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Books in Brief: A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi; Strongheart, Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen by Candace Fleming

YOUNG ADULT

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi; Philomel, 276 pages ($17.99) Ages 12 and up.
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From foreign correspondent and award-winning journalist Atia Abawi comes a shattering, heart-rending, page-turner of a novel of the Syrian refugee crisis through the journey of a Syrian teenager named Tareq.

With swift, sure strokes, in just a few pages, Abawi paints a vivid portrait of a loving family, of gentle Tareq, his devoted parents, his five younger siblings and the close bond they enjoyed until a barrel bomb hits their apartment building in the summer of 2015. A grieving Tareq, his four-year-old sister Susan and their father Fayed set out on a desperate journey first to Turkey, then Tareq and his sister on their own on a perilous voyage aboard a rubber dinghy to Greece.

The tale is narrated in the haunting, wordly-wise voice of Destiny, who places the disaster of Syria in the context of the bloody wreckage of human history and man’s inhumanity to man: “Yours is a group that is easy to read, yet difficult to comprehend... It is the growing divide between the mind and heart that I find so dangerous for your kind. Your new innovations don’t help you to feel love as often as they contribute to spreading hate.”

Abawi, whose parents fled Afghanistan shortly before she was born, has reported on war and international crises in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and elsewhere, and her research for this powerful novel included interviews with refugees and aid workers and a visit to the life jacket cemetery on the Greek island of Lesvos. Her reporter’s background comes to play in effectively relaying, in abbreviated form, the complicated story of how the chaos evolved in Syria, the terror posed by Daesh fighters and pro-Assad civilian militias, the destruction of Syria’s architectural gems, the shattering of normal life, the deaths of friends and relatives, the “permanent goodbyes” to all that is familiar.

A fellow refugee is a victim of rape, there is an abduction, Tareq witnesses an execution on the street. But Abawi mutes the horror for young readers somewhat, as she includes on the first page a quote from Mr. Rogers, describing how his mother would console him when he saw scary things on the news, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

The reader meets terrible people (Daesh killers, an Instanbul restaurant owner who cheats Tareq of his wages, smugglers who charge exorbitant prices and provide fake life jackets, men who prey on vulnerable female refugees, locals who are hostile to refugees) but there are"helpers" as well, including an American college student named Alexia who came to Greece for vacation and ended up volunteering to help the refugees. As Tareq’s journey comes to an end, Destiny notes: “There are millions of Tareqs, Susans and Fayeds, all in search of safety and kindness.” Everyone should read this book.

CHILDREN'S

Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann; Schwartz & Wade Books, 256 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.

This appealing romp of a book, based on the true story of a canine star of 1920s silent movies, comes from the versatile Candace Fleming, author of many acclaimed nonfiction books and picture books for young readers, and its kid-friendly format includes a minimum of words on each page and lots of expressive drawings by illustrator Eric Rohmann. There's a fun cinematic quality to Fleming's narrative, as she writes of movie director Larry Trimble and screenwriter Jane Murfin traveling to Germany in search of a dog to star in the pictures – and finding Etzel, a fierce German Shepherd trained as a police dog. Dog-lovers will appreciate the story of Trimble's patience in winning the dog's trust and the play-by-play of how the director coaxed winning performances from a dog who turned out to be a natural-born actor. Strongheart's story is fascinating, as is the timeperiod of 1920s Hollywood and the early years of movies. The drama of the courtroom scene is a bit overdone, but Fleming's informative afterword notes that an extortion attempt was made by a couple who accused Strongheart of attacking their six-year-old daughter.  Fleming includes a bibliography, photos of Strongheart and links for watching Strongheart on YouTube. (Only one of the dog's films, "The Return of Boston Blackie," has survived for posterity.)

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