In a prequel to Saving Zasha (2011), Barrow provides a mildly harrowing depiction of life in Russia during World War II.
Speaking in a plausible first-person voice, 12-year-old Ivan, a talented concertina player, begins the war living in Leningrad. Conditions swiftly deteriorate as the Germans both bomb and lay siege to the city. After his mother is sent to work in a distant factory, Ivan escapes across a frozen lake with Auntie, his wise elderly neighbor. In swift succession he joins the partisans, then deliberately—planning to work as a spy—attracts the attention of a sadistic Nazi, Maj. Axel, who keeps him in his headquarters to provide musical diversion. Axel owns a pair of German shepherd puppies that he's planning to brutalize into becoming virtual bloodhounds, hoping to use them to track down Russians. Ivan is determined to steal the dogs; surprisingly, he convinces the partisans to help. Parts of this tale are remarkably suspenseful, especially the escape across the frozen lake and Ivan’s scheming at the German headquarters as he puts his plan into place. At other times, especially near the conclusion, the effects of the war become muted, lessening both the impact and the believability of the story.
This effort will especially appeal to readers of Saving Zasha, but those who enjoy historical fiction will also find it to be an engaging read. (Historical fiction. 10-14)