Posts Tagged ‘world war II reading challenge’

The first reading challenge that Serena and I hosted at War Through the Generations ended yesterday, and I want to thank the more than 100 participants who chose to read World War II books with us in 2009 for helping to make it a big success.  At the beginning of 2009, I had planned to make it a personal goal to focus a large part of my reading on WWII, and after discussing it with Serena, we thought it would be fun to create a resource for war-related books and host a different war-themed reading challenge each year.  After one year, we’ve collected hundreds of WWII book reviews from all over the Web and amassed a list of hundreds of WWII books to provide a starting point for interested readers.  I’d like to thank each and every one of you who’ve contributed in some way to these lists.  Although the site will focus on Vietnam books in 2010 (and we hope you’ll join us; more information here), we will continue to add to these lists and hope you’ll continue to use them as a resource.

Apparently, I couldn’t get enough of this challenge, and I completed 32 books!  Here’s my list with links to my reviews:

1.  10 Days: Anne Frank by David Colbert
2.  Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas
3.  The Holocaust: The Nazis Seize Power, 1933-1941 by Stuart A. Kallen
4.  Keeping Hannah Waiting by Dave Clarke
5.  An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to Hitler by Helena P. Schrader
6.  Coventry by Helen Humphreys
7.  Memory by Philippe Grimbert
8.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
9.  A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal
10.  Bloody Good by Georgia Evans
11.  Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
12.  Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel
13.  The Seventh Well by Fred Wander
14.  T4 by Ann Clare LeZotte
15.  The Wave by Todd Strasser
16.  The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst
17.  Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War edited by Sandra Koa Wing
18.  Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli
19.  The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
20.  He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hiter’s Secretary by Christa Schroeder
21.  Night of Flames by Douglas W. Jacobson
22.  The Apple: Based on the Herman Rosenblat Holocaust Love Story by Penelope J. Holt
23.  Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie with Rita Lurie
24.  Fire in the Hills by Donna Jo Napoli
25.  Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino
26.  The Sentinels: Fortunes of War by Gordon Zuckerman
27.  Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen
28.  The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
29.  Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
30.  The Sky Rained Heroes: A Journey From War to Remembrance by Frederick E. LaCroix
31.  Night by Elie Wiesel
32.  Hitler’s Daughter by Jackie French

The Girl also participated in the WWII reading challenge, and while she’d hoped to read 5 books and officially complete the challenge, she read 4, which I think is awesome for a 9-year-old.

1.  10 Days: Anne Frank by David Colbert
2.  The Holocaust: The Nazis Seize Power, 1933-1941 by Stuart A. Kallen
3.  T4 by Ann Clare LeZotte
4.  Hitler’s Daughter by Jackie French


Choosing my top 5 was difficult because I read a lot of good ones, and all of the Holocaust memoirs in particular are important.  But here’s my list:

5.  Night of Flames by Douglas W. Jacobson — An engaging, action-packed story of the Belgian resistance

4.  An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to Hitler by Helena P. Schrader — A detailed novelization of the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler

3.  He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary by Christa Schroeder — An inside glimpse of the man who was Adolf Hitler

2.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows — A charming epistolary novel that is realistic in its portrayal of the people of Guernsey during the Nazi occupation without being too depressing

1.  Night by Elie Wiesel — A heartbreaking story of one Holocaust survivor’s time in the concentration camps

That’s a year of WWII reading in a nutshell.  And considering that I still have dozens of WWII books on my shelves, I expect to read more in the coming year.

What’s your favorite WWII book?

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

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“I just wanted to know…” began Mark slowly.  “I mean it’s silly but I was thinking.  Do kids have to be like their parents?”

Mr. McDonald frowned.  “I’m not sure I get your meaning,” he said.

“Well, say someone’s father did something really evil…like Hitler or Pol Pot,” he added hurriedly.  “Would their kids be evil too?”

(from Hitler’s Daughter, page 61)

In Hitler’s Daughter by Jackie French, four friends in present day Australia spend their long wait at the bus stop each day telling stories.  Most of the stories are about fairies and that sort of thing, but one day, Anna decides to tell a more serious story — a story about a young girl named Heidi whose father happens to be Adolf Hitler.  If in real life Hitler had a child, you wouldn’t expect her to be like Heidi; while he’s trying to breed a “perfect” race, his daughter is born with a large red birthmark on her face and a limp because one leg is shorter than the other.  Heidi wants to live a normal life and be allowed to play with other children and spend time with her father, but Duffi (her nickname for her father, Hitler) is never around and Heidi is concealed from the world like she doesn’t exist.

Because the people tasked with caring for Heidi are scared to say too much in her presence for fear their comments will get back to her father, she doesn’t hear about the goings on in the outside world.  When she hears someone talk about the Jews and asks who they are, all she is told is that the Jews are different from them.  When she hears about a family being arrested for hiding Jews and learns something bad could happen to them, Heidi does what she can with her limited knowledge and limited access to the outside world — she clears out a barn and slowly takes food from the pantry to store in the space where she plans to shelter Jews if they ever come to her for help.  However, with a child-like innocence, she doesn’t think about whether her father is doing something wrong; she continues to seek attention and love from the only parent she knows — just like a child whose father isn’t one of the biggest mass murderers in history.

Hitler’s Daughter is seen from the point of view of Mark, a 10-year-old boy who is greatly affected by Anna’s story.  He can’t stop asking questions about Hitler and the Jews, whether children have to grow up to be like their parents, whether you can love someone guilty of such crimes, and how does one know that the things they believe are right truly are.  And these are the same questions I posed to The Girl as we read this book together.  These are hard questions, and the adults in Mark’s life have a hard time answering them.  But what bothered me about the book was that Mark’s parents weren’t comfortable with his questions or were too busy and shrugged him off.  Personally, I’d be glad to know that my child is truly thinking about the world around her, and even if I didn’t have any concrete answers, we could discuss what we believe to be the right path.

The story is filled with action, especially when Heidi is taken to Hitler’s Berlin bunker at a time when the city is being bombed non-stop.  The Girl was so engrossed in the story, she gripped my arms at the tense parts and insisted that I keep reading.  Hitler’s Daughter is suitable for grades 4-6, but even adults will learn something from this story.

Disclosure:  The Girl borrowed Hitler’s Daughter from her school library. 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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In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words.  I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer — or my life, period — would not have become what it is:  that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.

(from Night, page viii)

I’ve read several Holocaust memoirs and novels over the past year, and each one has the power to shock me, sicken me, make me angry, and make me cry.  Despite the pain and the horrors within their pages, I continue to read them because I believe it is important to remember.  We should not forget the millions who lost their lives, and like Elie Wiesel says in the above passage, we must not allow the world to forget what evil has been done.

In Night, Wiesel tells how he and his family were sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944.  They had lived in Sighet, Transylvania, and were told of the horrors that awaited them two years prior by a foreign Jew who was among the first deported and had escaped from a trench filled with the bodies of massacred Jews.  But no one paid him any mind.  Soon after arriving at Auschwitz, Wiesel — age 15 — and his father are separated from his mother and sisters.

“Men to the left!  Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion.  Eight simple, short words.  Yet that was the moment when I left my mother.  There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine.  We were alone.  In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right.  Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand.  I saw them walking farther and farther away.  Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her.  And I walked on with my father, with the men.  I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. (page 29)

Wiesel’s words are so simple, yet so powerful and heartbreaking.  He goes on to describe the struggles he and his father endured every day for months and months at the hands of the Nazis — how they marched in the snow with barely any clothes or shoes, how they watched a son kill his father over a crust of bread, how he watched his half-dead father be beaten by an SS officer.

Wiesel’s recollections of his experiences during the Holocaust are vivid and haunting.  His words are heavy with darkness, desolation, and the loss of faith in the midst of evil.  Night is a book that stays with you long after you turn the last page with a heavy heart.  If you only read one Holocaust memoir in your lifetime, let it be this one.

Disclosure:  I won a copy of Night in a blog giveaway. 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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Frederick E. LaCroix is the son of Captain Robert LaCroix, a World War II fighter pilot who served in the Pacific.  The Sky Rained Heroes: A Journey From War to Remembrance is supposed to be the story of a bloodied Japanese flag his father took home as a memento of victory — a victory that involved the death of the flag’s owner, Sergeant Yasuyuki Ishizuka.  Frederick inherits the flag, and he decides to return it to the Japanese officer’s family, which involves a 6-year journey through Asia.  This is what the book jacket promises — a memoir about the journey to return the flag.  However, I was disappointed to learn that the flag is only mentioned in detail at the very beginning and very end of the book.

What fills the remaining pages is a history lesson.  LaCroix goes into great detail about the history of Japan, its military, and the reasons behind the Japanese invasion of China and other nearby nations.  I found a lot of interesting because I know a lot about the European aspect of World War II and next to nothing about the war in the Pacific.  However, some of the writing is dry and reads like a textbook, which made it difficult for me to stay focused.  Other times, LaCroix inserts his own opinions in flowery language that seems out of place in a non-fiction book.  He also includes stories about his business in the Philippines, which come out of nowhere and have nothing to do with the story of the flag.

We Americans perceive ourselves as liberators.  We are troubled by much of the world’s refusal to see us as we are convinced we are — rational, altruistic, and egalitarian.  Yet standing on the ledge from which the young Japanese woman unflinchingly launched herself and her most precious possession, one senses the guiding, commanding power of collective memory, its prism refracting, altering perception.  The child’s mother, in death, as in life, submitted with ancestral fidelity to an ethos she neither questioned nor understood. (page 245)

The inclusion of wartime letters written by his father to his parents and siblings that detail his fighter pilot training and combat experiences were the highlight of the book.  This is where you get a real insider’s view of the war.  An excerpt from a letter dated Feb. 3, 1945, from Luzon, Philippines:

Had a freak accident the other day.  A tribute, incidentally, to American planes.  A light bomber caught a frag bomb in the fuselage, almost severing the tail.  The pilot flew it back.  Just as he landed, the shock of the landing broke the tail section completely off.  In spite of it, he kept it rolling straight and no one was killed.  It was a real miracle.  War brings out all sorts of queer accidents.  I’ll tell you some others, sometime. (page 183)

I’m glad I finished The Sky Rained Heroes because I learned many things about Japan and its role in World War II.  However, the book lacked the emotion I was expecting, especially concerning the return of the flag, which isn’t surprising given that this part of the book was wrapped up in just a few pages.  I only wish the book jacket had been more accurate in its description of the contents.  My feelings toward the book might have been more favorable if I’d known what to expect — that it would be heavy on history and light on personal and family experiences.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Sky Rained Heroes from Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists 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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“I didn’t know!” she sobbed.  “Papa, I didn’t know, I thought we were coming back, I thought he’d be safe.”  Then she looked up at him, fury and pain in her voice, and pummeled her little fists against his chest.  “You never told me, Papa, you never explained, you never told me about the danger, never!  Why?  You thought I was too small to understand, didn’t you?  You wanted to protect me?  Is that what you were trying to do?”

Her father’s face.  She could no longer look at it.  He gazed down at her with such despair, such sadness.  Her tears washed the image of his face away.  She cried into her palms, alone.  Her father did not touch her.  In those awful, lonely minutes, the girl understood.  She was no longer a happy little ten-year-old girl.  She was someone much older.  Nothing would ever be the same again.  For her.  For her family.  For her brother.

(from Sarah’s Key, page 57)

Sarah’s Key is a heartbreaking novel that centers on a real but little known incident that occurred in France during World War II.  The Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup on July 16, 1942, involved thousands of Jewish families being taken from their homes and housed for days in disgusting, degrading conditions in the Paris stadium before they were taken to the Auschwitz gas chambers.  More than 4,000 Jewish children ages 2 to 12 were killed.  The roundup is a stain on France’s history, mainly because the French police — not the Nazis — pulled these families from their homes, and many of the children who perished were born in France.

Tatiana de Rosnay brings this tragedy to life in the story of Sarah, a 10-year-old girl who on the very first page is faced with the police pounding on the door.  Her father, hoping to escape arrest, is not at home, but later joins Sarah and her mother.  Sarah, assuming that she and her parents will be home in a matter of hours, tries to protect her younger brother by locking him in their secret hiding place — a concealed cupboard in their bedroom wall — with nothing but a flashlight, cushions, toys, books, and a flask of water.  Sarah’s parents know what is happening, the fate that likely awaits them, and their desperate and failed attempts to return to their home to rescue the boy broke my heart.  Weeks later, Sarah manages to escape the camp and is determined to make her way back to Paris and to her brother…but will it be too late?

For about half of the book, the chapters alternate between Sarah’s story and that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris with her French husband and daughter in 2002.  She is working on a story about the roundup for the 60th commemoration.  Julia throws herself into the investigation, and her heart is broken as she learns about all the dead children and parents, how their homes were quickly reoccupied, and how few people want to remember what happened.  Meanwhile, she is struggling to save her marriage as she learns she is pregnant and her husband decides he is too old to be a father again.  As she decides what to do with her husband’s ultimatum — have an abortion or our marriage is over — she stumbles upon a link between her family and Sarah’s.

Sarah’s Key was a great read, but be ready to shed a few tears.  De Rosnay does a great job building tension with regard to Sarah’s story.  Will she reach her brother in time?  I can’t imagine being in Sarah’s or her parent’s shoes, and I wouldn’t want to.  Once the fate of Sarah’s brother is determined, de Rosnay tells the rest of the story from Julia’s point of view, and this is where the book began to drag a bit.  I was completely engrossed in Sarah’s story, but Julia’s story just wasn’t as captivating.  I’m not saying I didn’t find Julia to be an interesting character, it’s just that I found the scenes about her personal life a bit disrupting to the flow of the novel, and one would assume by the title that Sarah’s story is the main focus of the book.  De Rosnay resolved both plot lines by the end of the book, with the rest of the Sarah’s story told through Julia’s investigation.  However, after learning what happened to Sarah after the war, the book continues to resolve Julia’s issues, and I thought this part of the book could have been shortened.

Overall, Sarah’s Key was an engaging, emotional read, and it brings to light a little known historical event.  Sarah’s story is among the saddest I’ve ever read, and while mostly devoid of hope, it seems authentic, which is important when dealing with subjects like the Holocaust.

Disclosure:  I received Sarah’s Key as a gift from my husband.  I can’t believe it sat on my shelf for nearly a year! I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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As the days grew longer, I read longer, so that I could be in bed with her in the twilight.  When she had fallen asleep lying on me, and the saw in the yard was quiet, and a blackbird was singing as the color of things in the kitchen dimmed until nothing remained of them but lighter and darker shades of gray, I was completely happy.

(from The Reader, page 43)

In The Reader, German writer Bernhard Schlink tells the story of Michael Berg, who at age 15 begins an intimate relationship with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old streetcar conductor.  They meet when Michael falls ill with hepatitis, and Hanna helps him home.  After he recovers, he goes to her apartment to thank her, thus beginning a relationship based on lust and a thirst for words, with Hanna forcing Michael to read to her before they make love.  Michael spends much of his time visiting Hanna, trying to keep up with his school work, and hiding their relationship from family and friends.

Michael is hurt when Hanna leaves one day without a trace, and his feelings for her (was is love? lust? obsession?) and the time they spent together make it difficult for him to pursue other relationships.  He sees her again when he is a college student and she is on trial for crimes committed during World War II as a Nazi concentration camp guard.  This is where the story gets interesting.  Michael discovers Hanna’s secret, the thing of which she is most ashamed, that prevents her from defending herself against murder charges and ties her and Michael together for the rest of their days.

The Reader is told by an adult Michael in the first person as he attempts to write the story of their relationship many years after the trial and its aftermath.  While I thought the book was well written, I had a hard time connecting with the characters — maybe because I find the idea of a sexual relationship between a teenage boy and a woman just a few years older than me extremely disturbing.  (She calls him “kid” for crying out loud!) Michael seems to understand at the time that their relationship isn’t quite right — he finds it difficult to talk about it even years after they separate and doesn’t tell his wife — but that could be because the adult Michael is telling the story, not an impulsive teenage boy with raging hormones.  From the way he tells the story, Hanna is sort of detached from things much of the time, so while she initiates their first sexual encounter, it seems as though Michael goes back time and again because he wants to, not because he’s coerced or anything like that.  As for Hanna, I can understand that her secret was distressing, frustrating, and even embarrassing, but was it worth life in prison (which she deserved regardless of whether or not she defended herself)?

The Reader raises a multitude of issues — questions of morality, guilt, and atonement regarding Hanna’s actions as a concentration camp guard, Hanna and Michael’s relationship, and post-war Germany as a whole.  Here’s another passage that caught my eye, when Michael hitchhiked to the Struthof concentration camp and the driver gave his opinion about why the Holocaust occurred.

“But the people who were murdered in the camps hadn’t done anything to the individuals who murdered them?  Is that what you want to say?  Do you mean that there was no reason for hatred, and no war?”

I didn’t want to nod again.  What he said was true, but not the way he said it.

“You’re right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred.  But the executioners don’t hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same.  Because they’re ordered to?  You think they do it because they’re ordered to?  And you think that I’m talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?”  He laughed sarcastically.  “No, I’m not talking about orders and obedience.  An executioner is not under orders.  He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them, he’s not killing them because they’re in his way or threatening him or attacking him.  They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.” (page 151)

Personally, it doesn’t matter whether the guards were all crazy, whether they were following orders, or whether they were indifferent — it’s all wrong and makes me sick to my stomach.

Overall, I thought The Reader was a page-turner and a great read simply because it has the power to generate strong emotions and discussion on so many topics.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Reader. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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

Jane Austen sequels and “re-imaginings” are a guilty pleasure of mine, and I love it when I find one that stands out from the crowd.  Also, I am always seeking out books on World War II.  Put these together, and you have Mary Lydon Simonsen’s Searching for Pemberley.

Simonsen’s heroine is Maggie Joyce, an American stationed in London in 1947 with the Army Exchange Service.  World War II ended just two years prior, and the British are still feeling the pinch of rations, grieving the death of loved ones killed in the battlefield or by the bombs, and doing their best to get by while standing in the midst of destruction.

Neither Rob nor I had ever heard of the Baedeker raids, so I asked Mrs. Ives if they were a part of the Blitz.

“No, the Blitz was in 1940-41,” Mrs. Ives replied.  “According to Lord Haw Haw, the British traitor used by the Nazis for their radio broadcasts, the Baedeker raids were in retaliation for the RAF bombing of German cities.  Using Baedeker’s Guide to Great Britain, cities that received three stars in the tourist guide because of their historical importance were bombed by the Luftwaffe.  Before Canterbury was bombed in June 1942, Exeter, Bath, and York were also bombed.” (page 89 in the ARC)

Maggie travels with a friend to Derbyshire to visit Montclair, a historic house that once belonged to William Lacey and Elizabeth Garrison Lacey, a couple believed to have inspired Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Maggie, a huge fan of the classic novel, wants to know as much as she can about the home and the Laceys to determine whether they truly are Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.  Her search to learn more about the Laceys brings her to the doorstep of Jack and Beth Crowell, and an instant bond is formed.  Jack and Beth grow to love Maggie and think of her as a daughter, and through frequent visits and correspondence, Maggie reads letters and diary entries and slowly uncovers the history of the Lacey and Garrison families.  Readers take the journey alongside Maggie, and those who have read Pride and Prejudice will see similarities between Austen’s beloved characters and Beth’s ancestors.

But would Jane Austen have written a novel that often ridiculed people who could possibly be identified by their neighbors, for example, Mrs. Bennet, with her fragile nerves and poor judgment?

“Do you know when Jane first wrote the novel?” he asked.

“When she was twenty, so that would be about 1795.”

“But it wasn’t published until 1813,” Jack said, jumping in quickly.  “By that time, the Laceys had been married for twenty years!  If anyone was trying to figure out if these characters were real, they would have been looking at people in their twenties in 1813.  Some of the characters in that book were already dead and buried by the time Pride and Prejudice was published.” (page 16 in the ARC)

Meanwhile, Maggie must contend with a longing to return to her hometown in Pennsylvania and her desire at the same time to stay away.  She comes from a coal-mining town with few opportunities, and she’s grown to love the life she’s leading in England.  Besides Jack and Beth, Maggie has feelings for both Rob, an American who served as a navigator on a B-17 bomber during the war and wears the scars to prove it, and Michael, Beth and Jack’s son and a pilot in the RAF.  Things get a little complicated for Maggie, especially when she learns how deeply the horrors of war have affected Rob.

Searching for Pemberley grabbed me from the first page, and I was so lost in the story that I was reading 50-page chunks on the train and bus and almost missing my stop.  Simonsen writes from the first person viewpoint of Maggie, but her use of storytelling is what makes the narrative shine.  Whether the story being told is about the Laceys, the Crowell’s love affair, or the hardships experienced during the Great War and World War II, it feels as though you are sitting by the fire listening to an old friend chat.  Simonsen did a great job crafting the story of the Laceys — making them different enough from the Darcys to keep the story fresh — and seamlessly weaving in Jack and Beth’s story.  I actually was surprised how much the book dealt with the topic of war and its impact, which makes Searching for Pemberley so much more than a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice.  Honestly, the Jane Austen aspect of the story is just one part of the puzzle.

While the nearly 500-page book has numerous scenes and characters that are unnecessary to the plot and could have been cut without being missed, even these scenes were enjoyable, and I never once found that the story dragged.  In fact, for a book of its length, I read it fairly quick.  I wasn’t as captivated with Maggie and her romantic troubles (it was all rather predictable, but not in a bad way) as I was with the story of the Laceys and the Crowells.  Still, I found the entire book interesting, and Simonsen did an admirable job moving between the Regency, Great War, and World War II settings.  I never expected to discover a book that successfully merges two of my primary reading interests into one story, so you can bet this gem of a novel will hold a special place on my shelf.

Disclosure: I received Searching for Pemberley from Sourcebooks for review.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“The first step in this scheme involves the German families delivering their gold to Switzerland without being discovered.  That would be their problem.  The second step involves the transformation of the gold bullion into gold bearer bonds.  That would be the responsibility of the participating Swiss banking group.  The third step requires our obtaining the U.S. Federal Reserve’s and the gold center banks’ approval of the terms and conditions of the transaction.  Finally, we must print the bonds and deliver them to the Germans.  That would be our job.”

“With you so far,” Mike said.

“Then there’s the fifth step, where the fun comes in.  It’s the part where we siphon off one hundred million dollars of the ownership of the gold.”

Mike immediately choked on his drink.

(from The Sentinels: Fortunes of War, page 65)

In the first book of a new series about six friends capitalizing on their extensive knowledge of the way money and greed play a role in creating war, Gordon Zuckerman, a graduate of Harvard Business School, draws heavily upon his studies in banking, international finance, and history.  Zuckerman has taken this knowledge and transformed it into a well-crafted, engaging story of six people who risk their lives for what they believe is right.

In 1932 Berlin, financial adviser Karl von Schagel meets with Germany’s most influential industrialists, who plan to use their money to get Hitler elected as chancellor and use him to push their own agenda.  Von Schagel’s job is to become Germany’s deputy minister of finance and funnel their money to the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party.

At the University of California, Berkeley in 1938, six doctoral candidates unveil what they call “The Power Cycle,” a seven-step process that predicts the rise and fall of world powers.  It focuses on corruption, in this case industrialists using their money for political purposes, which played a role in Hitler’s rise to power and the start of World War II.  These six students — the Sentinels — meet again in 1943, when the German industrialists, recognizing that they no longer have any influence over Hitler, want to transfer $2 billion out of the country.  Thus begins a complicated tale involving the Sentinels forging $100 million in gold bearer bonds in the hopes of preventing a repeat of “The Power Cycle” and funding an independent watchdog organization to identify corruption before it gets out of hand — an organization they believe could have prevented World War II had it been in existence in 1938.

The Sentinels have the connections that enable them to commit this righteous crime:  Claudine Demaureaux, the mastermind of the scheme, is the daughter of an influential Swiss banker; Jacques Roth is the son of a top French banker; Cecelia Chang is the daughter of a Hong Kong trader and works as an American secret agent helping Japan’s enemies convert money into gold and move it into Hong Kong; Mike Stone, Cecelia’s boyfriend, is the son of an influential New York banker; Ian Meyer’s family runs an well-known auction house in London; and Anthony Garibaldi’s family is famous for wine in Italy, and the war has prompted him to snap up land in the Napa Valley to transfer the family business to the States.  When the forged bonds are discovered by the Germans, the Sentinels must fight for their lives — but they aren’t about to give in.

The Sentinels: Fortunes of War covers a lot of ground.  There is a lot of financial talk, but it is explained in a way that simplifies the information without making it dry and boring.  I know next to nothing about the bond markets and the Federal Reserve outside of what I read in the newspaper, and I was able to follow the storyline and actually found it very interesting.  Zuckerman writes plenty of action into the story, from kidnappings to shoot-outs, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering if the Sentinels would make it through unscathed.  There’s even some romance, with Jacques having to contend with his feelings for Claudine while juggling a new relationship with an English theater actress.  The romance wasn’t necessary and at times slowed down the main plot, but at least it wasn’t overdone.  Zuckerman tells the story in the third person, but the characters’ thoughts are frequently inserted in italics in the first person, which broke up the narrative and became distracting, but overall, I thought the story was so engaging that I could overlook it.  Zuckerman does a great job juggling the many characters.  He focuses on each character at various points in the novel, emphasizing both their strengths and weaknesses and making it easy to tell them apart.

Zuckerman has written a unique novel about World War II that concentrates on the economics of war, rather than battle scenes or concentration camps.  It really got me thinking about greed and how the lines between businesses and governments can blur, which is relevant to the current state of the economy.  I found the book hard to put down, and I think it would appeal both to those interested in World War II and readers simply looking for a fast-paced read with some war, history, economics, action, and romance thrown into the mix.

Read the first chapter of The Sentinels: Fortunes of War here.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Sentinels: Fortunes of War from Planned Television Arts for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Serena and I went to see Inglourious Basterds as soon as it hit the theaters, and not being a huge Quentin Tarantino fan, I didn’t have high expectations for the film.  However, I absolutely loved it (read our review here), and when Kathy told me there were scenes in the published screenplay that weren’t in the movie, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

Inglourious Basterds is a revenge war film with a lot going on.  It takes place in Nazi-occupied France and has two major storylines that ultimately converge.  There’s Shosanna, who escapes being murdered by “the Jew Hunter,” SS Colonel Hans Landa, and eventually comes to own a cinema in Paris.  She meets a German soldier who is attracted to her, and he decides that the Nazi propaganda in which he stars should be premiered at her theater.  Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldo Raine and his Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers, are attacking German troops, scalping them, and leaving one survivor with a Swastika carved into his forehead.  The Basterds are determined to attend the film premier and hopefully put a stop to the war.

Inglourious Basterds is the first screenplay I’ve ever read, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Tarantino’s stage directions are very detailed, making it easy to picture the story in my head, but the fact that I saw the movie first probably helped quite a bit in that respect.  He gives a lot more description and commentary than I would have expected.

Strangling the very life out of somebody with your bare hands is the most violent act a human being can commit.

Also, only human beings strangle, opposable thumbs being a quite important part of the endeavor. (page 137)

It’s these kinds of details that really make the screenplay interesting to read.  The dialogue also is very clever, and there were several scenes or parts of scenes that weren’t in the movie.  I can see why they weren’t included, as they aren’t crucial to the plot, but they were interesting nonetheless.

I enjoyed reading Inglourious Basterds almost as much as I enjoyed watching it.  If you’re someone who doesn’t mind reading graphic violence and would rather read it than watch it, then the screenplay is the way to go.  While the violence can be a bit much in Inglourious Basterds (this is Quentin Tarantino, after all), the plot and the characters were so captivating that I could overlook it in this case.  As for whether I’d ever read another screenplay, I’m not sure.  It’s not like reading a novel after watching the movie; with a screenplay, you’re essentially reading the movie.  But it was totally worth it in this case.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Inglourious Basterds from Hachette for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“Why did you join?”

“It doesn’t matter.  Everyone has a different story.  A German soldier shoots two men, and their widows, who never even liked each other before, find they are best friends.  They start a little band of resistance.  And they meet another woman whose father was killed, and she bands with them.  And another woman who was raped by a Nazi officer, and she bands with them.  And the girl who watched her mother get raped.  And the girl who watched her brother get arrested and dragged away.  Everyone has a personal story.  But in the end, they’re all the same.”

(from Fire in the Hills, pages 92-93)

Back in August, I reviewed Donna Jo Napoli’s World War II novel for young adults, Stones in Water.  Napoli tells the story of Roberto, a young boy from Venice, Italy, who goes to the cinema with his brother and some friends, and the Germans come in and round up all the boys and transport them to work camps.  Roberto successfully escapes from a work camp in the Ukraine, but he must make his way on foot back to Venice.  While I really enjoyed Stones in Water, I was a little frustrated with the open ending, and I was thrilled when Napoli e-mailed me to say there was a sequel called Fire in the Hills.

Fire in the Hills opens with Roberto still hoping to return to Venice (Note:  I’m not telling you anything big or giving away the end to Stones in Water).  He’s finally made it to Italy, but the German occupation means his hardships are far from over.  Roberto is alone and hungry, and while he’s grown up a lot since his capture, he’s really still a child.  He wants most to get back to his parents, learn what happened to his brother, and simply be safe.  However, he’s roaming through Italy depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.  Roberto is recaptured by the Germans and eventually freed by resistance fighters, whose family takes him in.  While staying with this family, he meets Volpe Rossa (“red fox”), a young girl who is a member of the partigiani, the Italian resistance movement.  Roberto decides to reassess his priorities, putting his desire to see an end to the war above his desire to stay safe, and he embarks on a journey with Volpe Rossa and becomes Lupo (“wolf”).  As Lupo, he goes on many missions, mainly delivering messages and weapons to other resistance fighters — all as he tries to make his way back home.

Fire in the Hills is full of action and tension, and every time Lupo and Volpe Rossa came in contact with the Nazis, I was on the edge of my seat.  I’d grown attached to Lupo, and I could feel his fear.  I loved the character of Volpe Rossa, a young woman wise beyond her years, a leader with great strength.  She knows how to use her femininity and her beauty to her advantage and to advance the cause — and no matter what happens, she doesn’t want to be viewed as a helpless girl.  Napoli provides a lot of interesting details about the Italian resistance, emphasizing the role women played in helping bring the war to a close.  She also brilliantly captures the innocence of Lupo, his gentleness and respect for humanity, which he retains despite all of the horrific things he has witnessed.

Fire in the Hills is a wonderful conclusion to the story begun in Stones in Water, but it is a standalone book.  Napoli weaves the major events of Stones in Water into the narrative, so readers have enough information about Roberto and his experiences since the cinema roundup that they shouldn’t feel lost.  While classified as a YA novel, I would recommend this one for mature YA readers.  There is more violence than the previous book, and these scenes might be too much for middle-grade readers.  (Personally, I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old daughter read this book yet, and I think I’d even wait a year or two before giving her my copy of Stones in Water.  But I definitely will recommend these to her at some point.)

These are perfect books if you like historical fiction and would like to learn a little about the German occupation of Italy and the Italian resistance through the eyes of a young boy directly affected by the war.  They are short, but powerful, and because they are geared toward the YA market, they aren’t overwhelming in terms of graphic details.

Disclosure: I borrowed Fire in the Hills from the library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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