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Archive for the ‘WWII’ Category

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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all the light we cannot seeSerena and I are hosting a readalong in March 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 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The discussions will be posted on War Through the Generations each Friday through April 7, with our first discussion coming this Friday, March 3.

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

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

  • Discussion of Sections Zero and One on Friday, March 3
  • Discussion of Sections Two and Three on Friday, March 10
  • Discussion of Sections Four and Five on Friday, March 17
  • Discussion of Sections Six and Seven on Friday, March 24
  • Discussion of Sections Eight and Nine on Friday, March 31
  • Discussion of Final Sections on Friday, April 7

I have already completed the first sections and like what I’ve read so far, so I’m looking forward to continuing the book, and I really hope some of you will join us for a thoughtful discussion!

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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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heirlooms

Source: Review copy from Caitlin Hamilton Marketing
Rating: ★★★★☆

In the last light, the fields outside gleam. She must finish her letter, so she can post it at the next station. There is much she cannot write her parents and her sister Allegra about: not the round-ups in Paris, for instance, not her new awareness of the gradations and varieties of fear — one that numbs, another that makes her sharp and quick, certainly not Alain’s and Jean’s involvement with the Resistance.

(from Heirlooms)

Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms is a collection of interconnected short stories that takes readers to France, Israel, and the United States during and after World War II, following a single family as it navigates the fear, devastation, and loss of war and the evils of the Holocaust. The collection opens with Lise going to her sister-in-law’s deathbed, secretly pleased at the prospect of raising her niece, Eugenie, as her own. Then Lise and Eugenie, escape Saint-Malo to avoid having to register as Jews, and thus begins the family’s journey from place to place, leaving behind their lives, their belongings every time they are forced to flee.

Each story stands on its own, but putting them into a single volume makes for a richer, more profound tale that spans generations. Hall brings to life such interesting characters — from Simone, a woman in the Resistance who dares to dream of a future after the war, to Magda, a Holocaust survivor who takes great pains to hide the numbers on her arm — and it was fascinating to see how they were connected to the Latour family. The stories also touch on the immigrant experience, with Eugenie becoming “Genny,” and the ways in which a family’s history is passed on.

The story “Heirlooms” was particularly touching and reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in listing the things the family had lost to the war, from furniture and businesses to their language and their loved ones, and how secrets and desires cannot be left behind.

“Sometimes,” Lise will say, “I find myself wondering where something is–an owl brooch set with turquoise eyes from my sister or a particular square platter. And then I know: It is gone.” She shakes her head, laughs at her forgetfulness.

For the Latour family and others who have been displaced by war, the heirlooms they pass on are these stories of survival and their ability to rebuild their lives and move on, to even laugh again. I didn’t realize how attached I’d grown to these characters until I teared up on the last page, when the story comes full circle and acknowledges the sad fact of life that not all of the questions about our pasts will be answered. Heirlooms is a hauntingly beautiful tale of love and loss over the course of generations, touching upon what it means to be family and how the pains of the past can impact the future.

Disclosure: I received Heirlooms from Caitlin Hamilton Marketing for review.

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sketchesI’m delighted to welcome Ron Miner to Diary of an Eccentric today to celebrate the release of the Expanded Edition of Sketches of a Black Cat. I reviewed the first edition of Miner’s book in 2014. Please give Ron a warm welcome as he talks about compiling his father’s artwork and journals from World War II into this fascinating memoir.

This is the simple version of a puzzle that fell into my lap a few years ago when my father passed away at 92. I guess he was typical of most WWII veterans, choosing not to say much about his war experiences and pursue life in a different lane. Just as typically, I was one of four children who never really asked enough of the right questions, and when he passed, assumed I had squandered any chance of exploring this important part of his life with him. But there is more to the story — remember I mentioned art?

When I was a boy, Dad led me to a file cabinet in our basement one morning and pulled from it a worn manila folder. In it were wonderful images — sketches and watercolors of planes, soldiers, and jungles — exciting stuff for a kid. For years afterward I would sneak to the basement to show friends his artwork, until one day I found the cabinet locked. He was on to me, and I wouldn’t see the sketches again as a young man.

Fast forward to the fall of 2011, when after considerable difficulty in making the arrangements, my siblings and I flew across the country and gathered at a small country cemetery for a ceremony. Afterward, we began the sad task of going through his things. I was greatly relieved when my wife found his WWII artwork in an album. Then my brother discovered the first box, and we quickly found others, a nearly 70-year-old trove of war memorabilia, photos, letters sent home, notebooks, and scrapbooks. It occurred to me that my father’s entire wartime story might be hidden within these boxes — if I could just figure out how to put the all of these pieces together again.

In July of 2016, Sketches of a Black Cat was released as an expanded edition — expanded because the original version of the book that was intended for the family generated more traction than I had ever dreamed. More about that later. I mentioned flying huge planes in the dark.

Dad was one of the Navy’s Black Cats, guys who flew at night, without lights, in planes painted entirely black — the original stealth aircraft. He was a pilot aboard one of these PBY Catalinas, 100’ wingspan amphibious airplanes as well suited to the bays as they were the landing strips. The Cats searched the South Pacific, dropping everything from bombs and torpedoes to beer bottles in an attempt to harass and disable a cunning adversary. And to a downed flier, a PBY on a rescue mission was a welcome sight indeed.

His is a tale of seven buddies who flew at night, slept and got into mischief by day, then repeated it all, often cruising 12 hours or more at a time on missions in and around Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. Dad also used this stretch between missions to sketch and write about what he was seeing. Eventually, the squadron would find nearly every island between the Solomons and the northern Philippine group, searching for Japanese shipping, discovering native cultures, and rescuing surviving airmen. It is a warm and personal story, one that can be humorous or poignant and sometimes tinged with drama and tragedy.

It is written in a memoir style, feeling much as if you or I were suddenly swept away from college life and into the chaos that was WWII. Relating the war through the eyes of an artist, at times there is a certain poetry to the telling:

miner

Courtesy of Ron Miner

Our flight took us over a towering range of mountains shrouded in a heavy blanket of clouds, creating the illusion of an endless snowfield stretching out as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, the clouds parted revealing craggy green mountaintops. As we broke through the cover, a tiny group of islands appeared in the distance. I was in the copilot seat and could soon see the atoll below, an arrowhead shaped perimeter of coral surrounded by a deep cobalt central lagoon that gradually became reddish brown where the various colored coral rose toward the surface, and jade near the edges in areas that sand had collected over it. A garland of foam surrounded the outside fringe of the island where the incoming waves were split by the jagged reefs. As we drew closer, villagers appeared on the beach, among them, groups of young women prancing about topless, somewhat of a new experience for most of us on board. To our disappointment, by the time the outriggers arrived, the ladies were discreetly re-clad in white blouses and there was nothing more to do than drop anchor and set about unloading the cargo. These were a handsome people with strong physiques, somewhat lighter skinned and with smooth complexions. It seemed the men did not readily mark their bodies or paint their hair, and women were shy and attractive with flowers adorning their long hair and sometimes their necks. Most spoke broken English. They escorted us to the beach in canoes through spectacular coral beds. I would have loved to have shared this experience with my Zoology group at Woods Hole — intriguing masses of red pipe and blue and yellow star coral, white brain coral, sea urchins, giant sea squirts, and colorful protochordates of every kind. This was truly a paradise.

Such was the contradiction of war and my father found himself at times conflicted about it all — the natural beauty of the islands and cultures, and the need to destroy an enemy that was using it all as cover.

The first book led to a fortuitous meeting with a special man, a Black Cat who had flown with my father and was living right here in Salem, Oregon. Over time, with his help, I was able to locate 7 PBY crewman from the war and gather filmed interviews to be used in a short, upcoming documentary. Gradually, I was finding answers to the questions I had never asked and gaps in the story were filled with new first hand accounts and historical insights. Characters and personalities revealed themselves more fully and I now felt a compelling story about a largely unheralded squadron was truly complete and ready to share.

The book and artwork have found their way into galleries and museums, most notably the National Museum of the Pacific War in Texas. Who knew? I continue to contact museums and search for other surviving Cats, and whenever I can, encourage families who are lucky enough to have a surviving veteran as a friend or loved one to ask the questions, gently at first. I’ve found most of them to be very forthcoming with the stories at this point in their lives. And it is so important to capture the narratives and the history of this generation while we still can. These legacies are their gifts to us and all of those who will follow.

Thanks, Ron, for sharing your father’s story and a bit about how the project came to be. Best of luck with the documentary!

***

About Sketches of a Black Cat

(Available in Color or B&W) This beautiful, new FULL COLOR second edition is now one hundred pages longer, filled with additional fresh stories, artwork, photos, and adventures. Since the release of the original, I’ve interviewed seven Black Cats and PBY crew members, discovered a host of new writing, over a hundred letters and documents, and had the pleasure of meeting and corresponding with an array of squadron family members. “Sketches of a Black Cat” will interest first time and repeat readers alike.

Howard Miner was a student at a small Midwestern college when the War broke out. His journey through training and tours of duty as a PBY pilot in the South Pacific are skillfully captured in his art and narratives, framing a wartime drama with a personal coming of age story. This memoir has been reconstructed from a small library of unpublished artwork, journal entries, and writing, providing an enjoyable behind the scenes look at the Navy Black Cats. The descriptive verse from the artist’s viewpoint gives us a creatively told and intriguing portrayal of WWII’s Pacific Theater.

Check out Sketches of a Black Cat on Amazon | Goodreads

***

About the Author

Ron Miner

Ron Miner

In the late 60’s, I attended the University of Rhode Island, playing soccer, baseball, and graduating with a B.A. in English and minor in landscape design. In 1979, I began a career as a landscape designer and contractor. The opportunity to pen my father’s memoirs, developing the story from a library of unknown resources, rekindled my passion for writing. I am currently submitting articles about the Black Cats and their saga to magazines around the country.

My wife, Heidi, and I live with our dogs in the Oregon countryside near Salem. Heidi is a retired school teacher and we are both active hikers, gardeners, and photographers.

Connect with Ron Miner: website | Facebook | Goodreads

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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tea-time

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

There were so many ways to survive, even after you’d died.

(from “Tea Time”)

“Tea Time” is a short story set in the ruins of Berlin in the days after World War II. After reading Tiffani Burnett-Velez’s powerful novella, A Berlin Story, I knew I had to check out this story, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is set in the remains of the apartment building at 500 Friedrichstrasse. Maria, a Holocaust survivor, is having tea with her friend Greta — nettle tea served out of a rusty tin can and heated on a stove fueled by pieces of broken furniture. The older woman is the first friend Maria has had in years, which is probably why Maria puts up with her crazy babbling and smiles in the midst of so much sorrow. And when Russian soldiers enter the apartment, it quickly becomes obvious just how much Maria depends on Greta’s positive attitude to maintain her hold on sanity.

In the midst of their conversation, Burnett-Velez gives readers a glimpse of Berlin and the women fighting to survive in the aftermath of the war, and bits and pieces of Maria’s past are revealed to add depth to the story and help readers understand all that she has endured. I finished reading “Tea Time” in less than half an hour, and I was satisfied with the abrupt ending even though I wasn’t ready for the story to be over. The final few lines pack a punch and made it a story I won’t soon forget. I can’t wait to read more from Burnett-Velez.

Disclosure: “Tea Time” is from my personal library.

© 2016 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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