite their beauty, their drab attire brings them nothing but scorn and ridicule.

Set to remain a spinster, Meg is determined to earn enough to provide some luxuries for her siblings. With kindly attentions, while visiting the dressmaker to add to the twins wardrobe, Will offers to purchase her a new gown as well, but the proud Meg refuses to even consider the idea. Luckily, the Earl looks beyond her attire and his former feelings are rekindled. Meg is not immune to his charms and they quickly find themselves romantically involved. Encouraged by his mother to take a wife, Will wonders if Meg has the capacity to fill the role of Countess. A series of misadventures seem to indicate otherwise, but first impressions can be deceiving. Whether the Earl can convince his lovely governess to put aside her guilt and find her own happiness is the ultimate goal.

While I loved the witty repartee between Will and Meg, along with the lovable characters Bennett has created (especially the twins), there were some definite flaws in this Regency Romance. In fact, if you like your historical novels to accurately reflect the era, then this is not the book for you. The author plays fast and loose with the mores of the time, ignoring the high standards for maintaining a spotless reputation – such as a current debutante living unchaperoned with a bachelor. Even if all was innocent (which it wasn’t) the scandal would be far reaching. Then Meg’s friend Charlotte, also a governess, openly appears in society with her employer, seemingly as a couple. Neither a likely scenario! In addition, the conversations, although witty, were full of vernacular unbecoming for polite conversation. Despite these and other discrepancies, this book was not without its charm. Yes, there were the muddled accounts of the lovers past as well as a clumsy attempt to provide a little excitement via an inquisitive mystery man, but there were also some interesting interactions, often comical, which compensated for all the flaws.

With a little better attention to the appropriate details, a more complete backstory, and some fine tuning to the plot/climax, this could have been a four+ star book. Still, I’ll give it three and a half stars for its easily readable writing style and humor.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff is a tale of survival for two women, each with something to hide from the Nazis. Noa at sixteen has been seduced by a leering eye and long after the German Soldier is gone she finds herself pregnant and homeless when her unforgiving father shows her the door. Her Dutch heritage, blond hair and blue eyes, allows her asylum in a home which nurtures unwed mothers, the right sort who can contribute their offspring to the utopia fostered by the motherland. Now Noa, once again homeless, finds employment at the local train station, earning a meager keep by cleaning the grounds. It is in this capacity that she discovers a train car full of screaming infants, taken from their mothers and in danger of dying from neglect and the cold elements. Not thinking, she grabs one and runs off through the bitter winter night, collapsing somewhere in the woods from exhaustion. Luckily she is found by some circus folk, whose performers are at their winter quarters preparing for the spring season. The kind hearted ringmaster takes her in along with her (circumcised) “brother” on the condition that she learns to become an aerialist for the trapeze act. Her teacher, Astrid, has her own sad saga. Born into a circus family, she fell in love and married a high ranking German Soldier. Unfortunately her Jewish faith eventually caused a problem for her husband with him being asked to “divorce” his wife. Returning home she discovers that her entire family has disappeared and the circus disbanded. Her carney neighbor, Herr Neuhoff, is still allowed to perform, providing entertainment in selected locations throughout Europe, and she is invited to stay. Adopting a stage name, she continues the career which she had followed since birth, hiding her Jewish heritage within the big top. At first Astrid resents the younger Noa, reluctantly teaching her the ins and outs of an act which normally takes years to develop. Eventually though they form a bond, protecting one another from an outside world which threatens harm on a regular basis.

Don’t expect a feel good story, this is, after all, the era of Nazi Germany where everybody’s life is in danger for one reason or another. However, the trappings of the circus make this tale somewhat unique and anyone who has been lucky enough to attend such a performance will be fascinated by the particulars of the daily doings necessary to run the show. The tale is alternately told from the viewpoint of the two female characters, but despite the interesting setting and some details based on true events, I felt the plot dragged at times with too many repetitive reflections of the angst facing the two women. While there is a lot of movement, especially towards the end of the book, there are also long drawn out passages where nothing important seems to be happening. This is a 300+ page book which could have been edited down and tightened up to make for a fast paced more enjoyable read. Three and a half stars

A thank you to Netgalley and Mira Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch by Max Candee, illustrated by Raquel Barros

Of all the genres, the one which is the most difficult to master is the creation of a satisfying children’s book. Unfortunately, Max Candee, the Swedish author, has not quite found that sweet spot of success with his book, The Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch. It’s not that his story is lacking since I enjoyed the engaging tale of the orphan Anna discovered as ammbabe amongst the Bears in Siberia by a kindly fur trapper. Upon reaching the age of six, her Uncle Mischa brings her to an orphanage in Switzerland and the story opens at the private boarding school which Anna attends due to a generous trust fund (gotta love those Swiss Bank accounts) that will provide her with the financial security necessary to support her on any quest which crosses her path. Add in some evil doers and the fact Anna has special powers, and you potentially have the start of something great.

The issue then is the delivery. Candee decided to create a book which is part diary, part first person narrative using simple text which doesn’t fit the age of the characters. Anna is an intelligent thirteen, not eight or even ten. In addition, children have become quite sophisticated in their reading material, note another book about witchcraft – Rowling’s Harry Potter series – which is a lot darker and more sophisticated than this story. Or examine the higher level of text in the malicious Series of Unfortunate Events. So the question is: “Who is the audience?” Not YA or even middle school, but perhaps those in the elementary grades (yet not too young). Despite the numerous kid friendly illustrations by Spanish artist Raquel Barros, which are a huge positive for this publication, this is definitely not a picture book.

Yet I’m sure this new series would please the average child especially if it were presented in a different format. Do away with the diary and narration, taking the exact same story, and change it into a graphic novel. Viola! Perfecto! The possibilities are endless. Barros is more than capable of extending her delightful drawings into a pictorial description of Anna’s adventures. The author has the imagination and talents to redraft this saga into something quite exceptional. Graphic novels are also a popular emerging genre, especially those written specifically for children, having already been embraced by middle and high school students. The Anna the Girl Witch series could be one of those ground breaking books which would delight a much broader audience.

Problem solved. So when Anna receives the bizarre gifts from her unknown mother on her thirteenth birthday and slowly discovers she is a witch with an affinity for the moon, we will visually experience her awe and power as she fights the lurking evil which threatens her friends at the school she attends. A female teen protagonist who saves the day is just the sort of role model young girls need to read about as a means of their own empowerment.

So there it is. Right story, great illustrations, wrong format.

A thank you to Netgalley and Helvetic House for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Two and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Where We Belong: Journeys That Show Us the Way by Hoda Kotb and Jane Lorenzini

Hoda Kotb has been around on television for quite awhile, but she really came to my notice when I started watching the fourth hour of The Today Show with Kathy Lee (a celebrity I’ve followed since her days with Regis). Kathy Lee and Hoda developed into an entertaining, cohesive team which is why I was interested in reading the book – Where We Belong: Journeys That Show Us the Way, the third publication Hoda has written with Jane Lorenzini. This book explores seven inspirational accounts of various individuals who have overcome a wide range of adversities in order to achieve success in their lives. The first story features Michelle Hauser who, despite a rough childhood and some poor life choices, attended Harvard Medical School and combined her love of medicine with her culinary talents to promote healthy eating habits as a way to combat various illnesses. The second story is about Laila Ali who worked hard to become a successful boxer following in her famous father’s footsteps. Then we are introduced to power couple, Craig and Kathi Juntunen, who were able to devote their energies into providing for orphans in Haiti, first by adopting two children, then by starting a foundation to assist the others who remained, especially those effected by the devastating effects of the 2010 earthquake. They discovered that while there are many orphans throughout the world in need of parents and there are plenty of potential families in the United States who are more than willing to adopt these children, there is no direct pipeline available to facilitate the adoption process due to a myriad of rules and procedures with no follow up to clinch the deal. Four other bio shorts round out the seven tales.

While I thought the writing style was a bit over the top and at times a little wordy, this short, skimable book is perfect for readers who like true stories focusing on people who persevere despite obstacles. These narratives remind me of those vignettes I used to read in the magazines at the Beauty Parlor while waiting for my mother to have her hair done back when I was a child in the sixties.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC of this title.

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