Category Archives: European

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireConfession: If I didn’t have to read Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up to her breath-wringing adventure, Code Name Verity, I would have kept Rose Under Fire under wraps, hidden somewhere amidst my must-read pile, and just be content with basking in the potential promise of a satisfying ‘gawwww’ sometime in the future. The book’s galley sat unopened for a good six months, until the final version appeared on my doorstep as one of the hundreds of titles submitted this year for a book award for which I’m on the judging committee. Suddenly, I was racing to finish – and really, once you start, you won’t be able to stop anyway – in order to make the deadline for the next batch of near-monthly nominations. As bereft as I am to have to wait (and wait and wait) for Wein’s next, I can at least admit that of the non-picture book-submissions, Rose is the best of the best – I think I’m allowed to share my humble opinion.

As with Verity, Fire returns readers to World War II, introducing a new group of women pilots (airborne girl power!). As a much-appreciated bonus, Fire also continues Maddie and Jamie’s love story, as well as Anna Engel’s complicated wartime choices (you must read Verity to know what all that means). That said, with her name (and what a name, indeed! Wein has a penchant for multi-layered nomenclature) claiming the title, this is inarguably Rose Moyer Justice’s story. An American by birth, Rose is fulfilling her wartime duty across the Pond by helping the Allied Forces ferry fighter planes between Britain and France.

When an aerial delivery goes awry, Rose is captured by the Nazis and eventually sent to Ravensbrück, an all-women Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. Faced with heinous inhumanity, her survival depends on believing in the very best individuals have to offer one another – amidst the pestilence and filth, the starvation and cruelty, the horror and suffering, Rose finds empathy, love, and salvation with a small group of women who become her family.

Even more than Verity, this is not a book for younger readers. We’re reading about Nazis, the Holocaust, concentration camps, genocide and annihilation – to say that terrifying things happen would be sheer understatement. But here’s where Wein triumphs: she has an uncanny ability to deftly blur what might seem to be rigid lines of right and wrong, and miraculously create the tiniest hints of humanity in even some of the worst perpetrators of hate.

“My book is fiction,” she writes in her “Afterword,” “but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instruction of the true witnesses – those who went to their death crying out: Tell the world.” Read, learn … and, because inhumanity still prevails in too many places, we must continue to tell and tell and tell …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, British, European

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles: Based on the true story of Enaiatollah Akbari by Fabio Geda, translated by Howard Curtis

In the Sea There Are CrocodilesAlthough the cover bears the designation, “A Novel,” Enaiatollah Akbari – whose name also appears on said cover (who is not the book’s author, Fabio Geda) – is a real person. A kid, really. In case you need a face to place with the name, the back flap shows Enaiatollah in full color at age 15 …

No child, of course, should live through what Enaiatollah has … although millions must in order to survive the too many evils created by the adults around them. Enaiatollah is just 10 – “I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when I was born” – when his harrowing odyssey across five countries commences with three promises he makes to his mother.

Enaiatollah and his mother flee their Afghan village, where Enaiatollah witnessed the brutal murder of his teacher by the Taliban. Already he is wise enough to insist, “.. that Afghans and Taliban are different. I want people to know this,” as he explains about the 20 Taliban who forced his school to shut down: “… there may not have been twenty different nationalities, but almost. Some couldn’t even communicate among themselves. Pakistan, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt. A lot of people think the Taliban are all Afghans … but they aren’t. … They’re ignorant … they stop children from studying because they’re afraid those children might come to understand that they don’t do what they do for God, but for themselves.

And what of those three promises? Before Enaiatollah’s mother leaves him in Pakistan to fend for himself – she has younger children waiting at home where Enaiatollah’s only alternative is death – he agrees to “three things [he] must never do in life”: use drugs, use weapons, and cheat or steal. She also reminds him “to always have a wish in front of your eyes … [because] it’s in trying to satisfy our wishes that we find the strength to pick ourselves up …” He will need to break a few promises as he endures deprivation and violence – as well as the surprising kindness of utter strangers – during his journey through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, before he arrives in Italy.

Italy is where Enaiatollah meets Fabio Geda, “an Italian novelist who works with children under duress,” according to Geda’s back flap bio. Enaiatollah approached Geda to “write his story down, so that people who had suffered similar things could know they were not alone, and so that others might understand them better,” Geda explains in his “Author’s Note.” Clearly that book got written, and translated the world over. While the book is “based on a true story … Enaiatollah didn’t remember it all perfectly,” hence the addition of the ‘novel’ appellation, ” … since it is the re-creation of Enaiatollah’s experience – a re-creation that has allowed him to take possession of his own story.”

Geda is a worthy conduit, “retelling the story exactly as [Enaiatollah] told it.” If you go audible, that veracity is further amplified, not so much by the Kabul-born, Orange County-raised actor Mir Weiss Najibi (who sounds more surfer boy than authentic), but because of the somber moderation (uncredited on the CD/audible cover) of the fabulous Mark Bramhall who voices Geda’s questions and comments to Enaiatollah and gently prods his difficult narrative along.

Geda notably channels Enaiatollah’s speech at his asylum hearing (oh, the irony of reading it in translation!) when Enaiatollah chose to not speak through an interpreter: “If you speak directly to people you convey emotions more intensely. Even if you stumble over your words and don’t get the intonation right, the message you get across is closer to what you have in your head, compared with what an interpreter could repeat … because emotions can’t come from the mouth of an interpreter, only words, and words are just a shell.” Translated these words may be, make sure to listen carefully to Enaiatollah’s story … we have so much to learn, out of the mouth of babes …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Translation, Afghan, European

Beirut 1990: Snapshots of a Civil War by Sylvain Ricard, Bruno Ricard, illustrated by Christophe Gaultier, translated by Anna Provitola, edited by Alex Donoghue

Beirut 1990Almost a quarter century has passed since two French brothers – in their early 20s at the time – decided to visit their Aunt Thérèse in Lebanon. In September 1990, the country is a 15-year-old war zone, but the brothers plan to deliver supplies, medicine, and a wheelchair to the Red Cross where Aunt Thérèse works. Their decision seems almost quixotic, with little concern about personal safety, as the brothers tease one another about when and what they will tell their parents, glibly explain the trip to friends, pore over maps and newspapers while sharing a few smokes, and laugh over their own silly behavior at the airport just before boarding their flight from Paris.

Over the three weeks of their journey, the brothers travel between various cities, never getting the opportunity to use any of their first aid training. The closest they come is the back-breaking task of clearing out giant rocks in a dilapidated hospital courtyard so that patients might have safer access to a little fresh air. Much more memorable to the brothers are the people, and the shocking, tragic, absurd, and yet still joyful moments of the people’s daily lives: “The daily life of those who the media does not discuss and whose voices are never heard. … The reality of those who have slept in death’s shadow for countless years, but who still dream that the Lebanon of tomorrow will be like that of yesterday: the Switzerland of the Orient … “

Fourteen years after their safe return home, realizing that they “can’t forget … [that they] need to put it to some use,” the brothers teamed with award-winning graphic artist Christophe Gaultier (with whom brother Sylvain collaborated twice before Beirut) to produce this resonating travelogue. Gaultier’s style is at once immature and poignant, an ideal representation of the brothers’ youth – the frantic ducking under a window after being warned about snipers, the innocent fun of giving a group of Sisters silly nicknames, the uncontrollable rage at fruitcake-stealing inspectors. The trio’s collaboration debuted in France in 2004; it took another nine years to arrive in English translation across the Pond.

The brothers’ experience treads somewhere between naively well-intentioned privilege and creating necessary testimony of invisible real lives; thankfully, it veers toward the latter. Even as it reveals the brothers’ seeming ineffectiveness, their book is ultimately an eyewitness account “of people’s kindness, of their unstoppable love of life, of their humor even in the darkest hours of unhappiness, of their joyful Mediterranean blood,” as Aunt Thérèse writes in an afterword from Beirut in 2004. “They saw with their own eyes what it means to live dangerously, to be afraid, to skirt the absurd, and to discover the value in every moment of existence.” Inarguably, we can all learn a life lesson in that!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2004, 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, European, Lebanese

The Magic Ball of Wool by Susanna Isern, illustrated by Nora Hilb, translated by Jon Brokenbrow

Magic Ball of WoolIn my crotchety old age, sleep is a major challenge, so I usually end up taking a pile of must-reads to bed. In spite of the lack of zzzzs, my stacks aren’t exactly shrinking, but how grateful am I to never be without bookish company in the wee hours.

Sometimes, I get oh so lucky on these seemingly neverending nights and I discover a title that’s Magic which gently sends me off to slumberland. From the inspiring Spanish publisher, Cuento de Luz, comes another soothing, hopeful story about a hedgehog who wakes one morning with a ball of wool stuck to his prickles. Once he shakes it off, a spider teaches him to knit. The hedgehog proves quite facile, and soon enough, neighboring friends drop by and ask if he might make them a little something. Whatever the hedgehog knits transforms into the recipients’ most fervent wish. The mouse’s tiny sweater becomes a giant ball of cheese, the frog’s mittens becomes a mirror (she’s self-admittedly a bit vain), the bear’s balaclava (love that word!) becomes a shell with lulling sounds of the sea …

By the time the crab arrives many requests later, the hedgehog realizes he has only a tiny piece of magic wool left. But the crab has come a very long way in search of a very long, strong rope to pull a huge blue whale – dangerously beached – back into the ocean. While the hedgehog thinks through the sleepless night (sound familiar?), all the forest animals return their precious wish-fulfilled objects to the hedgehog’s door. Happily surprised, he unravels the gifts. With the magic ball reattached to his prickles, he “hiked through three forests and climbed two mountains, until he came to the sea and found the blue whale sobbing on the sand.” And knit he did …

The hedgehog selflessly creates, the other animals take and enjoy, but they so willingly know when to give back. A whole community rallies to save a single distressed soul. How can you not love a story like that?

Why are some of us deficient in that sort of giving which is so transforming for both the giver and taker? Today of all days seems a good day to just help without expecting payback, to do good without thinking how or why … and tomorrow we can do the same, and the day after that, and the day after that, and so on. We can all make magic indeed.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, European

My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, Illustrated by Øyvind Torseter, translated by Kari Dickson

My Father's Arms Are Like a BoatA dear friend lost her mother this week; even if a parent is granted almost a century of life well lived, the surviving child’s loss resonates for always. When a parent dies while the child is still very young, to understand and accept such loss must be an even greater challenge. Stein Erik Lunde’s gentle, caring story, with simple, beckoning art gorgeously created by Øyvind Torseter, provides comfort and understanding without artificial reassurance. Their team effort is a rare gift that belongs on every shelf.

A young boy goes to bed, keeping the door open to his father, “‘[s]o that your dreams can come out to me.’” But the house is “quieter now than it’s ever been,” and sleep eludes the unsettled child. He returns to the living room, and as the father holds him cheek to cheek, the two discuss the trees, birds, and fox outside.

The boy remembers his grandmother “at the old people’s home,” where his father laughed, and listens as his father explains that his mother will “‘never wake up again … not where she is now.’” Still sleepless, they bundle up to watch the night sky, perhaps catch a shooting star: “I wonder if our wish will come true if we wished for the same thing.” Under that vast darkness, the boy knows his “dad’s arms are like a boat,” one in which he will always find protection and warmth.

Artist Torseter uses a uniquely collaged style that combines crisp architectural model-like settings with hand-drawn people, animals, and comforting objects of home inside (a worn stuffed animal, a slightly open book, lined-up dirty dishes), as well as details of activities in motion outside, such as footsteps in the snow, growing piles of firewood in the making, the birds exploring scattered bread. The book’s message is clear: time, change, life continues outside, but home (together with father and grandmother) provides the waiting refuge. Death happens to us all, but the gentleness of this soothing story can help ease the way …

Readers: Children

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, European

Wolfsmund (vol. 1) by Mitsuhisa Kuji, translated by Ko Ransom

Wolfsmund 1The top of this debut volume proclaims, auf Deutsch, “Poesie des Widerstandes,” or ‘Poetry of the Resistors.’ Poetry is certainly visible in the alpine landscapes and the swirling energy of the constant movement; most pronounced, however, is the tragedy of what happens across the panels in this epic new manga set in 14th-century Europe in what will later become Switzerland.

Welcome to St. Gotthard Pass, where an ominous fortress called Wolfsmund (literally, ‘wolf’s mouth’) controlled by a merciless guard, Wolfsram (‘wolf’s ram,’ with implications of both the beast and the violent motion), holds tight control over who will reach the other side and who will find their journey grotesquely terminated. Smiling with an open, near-angelic greeting, his victims’ first reactions are initially of relief: “He seems so kind” … but his inescapable verdicts prove satanic.

As inhumane as he is, Wolfsram is himself a servant to the reigning Austrian Habsburg (or Hapsburg, as many of us of a certain generation were taught) monarchy. Resistors against Lord Leopold’s oppression in the “three cantons with vested interests in the pass, Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Uri” have formed “The Eternal Alliance” and seek freedom at any cost.

Presented in chapters that highlight various daring attempts at passage, volume one offers three formidable adventures: a loyal knight hopes to deliver his Master’s daughter to safety by disguising her as his lowly servant; a “formidable woman fighter” seeks to deliver a life-or-death message to a comrade waiting on the other side; and the legendary William Tell and his son Walter endeavor to bypass the fortress over the seemingly impervious mountains. Wolfsram is an enemy like no other, but resistors will continue to seek freedom … which means more thrilling volumes ahead!

Parents beware: with so much unblinking gore and unrestrained cruelty, this manga is not to share with the kiddies. That said, the faint-hearted, too, should choose with caution. For the rest of you unshockable addicts, read on – graphic rewards await.

Tidbit: In case you were wondering about the cover’s introduction in German, here’s a translation: “In the early 14th century, a merciless guard stood watch over St. Gotthard Pass and no one passed the border without a thorough investigation. The impregnable fortress was called “‘Wolf’s Mouth.’” Ever so occasionally my German literature degree actually has practical purpose! Who would have thunk one of them would be for manga!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, European, Japanese

The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

Watcher in the ShadowsThe offer of a new job in a small resort town on the coast of Normandy allows the recently widowed Simone Sauvelle the chance for her and her two children to escape a poverty-stricken life in Paris. As the assistant to brilliant toymaker Lazarus Jann, Simone is granted use of a home of their own, Seaview, while she works in Lazarus’ sprawling mansion, Cravenmoore; in spite of a few inexplicable quirks and demands, not to mention a mysteriously tragic past, her new employer is immediately charming and welcoming.

That summer of 1937, the small family settles into their comfortable new lives: Dorian readily finds friends among the village boys, and Irene finds near instant companionship with Hannah, two years older, who works as Lazarus’ cook and maid … until she meets Hannah’s cousin, Ismael. At 14, Irene is about to fall in love for the first time in her young life. But what should have an idyllic summer proves to be a gruesome nightmare of murder, missing persons, soulless automatons, and an unconscionable shadow driven by revenge. Haunted by the diary of a long-suffering young woman who risked her life for true love, Irene will do exactly the same … for her family, for her heart, for her newly maturing self.

Although probably best known for his 2001 noir-ish mystery, The Shadow of the Wind, the internationally bestselling Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón began his writerly career two decades ago with young adult titles which have only recently become available in English. Watcher is Zafón’s third  YA novel in English and hit shelves last month although it was originally published in Spain in 1995. In this opening “A Note from the Author,” Zafón ruminates on “[h]ow young is young when it comes to reading” his books, and suggests that  “When I wrote these books I was aiming to write the kind of novel I would have liked to read when I was twelve or thirteen years old,” he explains. Although middle grade readers might be on the too-young side – an extreme fear factor looms heavily – older kiddies and parents, too, should find Watcher quite the swift, page-thumbing experience.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 1995, 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, European

Templar by Jordan Mechner, illustrated by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland, color by Hilary Sycamore and Alex Campbell

TemplarReady for some swashbuckling adventure … with quite a history lesson thrown in? ” [I]t’s all absolutely true,” author Jordan Mechner promises in his entertaining “Preface,” before he adds, “Well, some of it.”

The history portion goes back to late 13th-into-14th-century France to the “shocking downfall of the Knights of the Temple – a scandal that shook the fourteenth century and reverberates to this day,” Mechner explains. “Bizarrely, although it’s well documented for something that happened 700 years ago, it was a piece of history I’d never seen dramatized – not in a movie, not in a novel, not in a video game.” Until now. And how! The powerful Templars, originally formed during the Crusades, were “the Jedi of their time,” but in 1307, in a deft political move, the King of France ordered the mass arrest (and subsequent torture and murder) of 15,000 Templars. International machinations ensued: “The Order of the Temple was shattered, never to rise again.”

Within those facts, Mechner inserts a wildly sensational thriller of love, loyalty, and loss. Templar Knight Martin is one of the few survivors of the King’s massacre. He manages to rally a motley crew of fellow survivors and supporters, and devises an impossible plan to ferret out the Templar’s missing grand treasure. Never mind that he’s forced to begrudgingly accept the help of his long-lost first (and only) love, while somehow maneuvering around the King’s henchmen who never seem to die … come hell or high water (literally), Martin’s got plans …

Six years in the making, culminating from research Mechner began back in 2002, this could-have-been-true graphic tale comes to vivid life thanks to the husband-and-wife artist team of  Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham (one of my favorite kiddie book illustrators ever!), who also energetically made Mechner’s Prince of Persia fly off their panels. Make sure to set aside the afternoon (and more), because once you open the book you won’t stop until you run out of pages, after which you’ll most likely turn to the screen to find out more, more, more (even a Luddite like me has to be thankful for the instant gratification of the internet!). Mechner even obligingly provides you a detailed “Afterword” to keep your adventures going … !

Readers: Adult, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, European, Nonethnic-specific, Vietnamese American

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Anatomy of a DisappearanceHisham Matar’s second novel (following his much-lauded, substantially-awarded debut, In the Country of Men) reads like a fast-moving dream, events jarringly, jaggedly forced together, and yet somehow managing to maintain a clear, thoughtful narrative. Narrator Steve West’s methodically-paced, calmly-controlled voice imbues Matar’s haunting story with dignity and gravitas.

Disappearance, absence, displacement loom large throughout Nuri’s life. Even as a young boy, what Nuri knows of his Cairo home is already a compromised existence-in-exile as a result of his father’s political past. When his mother dies, his father remarries a vibrant young woman named Mona whom the 12-year-old Nuri claims as his own upon first sight. Sent away to an exclusive English boarding school, Nuri is separated from all that is familiar, including the devoted servant girl who helped raise him.

And then his father disappears, in 1972 when Nuri is just 14. That loss becomes the single defining event of Nuri’s life; in the desperate, unending search to discover what happened, both Nuri and Mona learn as many truths about themselves, and each other, as about the distant, enigmatic man who once held them tenuously together.

The missing parent looms large in both of Matar’s titles, telling proof that he writes what he knows: Matar lost his own father, a Libyan dissident, to a politically motivated kidnapping in 1990; decades later, the elder Matar remains missing.

In a January 2010 article for the UK’s Guardian, Matar wrote about learning that his father was seen “‘[f]rail, but well’” in 2002 in a secret prison, although the news took eight years to reach the surviving family: ” … weeks from finishing that novel [Anatomy], I learn that my father, who disappeared 20 years ago, might be alive … Uncanny how reality presses against that precious quiet place of dreaming. As if life is jealous of fiction.” Fictional as Anatomy claims to be, echoing his literary stand-in Nuri, Matar holds on to his father’s coat waiting for his someday-return. “Maybe it still fits him,” he muses.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Arab, British, Egyptian, European, Middle Eastern

Thermae Romae II by Mari Yamazaki, translated by Stephen Paul

Thermae Romae 2To get to know our time-traveling bather, start with Volume I. When in Thermae Romae, you need to do as this Roman does and find out how he journeys back and forth between far-spanning centuries and cultures with one thing in common – an obsession with the bath.

If the cover looks familiar, Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize-winning creator Mari Yamazaki explains how she risked marital peace to parody “one of the greatest works of ancient Roman sculpture,” Laocoön and His Sons. In spite of her husband’s angry reaction, she insists that her version of Laocoön “wearing a shampoo hat to keep the shampoo out of his eyes” is not such a far stretch: “I’m sure Laocoön washed his fair from time to time, and if he did massage his scalp, he certainly must have struck poses like the one on the cover.” You’ll find that sort of goofy humor on almost every page, all the while learning quite a bit about ancient Roman history, and modern Japanese bathing culture. Yamazaki will entertainingly convince you how such two seemingly disparate topics are actually quite related.

As Volume II begins, Lucius is a favorite of Emperor Hadrian, renowned as the innovative bath architect. In an act of potentially fatal jealousy, Senate members plot to get Lucius out of Rome with a ruse about a creating a new thermae in an area overrun by violent bandits. What happens instead is a bit of brilliant marketing, inspired by Lucius’ timely visit to a Japanese hot spring town where he wins big at a game booth, discovers kitschy souvenirs, and tastes his first bowl of steaming ramen and juicy gyoza. With further unpredictable forays into the land of the “flat-faces” (the phrase still bugs me, but not quite as much this second time around), Lucius learns to build a wooden barrel single bath shippable to the hinterlands, and how to balance the most gaudiest demands with just enough elegantly-tempered details.

Then half-way through the volume, Hadrian’s adopted heir (profligately portrayed by Yamazaki with apologies later – artistic license, right?) dies. With Hadrian’s own health less than robust, Lucius becomes determined to create something soothingly rejuvenating for his Imperator. His search magically sends him to meet “such a beautiful flat-face” as he’s never seen before … who just happens to be an ancient Roman scholar who speaks perfect Latin! Talk about back to the future … in centur-ion leaps!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, European, Japanese