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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

a berlin story

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

The women of Berlin were all different now. Not one of them were untouched. They were skins separated from their souls. The women they had been before the Red Army entered Berlin’s city limits and before Hitler had shot himself in the head were all dead even if their lungs still took in air and their hearts were still beating wildly against the inside of their tortured bodies.

(from A Berlin Story)

Quick summary: A Berlin Story is the first novella in Tiffani Burnett-Velez’s Embers of War series set in the days immediately after the end of World War II. The novella follows Annalise Bergen, a 19-year-old pulled out of hiding by a group of Red Army soldiers and chained to a wardrobe for two weeks after they began raping their way through the city. Annalise, whose mother was a Russian dancer, has a hard time comprehending that these monsters are from her mother’s homeland, yet she also believes that the Germans are getting what they deserve for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. After being saved by a Ukranian officer, Annalise tries to make a new life for herself, living in the remains of her family’s apartment building and spending the day hauling rubble in buckets for the little bit of food provided by the Americans. She catches the eye of a friendly American private, Aaron, and begins to hope for better days to come, but those hopes are dashed by the tensions between the Soviets and the Americans and the ultimate division of the city.

Why I wanted to read it: I was in the mood for something short, and I’ve long been drawn to stories about Berlin in the aftermath of the war because of the stories my mother has told me about her aunt, who unfortunately was a victim of rape when the Soviets entered the city.

What I liked: Burnett-Velez deftly paints a portrait of Berlin as a city of battered, starving, hopeless people. I couldn’t help but admire Annalise because she refused to give up despite knowing that her experiences would haunt her forever and that she would never be able discuss them. From my vantage point as the reader, I wanted to yell at her to stop when she left the American tent for displaced persons or walked the streets at night, but I could understand her motivations for those decisions. Despite being such a short work, there were several times I had to put it down because the scenes were too difficult to process, such as when Annalise is forced to take clothes off a woman who had been shot to death in the street along with her baby. As much as I wanted to turn away, Burnett-Velez made the ruins of Berlin come to life, and that is what makes this novella so fantastic.

What I disliked: There were a few grammatical errors in the text and some instances where the third-person narrative shifted to first person for a moment, which seemed more of an editorial issue and not intentional. These issues didn’t prevent me from liking the novella, but I might have given it a 5-star rating had it been a bit more polished. There’s also a cliffhanger ending, but the pages leading up to the ending were exciting, so I guess what I really dislike is that the next installment isn’t yet available and I am dying to know what happens next!

Final thoughts: A Berlin Story is short but powerful and deep. It is full of contrasts, from the differences in how the Soviets and the Americans treated the Germans to the differences between the horrors Annalise endured for two weeks at the hands of the Soviets and the horrors her roommate Rebecca endured for years in a Nazis concentration camp. There are glimpses of humanity in the midst of inhumanity, and it is sure to make readers ponder the idea of blame, whether German civilians deserved harsh treatment for the actions of the Nazis and, in particular, whether a teenage girl should feel like she deserved to be raped by the conquering soldiers as punishment for the atrocities committed by her country. I didn’t expect to be blown away by this novella, but now I can’t wait to find out what happens next in Annalise’s story.

Disclosure: A Berlin Story is from my personal library.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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even in darkness

Source: Review copy from PR by the Book
Rating: ★★★★★

At the bottom of the canvas, a woman clutching her baby appeared to stare straight out at her, and Kläre thought she could hear her ask, “How must I save them?”  An answer flew to Kläre from a place of deep knowing.

“With a strong heart,” she said quietly.

(from Even in Darkness)

Quick summary: Even in Darkness is a novel that spans the world wars and beyond, focusing on Kläre Kohler, a Jewish woman living in Germany in a time of turmoil.  Barbara Stark-Nemon brings to life the story of her great aunt, portraying a strong woman who lives a life filled with hardship and loss but finds love in a most unexpected way.  From a German village with memories of a happier time to the horrors of Theresienstadt to a flourishing kibbutz in Israel, Stark-Nemon takes readers on a journey marked by deep grief but also hope, love, and peace.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m drawn to novels set during the world wars, and I was intrigued by Kläre’s story, more so when I learned the novel was based on a true story.

What I liked: Even in Darkness is a beautifully written novel centered on a strong woman. Kläre is such a complex character, a woman who loves fiercely and completely, a woman who goes to extraordinary lengths to keep her family safe. She marries Jakob despite his serious manner, and while her passion is directed toward someone else, Kläre tenderly cares for him as the tremors related to a gas attack during World War I worsen over the years. She knows she must get her children out of Germany despite the pain of separation. She reaches out to her best friend’s stepson, who is isolated from his family, and she protects her frail mother after their deportation. She even uses her training in massage from her work during the first war to keep her alive in the second. Time and again I was amazed by her strength and her courage and fascinated by her story.

What I disliked: That there wasn’t a tissue in sight when I needed one!

Final thoughts: Even in Darkness is a novel that shows both the best and worst of humanity, and in showing how Kläre rebuilt the broken pieces of her life after World War II, Stark-Nemon shows how hope and love won in the end.  Love is at the core of this novel, in all its forms, and the fact that Kläre felt that emotion and so strongly after all she endured is remarkable and inspirational.  I felt so connected to Kläre and invested in her story that I wasn’t ready for it to end, though the final lines of the novel are true gems.

Disclosure: I received Even in Darkness from PR by the Book for review.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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hummingbirds in winter

Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★☆☆

For Solansky, it was a new beginning that started with one great sweep of an arpeggio spanning several octaves and then several smaller arpeggios falling part way back down the keyboard. It was as if for every great step forward, Solansky had to endure several tumbles back downward, but that was just the beginning. There would be other great sweeps forward, again and again.

(from Hummingbirds in Winter, page 78)

Quick summary: Hummingbirds in Winter is a novel about composer Ben Solansky and his determination to save himself and his family — his wife, Ilonia, a soprano, and their children, David, a musician, and Lily, an artist — from the Nazis. Solansky manages to get his family out of Poland before the Nazi invasion, and author Anna Franco chronicles the family’s movements from country to country in a quest to get to New York. Franco details the lengths Solansky is willing to go to keep his family safe and the musical pieces he composes during the war, particularly the ones that bring to life America’s involvement in the war, both in Europe and the Pacific. The novel also follows the Resistance activities of people the Solanskys meet in Denmark and Brussels, providing a variety of wartime perspectives.

Why I wanted to read it: I can’t resist novels about escapes set during World War II.

What I liked: Hummingbirds in Winter shines in Franco’s descriptions of Solansky’s musical compositions, and I enjoyed how I could almost hear the pieces while I read about them, which is saying a lot because I know so little about classical music. It was a quick read, and I was intrigued by the characters and their stories.

What I disliked: The narrative lacks description, aside from the musical aspects of the story, and feels like the narrator simply tells readers what has happened. While I found the story readable and interesting, the characters and the various scenes could have been fleshed out more. Huge events that were important to the plot and the evolution of the characters were described in just a few paragraphs, which prevented the scenes and the characters from really coming to life. I was able to understand the characters and their motivations, but I just couldn’t connect with them.

Final thoughts: Hummingbirds in Winter is a novel about perseverance and making the best of any circumstance. The Solanskys gave up successful careers and left all of their belongings behind in an effort to survive persecution (and worse) at the hands of the Nazis, and they started over, settled into a routine, then uprooted themselves over and over again in order to stay alive. But Ben and his family kept living and creating, never taking their eyes off the prize. Although I would have preferred a fuller, more descriptive narrative and an emotional connection with the characters, the fast pace and intriguing characters enabled me to enjoy the novel overall.

Disclosure: I received Hummingbirds in Winter from the author for review.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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stella bain

Source: Personal library
Rating ★★★★☆

Publisher’s summary: 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.

My thoughts: I really liked how Shreve focuses on the experiences of women during World War I and acknowledges that they might not have been in the trenches but still put their lives on the line and suffered the consequences.  By telling the story from Stella’s point of view when she has no memory, readers see how the war took its toll on her, and through her drawings, Shreve emphasizes the complexity of memory.  The novel is about more than the war and shell shock; it is about the difficulties women faced when they sought independence from the confines of marriage and home.  I might have loved this book, but the ending was a bit flat, though satisfying overall.

Disclosure: Stella Bain is from my personal library.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I’m going to finish this week in blogging by FINALLY posting reviews of two books I read last summer.  These books have been staring me down for months, but I just haven’t been motivated to blog about them.  Well, I figured it was time for me to share a few thoughts on them so I can finally put them away.  Stay tuned for the second mini-review on Friday.  Also, I may not be around much for the next month or so, as I’m busy with some freelance editing projects.  I can’t wait to tell you all about the books I’ve been editing!  Anyway, on to today’s mini-review:

once we were brothers

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Publisher’s summary: Elliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist, is attending a fund-raiser when he is suddenly accosted by Ben Solomon and accused of being a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek, the Butcher of Zamość.  Although the charges are denounced, his accuser is convinced he is right and engages attorney Catherine Lockhart to bring Rosenzweig to justice.  Solomon reveals that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon’s own family, only to betray them during the Nazi occupation.  But has Solomon accused the right man?

Once We Were Brothers is the compelling tale of two boys and a family who fight to survive in war-torn Poland, and a young love that struggles to endure the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust.  Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for a moving and powerful tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.

My thoughts: I had such mixed feelings about this book.  The narrative set during World War II was very interesting, as was the quest in the present to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice.  However, I had some issues with the structure of the narrative.  Despite all the time constraints on the legal side, Ben insists on telling the story in chronological order, and with Catherine always cutting him short, it seemed to drag it out longer than necessary.  And the author would insert information/statistics about the Holocaust into the dialogue, which was unnecessary and felt forced.  I also felt it was unnecessary to focus on Catherine’s life outside of the case; I didn’t find her to be very interesting.  I liked the book overall, but it could have been a great book if it had been structured differently, without Catherine’s story and without all the shifts from past to present.

Disclosure: Once We Were Brothers is from my personal library.

© 2015 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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omphalos

Source: Review copy from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: ★★★★☆

“If we accept that history belongs to the dead, then we will always be its slaves. If we write history ourselves, with all its complications and its ambiguities, then we take ownership of it, we accept responsibility.”

(from Omphalos)

Quick summary: Omphalos is an ambitious historical novel by Mark Patton that connects several stories from different time periods to an ancient mound and chapel on the island of Jersey, La Hougue Bie. The novel opens with the story of Al Cohen, an American visiting Jersey to learn about his biological father, a German officer whose letters while stationed on Jersey and in a POW camp in Wales are featured. Patton also tells the stories of a female spy who fled to Jersey from revolutionary France, a Catholic priest and his secretary on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1517, a knight on a pilgrimage of pennance in 1160, and a sorceress in 4,000 B.C.

Why I wanted to read it: I was intrigued by the idea of several stories from different time periods being connected, and of course, I was especially curious about the story set during World War II.

What I liked: Once I got a handle on all the characters, I enjoyed watching their stories unfold and discovering their connections. I also enjoyed reading about so many different time periods in a single novel. Most of all, I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, where Patton separates the facts from the fiction and lists resources for further reading.

What I disliked: There are a lot of characters and story lines, so at times, it was hard to keep it all straight in my head. However, it helped that Patton gave titles to each of these stories and separated them by chapter.

Final thoughts: Omphalos is a fascinating look at thousands of years of history and the connections between events and people over time. The novel covers a lot of ground, from the Nazi occupation of Jersey and espionage during the French Revolution to religious pilgrimages and ancient epic journeys, and is sure to get readers thinking about their family history, as well as their connections to certain places and how generations of people have been there before them.

Thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for having me on the tour for Omphalos. To learn more about the book and the author and to follow the tour, click the banner below.

omphalos tour

war challenge with a twist

Book 31 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 29 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Omphalos from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours 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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going after cacciato

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

“The point is that war is war no matter how it is perceived.  War has its own reality.  War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows.  These are the things of war.  Any war.”

(from Going After Cacciato, page 197)

Quick summary: Going After Cacciato, winner of the 1979 National Book Award, is one of the most unique war novels I’ve ever read. Tim O’Brien tells the story of a soldier during the Vietnam War who simply decides to leave the war and walk from the jungle all the way to Paris. The novel is told through the point of view of Paul Berlin, one of the soldiers who sets off on the mission to find Cacciato. O’Brien plays with the novel’s timeline, so readers alternate between following Paul Berlin on the journey to fetch Cacciato, going back in time to when Paul Berlin first joined the war and witnessing the horrifying things he saw during those months before Cacciato left the war, and moving forward in time to an observation post on the sea as Paul Berlin spends the long night contemplating what happened with Cacciato.

Why I wanted to read it: I’m a huge fan of Tim O’Brien. His writing is fantastic and thought-provoking. The Things They Carried is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d let Going After Cacciato sit unread on my shelf for too long.

What I liked: I thought the shifts back and forth in time were clever, allowing the layers of detail about the various soldiers and the mission from Quang Ngai to Paris to be pulled back one by one. I also enjoyed the element of fantasy in this novel and how O’Brien kept me guessing about the events of the story until the very end. His writing always packs a punch, with vivid imagery that makes you feel like you are wading through the paddies or sweating through the jungles or marching the dusty trails alongside the characters. He manages to balance weighty discussions about war and its purpose with the reality of what the soldiers endured on a daily basis.

What I disliked: At first, the time shifts were jarring, but after a few chapters, I understood the structure of the novel and was immersed in the story. This definitely is a novel where readers just have to go with the flow and hang on for the ride without knowing what to expect.

Final thoughts: While I didn’t love Going After Cacciato as much as The Things They Carried, I am able to appreciate it as a brilliant war novel. O’Brien explores the blurred boundaries between true and fictional war stories in The Things They Carried, and in Going After Cacciato, he focuses on the line between reality and fantasy. Reading about what these soldiers endured makes it easy to believe that they would want to simply walk away from it all. Going After Cacciato focuses on the evolution of a soldier, the lessons he learns over time, the fear he fights to control, and the coping mechanisms that become necessary to simply survive another day.

war challenge with a twist

Book 30 for the War Challenge With a Twist (Vietnam)

historical fiction challenge

Book 28 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: Going After Cacciato 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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