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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

Source: Cedar Forge Press
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Robbie reached across and touched my arm. When he didn’t draw his hand back, I told him about my frights. “Maybe,” he said, “we all practice our dying, in different ways, at different times, but there’s no way to avoid the thought. Write it if you can.”

(from The Belle of Two Arbors)

The Belle of Two Arbors is a sweeping historical novel that takes readers on a journey between Glen Arbor and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and sometimes beyond, from 1913 to 1978. The book is presented as a memoir of the fictional poet Martha “Belle” Peebles, whose entire collection of poems, or “songs,” are found in a trunk, along with the memoir, after her death. The novel chronicles Belle’s life, from her mother’s tragic death when she was 14 until the end of her life and beyond.

Belle’s mother was a fan of Emily Dickinson and encouraged Belle to write. Although devoted to her younger brother, Pip, and her Papa, Belle decides to leave Glen Arbor to attend college in Ann Arbor, where her lifelong friendship with Robert Frost begins. Her friendships with Robbie, Ted Roethke, and Wystan Auden enrich her life and inspire her work, and they share their poems and letters over the span of many years. Dimond chronicles Belle’s work, her role as a caregiver, her complicated love life, her desire to preserve the natural habitat in Glen Arbor and expand the family’s stove works, her battle with sexism in academia, and more.

The Belle of Two Arbors is an ambitious novel that was just a bit too long for me at nearly 700 pages. Dimond’s prose is great, and Grimes’ poems (Belle’s poems for the purpose of the novel) are well done, but it felt like there were a lot of scenes and details that, though well written, just did not further the plot.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the novel overall because of Belle. What a fantastic heroine! She was brave, strong-willed, ahead of her time, a pillar of strength among her friends and family, a source of encouragement and love. She had dreams and figured out ways to achieve them. She managed the ups and downs of love without being overly romantic or dramatic. Her interactions with historical figures were fascinating. If it weren’t for the extraneous details that hindered the flow in certain places, I would have loved this novel, but even so, I think it is worth giving a try for Belle alone.

Check out The Belle of Two Arbors on Goodreads and Amazon, and click the banner above for more details about the book and to follow the blog tour.

Disclosure: I received The Belle of Two Arbors from Cedar Forge Press for review.

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Source: Review copy from HarperCollins
Rating: ★★★★★

For here, in this battered and stubbornly beautiful city, where death and destruction fell from the skies night after night, she had finally found a home. Here was the one place in the world where she truly belonged. And that alone, she decided, was reason enough for thanksgiving.

(from Goodnight from London)

I really enjoyed Jennifer Robson’s trilogy set around the Great War (check out my reviews of Somewhere in FranceAfter the War Is Over, and Moonlight Over Paris), so when I saw that her next book was set during World War II, I knew I had to read it — and I was not disappointed! Goodnight from London is the story of American journalist Ruby Sutton, who arrives in London in 1940 to cover human interest stories for Picture Weekly. She left behind a lonely life in New York to pursue her career, and she soon comes into her own with the help of her new friends, editor Kaz, photographer Mary, and the secretive Captain Bennett.

Ruby believes she will bring an outsider’s perspective to her stories, which are being sent back to her New York weekly as “Dispatches from London,” but it’s not long before London feels like a real home to her. She endures the Blitz along with everyone else, finding comfort in Londoners’ ability to “keep on keeping on” even after they’ve lost everything but their lives. Robson follows Ruby over the course of the war as she finds love and friendship and matures as a writer and a person, forcing herself forward even as the war and her past catch up to her and threaten her newfound happiness.

I loved Goodnight from London, especially its plucky heroine, Ruby (who was inspired by Robson’s grandmother), and her determination to make something of herself no matter what. Robson has created a strong supporting cast of characters as well, especially in the sweet but mysterious Bennett and his charming godmother, Vanessa. Robson beautifully sets the scene of London during the Blitz, making readers feel like they are truly accompanying Ruby as she seeks out the good in the midst of so much destruction and is brave enough to move closer to the action in order to understand the importance of sacrifice, not only by the soldiers, doctors, and nurses but the everyday person as well.

Robson is a true storyteller, whose passion for her subject matter shines through in every page of the novel. If I hadn’t been so busy and distracted lately, I likely would’ve devoured this book in one sitting. Goodnight from London is an emotional tale for sure, and while I enjoyed the romantic aspects of the story, I’m glad Robson kept Ruby, her courage and determination, and her wartime experiences at the forefront. Definitely a contender for my Best of 2017 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for Goodnight from London. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received Goodnight from London from HarperCollins for review.

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Serena and I are hosting a readalong in June for the 2017 WWII Reading Challenge on War Through the Generations. Even if you are not participating in the challenge (and even if you’ve already read the book), we encourage you to join us for our group discussions of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. The discussions will be posted on War Through the Generations each Monday, from June 12-July 3.

For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

Here is the read-a-long schedule, with discussions here on each Monday.

  • June 12: Discussion of Prologue – Chapter 15
  • June 19: Discussion of Chapters 16-29
  • June 26: Discussion of Chapters 30-45
  • July 3: Discussion of Chapters 46 – End

We look forward to reading what sounds to be a fantastic book, and hope you will join us!

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

“Father needs me at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”

(from All the Light We Cannot See)

Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is set during World War II and alternately tells the stories of two teenagers caught up in the confusion and chaos of war. The novel follows Marie-Laure from her days as a young girl accompanying her father to the museum where he worked in Paris to her life in the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where she lives with her great uncle. Meanwhile, readers watch Werner as he grows up in an orphanage in a mining town in Germany with his younger sister, where his love of learning takes him on a journey from fixing and building radios to attending a school for the Hitler Youth to designing and using systems to weed out the resistance.

The novel opens in 1944 as the Americans drop incendiary bombs on Saint-Malo, forcing both 16-year-old Marie-Laure and 18-year-old Werner to separately fight to survive. Doerr takes readers back and forth in time, gradually peeling back the layers of each story and making readers anxious to see how they will converge. There is so much depth to this novel, from the legend of the Sea of Flames to the mini-cities Marie-Laure’s father painstakingly creates to help her navigate the world after she loses her sight, from the haunting voice of the French professor that Werner’s first radio picks up to the brutal lessons he learns as he joins the military to achieve his dreams and avoid a bleak future in the mines.

Doerr’s prose is beautiful and haunting as he portrays two characters who are thrust into impossible situations, alone, at such a young age. It was both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Marie-Laure and Werner navigate their strengths and weaknesses amid so much terror and helplessness and evolve from those experiences. I was able to connect with both characters at various points in their journeys and feel their emotional turmoil, knowing that, given the setting and time period, the ending would be bittersweet at best. All the Light We Cannot See is a strong contender for my year-end roundup of the best books I read this year.

Serena and I hosted a six-part readalong of the book at War Through the Generations. Here are the links if you’d like to read and/or participate in a more in-depth discussion of the book, but beware of spoilers: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, and Week 6.

Disclosure: All the Light We Cannot See is from my personal library.

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

If they remained unmarried after their father died, they’d all be at the mercy of their stern uncle and eventually become a burden to their cousin Nevzat. Visualizing herself as an old joyless spinster like her aunt Afet never failed to depress Perihan. Surely she and Melike deserved better.

(from House of Daughters)

In House of Daughters, Engin Ingel Holmstrom bring Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Turkey in the 1920s. The Ottoman Empire is nearing an end, and the Turkish people are growing restless under the British occupation following World War I. Women like Perihan Emin are seeking more than an isolated existence under the watchful eyes of their male relatives. Perihan meets Major Murat while serving as a nurse in Istanbul. She had fallen in love with him during his hospital stay, but her pride was hurt when his aunt — who grew up in the Sultan’s palace — insults her position in society. Perihan is forced to confront her unresolved feelings for Murat when she learns that he is working with her cousin Nevzat as they conspire against the occupying nations.

House of Daughters is similar to Austen’s novel in several respects. There is, of course, the attraction and misunderstandings between Perihan and Murat, our Elizabeth and Darcy. Perihan is one of five sisters in need of husbands, and young, single men are scarce due to the war. Each of Perihan’s sisters is similar to their corresponding Bennet sister, and Perihan is similar to Elizabeth in her outspoken and modern ways. I enjoyed watching Perihan come to terms with her feelings for Murat while embracing the new role for women in the new republic.

Overall, I found the novel enjoyable, especially in noting where it parallels Austen’s and in seeing how well Austen’s characters translated from Regency England to Ottoman Turkey. However, what kept me from loving the novel was the detached writing style. There was more telling than showing, which prevented me from really connecting to the characters and feeling their attachment to one another. For instance, when readers first meet Murat, he and Perihan have already met and had their misunderstanding at the hospital, which is simply retold in a couple of pages. I also am not familiar with the historical events depicted here, so I would have appreciated more details and explanations woven into the narrative.

Nevertheless, I felt like I had a good grasp on what all the upheaval meant for women at the time, and I enjoyed watching Perihan and Murat navigate the changes, both in their personal lives and in a larger context. I never would have imagined a Pride and Prejudice variation set in 1920s Turkey, so that alone made it a worthwhile read!

Disclosure: I received House of Daughters from Lavidge for review.

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Source: Review copy from William Morrow
Rating: ★★★★★

Once you knew–really knew–of the women and children being shot in the woods, of the shower rooms constructed for the sole purpose of killing, how could you not act? But now, here was the obvious reason she had repressed: the cost. If the plan failed, all that she cherished would be lost.

(from The Women in the Castle)

After her husband and best friend are executed for their roles in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, Marianne von Lingenfels acts on her promise to protect the wives and children of their fellow resisters. In 1945, Germany is in shambles, and the Nazi atrocities are being brought to light, forcing ordinary Germans to acknowledge their nation’s defeat and guilt. Amid the ruins, Marianne is able to find her best friend Connie’s family — his wife, Benita, a victim of the Red Army’s occupation of Berlin, and six-year-old son, Martin, who was sent to a Nazi re-education home after the failed plot. She eventually finds Ania and her two sons at a displaced persons camp, and along with her own children, Marianne establishes a new family with these women in the crumbing Bavarian castle that belonged to her aristocratic husband’s family.

Marianne is the leader, focused on honoring the memory of her husband and his co-conspirators and ensuring that the women and children understand exactly what their husbands and fathers died for. Benita, naive peasant girl, was sheltered from her husband’s work in the resistance, which makes her more determined to break free from the past and try to find happiness in the years after the war — a desire that puts her at odds with Marianne’s need to record the history of the German resistance. Ania is quiet and capable, becoming the caretaker of the women in terms of food and necessities, but her secrets eventually catch up to her.

The Women in the Castle is among the best World War II novels I’ve read and definitely will have a place on my Best of 2017 list. Jessica Shattuck uses these women, with their different upbringings and experiences before, during, and immediately after the war, to explore what it means to resist, how to rebuild their country and their lives amid a sense of hopelessness and guilt, and how to balance the need to remember the past and be held accountable for their actions with the need to live again. Shattuck paints a complex portrait of women with admirable strengths and deplorable weaknesses.

The novel moves back and forth in time, adding layer upon layer to each of the women’s stories, unraveling their secrets and surprising readers along the way. I grew attached to these women and found at least some small way to connect to them, which made it easier to understand their reasoning for — but not condone — the choices they made in a tumultuous period in history.

The Women in the Castle is a novel that makes you really stop and think. How does one live with the choices they made during wartime, whether to follow orders and commit atrocities, resist, or ignore the evidence of their nation’s crimes? Is it possible, should it even be possible, to move forward without the weight of these crimes, or their failure to do what was right, hanging over them? When is it okay to say it’s time to stop living in the past and move on?

Shattuck follows these women over decades as they forge new bonds and new lives, are forced to acknowledge their actions and inaction, and realize the war follows them in everything they do. It’s a fascinating study of human nature and the will to survive, both the war and its repercussions. If you plan to read at least one World War II novel this year, I highly recommend The Women in the Castle.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Women in the Castle. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Women in the Castle from William Morrow for review.

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Source: Review copy from Crown
Rating: ★★★★★

Everything was black in the moonless night, the blackout rules forcing all the light out of the world. But with a cautious smile, I realized that there are no laws against singing, and I found my voice becoming louder, in defiance of this war.

In defiance of my right to be heard.

(from The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir)

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an impressive World War II homefront novel set in 1940 in the village of Chilbury in Kent, England. Jennifer Ryan tells the story in journal entries and letters from the points of view of Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a woman left alone with her thoughts after her only son goes off to war; Miss Edwina Paltry, the village midwife who takes on shady jobs for the right price as a means of atoning for her past mistakes; Kitty Winthrop, the 13-year-old daughter of the menacing Brigadier who longs to be a singer and is waiting for the dashing RAF pilot Henry to marry her someday; Venetia Winthrop, Kitty’s older sister who uses her beauty to her advantage and sets her sights on a mysterious artist; and Sylvie, a 10-year-old Jewish refugee living with the Winthrops who holds tightly to a secret.

The novel opens with a funeral and a note from the vicar indicating that the village choir will be disbanded now that all the male members have gone to war. However, under the guidance of the new choirmistress, Prim, the women of the village form the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, using their voices to both lift up and comfort each other and their fellow villagers during the chaos of war. The women of the choir forge new friendships, uncover secrets, fall in and out of love, and find strength in themselves and each other as the war begins to take its toll.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, but I was immediately intrigued by these women and the life of the village. Some of the women were resistant to the changes brought about by the war, while others viewed the absence of the men as an opportunity to take charge, see the needs that must be fulfilled, and move forward. Where the novel shines is in Ryan’s ability to give each of the women a distinct voice and show their evolution within their diaries and letters. Although some of the plot lines may have been a bit overly dramatic or far-fetched, Ryan made them work, and I was swept up in the gossip and the rivalries of the inhabitants of Chilbury.

I really enjoyed The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, especially for Ryan’s skill in painting a portrait of a society in flux. Even when the bombs begin to fall and the losses begin to pile up, the narrative never gets too heavy and is never devoid of hope. I couldn’t help but love these women and root for them despite their flaws and misguided actions. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a quick and pleasant read, and I found myself wishing there was another installment that showed how these women fared in the latter years of the war.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to participate in the tour for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir from Crown for review.

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