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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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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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