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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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the other girl

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

Her mother had sensed her uneasiness the night before the wedding. “Love grows,” she’d offered unbidden as Maria had packed for her new home.  But with whom? she had wanted to ask, thinking of the stack of letters she had found years earlier buried deep in her mother’s cedar chest.  They had been written in a flowing script that was not her father’s and they had spoken words of love to her mother, painting a picture of a vibrant and adored woman Maria did not quite know.

(from “The Other Girl”)

Quick summary: “The Other Girl” is a companion novella (though I would argue that it’s more of a short story) to Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest.  Set in a small Polish village called Biekowice in 1940 during the Nazi occupation, it focuses on Maria, who married the ex-boyfriend of Ruth Nowak, one of the main characters in The Winter Guest.  Maria has severed ties with her father, a Nazi collaborator, and lives with Piotr’s parents while he is off fighting the war.  When she finds Hannah hiding in the barn, Maria must summon her courage, find someone she can trust, and at least try to save the scared little girl from both the horrors of home and war.

Why I wanted to read it: I am a big fan of Pam Jenoff, and The Winter Guest is one of my favorite books of the year so far.

What I liked: Jenoff briefly introduces Maria in The Winter Guest, and I enjoyed getting to know her a little better through this companion story.  Biekowice is a small village, and the Nazi occupation has its residents living in hunger and fear, and I was curious about how the other villagers were coping.  In so few pages, Jenoff manages to create a well-developed character in Maria.

What I disliked: It was too short!  I was so involved in Maria’s story that I was sad when it ended.  There is so much in Maria’s story left to tell, and I hope Jenoff considers fleshing out her wartime experiences in a sequel to The Winter Guest.

Final thoughts: I think it helped that I read The Winter Guest first; if I would have started with “The Other Girl,” I might’ve been slightly disappointed that The Winter Guest doesn’t finish Maria’s story.  The Winter Guest really sets the scene, so readers understand what is going on in the village and the surrounding area, giving a sense of urgency and danger to Maria’s story.  It is not necessary to read “The Other Girl” after The Winter Guest, but if you love the novel as much as I did, the companion story is definitely worth checking out.

war challenge with a twist

Book 26 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 24 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: “The Other Girl” is from my personal library.

© 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 winter guest

Source: Review copy from Harlequin MIRA and the author
Rating: ★★★★★

Mine is not the story of the ghettos and the camps, but of a small village in the hills, a chapel in the darkness of the night.  I should write it down, I suppose.  The younger ones do not remember, and when I am gone there will be no one else.  The history and those who lived it will disappear with the wind.  But I cannot.  It is not that the memories are too painful — I live them over and over each night, a perennial film in my mind.  But I cannot find the words to do justice to the people that lived, and the things that had transpired among us.

(from The Winter Guest, page 11)

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest, may be her best yet.  Set primarily in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, the novel centers on 18-year-old twins, Helena and Ruth Nowak, tasked with raising their three younger siblings after the death of their father and their mother’s removal to a hospital in Kraków.  Although the Nazis have yet to enter their small village of Biekowice, the sisters must contend with constant hunger and worries about how to keep the family together and keep them warm as winter approaches.

Helena is the strong sister, accustomed to long walks in the forest in search of food and to the city to ensure their mother is receiving proper care at the Jewish hospital, the only facility affordable to the family.  Ruth is the gentle sister, who spends all of her time caring for the children and trying to stretch their meager rations.  Despite being close, the burden of the war and having to act as parents to the younger children take a toll on the sisters’ relationship.  Ruth laments her lost love and the likelihood that she will never have a family of her own, and she cares little about what goes on outside of the family and their cottage — even as talk of the Jews in the city being removed from their homes makes its way to the village.  Helena, meanwhile, is more realistic about what’s going on, but her weekly trips to Kraków to visit their mother put her face-to-face with the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, and she soon realizes that keeping your head down does not ensure survival.

When Helena comes across an injured American paratrooper in the forest, she decides to help him, finding him shelter in an abandoned chapel, feeding him from her family’s nearly bare cupboards, and keeping him a secret from Ruth — and not just because of the danger to her family.  With Sam, Helena not only finds love but also a purpose, someone to trust when the war finally hits home.  But increasing friction and jealousy between the sisters threatens their relationship and their lives.

In The Winter Guest, Jenoff brings to life a small Polish village in the midst of war, from the hunger and the cold to the watchful eyes of neighbors who report the most minor infraction in exchange for money or food.  The Nowak twins always felt out of place in their village, and the war and the loss of their parents isolate them even more.  Neither one wants to be left alone with the responsibility of caring for the children, and the differences that were emphasized since their birth push them apart as the years pass.  Jenoff does a great job portraying their complicated relationship and making me understand the motivations of each sister.  There was one moment when I was so angry at one of the sisters that I had to put down the book and vent to my husband for a few minutes.  Generating such an emotional reaction is a sign of a great book, at least in my opinion.  Jenoff brilliantly creates an atmosphere of nervous calm, and I kept feeling like something bad was going to happen at any moment.

Although the epilogue was a bit rushed and devoid of some of the tidbits of information that would have made it more believable, I still loved the book.  Jenoff unflinchingly details the struggles of living in an occupied country, the atrocities committed by the Nazis as they liquidated Jewish neighborhoods, and the danger of ignoring what’s happening in your own backyard.  She deftly balances the excitement of taking action with the horrors and loss inevitable in war, and she makes a story that happened decades ago relevant in the present day.  The Winter Guest is about the bonds between sisters and twins, the destructive nature of secrets, loyalty and betrayal, and the need to preserve wartime stories of courage and resistance before those who know exactly what happened are gone.

war challenge with a twist

Book 17 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 19 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Winter Guest from Harlequin MIRA and the author 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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grand central

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

In those moments when she was alone, her body propped up in bed and a borrowed book she was using to study English on her lap, she saw her mother saying good-bye for the last time through a forced smile, and her father still holding on to her bag for a few more moments.  She didn’t want to look at those horrible photos in the paper and believe her parents could be amongst the piles off bodies or reduced to dark ash.  She wanted instead to look at the family photograph that sat on her nightstand and believe that they were still just as she had left them.  Father in his dark brown overcoat and stylish fedora, and Mother always with something warm and sweet in her hands.

(from “Going Home” by Alyson Richman, Grand Central, page 27)

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion is a collection of 10 short stories that at some point bring readers to Grand Central Terminal in New York City on the same day in September 1945.  The stories are set shortly after the end of World War II, when refugees were creating new lives in America and soldiers were making their way home.  When I saw the list of authors and stories in this collection, I definitely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read it.

  • “Going Home” by Alyson Richman (The Lost Wife)
  • “The Lucky One” by Jenna Blum (Those Who Save Us)
  • “The Branch of Hazel” by Sarah McCoy (The Baker’s Daughter)
  • “The Kissing Room” by Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Sarah Jio (Blackberry Winter)
  • “I’ll Walk Alone” by Erika Robuck (Call Me Zelda)
  • “The Reunion” by Kristina McMorris (Bridge of Scarlet Leaves)
  • “Tin Town” by Amanda Hodgkinson (22 Britannia Road)
  • “Strand of Pearls” by Pam Jenoff (The Kommandant’s Girl)
  • “The Harvest Season” by Karen White (The Time Between)

I don’t usually read short stories because I often feel like they end before the story takes off, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself satisfied by every one of these stories.  I couldn’t put this book down, and while I liked some stories more than others, in the week since I finished it, I still can’t decide which story was my favorite.

These stories are all unique in their subject matter, from a Holocaust survivor trying to get on with his life after losing his wife and daughters to a female pilot struggling with a different sort of grief and guilt, from a woman who dreads her soldier husband’s return to a young girl leaving her home in England to start a new life with her mother and GI husband in America.  Another story follows a young girl who travels alone from Shanghai to New York City to reunite with her father only to learn he’s not the man she thought he was, and Sarah McCoy lets readers know what happened to Hazel from The Baker’s Daughter, who joined the Lebensborn program.

Grand Central seems to perfectly capture the postwar atmosphere in a big city, with the chaos in the train station and the roller coaster of emotions within each character.  The changes in society, especially in regards to women and their romantic relationships and career aspirations, also feature prominently in some of these stories.  I was impressed not only by the character development in these stories but also by the ways in which the characters crossed paths with one another, which emphasizes how well this collection is structured.  If you love novels set during World War II or have loved novels by these authors in the past, you’ll definitely want to get your hands on a copy.

war challenge with a twist

Book 16 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 17 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Grand Central 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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“I’m always conflicted,” Charlotte continued.  She was rambling, she knew, but the answer to Jack’s question was not a short or simple one.  “I mean, I’m the descendant of Holocaust victims.  My mom’s whole family died here.  But when I came back, I found that the truth was so much more nuanced than I ever expected.  The people you wanted to call evil had humanity and the heroes were flawed.  There was gray everywhere.  That’s what I found so appealing about the work.  The broad brushstrokes of history were misleading.  I really felt that by studying and recasting things in a finer light, I was doing more of a service to the truth and to those who died.  But as for Roger…”  She paused, turning to face him.  “It’s too soon to tell, I think.”

(from The Things We Cherished, page 105)

The Things We Cherished is the fifth book I’ve read by Pam Jenoff, and she hasn’t let me down yet.  Each of Jenoff’s novels tells a unique story somehow connected to World War II.  In The Things We Cherished, Jenoff takes readers back and forth in time as her main character defends a man accused of war crimes.

Set mainly in 2009, the book follows attorney Charlotte Gold, who abandoned a budding career at The Hague to become a public defender in Philadelphia who deals mostly with troubled youth.  After a sudden request from the man who broke her heart, Charlotte finds herself overseas and working with his brother, Jack, on a war crimes trial involving Roger Dykmans, a financier accused of informing the Nazis about his older brother’s plan to save thousands of children from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, resulting in their deaths.  When Roger refuses to help Jack and Charlotte produce evidence to prove he is innocent, the pair go off in search of a valuable anniversary clock that somehow holds the key to Roger’s story.  Their rush to build a case pushes them closer together, and Charlotte learns why Jack and his brother, Brian, parted ways years ago and that they both must move beyond the wounds of their pasts.

In alternating chapters, Jenoff takes readers back in time to follow the history of the clock, from its creation in Bavaria in 1903 by a farmer looking to escape the pogroms against the Jews by selling his beautifully crafted clock and moving to America with his pregnant wife to East Berlin in 1961 during the erection of the Berlin wall, when the clock is stolen by a young woman running away from her drunk mother, a dead-end life, and political oppression.  Although I really enjoyed reading about the history of the timepiece and the troubled times that each of the owners endured, I kept wondering how these individual stories were going to be connected to Roger and the alleged betrayal of his brother, Hans.  I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this aspect of the story and E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, which deals with the trials and tribulations of the various people who own a particular accordion and the accordion’s travels over many years.

The Things We Cherished was an enjoyable read, if any novel dealing with the Holocaust can be considered such.  I liked Charlotte, who has a big heart when it comes to her clients but feels lost in terms of relationships and her career.  However, Jenoff barely scratched the surface when it came to developing the characters of Charlotte and Jack.  Charlotte is the main character, but she takes a back seat to the historical aspect of the story, which seems to be Jenoff’s passion.  It didn’t bother me that Roger’s tale of love, loss, and betrayal in Breslau during the war took center stage because I found it very interesting, as I did with the rest of the stories centered on the anniversary clock.  But the movement from the past — where readers are placed right into the emotional turmoil — to the present — where information about the Holocaust is simply stated by characters and Charlotte and Jack’s interactions have little time to develop before readers are moved back into the past — would have been more effective had Charlotte’s story been infused with the same intensity.

Still, I found The Things We Cherished hard to put down, and I feel that it gave me a good sense of what it was like living in Germany before, during, and after the war and the pressure endured by the attorneys working on war crimes trials as they rush to achieve justice before it is too late.  It’s definitely a novel worth checking out if you are interested in WWII history.

Check out my reviews of other books by Pam Jenoff:

Almost Home
A Hidden Affair

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Things We Cherished from the author and Doubleday for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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It is from this direction that the ringing comes, a sweet, gentle bell.  Slowly the bicycle comes into view and, as the rider’s distinctive shape registers, my heart fills.  “Jared!” I shout, but he does not see me as he nears.  Green eyes fixed, he pedals rapidly on a straight trajectory forward, his open black gown flapping in the breeze.  He does not slow or swerve, and for a moment I fear I will be struck.  Flinching, I close my eyes.  Bike and rider pass through me, as though I am not there.  I spin around quickly, but his retreating image fades like dust and, before I can blink, he is gone.

(from A Hidden Affair, pages 89-90 in the ARC)

Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, A Hidden Affair, is the follow up to Almost Home (read my review), which followed Jordan Weiss, an American Foreign Service Officer, to London, where she worked on a money laundering case involving the Albanian mob and learned that the accidental death of her college boyfriend, Jared, may not have been an accident and may have been tied to his dissertation on the escape of Nazi war criminals following World War II.  Keep in mind that this is a sequel, so my review might touch upon something you don’t want to know about the first book if you haven’t read it yet.

In A Hidden Affair, Jordan has left her position with the State Department as a diplomat/secret agent in search of her college boyfriend, Jared, who may be alive.  She travels to his last known address in Monaco, not sure what she’ll find but knowing that she wants some answers.  Jordan’s world fell apart when Jared drowned, and she’s spent much of the last decade trying not to think about the past and avoiding new relationships.

The Nazis make a reappearance in A Hidden Affair, (well, sort of, as this novel takes place in the present) this time connected to a wine counterfeiting scheme involving a 1943 vintage from a vineyard owned by Jews.  The real wine was hidden by the Resistance, and a woman connected to Jared may know where it is now.  It is Nicole’s connection to the wine that has Ari, a private investigator with many secrets, searching for her, and Jordan is pursuing her to find Jared.  Reluctantly, Jordan agrees to team up with Ari, and her attraction to him causes much confusion with regard to her feelings for Jared — the only man she’s ever loved.

As in Almost Home, Jordan is impulsive and makes foolish decisions that endanger herself and others, but these screw ups create much tension and action.  Jordan is more emotional this time around, with good reason, so when she enters a risky situation unarmed, it sort of makes sense because she’s so focused on finding and confronting Jared.  But A Hidden Affair isn’t about rekindling past relationships or even exploring new ones.  It’s about Jordan growing up and learning to live again, and Jenoff does a great job showing the evolution of the character.

Once again, Jenoff has told an interesting story with a World War II connection, intriguing characters, and plenty of action.  None of the revelations in A Hidden Affair were surprising, but I was satisfied with the paths the story took and how it ended.  The connection between the Nazis and wine was a new one for me, and I love how there’s always something new to learn about the war.  I’ve read and enjoyed all of Jenoff’s novels, and I’m looking forward to reading more from her in the future.

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Hidden Affair from Atria Books for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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After reading and enjoying all three of Pam Jenoff’s novels, The Kommandant’s Girl, The Diplomat’s Wife, and most recently Almost Home (click here for my review), I am thrilled that Pam is taking over Diary of an Eccentric today.  I want to thank Pam for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk about how much truth is necessary in historical fiction.  Please welcome Pam Jenoff.

Putting the History in Historical Fiction

The nasty e-mail was not what I expected.

For months before my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, was released, I braced myself for the backlash that would inevitably come from writing about a Jewish woman (Emma) who becomes involved with a Nazi.  To my surprise, no one seemed bothered by that.  Instead, the irate reader wrote to angrily ask:  how could I possibly say that the Sachenhausen concentration camp was near Munich, when it was in fact near Berlin?

I paused, considering the question.  To be fair, I hadn’t depicted the camp there.  Rather, Krysia, a Polish character who had never been to the area, had simply made the comment erroneously.  But other e-mails came, too, from readers taking issue with my portrayal of various historical details:  An Orthodox Jewish family would never have named their daughter Emma, one wrote.  A secular Jew like Emma’s husband Jacob would not have worn a yarmulke, insisted another.  Thankfully, there were only a few negative e-mails, dwarfed by hundreds of positive messages.  But they were enough to make me wonder, how far are we as writers obligated to take the “history” in historical fiction?

It is an issue that I continually wrestle with as a writer.  Sometimes, I choose to stay accurate (keeping the geography of Krakow in tact was particularly important to me.)  Other times the needs of plot and narrative thrust dictate that history be bent, such as reducing the approximately eighteen months between the German invasion and the creation of the Krakow ghetto to six weeks.  (I felt better upon reading recently that the true story of the Von Trapp family was similarly cut from twelve years to a few months in The Sound of Music.)  I have found editors to be similarly sensitive to historical detail – with my second novel, The Diplomat’s Wife, we spent much time debating whether a bus would have had doors in 1946 London and would it have cost a two pence or five pence to ride.   Though my latest novel, Almost Home, is modern romantic suspense, I struggled with the same issues, both in terms of the historical back story and also with the accuracy my depiction of Jordan’s life as an intelligence officer required.

I’m mixed about the intensity readers seem to place on “real life” details.  I’m not saying that historical writers should not be diligent in their research with the goal of creating a realistic time and place.  And a historical world, like a fantasy realm, should have rules in order to be believable.  But this is fiction, not memoir.  But at the same time, there seems to be a “gotcha” mentality that can at times feel, well, a tad adversarial and perhaps take away from the author-reader connection.

On one hand, I’m glad that my readers are intelligent and pay attention.  I do think a degree of accuracy is important to create and keep the trust that is necessary between the author and reader, and I’m glad my readers care as much as I do.

Are you interested in reading Almost Home?  Well, you’re in luck!  Pam is generously offering a paperback copy to one lucky reader.  To enter, you must have a U.S. or Canada address and answer the following question(s):  How important is it to you that historical fiction is factually correct?  Do you think it’s okay for authors to “play” with events a bit, given that it’s fiction? Please include your e-mail address.

This giveaway will end Sunday, March 21, 2010, at 11:59 pm EST.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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