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Archive for the ‘WWI’ Category

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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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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after the war is over

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

Charlotte’s thoughts were never far from Edward. The brother and friend they loved, the man who had been returned to them, but whose soul, she feared, still walked among the dead, the millions of dead, who haunted the battlefields and charnel houses of Flanders and France.

(from After the War Is Over)

Quick summary: After the War Is Over is the sequel to Somewhere in France, which focused on Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford (Lilly), who turned her back on her family’s wealth and status to become an ambulance driver in France during the Great War. Jennifer Robson’s latest novel tells the story of Lilly’s close friend and former governess, Charlotte Brown, an Oxford educated woman who works in the constituency office of Eleanor Rathbone in Liverpool. Charlotte’s story focuses on her desire to speak for the families left hungry and homeless after the war due to their inability to find work and her need to overcome her feelings for Lilly’s brother, Edward, who has just assumed his role as Earl of Cumberland following his father’s death. The novel takes readers back in time to the beginning of her relationship with Edward and her work during the war as a nurse at a hospital for officers with shell shock. Charlotte is the only one who can help Edward, who is still suffering the effects of the war, and she must do so knowing that class differences will forever keep them apart.

Why I wanted to read it: Somewhere in France made the list of best books I read in 2014, so I just had to continue the story. There will be a third book as well, according to the author interview at the back of the book, and I can’t wait!

What I liked: I absolutely adore Robson’s writing, which is infused with so much emotion and detail without being flowery, so readers really get a sense of what England was like in the year after the armistice. World War I ushered in so many changes in terms of gender and social class, and Charlotte embodies these. She works hard to put her education to use in a meaningful job, but that same education makes some of the people who come to her office wary of accepting her help. At the same time, she is merely a vicar’s daughter from Somerset and not high enough up the social ladder to be a suitable wife for the man she loves. Robson perfectly captures the discontent among the working class and the lingering effects of the war. I also was glad to catch up with Lilly and Robbie, the main characters of the first book, and was delighted to encounter some references to Jane Austen within these pages.

What I disliked: Nothing! I loved this book from start to finish, and I nearly read the whole thing in one sitting.

Final thoughts: After the War Is Over is a powerful novel about a country recovering from a devastating war, as seen through the eyes of a woman ahead of her time. It’s more than just a romance novel and more than just a novel about war. Robson emphasizes the struggles faced by women as they sought more for themselves than just a husband and family, but most of all, she writes about the hope people like Charlotte possessed amid so much loss and grief and change. Like Charlotte says to Edward, “There’s no use feeling sorry for yourself or fretting about the past. You need to make the most of the life that has been given to you.” This may be only the third book I’ve read so far this year, but it’s definitely a contender for my Best of 2015 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for After the War Is Over. To learn more about the book and follow the tour, click here.

Disclosure: I received After the War Is Over from William Morrow 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 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 wild dark flowers

Source: Review copy from Berkley
Rating: ★★★★★

He lifted his head and, for a strange moment, he thought that all the way ahead of him was a meadow full of wild dark flowers.  Dark blue streamers, like irises, or reeds at the edge of a river.  And then he realized that it was not flowers at all, but other men — mere sketches of men now in the ground mist — as they swayed and staggered.  Wild dark flowers bending to the ground.

(from The Wild Dark Flowers, page 257)

The Wild Dark Flowers is the second book in the Rutherford Park series.  Elizabeth Cooke returns readers to the estate of Lord William and Lady Octavia Cavendish in 1915, at a time when World War I was ushering in dramatic changes to English society.  Lord William’s heir, Harry, is a pilot in France, and many of their servants have joined up to fight as well.  The youngest Cavendish, Charlotte, keeps up with current events and wants to volunteer at a hospital in London.  Meanwhile, Octavia is lamenting the loss of true love in her life and merely going through the motions as she comes to terms with her decision to remain at William’s side.

Change is happening everywhere, but William is unwilling to accept it.  He turns his head when he sees women filling the jobs of the men who have gone to war.  He thinks Harry should focus on learning to run the estate, whereas Harry believes his place is in France fighting with everyone else.  And he will soon have to come to turns with the blurring of class lines as his daughter Louisa grows closer to Jack, the stable boy with whom she grew up on the estate.

As in Rutherford Park, Cooke details the different experiences of the titled families and those below stairs.  She focuses on Jack and his frustration over the treatment of the horses taken from their farms and forced into military service, and she follows a footman, Harrison, into the trenches.  There’s also a lot going on in the main house, with the housekeeper, Mrs. Jocelyn, and her hatred for Octavia fueling her religious zealousness and harsh treatment of the housemaids.

Cooke packs so much into 341 pages, including the sinking of the Lusitania, the treatment of the horses taken into battle, the changing role of women in society, the rising power of the lower classes, and the fact that the information about the war published in the newspapers was often far from the truth.  However, I never felt overwhelmed or found it difficult to keep track of all the characters.  If anything, the different points of view helped moved the story forward and made it so readable.

The Wild Dark Flowers was a fantastic sequel, and Cooke made me care about characters I didn’t really connect with in the first book.  Where Rutherford Park introduces the characters and sets the stage for the inevitable changes and losses brought about by the war, The Wild Dark Flowers really gets inside the character’s heads, inside the trenches, and inside the sheltered, splintering lives of people holding onto the past.  So much happened in this book that I can’t wait to see where Cooke takes these characters in the next installment.

war challenge with a twist

Book 11 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 12 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Wild Dark Flowers 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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a star for mrs. blake

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

They walked through the park and continued along Boulevard Saint Michel, the words freely bubbling out, about how Sammy had joined the army after his grandfather died, the prayer she repeated several times a day while he was overseas, neighbors who helped with the farm work, the shameful wish that somewhere along the line she’d had another baby.  The writer listened, the notebook filled up, and Cora could feel something lift, as if she’d tossed that thorny secret over her shoulder, left it to the pond and the flower beds and the bittersweet afternoon light.

(from A Star for Mrs. Blake)

A Star for Mrs. Blake is a novel about the thousands of American woman who traveled to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Verdun, France, in the 1930s to visit the graves of their sons and daughters who died during World War I.  Set in 1931, the novel focuses on a handful of women from different walks of life who were brought together in their grief.  April Smith centers her novel on Cora Blake, a librarian and cannery worker in Deer Isle, Maine, whose son, Sammy, enlisted after lying about his age and died toward the end of the war.  She is tasked with coordinating the other mothers in her party for the trip to France.

Smith shows how these women came together as friends but also how the differences in race and social class caused friction.  She shifts back and forth between the points of view of the Gold Star Mothers and even gives readers a glimpse of the massive military operation behind the tours by including the viewpoints of the army officer and the nurse that accompanied the women to France.  Arranging the travel and accommodations for thousands of women at a time as they made their way to New York City, then to Paris, then to Verdun was a massive undertaking, and as Smith shows, things didn’t always go smoothly.  The differences in accommodations based on race are highlighted, with the white Gold Star Mothers given the best rooms, food, and service and the black Gold Star Mothers — despite making the same sacrifice and suffering the same intense grief — given dormitory/cafeteria-like service.

A Star for Mrs. Blake is a well-written novel about a little known aspect of history, and Smith’s storytelling is fantastic.  I really got a sense of who these women were, the differences in their circumstances, and the intensity of their grief.  Smith covers so much ground, from the mothers’ back stories to their shared journey to the graves and the battlefield, from the soldiers who survived with deformities and both hid behind and were able to live because of facial masks to the new generation of soldiers slowly marching toward the next world war.

This is a slow-building, character-driven novel.  It’s not until the half-way point in the novel that the women make their way to Verdun, and even though the slow pace meant I read this book more slowly, the more thoughtful, reflective prose matches the journey the mothers take.  Once the women arrive in France, the book picks up steam, as their faith in the government their sons served is tested and tragedy strikes.  A Star for Mrs. Blake is fascinating look at a government program in which 6,693 women traveled to France over a period of three years and powerful story about the bonds between mothers and their children and the long-lasting impact of war.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the tour for A Star for Mrs. Blake. To follow the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 4 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 5 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received A Star for Mrs. Blake from Knopf 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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somewhere in france

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

Lilly had been fearful, too, but had done her best to hide it when Edward had said good-bye.  He, and all his friends, seemed to regard the war as a great lark.  To them it was a blessed chance to do, to act, to be forged by the crucible of war into better men.  An improbable notion, Lilly was sure, though she could understand its appeal.  What had any of them actually done with their lives thus far, despite the riches and privileges heaped upon them?

(from Somewhere in France, page 21)

Somewhere in France is a beautifully crafted novel set during the Great War that emphasizes the horrors of the trenches without actually taking readers inside them and the changing roles of women as a result of war.  Jennifer Robson focuses her debut novel on Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, a young woman from an aristocratic family who is suffocating under her mother’s expectations that she marry well.  Lilly has longed to pursue an education, travel the world, and put in an honest day’s work, and when Britain is swept up in the chaos of World War I, she hopes to finally have the chance to prove herself.

Lilly is out of touch with the larger world due to her sheltered upbringing, but she is a strong woman with enough faith in herself and enough courage to walk away from the security afforded by her life as Lady Elizabeth.  She moves to London, living on toast and tea and the meager salary she earns as a bus conductress.  She might not have had the strength to pursue her independence had it not been for Robbie Fraser, her brother’s best friend, whom she has loved since she was a child.

With her brother, Edward, and Robbie’s encouragement, Lilly eventually becomes an ambulance driver and is sent to France, where Robbie is stationed as a surgeon.  When Lilly arrives in France, she is no longer just the girl he dreams about but can never have, given her mother’s disapproval of his social status.  Their relationship strengthens as Lilly witnesses first-hand the gruesome tragedies Robbie couldn’t put into words for her before, and it is torn apart by the fear and danger of living in a battle zone.

The narrative alternates between the points of view of both Lilly and Robbie, giving readers a glimpse into how their vastly different upbringings shaped their personalities.  Robbie didn’t like to focus on how he overcame his impoverished childhood, while Lilly shed her life as Lady Elizabeth because she didn’t want any special treatment.  By letting readers get to know Edward as well, Robson emphasizes the different coping strategies used to survive amidst so much hell.

Somewhere in France is at its core a wartime romance, but it is so much more than that.  Robson brings to life the battles at home and abroad and shines a light on the women who got their hands dirty and put their lives on the line for the war effort.  Robson keeps the narrative off the actual battlefield, but the descriptions of the ambulance runs and the casualty clearing stations are just as powerful as stories told from the trenches.  Once I started this novel, I couldn’t stop and read its nearly 400 pages in one sitting.  I fell in love with the characters and was captivated by the atmosphere Robson created, and while I haven’t read too many World War I novels, Somewhere in France ranks among the best I’ve read so far.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the Somewhere in France tour. To follow the tour, click here.

war challenge with a twist

Book 3 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWI)

historical fiction challenge

Book 3 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Somewhere in France from William Morrow 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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