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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

grand central

Source: Review copy from Berkley
Rating: ★★★★★

In those moments when she was alone, her body propped up in bed and a borrowed book she was using to study English on her lap, she saw her mother saying good-bye for the last time through a forced smile, and her father still holding on to her bag for a few more moments.  She didn’t want to look at those horrible photos in the paper and believe her parents could be amongst the piles off bodies or reduced to dark ash.  She wanted instead to look at the family photograph that sat on her nightstand and believe that they were still just as she had left them.  Father in his dark brown overcoat and stylish fedora, and Mother always with something warm and sweet in her hands.

(from “Going Home” by Alyson Richman, Grand Central, page 27)

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion is a collection of 10 short stories that at some point bring readers to Grand Central Terminal in New York City on the same day in September 1945.  The stories are set shortly after the end of World War II, when refugees were creating new lives in America and soldiers were making their way home.  When I saw the list of authors and stories in this collection, I definitely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read it.

  • “Going Home” by Alyson Richman (The Lost Wife)
  • “The Lucky One” by Jenna Blum (Those Who Save Us)
  • “The Branch of Hazel” by Sarah McCoy (The Baker’s Daughter)
  • “The Kissing Room” by Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Sarah Jio (Blackberry Winter)
  • “I’ll Walk Alone” by Erika Robuck (Call Me Zelda)
  • “The Reunion” by Kristina McMorris (Bridge of Scarlet Leaves)
  • “Tin Town” by Amanda Hodgkinson (22 Britannia Road)
  • “Strand of Pearls” by Pam Jenoff (The Kommandant’s Girl)
  • “The Harvest Season” by Karen White (The Time Between)

I don’t usually read short stories because I often feel like they end before the story takes off, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself satisfied by every one of these stories.  I couldn’t put this book down, and while I liked some stories more than others, in the week since I finished it, I still can’t decide which story was my favorite.

These stories are all unique in their subject matter, from a Holocaust survivor trying to get on with his life after losing his wife and daughters to a female pilot struggling with a different sort of grief and guilt, from a woman who dreads her soldier husband’s return to a young girl leaving her home in England to start a new life with her mother and GI husband in America.  Another story follows a young girl who travels alone from Shanghai to New York City to reunite with her father only to learn he’s not the man she thought he was, and Sarah McCoy lets readers know what happened to Hazel from The Baker’s Daughter, who joined the Lebensborn program.

Grand Central seems to perfectly capture the postwar atmosphere in a big city, with the chaos in the train station and the roller coaster of emotions within each character.  The changes in society, especially in regards to women and their romantic relationships and career aspirations, also feature prominently in some of these stories.  I was impressed not only by the character development in these stories but also by the ways in which the characters crossed paths with one another, which emphasizes how well this collection is structured.  If you love novels set during World War II or have loved novels by these authors in the past, you’ll definitely want to get your hands on a copy.

war challenge with a twist

Book 16 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 17 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Grand Central from Berkley for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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war babies

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

We sat outside in a sort of silence.  Everything else made noise — the black birds growled, the trees rattled in a wind that stuttered, then died — while Hilary ran her fingers round and round the moistened rim of the glass we had drunk from.  It screamed despite its thickness and heft, proving its value.  I’d proved mine, I thought, by standing for the toast to the hero my father had helped to betray.  I disproved mine, I thought, by sitting with the hero’s daughter whom I probably would betray.  What I wanted was her history.  What she offered me was all the rest.  I’d taken some of each.  I wanted more.

(from War Babies, page 49)

In War Babies, Frederick Busch emphasizes how war wounds the children of soldiers long into adulthood.  Peter Santore is an American lawyer whose father was jailed for being a traitor during the Korean War.  While in a POW camp, Peter’s father worked with the Peace Fighters Battalion in coercing confessions out of American and English soldiers.  He never really knew his father — why he did what he did, whether he really had converted to the side of the enemy — and he has spent much of his life searching for answers.

Peter thinks Hilary Pennels, a bookstore owner in Salisbury, has the answers he seeks, so he goes to England to track her down and learn how his father played a role in the death of her father, the “hero” lieutenant.  In an oh-so-convenient fashion, Peter finds Hilary almost immediately after he arrives, and the pair right away commence a very weird, very sexual relationship.

Through Hilary, Peter meets a Mr. Fox, who was in the same POW camp as their fathers and has a strange obsession with Hilary; one can’t tell whether he wants to be her lover or her father figure.  Readers learn what happened in the POW camp through Mr. Fox’s bitter, exaggerated, and even romanticized narrative.

War Babies is a short novel, but its disjointed narrative makes it a bit of chore to read.  In fact, if Serena and I hadn’t been reading it for a readalong on War Through the Generations (click here and here for our discussions, beware of spoilers), I doubt I would have finished it.  I couldn’t connect with the characters; they spent most of their time together in bed, the dialogue was just odd, their whole meeting felt contrived, and I felt like I was missing something essential about them.  What I did take away from the story was a sense of pain and loss.  Mr. Fox’s war story speaks for itself, but both Peter and Hilary were wounded in different ways by their fathers, especially Hilary, who doesn’t see her father so much as a hero but as the man who chose not to come home.

War Babies is an intriguing novel, but Busch spends too much time on Peter and Hilary’s “relationship” yet barely scratches the surface of the most interesting (and arguable most complicated) character — Mr. Fox.  It’s probably not a book to pick up if you know very little about the Korean war (like me) or want a more traditional war novel (like me).  However, War Babies is worth giving a try if quirky characters are your thing or you have an interest in character studies dealing with the effects of war.

war challenge with a twist

Book 15 for the War Challenge With a Twist (Korean War)

historical fiction challenge

Book 16 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed War Babies from my local library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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i am regina

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★★☆

“I don’t remember my mother,” I told Quetit.

“You must remember something,” Quetit said.

I closed my eyes and with all my aching heart I tried.  I saw a dark mist and two oxen pulling a wagon away from me.  That was all.  And suddenly, I felt so terribly alone, with nothing to fill the years behind me and nothing to look forward to.

(from I Am Regina, page 153)

I Am Regina is a young adult novel set during the French and Indian War.  It is based on the true story of Regina Leininger, who was kidnapped by Indians in 1755 at the age of 11 and held captive for nearly a decade.  She and her sister, Barbara, witness the murders of their father and older brother, and the pair become the spoils of war.  Separated from her sister, Regina and a little girl she names Sarah are suddenly the property of Tiger Claw, who takes them back to his village and his bitter mother Wolefin.

Regina and Sarah are assimilated into the tribe.  Regina is given the name Tskinnak, or the blackbird, and Sarah becomes Quetit, or little girl.  They are not allowed to use the language of the white man and must learn the Indian ways — from farming to scavenging for food when Tiger Claw leaves for weeks and rarely brings home the promised food and supplies.

Regina’s memories of the song her mother always sang to her, her faith, and her new friendship with Nonschetto, who becomes like a mother to her, keep her alive, but as the years pass, she loses her language, the memories of her old life, her name, and her identity.  Her new life is fraught with hardship — from her tumultuous relationship with Tiger Claw to the war and disease that take their toll on the village.  Even as Regina becomes part of the tribe, she hangs onto the hope that she and Sarah will one day be rescued.

I didn’t know what to expect from I Am Regina, but I know I didn’t expect to become so absorbed in the story.  Keehn is not afraid to focus on the darker aspects of Regina’s time in captivity, which really makes the story come alive and feel authentic.  Telling the story in the first person from Regina’s perspective gives it a sense of immediacy and helps readers imagine themselves in Regina’s shoes.  Most importantly, Keehn enables readers to see the good and evil on both sides — to see the humanity in Regina’s captors and feel compassion for them.

The only thing that kept me from loving this book was the ending, which seemed too rushed and abrupt and kept readers from coming full circle with Regina.  Although there is an afterword that aims to wrap things up and shed light on the real-life events that inspired the story, it just wasn’t satisfying, given that the entire narrative up until that point had so fully grabbed my attention.

Still, I Am Regina exceeded my expectations.  I can’t remember ever having read a novel set during the French and Indian War, so it really piqued my interest in that period.  I think it would be a great novel to cover in school, with engaging, well-developed characters, a real-life heroine, and plenty of topics to discuss.  In fact, check out the readalong chats that Serena and I posted on War Through the Generations here and here (beware of spoilers).

war challenge with a twist

Book 14 for the War Challenge With a Twist (French and Indian War)

historical fiction challenge

Book 15 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed I Am Regina from my local library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the sea garden

Source: Review copy from Harper
Rating: ★★★★★

In some ways they were all the same now.  So many people stumbling around in the dark, just as she was.  All across Europe there were secret roads along which men and women were moving, some towards safety, others farther into darkness.  One false step.  Lives in the balance.  So much unknown.

(from The Sea Garden, page 128)

Deborah Lawrenson’s new novel The Sea Garden beautifully weaves together three stories of love and loss during wartime, with a focus on British intelligence and French resistance activities during World War II.  The novel begins with “The Sea Garden,” a story set in the present on the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles that focuses on British landscape designer Ellie Brooke, who was hired to restore a memorial garden at the Domaine de Fayols.  There is a haunting and mysterious tone to this story, as Ellie learns about the wartime history of the island, which had been occupied by the Germans, and contends with the elderly Madame de Fayols, whose bitterness turns more sinister as her hold on reality loosens.

In “The Lavender Field,” Lawrenson drops readers into Nazi-occupied Provence, where the blind perfume maker Marthe Lincel is forced to choose between fighting for her country or remaining in the dark.  Lawrenson details the fascinating ways in which perfume was used to carry secret messages, blends the beauty of the lavender fields with the horrors of the war, and emphasizes the dangers and the triumphs that went hand-in-hand with Resistance work.  And in “A Shadow Life,” readers follow Iris Nightingale, a British intelligence officer tasked with helping prepare men and women to serve as spies in Occupied France.  Her love affair with a French agent fuels her need to find out exactly what happened to the agents who went missing during the war.

It’s not until the end of the last story that the novel comes full circle, and readers finally understand the confusing events in the first story.  While I had some idea how the pieces would all fit together, it wasn’t entirely predictable, which kept me up reading until the wee hours of the morning.  The Sea Garden is a unique tale full of well developed, intriguing characters, some of whom are based on historical figures, and I appreciated the author’s note at the end where Lawrenson explains her inspiration for the novel.

The Sea Garden brings to life the ordinary people who did extraordinary things during the war, from the young women who proved they could hold their own as secret agents to the farmers who allowed Allied planes to land in their fields.  Lawrenson captures the desperation of wireless operators running from the Gestapo and those who spent years trying to find out why their loved ones disappeared during the war, as well as the blurred lines between hero and traitor.  I found myself lost in this story from the very beginning, with rich descriptions of the various landscapes and plenty of mystery to keep me guessing.  I think this book just might make my Best of 2014 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Sea Garden.  To check out the rest of the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 13 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 14 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Sea Garden from Harper for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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hitler's secret

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

But then, as MacPherson had said, their job was to carry out the mission and not concern themselves with anything else.  Was that right?  How could that be right?  If he thought that way, he would be no different from the Nazis who had taken his family.  They had just been obeying orders, but what they had done was wrong.  Deeply wrong.

(from Hitler’s Secret, page 257)

My daughter always does a fantastic job selecting books for me as gifts, and she hit a home run with Hitler’s Secret, which she bought me for Christmas from the Scholastic book fair at her school.  William Osborne’s novel centers on two teenagers who escaped the Nazis and are safe in England, only to be recruited as spies for the British government in 1941 and tasked with a mission so important, it just might end the war.

Otto fled Germany in 1940 after the Nazis took away his family because his father was a Communist.  Leni is an Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis with her mother and sisters in 1938, leaving behind her father and brothers.  Both immediately agree to help Admiral MacPherson of the Royal Navy despite the dangers involved.  Otto will do anything to leave the boarding school where he is bullied for being German, and Leni takes the mission on behalf of her father and brothers.

They are given new identities and tasked with kidnapping a young girl from a convent, getting her over the Swiss border, and turning her over to the British government.  They have no idea why this child is so important to the Third Reich and how knowledge of her existence could end the war.  Despite being well equipped for the mission, their youth means they are bound to make mistakes.  But they are strong and resourceful and accomplish more than I could have in their situation.  It’s not long before the Nazis are after them in search of the girl.  But Angelika is so important to the Third Reich that Reinhard Heydrich, Lieutenant General of the SS and chief of the Reich Main Security Office, is hunting them down himself.  He is ruthless and has no qualms about killing children.

Otto and Leni are such delightful characters.  Their actions and emotions are exactly as they should be for teenagers, but the troubles they endured because of the Nazis forced them to grow up too soon.  They want to do something to avenge their families, but they didn’t expect to bond with Angelika.  As they pose as a family to make their way to Switzerland, they actually become a family — and when they learn the truth about Angelika and the British government’s plans for her, they are forced to question whether carrying out their orders is really the right thing to do.

Hitler’s Secret is a fantastic novel for young readers and adults alike.  There is a lot of action, suspense, and even some bloody violence, which isn’t overdone and completely fits the story line.  Osborne definitely doesn’t sugarcoat the dangers of the mission, which makes it feel authentic even though it is completely fiction.  (There is an author’s note at the end that separates the fact from the fiction and even explains more about the historical figures who make appearances in the novel.)

I loved so many things about this novel, from the well-developed characters and the sheer excitement of the mission to the fact that it both kept me on the edge of my seat and gave me a lot to think about.  I finished Hitler’s Secret months ago and am just getting around to reviewing it, but the characters and the plot are still fresh in my mind, which to me is the sign of a great book.  I can’t wait to see what book my daughter chooses for me next!

war challenge with a twist

Book 12 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 13 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 5 for the European Reading Challenge (Switzerland)

Disclosure: Hitler’s Secret is from my personal library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the wild dark flowers

Source: Review copy from Berkley
Rating: ★★★★★

He lifted his head and, for a strange moment, he thought that all the way ahead of him was a meadow full of wild dark flowers.  Dark blue streamers, like irises, or reeds at the edge of a river.  And then he realized that it was not flowers at all, but other men — mere sketches of men now in the ground mist — as they swayed and staggered.  Wild dark flowers bending to the ground.

(from The Wild Dark Flowers, page 257)

The Wild Dark Flowers is the second book in the Rutherford Park series.  Elizabeth Cooke returns readers to the estate of Lord William and Lady Octavia Cavendish in 1915, at a time when World War I was ushering in dramatic changes to English society.  Lord William’s heir, Harry, is a pilot in France, and many of their servants have joined up to fight as well.  The youngest Cavendish, Charlotte, keeps up with current events and wants to volunteer at a hospital in London.  Meanwhile, Octavia is lamenting the loss of true love in her life and merely going through the motions as she comes to terms with her decision to remain at William’s side.

Change is happening everywhere, but William is unwilling to accept it.  He turns his head when he sees women filling the jobs of the men who have gone to war.  He thinks Harry should focus on learning to run the estate, whereas Harry believes his place is in France fighting with everyone else.  And he will soon have to come to turns with the blurring of class lines as his daughter Louisa grows closer to Jack, the stable boy with whom she grew up on the estate.

As in Rutherford Park, Cooke details the different experiences of the titled families and those below stairs.  She focuses on Jack and his frustration over the treatment of the horses taken from their farms and forced into military service, and she follows a footman, Harrison, into the trenches.  There’s also a lot going on in the main house, with the housekeeper, Mrs. Jocelyn, and her hatred for Octavia fueling her religious zealousness and harsh treatment of the housemaids.

Cooke packs so much into 341 pages, including the sinking of the Lusitania, the treatment of the horses taken into battle, the changing role of women in society, the rising power of the lower classes, and the fact that the information about the war published in the newspapers was often far from the truth.  However, I never felt overwhelmed or found it difficult to keep track of all the characters.  If anything, the different points of view helped moved the story forward and made it so readable.

The Wild Dark Flowers was a fantastic sequel, and Cooke made me care about characters I didn’t really connect with in the first book.  Where Rutherford Park introduces the characters and sets the stage for the inevitable changes and losses brought about by the war, The Wild Dark Flowers really gets inside the character’s heads, inside the trenches, and inside the sheltered, splintering lives of people holding onto the past.  So much happened in this book that I can’t wait to see where Cooke takes these characters in the next installment.

war challenge with a twist

Book 11 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 12 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Wild Dark Flowers from Berkley for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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for such a time

Source: Review copy from Bethany House
Rating: ★★★★★

Home . . . Leaving behind the lofty slopes to descend the mountains into Czechoslovakia, Stella looked out at the patchwork swells of white amidst evergreens that swept past the car.  She was reminded of the quilt she’d made, a surprise birthday gift for her uncle.  That was before the Nazis destroyed it along with the rest of their possessions — before they took Morty away.

Lord, why don’t you hear me?  Why have you taken away my joy?

Anger battled her exhaustion with the drowsing lull of the car’s motion.  Home was a place that, even if she lived, would never be the same.

(from For Such a Time, page 27)

Kate Breslin’s debut novel, For Such a Time, is a retelling of the biblical story of Esther set in Czechoslovakia during World War II.  It is the story of 23-year-old Hadassah Benjamin, whose blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to pass as an Aryan, Stella Muller, until an encounter with the Gestapo lands her in Dachau.  Rather than be shot by the firing squad, she is whisked away to Theresienstadt by SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt to serve as his secretary.

From the very beginning, Stella and Aric’s relationship is complex.  He is a Nazi, but new to the SS, having served as a Wehrmacht officer until an injury ended his career on the front lines.  He is drawn to Stella and vows to protect her, but his conscience and sense of duty are in constant battle — especially when Stella urges him to help the weak, starving, bedraggled prisoners in the ghetto.  Aric isn’t aware of Stella’s true identity, but she sees the compassion he has for his houseboy, Joseph, an orphan from the ghetto whom Stella treats like a son.  He also goes out of his way to protect her from the lecherous, scheming Captain Hermann.

Their relationship seems doomed from the start, especially when Stella learns that the “paradise ghetto” is a transit camp and that the prisoners await further horrors at Auschwitz, and Aric is tasked with making the camp look like a resort to fool the Red Cross delegation that is soon to arrive.  With danger coming from all directions, Stella and Aric must keep faith in God and each other in order to survive.  But survival isn’t good enough for Stella unless her people can be saved, too.

I think novelists take a risk when they write about the Holocaust.  How do they convey the hopelessness, the horror, the evil, and the magnitude of the Holocaust and, at the same time, approach it from a new angle?  How do they rewrite a part of history and fictionalize the events without dishonoring those who lived it?  In For Such a Time, Breslin changes timelines and facts in order to mirror the events in the biblical story of Esther.  For the most part, I think she was successful.  Breslin does a wonderful job capturing the conflicting emotions and actions of the main characters, and her descriptions of the squalid conditions in the ghetto and the horrible way its inhabitants were treated are believable.  At times I thought Aric and Stella’s romance was a bit overdone, but Breslin enabled me to know and understand them enough that I could believe it.

However, I struggled with how to rate this novel based on the believability of the plot.  I appreciated the author’s note at the end where Breslin clearly separates the fact from the fiction, but in this case, it’s mostly fiction.  But I reminded myself that it is a novel, after all, and a page-turner at that.  Life has been so busy and stressful these last several months, and it’s been hard finding the time and energy to read.  For Such a Time was the first book in a long time that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to read, and for that alone it deserves 5 stars.  It was an enjoyable novel (or as enjoyable as a novel about the Holocaust can be), and it read like a thriller toward the end.  I just got lost in the story and followed the characters through times of despair, hope, bravery, sorrow, and joy.  Even if I couldn’t believe the outcome, I wanted to, and I applaud Breslin for taking a chance and telling a story about hardship and courage, love and faith, and a fight for freedom.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the For Such a Time tour.  To check out the rest of the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 10 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 11 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 4 for the European Reading Challenge (Czechoslovakia)

Disclosure: I received For Such a Time from Bethany House for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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