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Archive for the ‘WWII’ Category

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 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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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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