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

Audiobook Review: The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

 


Hannah Levi is known throughout sixteenth-century Venice for her skill in midwifery. When a Christian count appears at Hannah’s door in the Jewish ghetto imploring her to attend his labouring wife, who is nearing death, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. Not only is it illegal for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians, it’s also punishable by torture and death. Moreover, as her Rabbi angrily points out, if the mother or child should die, the entire ghetto population will be in peril.

But Hannah’s compassion for another woman’s misery overrides her concern for self-preservation. The Rabbi once forced her to withhold care from her shunned sister, Jessica, with terrible consequences. Hannah cannot turn away from a labouring woman again. Moreover, she cannot turn down the enormous fee offered by the Conte. Despite the Rabbi’s protests, she knows that this money can release her husband, Isaac, a merchant who was recently taken captive on Malta as a slave. There is nothing Hannah wants more than to see the handsome face of the loving man who married her despite her lack of dowry, and who continues to love her despite her barrenness. She must save Isaac.

Meanwhile, far away in Malta, Isaac is worried about Hannah’s safety, having heard tales of the terrifying plague ravaging Venice. But his own life is in terrible danger. He is auctioned as a slave to the head of the local convent, Sister Assunta, who is bent on converting him to Christianity. When he won’t give up his faith, he’s traded to the brutish lout Joseph, who is renowned for working his slaves to death. Isaac soon learns that Joseph is heartsick over a local beauty who won’t give him the time of day. Isaac uses his gifts of literacy and a poetic imagination—not to mention long-pent-up desire—to earn his day-to-day survival by penning love letters on behalf of his captor and a paying illiterate public.

Back in Venice, Hannah packs her “”birthing spoons”—secret rudimentary forceps she invented to help with difficult births—and sets off with the Conte and his treacherous brother. Can she save the mother? Can she save the baby, on whose tiny shoulders the Conte’s legacy rests? And can she also save herself, and Isaac, and their own hopes for a future, without endangering the lives of everyone in the ghetto?

My Thoughts:

I found the plotlines revolving around Hannah’s midwife practice very compelling. It was fascinating to learn more about the role of midwives at that time (1575). Of course, we know that childbirth was a hazardous undertaking for women prior to the advent of modern medicine, but seeing it up close through Hannah’s experiences really drives home how risky it was and how closely death would hover for both mother and child. On top of the risks of childbirth, in The Midwife of Venice we get a stark portrayal of the status of Jews in Venice. The anti-Semitism of the time is commonplace, ordinary, and frightening. The threat of the inquisitors arresting Jews in violation of the law is an ever-present danger. When Hannah agrees to deliver a Christian nobleman’s baby, she’s putting the entire ghetto at risk, because if a Jewish woman can be blamed for causing the mother or baby to die, it’s likely that the people of Venice will invade the ghetto and slaughter the Jews.

Woven throughout Hannah’s story are chapters focusing on her husband Isaac, held prisoner on Malta with a ridiculous and unattainable sum set as his ransom. His efforts to earn his own freedom come to nothing, and the best he can do is try to stay alive until he can either escape or get rescued.

While the story as a whole held my interest, there are some oddities in the narrative that kept it from being more than just an okay read (listen) for me. It was often hard to tell how much time had passed from one chapter to another, so that a messenger might bring Isaac word of something that had happened in Venice — word that would presumably take weeks or longer to travel that distance — while only days had passed in Hannah’s part of the story. I wish the sections dealing with Hannah and her estranged sister Jessica had been better developed; their relationship is very layered and complex, yet it seemed to be dealt with much too quickly. Some of the action sequences happened much too quickly as well, leading me to believe that the author isn’t quite skilled enough in this type of writing: She’s very good at creating mood and characters, but putting together scenes of suspense or physical danger doesn’t seem to be a strength.

On the whole, there are some believability issues as well. Characters change course and act in ways that seem illogical and not in keeping with what we know about them. There are story beats that seem to come from nowhere, keeping the drama high, but almost without connection to the scenes that came before. A few moments of high drama keep the tension ratcheted up, but at the same time, at least one in particular seems to have no impact on the plot whatsoever, so why even include it?

Overall, The Midwife of Venice presents a very interesting story and setting, but the execution isn’t as good as I would have hoped. As for the audiobook, I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. She does a good job with the Italian phrases and names, but the depiction of the rougher folks of Malta was off — there were times when I thought the people in the crowd scenes sounded like New Yorkers! Also, the audiobook experience makes certain repetitions more glaring — why, for example, is it necessary to begin every chapter by identifying not only the location of the chapter (helpful to know whether we’re in Venice or Malta), but the year? It’s 1575 in every single chapter, so why repeat it in EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER?

The Midwife of Venice was my book group’s pick for March, and I’ve enjoyed hearing others’ thoughts on the book. I understand this is the first in a trilogy. Because of my issues with The Midwife of Venice, I’m not planning to read the follow-up books — but I’m interested enough in the outcome for the characters to be glad that one of my book group friends is reading the whole trilogy and has promised to let us know how it all turns out!

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The details:

Title: The Midwife of Venice
Author: Roberta Rich
Narrated by: Antoinette LaVecchia
Publisher: Anchor Canada
Publication date: January 1, 2011
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audio): 9 hours, 7 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

 

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