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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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Source: Review copy from MIRA
Rating: ★★★★★

I try to move forward again. My toes are numb now, legs leaden. Each step into the sharp wind grows harder. The snow turns to icy sleet, forming a layer on us. The world around us has turned strangely gray at the edges. The child’s eyes are closed, and he is resigned to the fate that has always been his.

(from The Orphan’s Tale)

I’ve long been a fan of Pam Jenoff’s World War II fiction, and her latest novel, The Orphan’s Tale, is among her best. The story is told alternately through the eyes of Noa, a 16-year-old Dutch girl whose relationship with a Nazi soldier leaves her pregnant and alone, and Astrid, an aerialist whose search for her family leads her to Herr Neuhoff, whose circus competed with her family’s and who takes her in when she is forced to flee Berlin. Their paths converge when Noa, stumbling upon a boxcar crammed with Jewish infants, takes a boy who reminds her of her lost child and runs off into a winter storm, where she is found by Peter, a circus clown and Astrid’s lover.

To protect the child, Noa is given the opportunity to train with Astrid on the flying trapeze. She has only a matter of weeks to perfect the act and soon finds herself acclimated to the circus lifestyle, much to the chagrin of Astrid, who has trained since she was a child and views the young girl as a rival. The women each have secrets, but they manage to bond over them and their love for Theo. But as the war comes to a head and the days of the traveling circus seem to be numbered, their futures become increasingly uncertain and their loyalty to one another is put to the ultimate test.

The Orphan’s Tale is the kind of novel that is both impossible and necessary to put down. It’s not often that I cry at the beginning of a book, but the opening scene with the boxcar of infants broke my heart, even more so when I realized it was based in fact. There were so many times that the book took a toll on my emotions. I wanted to keep reading because I needed to know what happened next, but I had to take a moment here and there to process what had occurred. I was unaware of the stories of hidden Jews in the traveling circus, so that aspect of the novel was fascinating, as were the descriptions of the circus acts and lifestyle. I especially loved how Jenoff used the first person point of view and alternated the chapters between Noa and Astrid, allowing me to understand and bond with both characters.

When Noa and Astrid were flying through the air, it was almost possible to forget that the war was going on around them, but Jenoff does a great job ensuring that readers feel the undercurrent of danger at every turn, from the surprise inspections of the circus by the SS to repeated warnings not to perform politically charged routines. Although the war is at the center of the novel, so are the themes of love, friendship, and sacrifice. The book hit me hard at a few poignant spots, and all the ugly crying I did emphasizes Jenoff’s ability to tell a powerful story. The Orphan’s Tale a strong contender for my Best of 2017 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to participate in the tour for The Orphan’s Tale. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received The Orphan’s Tale from MIRA for review.

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wwii-2017After a year hiatus, Serena and I are back to host the 2017 World War II Reading Challenge on War Through the Generations. Because our schedules are still extremely busy, we’re making it a stress-free challenge: no participation levels, read as little or as much as you want, and we’ll have an end-of-challenge giveaway.  More details on the challenge and how to link your reviews can be found here. Also, stay tuned for information on the three World War II readalongs we will be hosting at War Through the Generations in March, June, and September. We hope you’ll join us!

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hidden halos

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

Sophia had always heard her grandmother express confusion over how so many people could fall prey to something so radical as Nazism. Indeed, from an outsider’s point of view, it did seem unthinkable. Being in the midst of such indoctrination, however, Sophia had begun to understand how some had come to believe it, how some wanted to believe it. Even being a foreigner who did not agree with Nazism in the slightest, Sophia could not deny the chill of patriotism in the broadcasts.

(from Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos)

[Please note that this book is the fourth in a series set during World War II.  It is not a standalone book, and while my review will not contain spoilers for the fourth book, there could be spoilers from the earlier books.  Check out my reviews of book one, Sophia’s War: The End of Innocence, book two, Sophia’s War: Lies and Allies, and book three, Sophia’s War: Stalemate]

Quick summary:  Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos opens in November 1940. Sophia is still living in her deceased great aunt’s home in Germany, having assumed Marelda’s identity so she can continue running the library Marelda worked so hard to build. Sophia’s relationship with her cousin, Diedrich, is still strained, and he continues to spend weeks working in Berlin while she remains at home alone. She has cut ties with Adrian — the Wehrmacht war photographer whose friendship was increasingly becoming more — because of Diedrich, and when she finds it too painful to be so close to Adrian without being able to really be with him, she thinks it might be time for her to finally go back home to Virginia. The fact that the villagers have too much on their minds in the midst of the war to visit the library gives her an excuse to leave — never mind the fact that Diedrich wants her gone. And if being an American living in Nazi Germany under an assumed identity wasn’t dangerous enough, Sophia’s new reason for staying could be deadly.

Why I wanted to read it: I enjoyed the previous books in the series, so I can’t stop now!

What I liked: It’s obvious that Stephanie Baumgartner has done extensive research about life in Nazi Germany, and it has enabled her to show how life in a small German village changed (in big ways and in so many small ones as well) during the course of the war. With Sophia being an outsider, she has a different perspective on Nazism, which enables her to see things that the Germans may not and keeps her at arm’s length from the Nazi ideology. I like that Sophia is a bit innocent and impulsive, but she is also strong and firm in her Christian beliefs, which means she cannot just sit around and watch when the Nazis’ talk finally becomes action. I still can’t figure out Diedrich, with his moments of tenderness before he turns cold again, and that adds a layer of mystery to the novels.

What I disliked: I think Sophie’s War: Hidden Halos is a solid addition to the series, but it is a bit quieter than the other volumes. However, I think that’s important as this installment is more of a turning point for Sophia, where she needs to take stock of her options and ultimately take some kind of action. There isn’t a lot of back story in these novels, so it’s a good thing that readers now have the opportunity to read them all at once.

Final thoughts: The decision Sophia makes in Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos is an important one, and it seems like the next books will really take things up a notch. I have all but the last book in the series on my side table waiting to be read, and while I can’t wait to see what happens next, it’s a series that I want to savor. I’m enjoying watching Sophia’s character evolve as life in Nazi Germany takes a more sinister turn, and I like that I have no idea how Sophia is going to fare as the war begins to take a bigger toll on Germany. Baumgartner does a great job effecting a satisfying ending while making readers want to immediately crack open the next book.

Disclosure: I received Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos 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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port of no return

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

Her dishevelled state alarmed Contessa, but she could well understand it. She curled an arm around her friend and sat and wished that life were not so cruel, even though they knew it was, and worse, that there was nothing they could do about it. They sat, without speaking, grappling with the loss. They were beyond denial and so, with acceptance, came a slow torturous sorrow.

(from Port of No Return)

Quick summary: Port of No Return opens in 1944 and follows Ettore and Contessa Saforo, who are managing the best they can to care for their children in German-occupied Fiume, Italy. Their town is close to the border with Yugoslavia, and when the Germans lose control of Fiume, Ettore is forced to flee to the hills to escape the Yugoslav Partisans, who are hunting down anyone who worked for the Germans. Meanwhile, Contessa must get her mother and young children out of Fiume and hope that her husband will meet them. The novel details the struggles of the thousands of Italians displaced following World War II and the atrocities committed by the partisans.

Why I wanted to read it: I’d never read about Tito and the Yugoslav Army and never heard of the foibe massacres, so I was intrigued.

What I liked: According to the acknowledgements, Michelle Saftich interviewed her father and other Italians who were displaced due to the war, and this shows in her painstaking attention to detail. I could picture the displaced persons camps — the grief, the hunger, the despair, and even the hope. There was a sizable cast of characters, encompassing not only the Saforo family but also the friends they made along the way, yet I felt like I got to know them all. Saftich provides enough historical information so that someone unfamiliar with the details of the politics can easily follow the story, and those details are skillfully woven into the narrative.

What I disliked: The children’s dialogue often seemed a bit too mature for their ages, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. The timeline seemed to be in chronological order, but toward the end, the timeline moved forward and then back a bit, which was somewhat jarring. However, the dates and locations are indicated at the beginning of each chapter, so that made it less confusing.

Final thoughts: Port of No Return is a heartfelt story of family, love, and survival. Saftich’s characters are believable and likable, and their experiences make readers ponder the meaning of home when there is no physical home left. It is difficult to grasp all that these families, especially the children, endured, but Port of No Return shines a light on the experiences of thousands of people, acknowledging not only their struggles but also their resourcefulness, their courage, and their belief that a new life was on the horizon.

Thanks to Italy Book Tours for having me on the tour for Port of No Return. To learn more about the book, connect with the author, and follow the rest of the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received Port of No Return 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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the race for paris

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

None of our reasons for going to war made sense, and yet they all did.

(from The Race for Paris)

Quick summary: Meg Waite Clayton’s latest novel, The Race for Paris, is set in 1944 as the Allies invade France during World War II. The novel centers on Liv, an Associated Press photographer determined to be one of the first to capture the liberation of Paris, and Jane, a journalist for the Nashville Banner, who accompanies her. Facing blatant sexism, the two go AWOL and accompanied by Fletcher, a British military photographer, head straight for the front and Paris, forced to consider their pasts, their wartime losses, and their ambitions as they seek to make and document history.

Why I wanted to read it: I’d never read about female journalists or photojournalists during the Second World War.

What I liked: I loved this novel from start to finish. It was every bit as exciting as the description, and Clayton really made me feel like I was right alongside Jane, Liv, and Fletcher throughout the action. The quotes from real-life journalists and photographers, both male and female, at the beginning of each chapter show exactly what Jane and Liv were up against — and that Clayton clearly did her homework to make this novel as authentic as possible. I loved that the characters were likable and so human in their vulnerability, saying and doing things they probably wouldn’t have if death hadn’t been lurking in every turn and shadow.

What I disliked: Absolutely nothing!

Final thoughts: The Race for Paris provides a different look at war from the eyes of those who understood the importance of documenting the truth, even if their photos were blurred and their sentences cut by censors. Clayton realistically portrays the challenges faced by women who didn’t want to sit still during the fighting, the dangers faced by the journalists and photographers following and oftentimes riding alongside the soldiers, how women throughout history have made important contributions, and the risks they took in order to do so. The Race for Paris is among the best books I’ve read this year and one I know I will not soon forget.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for The Race for Paris!

Disclosure: I received The Race for Paris from Harper 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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jars of hope

Source: Review copy from IWPR Group
Rating: ★★★★☆

Irena thought of something her father had told her.  “If you see someone drowning,” he had said, “you must jump in and save them, whether you can swim or not.”

“The children are hurting the most,” she decided.  “I have to give them a helping hand.”

(from Jars of Hope)

Quick summary: Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaust is a children’s picture book written by Jennifer Roy and illustrated by Meg Owenson that tells the story of Irena Sendler, a social worker in Poland during World War II who helped smuggle around 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Roy explains how Sendler helped the children escape, how she saved the lists of their names, and how she survived the war herself.

Why I wanted to read it: Several years ago, my daughter and I watched the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, and of course, we were fascinated by her story.  I’m also a fan of Roy’s since reading Yellow Star, her Aunt Sylvia’s Holocaust survival story, and meeting both Roy and her aunt at a book festival a few years ago.

What I liked: I applaud Roy for introducing Sendler to young readers and emphasizing how ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the face of evil.  The book is age-appropriate, showing the danger Sendler and the Jewish families faced without going into much detail.  Owenson’s illustrations are detailed and vibrant, using color to denote the warmth of family and the cold and desolation Sendler faced in prison.  I appreciated the author’s notes at the end that briefly wrap up Sendler’s story and explain Roy’s inspiration for the book.

JarsofHopebyJenniferRoyinterior10

Jars of Hope, page 10 (Capstone Young Readers)

What I disliked: The book only scratches the surface of Sendler’s story and makes it difficult for readers to feel connected to Sendler, but that is understandable given that it is short and intended for young children.

Final thoughts: Jars of Hope is a beautiful story of courage, love, hope, daring, and survival.  To think that one women had a hand in saving thousands of children during the Holocaust is inspirational and still brings people hope decades later.  It is important to remember people like Irena Sendler, who selflessly gave all they had, sometimes even their lives, to do what was right.  It also is important that children are introduced to these unsung heroes, and Jars of Hope is a book for parents and children to read and discuss together.

Disclosure: I received Jars of Hope from IWPR Group 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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