Middle Grade Book Review: Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Synopsis:

A violin and a middle-school musical unleash a dark family secret in this moving story by an award-winning author duo. For fans of The Devil’s Arithmetic and Hana’s Suitcase.

It’s 2002. In the aftermath of the twin towers — and the death of her beloved grandmother — Shirli Berman is intent on moving forward. The best singer in her junior high, she auditions for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, but is crushed to learn that she’s been given the part of the old Jewish mother in the musical rather than the coveted part of the sister. But there is an upside: her “husband” is none other than Ben Morgan, the cutest and most popular boy in the school.

Deciding to throw herself into the role, she rummages in her grandfather’s attic for some props. There, she discovers an old violin in the corner — strange, since her Zayde has never seemed to like music, never even going to any of her recitals. Showing it to her grandfather unleashes an anger in him she has never seen before, and while she is frightened of what it might mean, Shirli keeps trying to connect with her Zayde and discover the awful reason behind his anger. A long-kept family secret spills out, and Shirli learns the true power of music, both terrible and wonderful.

My thoughts:

Broken Strings is a layered, thoughtful, and ultimately uplifting book about the power of family, memory, and music. Set only months after the terrible events of 9/11, the story follows Shirli and her middle school classmates, all of whom experienced some of the horror of living through 9/11, whether through images on TV, or seeing the towers fall from across the Hudson River, or having lost friends or family in the attacks.

Now, six months later, the school readies for its spring musical production, Fiddler on the Roof. Shirli is initially disappointed not to get the flashier role of Hodel, the daughter in the musical with the best solo, but she grows to appreciate her role as Golde, especially since it means spending hours working with the adorable Ben, who has the star role of Tevye, Golde’s husband.

Shirli knows from her parents that her grandfather’s parents’ families were originally from Eastern Europe and lived through some of the pogroms that took place in the time period of Fiddler, so she begins to ask him questions in hopes of better understanding the characters. And although she’s aware that Zayde survived the Holocaust and bears a concentration camp tattoo on his arm, he’s never spoken of his experiences to her or to anyone else in the family. But as she visits Zayde, little by little he begins to share the story of what happened to his family during the Holocaust, and why he has never played his violin or even listened to music in all the years since.

There’s so much to love about Broken Strings. First, it’s a sweet story about middle school friendship and crushes, about talent and hard work and ambition, and about dedication to one’s passions. At the same time, it’s about family, the power of love, and the devastation of loss and memories too painful to bring into the light of day. And finally, it’s about the healing power of sharing oneself and one’s stories, about making connections, and about rising above hatred to find common ground in even unlikely places.

The characters are all well-drawn and realistic, and it’s beautiful to see how Zayde influences those around him by reaching across divides and making friends. Shirli is a lovely main character, and I appreciated how well the authors show both her insecurities and her devotion to her friends and family.

Broken Strings is really a special book. Highly recommended for middle grade readers as well as the adults in their lives.

With special thanks to Jill of Jill’s Book Blog, whose wonderful review first brought this book to my attention. Check it out, here.

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The details:

Title: Broken Strings
Authors: Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer
Publisher: Puffin Books
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

 

In 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman. 

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.

In The World That We Knew, author Alice Hoffman brings her unique infusion of magic and nature to a store of survival during the worst of times. Starting in Berlin in 1941, the story introduces us to Hanni and her young daughter Lea. Hanni knows it’s only a matter of time until they’re captured and sent to a death camp like the rest of the Jews around them. Desperate to save Lea, Hanni begs for a miracle from the rabbi known to have mystical abilities, but instead, his daughter Ettie offers help in exchange for an escape opportunity for her and her younger sister.

Etti, having listened outside her father’s door for years, has herself grown wise in the art of Jewish mysticism, and uses her knowledge to create a golem — a powerful creature made from clay shaped into human form and brought to life through secret rituals, whose entire purpose is to protect Lea. Hanni can’t escape with her elderly, disabled mother, nor can she leave her behind, so she sends Lea away in care of Ava the golem, to seek what safety might be available to them in France.

France isn’t exactly safe for Jews either. Finding refuge with the Levi family, and joined by Etti, Lea and Ava are still at risk, and finally make their escape before their new shelter is raided by Nazis — but first, Lea forms a connection with the young son of the Levi family, Julien. Lea and Julien make only one demand of one another: stay alive.

From here, the story spirals out in multiple directions. We follow Lea and Ava from one temporary haven to another, including a remote convent where the nuns shelter the children who come to them, at risk of their own lives. We follow Etti into the forests as she seeks and then finds the resistance, desiring only vengeance. We follow Julien on his own path toward escape, refuge, and meaning. For each, and for the other characters we meet, there are dangers around every corner — and yet, there is also the opportunity to help others, to find meaning even in the middle of horror and tragedy.

Once upon a time something happened that you never could have imagined, a spell was broken a girl was saved, a rose grew out of a tooth buried deep in the ground, love was everywhere, and people who had been taken away continued to walk with you, in dreams and in the waking world.

The writing in The World That We Knew is just gorgeous. The author evokes the glory of the natural world, even as the people in it carry out horrific deeds and leave destruction in their wake. There’s magic all around, both in the form of Ava, the golem who starts as a mere bodyguard but finds her own personhood as time goes on, and in the flowers, bees, and birds that surround our characters and interact with them in unexpected ways.

Every now and then a crow would soar past with a gold ring or coat button in its beak, a shiny souvenir of murder.

The characters are lovely and memorable. I especially loved Ava, but it’s also wonderful and awful to see Lea grow up during war, having lost eveyrthing, but still clinging to her mother’s love and her connection to Julien. But really, I can’t just single these two out. There are side characters who come into the story briefly, whose stories we come to know before they exit once more, and their stories have power as well. In some ways, it feels as though the author has painted a picture through her writing of all the lost potential represented by the millions murdered during this terrible time.

And yet, the book is not without hope. Despite the tragedies, there’s still goodness, the possibility of a future, and the possibility of meaning:

What had been created was alive. Ettie did not see clay before her, but rather a woman who had been made by women, brought to life by their blood and needs and desires.

I don’t think I can really do justice to how special and beautiful this book is. The writing is superb, and the story leaves an indelible impression. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: The World That We Knew
Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: September 24, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: HIstorical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

 

Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner’s debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.

Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

What a lovely and unusual debut novel!

Author Rena Rossner draws from folktales, fairy tales, and Jewish history and traditions to create an entrancing story of two sisters whose lives are informed by magic, yet who are deeply rooted among the Jewish villagers in the small town of Dubossary (located in modern-day Moldova).

Liba and Laya are very different — Liba, the elder, is 17 years old, with wild, dark hair and a rounded body. She loves to study with her father, learning Torah and Talmud and all sorts of scholarly Jewish subjects not considered fit for girls. Laya, the younger, is 15 years old, with white-blond silky hair, pale skin, and a lithe figure. She has no interest in studies, but prefers to dream in the sun, alongside their beautiful mother. The girls’ parents are semi-outcasts. While the father was descended from a respectable, revered Chassidic family, the mother is a non-Jew who converted to Judaism when she married the man she loved, yet the neighbors have never ceased to gossip and consider her an outsider.

When the parents are called away for a family emergency, the girls are left home alone in their small cabin at the edge of the forest, and immediately, strange things begin to happen around them. A group of brothers come to town and set up their fruit stall, selling exotic, exquisite out-of-season fruits that the townspeople can’t resist — and beguiling the young women of the village with their impossible good looks and flirtatious, wild demeanors. Liba and Laya have been told secrets by their parents about their own true identities, and each begins to experience her own set of changes — physical and emotional — as she grows into womanhood.

Meanwhile, there are rumors in the village of violence coming closer, as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and pogroms begin to devastate Jewish communities across Russia. Dubossary has always been different, with Jews and Christians living in harmony, but when a beautiful Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish family’s orchard, unrest, evil whispers, and soon real danger threatens the Jewish people of the town.

If the plot sounds a little jam-packed — well, it is. There’s a lot going on here, with Liba and Laya’s secrets and struggles, the mysterious fruitsellers and their addictive wares, the rising anti-Semitism, and the dynamics of Chassidic dynasties as well. Beyond plot, though, there are also so many little touches of loveliness. The book is filled with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian expressions (with a handy glossary at the end) that give the story an authentic, rich cadence. Likewise, the flavors and textures of this world come to life through the descriptions of the foods (borscht, mandelbrot, kugel, and more), the flowers and plants, the wildlife, and the natural beauty of the snow, the river, and the forest.

Each girl has her own voice, as we hear in alternating chapters. Liba’s chapters are in prose, and Laya’s are in verse. Each is compelling, and while Liba’s chapters are much more action-packed and immediate, Laya’s have a lightness that’s quite beautiful to read.

Come by, he calls out
after me,
come by, come by.
When moonlight sets itself high in the sky.

Sometimes the author’s notes at the end of a story really give me a different way to understand what I’ve read, and such is the case here with The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her notes, author Rena Rossner describes her own family’s history in the region of the story and their immigration to America. She also explains the various sources of inspiration for her story, from fairy tales, Greek mythology, and even modern YA literature. She also mentions that the original idea for this book was to write a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (which can be read online here) After I finished reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I went and read Goblin Market (which I’d never read before), and was so impressed by how well its elements are captured and transformed in Rena Rossner’s book. (I also discovered the connection between Goblin Market and the October Daye series, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Naturally, between the setting and the introduction of folktale elements, I was reminded of Katherine Arden’s excellent The Bear and the Nightingale, although the stories are very, very different. Fans of that book should definitely check out The Sisters of the Winter Wood. It’s a magical story filled with beauty and awfulness, balancing real and fantasy worlds, and above all celebrating the love between two devoted sisters and the sacrifices they make for one another. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
Author: Rena Rossner
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of Redhook

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Shelf Control #136: Home in the Morning by Mary Glickman

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Home in the Morning
Author: Mary Glickman
Published: 2010
Length: 233 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A powerful debut from a new literary talent, this novel tells the story of a Jewish family confronting the tumult of the 1960s—and the secrets that bind its members together

Jackson Sassaport is a man who often finds himself in the middle. Whether torn between Stella, his beloved and opinionated Yankee wife, and Katherine Marie, the African American girl who first stole his teenage heart; or between standing up for his beliefs and acquiescing to his prominent Jewish family’s imperative to not stand out in the segregated South, Jackson learns to balance the secrets and deceptions of those around him. But one fateful night in 1960 will make the man in the middle reconsider his obligations to propriety and family, and will start a chain of events that will change his life and the lives of those around him forever.

Home in the Morning follows Jackson’s journey from his childhood as a coddled son of the Old South to his struggle as a young man eager to find his place in the civil rights movement while protecting his family. Flashing back between Jackson’s adult life as a successful lawyer and his youth, Mary Glickman’s riveting novel traces the ways that race and prejudice, family and love intertwine to shape our lives. This ebook features rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.

How and when I got it:

I don’t really remember buying this book… but I assume I picked it up at one of the library book sales over the past several years.

Why I want to read it:

The synopsis makes this book sound fascinating — civil rights, a love story, the 1960s, Jewish life in the South. I’m definitely drawn to the description… and I’m glad this book just resurfaced for me during a shelf tidying adventure, because I plan to bump it up the TBR list!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #120: The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Family Orchard
Author: Nomi Eve
Published: 2000
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the bestselling tradition of The Red Tent, The Family Orchard is a spellbinding novel of one unforgettable family, the orchard they’ve tended for generations, and a love story that transcends the ages.

Nomi Eve’s lavishly imagined account begins in Palestine in 1837, with the tale of the irrepressible family matriach, Esther, who was lured by the smell of baking bread into an affair with the local baker. Esther passes on her passionate nature to her son, Eliezer, whose love for the forbidden Golda threatened to tear the family apart. And to her granddaughter, Avra the thief, a tiny wisp of a girl who thumbed her nose at her elders by swiping precious stones from the local bazaar-and grew to marry a man she met at the scene of a crime. At once epic and intimate, The Family Orchard is a rich historical tapestry of passion and tradition from a storyteller of beguiling power.

How and when I got it:

I bought a used copy about 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

Nomi Eve’s more recent novel, Henna House, went straight to the top of my oh-my-god-this-is-so-good-everyone-needs-to-read-this pile — and so I knew I needed to read her first novel as well. The subject matter and synopsis of The Family Orchard sound fascinating to me. I love reading books set in Israel and incorporating Jewish history, and I’m really looking forward to finally diving in.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Shelf Control #68: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! Fore more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

17707514Title: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands
Author: Natasha Solomons
Published: 2013
Length: 339 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

London, 1958. It’s the eve of the sexual revolution, but in Juliet Montague’s conservative Jewish community where only men can divorce women, she ­finds herself a living widow, invisible. Ever since her husband disappeared seven years ago, Juliet has been a hardworking single mother of two and unnaturally practical. But on her thirtieth birthday, that’s all about to change. A wealthy young artist asks to paint her portrait, and Juliet, moved by the powerful desire to be seen, enters into the burgeoning art world of 1960s London, which will bring her fame, fortune, and a life-long love affair.

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

2 or 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I don’t know how I first heard about this book, but when I stumbled across it at a book sale, it seemed familiar. The Jewish theme really calls to me, as does the idea of a young woman who’s already been pushed aside by society even though so much of her life is ahead of her. Between the setting and the time period, it sounds like a must read!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: Henna House

Henna HouseHenna House tells the tale of the little-known world of the Jews of Yemen in the early 20th century, taking place largely during the tumultuous years of the 1920s and 1930s. As seen through the eyes of Adela Damari, whom we meet for the first time at age five, the Jewish community of the village of Qaraah is small and isolated, steeped in a tradition and a simple way of life that seems at odds with the modernity of the time period.

The Jewish community of Yemen at that time was by law an underclass, kept subservient and oppressed through a string of harsh restrictions and edicts, none more feared than the Orphan Decree. According to the Orphan Decree, an unmarried Jewish child left orphaned would be confiscated by local authorities, adopted by a Muslim family, and permanently removed from his or her relatives, community, and faith. Families lived in fear of confiscation, taking the preventive measure of betrothing children at birth so that hasty marriages could be enacted when needed.

Adela first enounters the Confiscator when she is five years old, and is terrified. This official routinely visits her father’s marketplace stall, observing her father’s illness, and practically counting the days until his death so that Adela can be taken. Despite having a very  large family, Adela is at risk, as all of her potential betrothals have come to naught. One day, however, her young cousin Asaf comes to live in Qaraah, and the two children become fast friends — and more. Despite their young age, they form a deep bond, and it’s only natural that their betrothal is announced.

Other arrivals in Qaraah further change Adela’s life. Her uncle Barhun moves to the village with his wife Rahel, a skilled henna artist, and their daughter Hani, who quickly becomes Adela’s closest friend and confidante. Adela is introduced to the women’s henna rituals, in which symbols and patterns are painstakingly painted onto the skin to celebrate happy occasions, commemorate significant events, and represent a secret language full of mystical power and meaning.

That first night I was a novitiate. Soon, like the others, I would learn about the stars in the heavens by reading the astronomical tables they inscribed on my feet, shins, and fingers. Soon, I would grow to believe that I myself was an actual text, and that my skin without henna was like a holy book without words — a shameful, almost blasphemous, thing. Without henna, I wouldn’t know how to read myself. With henna, I was as sacred as a sanctified Torah. With henna, I was the carrier of ancient tales — a living girl-scroll replete with tales of sorrow, joy, and salvation.

The story of Henna House moves from the small mountain village of Adela’s birth to the city of Aden, through the anti-Jewish riots of the 1940s to the rescue of the Yemenite Jews by the newly declared nation of Israel. The story of Adela is at once large in scope, covering the significant events in the global Jewish community during the devastating years during and after the Holocaust, and at the same time, is a deeply personal tale.

Adela herself is a girl and then a young woman finding her way through an ever shifting series of homes and relations, experiencing both joy and love as well as terror and grief. She values the traditions of her people and the rituals of the henna house, yet also finds an inner strength that sees her through horrible loss and betrayals.

I was incredibly moved by this lovingly crafted story. The writing is often poetic, rich with tradition and symbolism, yet the pace never slackens or drags. The forward momentum of the story is engaging while also allowing the emotions of the characters room to breathe.

I was quite taken with the use of traditional rituals and foods to highlight the lives of the Jewish families, and found the depiction of their lives in Yemen completely fascinating.

Henna House is an intimate look at a time, a place, and a people, at a by-gone world with rich yet mysterious traditions. As historical fiction, it’s deeply affecting as well as informative and revealing. And as a novel, Henna House succeeds in telling a story full of love, wonder, loss, and excitement.

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I leave you with a collage of images (scavenged from Pinterest, thank you very much…) which bring to mind some of the people and food mentioned in Henna House.

HH collage

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The details:

Title: Henna House
Author: Nomi Eve
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: August 12, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribner via NetGalley