The power of books

There are only eight books in her library. Dita protects every last one of them with her life. Prisoners are forbidden to have books. To be caught with a book is an instant death sentence. The SS guards will send you to the gas chambers. Or worse, they will send you to Dr. Mengele’s experimentation block.

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe is based on the true story of Dita Kraus, a 14-year-old Auschwitz prisoner. The few books in her library are tattered, ripped and worn. They are used to teach children in a secret school in Block 31, the family block. It is one of the few places in the camp where there are young children. Those who come to the camp who are deemed unfit for labour (mostly children, the elderly and pregnant women) are sent to the gas chambers. Block 31 is a propaganda tool. It exists to give outsiders the impression that life at Auschwitz is ordinary.

Although it involves difficult subject matter, The Librarian of Auschwitz is not a dark story. It is a story of life and hope. The secret school created by the prisoners in Block 31 serves to go beyond simple teaching: it serves to create a sense of normalcy for the children, to prevent them from giving into despair, to show them that life goes on and to give them hope for better days.

As the librarian, Dita keeps track of which books were lent to which teacher. She collects the books after school and returns them to their secret compartment. At night, she mends their worn out spines with thread and glue smuggled in from the working block. To expand her library, Dita invents the idea of a living library, where adults recite stories and events to the children from memory.

As time goes on and conditions in the camp worsen, Dita draws strength and assurance from her library. The books allow her to forget, even if it’s just momentarily, the terrible place where she’s living.

“A book is like a trap door that leads to a secret attic: you can open it and go inside. And your world is different.”

As a library assistant, I’m always in awe over the power books can hold. The books Dita had were mildew stained and broken but they gave her the ability to transport her mind to somewhere far from the nightmare of Auschwitz. Something as simple as an atlas gave a group of children the chance to see all the major cities and countries on the earth. A history book allowed them to learn about civilizations of the past. They gave hope to a group of people who would otherwise have none. For me, The Librarian of Auschwitz really enforced the importance of libraries. They are so much more than just a collection of books – they open doors to the past and let you dream of the future. Ultimately, they change lives. In Dita’s case, they saved lives.

-Lesley L.

 

The cost of perfection

Kara is intelligent. Kara is flawless. Kara is a fraud.

Teenager Kara has chased perfection since she was a child. Her test scores are always the highest. Her freestyle swimming is always the fastest. Her achievements earned her the nickname “Perfect Kara.”

Her parents have great expectations. They want her to graduate high school with honours and attend Stanford. They want her to follow in their footsteps of academic success. They see her as a tool to be programmed rather than a person with feelings and dreams of her own.

“Pushing yourself is the only way to get better,” her mother warns her. And so Kara does push herself. She pushes until she begins to crack. Anxiety begins to gnaw away at her. She becomes isolated, shutting out her friends.  Her anxiety comes to a head when she faints during the SATs.

What I liked best about Pushing Perfect is how it illustrates that anxiety is a serious problem and not just a phase or a mood. Everyone experiences anxiety now and again, but for some it can be a crippling condition. Panic attacks can often be shrugged off as teenage drama – just something people orchestrate to get attention. But panic attacks are a valid and frightening reality for some. What Kara experiences during her SATs is not uncommon.

The second part of the book is much different than the first. The plot switches gears into a fast paced, suspenseful story. No longer able to control her anxiety, Kara wants to try medication but her parents refuse to give their permission for a prescription.  Kara makes a decision to purchase illegal pills from a dealer instead. Later that weekend she receives a text from a blocked sender, along with pictures of her buying pills. The sender wants some favours in exchange for silence.  Kara soon finds herself giving into the perpetrators demands.

As the story develops, Kara discovers she’s not the only one being blackmailed. Academics, athletes, theatre majors – the perpetrator has trapped students from all corners of the school. A series of clues are left open to the reader – who is the real architect of this scheme? Who is lying and who is the real fraudster?

Pushing Perfect is an action based book that is strongly character driven.  It’s a great read for those who crave a fast-paced plot but also enjoy a strong lead character.

-Lesley L.

 

 

The hidden wolves

Wolves are wild. Wolves are sly. Wolves are elusive. Most wolves are never seen.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is told from the perspective of an adult Linda, trying to make sense of the decisions she made in her youth. In the first chapter we learn that a four-year-old boy named Paul has died and his parents are on trial. It is clear that Linda has a connection to Paul. The remainder of the book flips from present to past giving us clues and details to how Paul came to be part of Linda’s life.

Her teenage years take place in rural Minnesota, miles away from civilization. The setting paints a picture of cold and solitude, much like Linda’s life. She lives in a neglected and derelict cabin, left over from the ruins of a now disbanded commune.  Ignored by her parents, Linda is left to raise herself.

At school she is called ‘commie’ or ‘freak.’ She sits on the outside of things, a permanent spectator, never quite fitting in.

Her isolation is lifted one spring when she meets young Paul and his mother Patra. Linda is offered the job of watching Paul during the day. Patra suggests she adopt the title of ‘governess’ instead of babysitter or nanny, symbolizing her new role within their family. Nurturing does not come easily to Linda. At times Paul irritates her and she struggles to bond with him. But her desire to belong is overwhelming. Paul and Patra offer her an intimacy that she has long desired.

Unfortunately, there are wolves hiding among this seemingly perfect life. Indeed, there are wolves hidden throughout entire the book.

History of Wolves leaves so much to be unraveled; it will be a popular choice for book clubs. Emily Fridlund is a master at creating both descriptive metaphors and themes that cycle through the story. Self awareness is at the core of the book, as is loneliness. It opens up many questions to be answered – who is the real wolf in the story?

History of Wolves was long listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Midwest Booksellers Choice Awards.

-Lesley L.

Life after The Walking Dead

Fans of The Walking Dead will have to wait many long months for the conclusion of Season 8. So far this season, we’ve seen more bullets, explosions and bodies than all the other seasons combined. While waiting to see what Rick’s next move will be in his all out war against the Saviors, I checked out the dystopian teen novel Enclave.

Enclave is the first book in the Razorland trilogy by Ann Aguirre. I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover this trilogy but once I started, I was hooked. I read Enclave in one day. I checked out the other books, Outpost and Horde, immediately afterwards and had a lot of late nights.

Similarly to The Walking Dead, civilization in Enclave has collapsed. People scrounge on the remains of a once thriving culture to survive. Also like The Walking Dead, the world is plagued by twisted creatures that prey on the living. Only in Enclave, the creatures are not mindless zombies. ‘Freaks,’ as they are referred to in the book, possess an intelligence that evolves with every generation.

The story’s main character, Deuce, reminds me of a young Michonne. Strong, fierce and skilled with a blade, Deuce is a huntress trained to keep her people safe from freaks that roam near their territory. So far, her clan has survived by living in underground tunnels. However, as the freaks grow smarter, they are able to organize and even strategize their attacks. Deuce finds herself forced to flee above ground into a world she’s never seen. Sunlight, trees and buildings are all foreign to her but she must adapt to this new place in order to carry on.

In the second book, Outpost, Deuce has joined a group of villagers above ground. They are a devout group of people that adhere to a traditional way of living. Deuce does not fit in. She was once a revered warrior, but now she is an outcast, someone to be avoided. Meanwhile, the threat of freaks has risen above ground and is amassing at an alarming rate.

In the final book, Horde, the freaks have evolved to have near human intelligence. Their numbers are enormous, obliterating entire settlements and leaving no survivors. They are no longer looking for food, they are looking for vengeance. Deuce finds herself in a leadership role for the first time. The last few chapters had me clutching my comforter – at least Rick’s crew never had to deal with intelligent walkers.

The Razorland trilogy is fast paced and plot driven – you will have no problem getting through this series, although you will probably lose a lot of sleep.

-Lesley L.

A story for all ages

The Hate You Give is classified as Young Adult but it is a story for all ages, not only for it’s theme but for its timeliness. Starr Carter is a black teen whose parents, a nurse and an ex-con store owner, have decided that she and her step-brother Seven need to go to a ‘white’ school’ in order to escape the perceived hopelessness of education offered in their home district. Being the only black girl at her school, she learns at an early age how to be black in a white world, meaning black enough to be cool but not black enough to generate racial tension.

The story begins with Starr and her long-time friend Khalil running out of a neighbourhood party after shots have been fired. Khalil offers to drive Starr home but en route, the unimaginable happens. Their car is stopped by a white police officer who ends up shooting and mortally wounding Khalil.

As the news goes viral, Starr’s neighbourhood erupts. Starr’s identity as the witness to the shooting is not made public due to concerns for her safety and consequently, she must deal with the horror of what she has experienced mostly alone. Her school friends have no concept of what she has experienced and her friends from home are caught up in the protests for justice to be served.

Agonizingly, Starr is faced with the decision of going public and telling the real story of what happened, thereby putting herself and her family at risk, or allowing the police and the media to portray the cop as a hero and her best friend as a drug dealer who brought this on himself.

The backdrop of this narrative is the gang culture that runs rampant in Starr’s neighbourhood and the death grip that the King Lords have on everyone. Sadly, Starr’s step-brother is the son of King, the ruthless leader of the gang, and Seven’s loyalty to his mother and sisters is tested by the violence that permeates all aspects of their lives.

And yet in spite of the violence and hatred, a thread of love and loyalty permeates throughout the family and the neighbourhood, both large and small, bringing the reader the slightest hope that this madness will soon end.

-Nancy C.