Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Light in Hidden Places - Sharon Cameron

Title: The Light in Hidden Places
Author: Sharon Cameron
Publisher: Scholastic Press, March 3, 2020 (Hardcover)
(Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: February 18, 2020
Finished: February 22, 2020

From the back cover:

It is 1943, and sixteen-year-old Stefania has been working for the Diamant family in their shop in Przemysl, Poland. She hopes to marry one of their sons, Izio, but they must keep their love a secret since she is Catholic and he is Jewish. Everything changes, though, when the German army invades Przemysl. The Diamants are forced into the ghetto, and Stefania is alone in an occupied city, left to care for Helena, her six-year-old sister.

Then comes the knock at the door. Izio's brother Max has jumped from a train headed to a death camp. Stefania and Helena make the extraordinary decision to hide Max and eventually twelve more Jews. Now they wait, every day, for the next knock at the door, the one that will mean death. When the knock finally comes, it is two Nazi officers, requisitioning Stefania's house for the German army.

With two Nazis living below, thirteen Jews hidden above, and a little sister by her side, Stefania has one more excruciating choice to make.

Award-winning author Sharon Cameron depicts that utterly unremarkable and heroic real-life story of Stefania Podgorska in this gripping page-turner that explores the momentous decisions people make and how one person truly can change the world.

I've always liked these types of Holocaust memoirs (well, fictionalized accounts of memoirs), so when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of an upcoming book relating to an individual from history that I didn't previously know, I jumped at the chance.

The Light in Hidden Places is a novel based on the true story of Stefania Podgorska, a young woman who helped aide thirteen Jewish people in the ghetto, and later hid them in her attic. The story begins in the late 1930s, when a young teenaged Stefania moves from the rural countryside to live with her older sisters in the city of Przemysl. She begins to work for the Diamant family in their store and quickly becomes like a sister to the four Diamant boys: Chaim, Henek, Max, and Izio. Once the German army invades in September 1939, their city is bombed, and restrictions on Jewish citizens begin.

In early 1942, the Diamants are ordered to relocate to the nearby ghetto, and Stefania remains alone in the Diamant home. That same year, after her mother and brother are sent to a labour camp in Salzburg, Stefania is tasked with taking care of her younger sister, Helena. When the ghetto is liquidated, Max escapes from the train headed to a death camp and Stefania and Helena hide him in the apartment. In 1943, after securing work at a German-owned factory and a new apartment to rent with an attic where people could hide, they later add Max's brother Henek and his girlfriend Danuta and ten others from the ghetto. Her house is requisitioned by the Nazis in early 1944, so Stefania, Helena, and the thirteen others hiding in the attic shared the house in that way for the next several months until the city was liberated by the Russians in the summer of 1944.

You can tell that this book was written with a great deal of love and compassion. The author has done her homework and researched it all impeccably well. Stefania's son Ed is quoted on the back cover as to the accuracy and spirit of the book being in line with his mother and father's memories. Contrary to my expectations, it isn't sugar-coated in the slightest (I figured it would be a little since it was published under the Scholastic banner) and tells the very raw details of Stefania's experiences. She is assaulted and nearly raped several times (there's a very hard scene to read where 8-year-old Helena is badly beaten by the SS), and she even expresses resentment at times because of the sheer amount of work and stress involved in her situation. At the same time, Stefania states how she simply couldn't live with herself if her actions (or inaction) had allowed her thirteen to be harmed in any way, which is part of what makes her story so remarkable.

I can appreciate the level of honesty in this novel because you don't often hear about the mental anguish that Holocaust survivors and their helpers endured, most narratives tend to focus on the bravery. This book is unique in that it acknowledges the PTSD that affects people who endure trauma on this scale, I feel like we as readers understand this now, but years ago it wasn't something that was really discussed as part of their story.

The only thing that nagged at me a bit was that it was difficult to follow the progression of years at the beginning of the story and how old people were. Like how Stefania was actually sixteen in 1941, not 1943, and for the majority of the events in the story she was actually eighteen and nineteen years old.

In researching this book, I came across this clip on YouTube of Stefania and Max's son, Ed, giving a talk about his parents in 2019. He mentions this very book, and he even shows a copy of the drawing Max drew for Stefania that was mentioned at the end of the book that was really nice to see. This is a great clip to start with if you'd like to learn more about Stefania's story.

This is a wonderfully-written account of how the small actions of a few can really changes people's lives for the better. This more mature narrative should be available in all our high school libraries and is one we should encourage our children to read.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's a typical YA cover, nothing much to write home about. You'd think they'd incorporate something with an attic and light and shadow or something like that given the content, so a missed opportunity in my opinion.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Empire of Wild - Cherie Dimaline

Title: Empire of Wild
Author: Cherie Dimaline
Publisher: Random House Canada, 2019 (Hardcover)
Length: 298 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: January 28, 2020
Finished: February 11, 2020

From the inside cover:

"Joan had been searching for her lost husband for eleven months and six days, since last October when they'd fought about selling the land she inherited from her father and he'd put on his grey jacket and walked out, the screen door banging behind him."

One hung-over morning in a Walmart parking lot in a little town near Georgian Bay, broken-hearted Joan is drawn to a revival tent where the local Metis have been flocking to hear a charismatic preacher. By the time she staggers into the tent the service is over, but as she is about to leave she hears an unmistakable voice.

She turns, and there is Victor. Only he insists he's not Victor, but the Reverend Eugene Wolff, on a mission to bring his people to Jesus. And he doesn't seem to be faking: there isn't even a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

With only two allies - her odd, Johnny Cash-loving twelve-year-old nephew, Zeus, and Ajean, a foul-mouthed euchre shark with a deep knowledge of the old ways - Joan sets out to remind the Revered Wolff who he really is. If he really is Victor, his life, and the life of everyone she loves, depends upon her success.

Inspired by the traditional story of the Rogarou - a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of Metis communities - Cherie Dimaline has created a propulsive, stunning and sensuous novel.

After reading The Marrow Thieves a couple years ago, I knew I'd read anything this author wrote. When I discovered she had written a second novel, and not YA, I picked it up immediately. Ultimately, this is an adult version of Little Red Riding Hood (but with werewolves) set in Ontario with Indigenous characters and backdrop.

Joan, from the town of Arcand, is in her mid-thirties and searching for her missing husband. While her family tries to gently tell her that Victor probably just left her and that she needs to stop her constant searching, Joan refuses to give up on him. After a night drinking, she finds a Christian mission setting up in a parking lot. Led by a man named Heiser, the group travels around northern Ontario to Indigenous communities that just happen to be in negotiations with natural resources companies over the use of their traditional lands. When Joan recognizes the Revered Wolff as her missing husband, she endeavors to make him remember her.

Joan is great character, she's fiery and determined and very well-developed. The supporting cast isn't as fleshed out as Joan sadly, but I think if the novel had been a little longer that could've been achieved. The plot grabs you right at the beginning with almost fairy-tale like descriptions of Arcand and its people, and just keeps going. Joan's relationship with Victor is described quite poetically, you as the reader root for them to be reunited. The social commentary contained in the story is quite timely and cleverly done, something this author also did in her previous book. The ending feels a bit abrupt and dissatisfying though, but I think that was the only downside for me.

A wonderfully engrossing read with representation we need more of.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the black and grey image of the woods with the image of the green chair from Victor's dream state; the pink font of the title really pops against this.

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood - Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

Title: Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood
Author: Lisa Damour, Ph.D.
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, Parenting
Started: February 11, 2020
Finished: February 13 2020


In this sane, highly engaging, and informed guide for parents of daughters, Dr. Damour draws on decades of experience and the latest to reveal the seven distinct - and absolutely normal - developmental transitions that turn girls into grownups, including Parting with Childhood, Contending with adult Authority, Entering the Romantic World, and Caring for Herself. Providing realistic scenarios and welcome advice on how to engage daughters in smart, constructive ways, Untangled gives parents a broad framework for understanding their daughters while addressing their most common questions, including:

  • My thirteen-year-old rolls her eyes when I try to talk to her, and only does it more when I get angry at her. How should I respond?
  • Do I tell my daughter that I'm checking her phone?
  • My daughter suffers from test anxiety. What can I do to help her?
  • Where's the line between healthy eating and having an eating disorder?
  • My teenage daughter wants to know why I'm against pot when it's legal in some states. What should I say?
  • My daughter's friend is cutting herself. Do I call the girl's mother to let her know?

Perhaps most important, Untangled helps mothers and fathers understand, connect, and grow with their daughters. When parents know what makes their daughters tick, they can embrace and enjoy the challenge of raising a healthy, happy young woman. 

I've been meaning to read this book for quite a while. Not only do I work with teenage girls every day to the point where it feels like an extension of parenting duties, but I've also got my girls at home. This book has come recommended in a long line of parenting books specifically targeted to the unique needs and concerns of raising girls. The author states that many of the developmental transitions she discusses in her book do apply to both boys and girls, but some of the details differ regarding girls. 

Overall, this is a great general, yet comprehensive guide that covers information that will apply to most girls. Obviously if you're dealing with a child that's experiencing trauma, abuse, mental illness, etc. then this information likely won't address all your concerns, but it's a great place to start. 

One thing I love about books like these are real-life examples and anecdotes that the author has encountered in her practice that puts information in an easily accessible format. The book itself is very easy to read and it could easily be finished in a few sittings or less. 

The developmental transitions the author mentions are the following:
  • Parting with Childhood
  • Joining a New Tribe
  • Harnessing Emotions
  • Contending with Adult Authority
  • Planning for the Future
  • Entering the Romantic World
  • Caring for Herself
Parting with Childhood explains why girls all of a sudden act like they're allergic to their families and abandon many of the things they associate with childhood, while still struggling with maturity and can sometimes seem like they're flip-flopping between child and adult ('cause they are). Joining a New Tribe explains why girls attach themselves so strongly to their friends as opposed to their families, and the difficulties this can cause.

Harnessing Emotions was a really eye-opening chapter in that it explains that emotional growth occurs only when people are uncomfortable, so if a girl doesn't have the opportunity to experience uncomfortable emotions she won't be able to grow in this area. For example, if a parent swoops in to solve her problems so she never develops those coping skills, or if she relies on technology to vent and potentially worsen the situation rather than being able to cool down and see the potential consequences of that text message or that social media post. Contending with Adult Authority is about girls becoming savvy enough to see that people are complex and often hypocritical, so rules need to make sense and be about safety first and foremost rather than about controlling their behaviour, because they'll buck that just to prove they can't be controlled...almost like toddlers. It also explains that if authority figures are too lax girls feel insecure, so they actually want rules and boundaries even if they buck them constantly.

Planning for the Future deals with having goals and ensuring success in school, since girls need one to achieve the other and sometimes need help seeing how one directly influences the other. Entering the Romantic World is about dating and sex and the concerns that come with that relating to keeping girls safe while still allowing them some freedom. Finally, Caring for Herself is about drugs, alcohol, and risky sexual behaviours and again about keeping girls safe when they get too over their head.

Great informative read if you have teenage girls of your own or work with them on a consistent basis. It explains a lot of the things teenagers do that adults often find frustrating that actually end up being quite normal.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's your average parenting book cover.