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Archive for the ‘war through the generations’ Category

the winter guest

Source: Review copy from Harlequin MIRA and the author
Rating: ★★★★★

Mine is not the story of the ghettos and the camps, but of a small village in the hills, a chapel in the darkness of the night.  I should write it down, I suppose.  The younger ones do not remember, and when I am gone there will be no one else.  The history and those who lived it will disappear with the wind.  But I cannot.  It is not that the memories are too painful — I live them over and over each night, a perennial film in my mind.  But I cannot find the words to do justice to the people that lived, and the things that had transpired among us.

(from The Winter Guest, page 11)

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest, may be her best yet.  Set primarily in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, the novel centers on 18-year-old twins, Helena and Ruth Nowak, tasked with raising their three younger siblings after the death of their father and their mother’s removal to a hospital in Kraków.  Although the Nazis have yet to enter their small village of Biekowice, the sisters must contend with constant hunger and worries about how to keep the family together and keep them warm as winter approaches.

Helena is the strong sister, accustomed to long walks in the forest in search of food and to the city to ensure their mother is receiving proper care at the Jewish hospital, the only facility affordable to the family.  Ruth is the gentle sister, who spends all of her time caring for the children and trying to stretch their meager rations.  Despite being close, the burden of the war and having to act as parents to the younger children take a toll on the sisters’ relationship.  Ruth laments her lost love and the likelihood that she will never have a family of her own, and she cares little about what goes on outside of the family and their cottage — even as talk of the Jews in the city being removed from their homes makes its way to the village.  Helena, meanwhile, is more realistic about what’s going on, but her weekly trips to Kraków to visit their mother put her face-to-face with the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, and she soon realizes that keeping your head down does not ensure survival.

When Helena comes across an injured American paratrooper in the forest, she decides to help him, finding him shelter in an abandoned chapel, feeding him from her family’s nearly bare cupboards, and keeping him a secret from Ruth — and not just because of the danger to her family.  With Sam, Helena not only finds love but also a purpose, someone to trust when the war finally hits home.  But increasing friction and jealousy between the sisters threatens their relationship and their lives.

In The Winter Guest, Jenoff brings to life a small Polish village in the midst of war, from the hunger and the cold to the watchful eyes of neighbors who report the most minor infraction in exchange for money or food.  The Nowak twins always felt out of place in their village, and the war and the loss of their parents isolate them even more.  Neither one wants to be left alone with the responsibility of caring for the children, and the differences that were emphasized since their birth push them apart as the years pass.  Jenoff does a great job portraying their complicated relationship and making me understand the motivations of each sister.  There was one moment when I was so angry at one of the sisters that I had to put down the book and vent to my husband for a few minutes.  Generating such an emotional reaction is a sign of a great book, at least in my opinion.  Jenoff brilliantly creates an atmosphere of nervous calm, and I kept feeling like something bad was going to happen at any moment.

Although the epilogue was a bit rushed and devoid of some of the tidbits of information that would have made it more believable, I still loved the book.  Jenoff unflinchingly details the struggles of living in an occupied country, the atrocities committed by the Nazis as they liquidated Jewish neighborhoods, and the danger of ignoring what’s happening in your own backyard.  She deftly balances the excitement of taking action with the horrors and loss inevitable in war, and she makes a story that happened decades ago relevant in the present day.  The Winter Guest is about the bonds between sisters and twins, the destructive nature of secrets, loyalty and betrayal, and the need to preserve wartime stories of courage and resistance before those who know exactly what happened are gone.

war challenge with a twist

Book 17 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 18 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Winter Guest from Harlequin MIRA and the author 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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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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stella bainFor the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist at War Through the Generations, Serena and I will be hosting an August readalong of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve, which is set during World War I.  2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, or the War to End All Wars.

It is 1916, and a woman awakens, wounded, in a field hospital in northern France.  She wears the uniform of a British nurse’s aide but has an American accent.  With no memory of her past or what brought her to this distant war, she knows only that she can drive an ambulance, and that her name is Stella Bain.

As she puts her skills to use, both transporting the wounded from the battlefield and ministering to them in hospital tents, the holes in Stella’s psyche gnaw at the edge of her consciousness.  At last, desperate to find answers, she sets off for London to reconstruct her life.

She is taken in by Dr. August Bridge, a surgeon who becomes fascinated with her case and with the agonizing and inexplicable symptoms that plague her.  Delving into her deeply fractured mind, Bridge seeks to understand what terrible blow could have separated a woman from herself.  Together, they begin to unlock a disturbing history — of deception and thwarted love, violence and betrayal.  But as her memories come racing back, Stella realizes she must embark on a new journey to confront the haunted past of the woman she used to be.

In a sweeping, dramatic narrative that takes us from England to America and back again, Anita Shreve has created an engrossing and wrenching tale about love and the meaning of memory, and about loss and redemption in the wake of a war that devastated an entire generation.  (publisher’s summary)

Here’s the schedule for the discussions on War Through the Generations:

Friday, Aug. 8: pages 1-70

Friday, Aug. 15: pages 71-138

Friday, Aug. 22: pages 139-207

Friday, Aug. 29: pages 208-end

We hope you will read along with us, and even if you’ve already read the book, please feel free to join the discussion!

© 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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