Now Arriving From – London

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How did September go for you? Did you find something fabulous to read that was set in London? There certainly isn’t a lack of great reading material set in the English capital. With so much history and culture and so much influence on the world (an Empire that at one time spanned the globe), the possibilities for excellent reading material are nearly endless.

I chose to read a fairly new novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Set in London during World War II, it focuses on the home front during the London Blitz and the hardships suffered and bravery shown by those left behind. Typical dry British wit and stiff upper lip attitude contrast with the very real terror and danger of London under siege making for a tense and absorbing read.

When war is declared in 1939, Mary immediately leaves her school in Switzerland and races back to London, convinced that she will miss out on the “action” and volunteers at the War Office. Instead of becoming a spy as she has imagined, she is assigned a position teaching children who have not been evacuated. She is disappointed and frustrated, but then the Blitz begins and she is suddenly in the midst of the “action” and it’s brutality. A growing friendship with her boyfriend’s roommate, who is stationed in Malta, brings the horrors of the front lines to the story and shows that there are many ways to be brave both at home and in the field. A fascinating, bittersweet look at wartime London.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read in September? Let us know in the comments!

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

 At the Water’s Edge is a glorious novel written by Sara Gruen, the author of Water for Elephants. Written in the same rich, historical style, At the Water’s Edge follows the life of Maddie and Ellis Hyde, as well as their friend Hank. Maddie, Ellis, and Hank have always been friends. They’re wealthy, beautiful, and carefree. Well, until all three go and muck their lives up royally of course. At a major high society event in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie, Ellis, and Hank get together and have a rolling good time. Maddie thinks nothing happened out of sorts until the following morning when countless people call her mother-in-law’s house where she and Ellis are staying to tell her about the major embarrassment that Maddie, Ellis, and Hank caused. Devastating repercussions follow and Maddie and Ellis soon find themselves cut-off financially with no clue what to do. Enter in Hank with a master plan!

Hank proposes they head to Scotland in the middle of the war to look for the Loch Ness monster. This trip had always been thrown around as a somewhat joke given Ellis’ father’s infamous dealings with the monster, but given the fact that Maddie and Ellis have no money, it is their only option. Finding that monster will get all three back to the lifestyle that they are so accustomed to, as well as clear Ellis’ father’s name. Plus Hank is massively wealthy, so he’s going to bankroll it! Even better. Once decided, all three head off to Scotland in the middle of the war. Seemingly oblivious to the war and how it is affecting the city and the people they deal with every day, Hank and Ellis hunt the monster, leaving Maddie behind most everyday at their hotel to deal with everything. Left alone, Maddie is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about herself, her companions, and her way of life. Add in the fact that both Ellis and Hank both seem to be able-bodied men who are avoiding the war to hunt for a fictitious monster and this book is rife with conflict.

What I most enjoyed about this book was that readers can clearly see Maddie’s character develop into something more well-rounded as the book progresses. As soon as she leaves Philadelphia, she seems to awaken out of her privileged state where everything is glossy and perfect to see all the harsh realities that surround her. Maddie also starts connecting to more meaningful things, be they people, nature, or life in general, than she had previously in Philadelphia. Maddie’s metamorphosis hooked me into the book and kept me reading.

I listened to this book through OverDrive and greatly enjoyed it. The narrator did a fantastic job of giving each character their own separate voice. Given that the majority of this book takes place in a foreign country and also during war time, she was also able to give the necessary characters a very believable foreign accent.


This book is also available in the following formats:

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is the story of the Kurc family and their experiences  during World War II. This novel is actually the story of her family, and she uses the real names of her grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

I was struck by the similarity of phrase, when reading an account in the April 24th issue of The Dispatch  and The Rock Island Argus  of a speech by Doris Fogel.  During Holocaust Remembrance week,  Ms. Fogel, a Chicago resident who spent years in a Shanghai ghetto during World War II, said: “No one could have foretold the horror and hardship the coming years would bring to millions of Jews and others,” … “Every day, I realized I was one of the lucky ones.”

The Kurcs are from a small town in Poland, and as the war goes on they see their lives and homes disintegrate. Some are forced to live in ghettos and  concentration camps, some are sent to a Siberian gulag. The “luckiest”  is Addy who is living in Paris when the war starts, and he cannot get back home to Poland, and he can’t let them know where he is. Finally, he gets a visa to Brazil. After the war, the Red Cross is able to connect those who survive and the extended family emigrates to Brazil, where Addy can help them rebuild. They’ve lost their homes, identities, friends, belongings, savings, and occupations, but in the end they still have their family and faith.

Survivors were left in limbo after the war. Hunter describes in realistic detail the rules, regulations and laws involved in getting visas, and the rigors and dangers of travel – both during and after the war. I was unfamiliar with the level of atrocity in Poland and how, even after the war, Jews were still  persecuted in Germany.

Hunter personalizes the horror of what so many suffered. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of what happened and how many millions of stories there are that have been lost. The reader gets a small sense of this by following the members of the Kurc family as they, incrementally, have everything taken from them. Another tragedy is losing so many stories – as the last several generations pass away, along with their first-person accounts.

 

 

 

 

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fascinating glimpse into the homefront of World War II England. Set in a village in Kent, this focuses on the women who maintain their communities, families, and the war effort after their sons and husbands have joined the military services. I didn’t realize how real the fear was that the Nazis were going to arrive on English soil – people near the coast really began to feel that an invasion was imminent. I also didn’t comprehend the extent of the damage  outside of London  during the Battle of Britain. We’re so used to seeing the rubble of London, that we forget the impact on the countryside.

Several women of Chilbury describe their fears and the strength they gather from each other and from singing together; we read their first-hand accounts through letters and diary entries. At first, they seem to be stock English characters, but they begin to show their complexity as the war and tragedy change them.  Venetia Winthrop was particularly interesting, I thought. At the start of the novel and the war, she’s vain, selfish, and revels in her power over men. As she suffers pain and loss, she becomes more a more generous sister and friend. Not only are the accounts from the point of view of women, but we see them become stronger and more independent. They find their voices both musically (the power of music is movingly conveyed by Ryan), and in their ability to stand up for themselves and for other women.

Not everyone is admirable; there are men and women behaving badly, sometimes criminally, but, overall, there is a sense of hope, and satisfaction is watching a community and country support each other.

The Mathews Men by William Geroux

mathews menOne of the indelible images of World War II is of an explosion at sea – a U-boat attack, a ship in flames and an ocean full of men swimming for their lives through oil and debris. The Mathews Men tells the story of what it was like to be on those ships in an almost unknown epic sea battle that took place just off the coast of America. Its heroes were the men of the U.S. Merchant Marine, celebrated at long last in William Geroux’s unforgettable new book.

Mathews County, Virginia, is a remote outpost on the Chesapeake Bay with little to offer except unspoiled scenery. Its men had gone to sea for generations, but in 1942, Mathews mariners suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of a lethal fleet of U-boats bearing down across the Atlantic. The Germans were determined to sink every American merchant ship they could, to strangle the flow of fuel, arms, and supplies to the Allies. The U.S. Navy initially lacked the inclination and resources to protect the unarmed vessels, and the carnage was staggering. Ships were sometimes torpedoed before the eyes of tourists on American beaches.

Nearly every family in tiny Mathews had a personal stake in the U-boat war, and none had a greater one than that of Captain Jesse and Henrietta Hodges and their seven sons. The Hodges family would experience the war in all its horrors and triumphs around the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Indian Ocean to the Arctic Circle. Drawing on interviews with the last living Mathews mariners, family records, diaries, letters, and official documents, Geroux describes how men survived torpedo explosions, flaming oil slicks, storms, shark attacks, and harrowing lifeboat odysseys – only to ship out again as soon as they’d returned to safety. Merchant mariners often died terrible deaths, and suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the U.S. military except the Marines, but were denied veterans benefits for decades.

This is a story of valor without glory, of the men who made sure no Allied invasion force was ever thrown back from a beachhead into the sea for want of supplies or weaponry. Merchant mariners landed at D-Day and delivered the crew of the Enola Gay to the Pacific, and when the war was over, it was Merchant Marine ships that brought the troops home. Geroux evokes in vivid, human detail a war beyond the familiar battlefields and its toll on the families back home. Unrecognized by the government, unheralded in the history books, the achievements and sacrifices of the Merchant Marine have been largely ignored – until now. (description from publisher)

The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb

winter fortressFrom the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Hunting Eichmann and The Perfect Mile , an epic adventure and spy story about the greatest act of sabotage in all of World War II.

It’s 1942 and the Nazis are racing to be the first to build a weapon unlike any known before. They have the physicists, they have the uranium, and now all their plans depend on amassing a single ingredient: heavy water, which is produced in Norway’s Vemork, the lone plant in all the world that makes this rare substance. Under threat of death, Vemork’s engineers push production into overdrive. For the Allies, the plant must be destroyed. But how would they reach the castle fortress set on a precipitous gorge in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on Earth?

Based on a trove of top secret documents and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs, The Winter Fortress is an arresting chronicle of a brilliant scientist, a band of spies on skis, perilous survival in the wild, sacrifice for one’s country, Gestapo manhunts, soul-crushing setbacks, and a last-minute operation that would end any chance Hitler could obtain the atomic bomb – and alter the course of the war. (description from publisher)

The Good War Wrap-up

Hello Fellow Readers! It’s hard to believe but it’s the end of April already – how did you do with this month’s Reading Challenge? For me, the hard part was picking which book to read – there are so many excellent books set during World War II. Did you find any gems that you’d like to share with us? Please let us know.

bookthief2I was planning on reading two books, but ended up having time for only one – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is a pretty amazing book. It did take me awhile to learn the rhythm and pace of the book and to accept the narrator, but once I did, it was nearly impossible to stop reading.

Narrated by Death, The Book Thief follows the fortunes of a poor street in a suburb of Munich during the war, especially the story of Liesel Meminger. After her little brother dies and her mother abandons her to foster care, Liesel goes to live with the Hubermann’s. In their own wildly different ways, Hans and Rosa love Liesel and raise her as their own. As the war arrives and hardships mount, they hang on grimly, finding happiness in simple things such as music, a stolen apple and books.

One day Hans fulfills a promise and agrees to hide a young Jewish man in their basement. Max and Liesel become fast friends, sharing stories and bound by their shared pain and nightmares. When it becomes too dangerous and Max must leave, Liesel and the Hubermanns are devastated. The hardships mount – rationing, the growing presence of the Nazi’s and the carpet bombing of Munich and its neighboring towns. Huddled with neighbors in a basement during a bombing, Liesel reads aloud from one of her stolen books, bringing comfort and some calm to the frightened people.

Through it all, Death watches. His voice is wry and even humorous at times, and he is surprisingly compassionate, puzzled by the cruelty and moved by the agony he witnesses. His arrival often means the end of suffering and is welcomed. He narrates Liesel’s story lovingly, even gently – he is impressed by the young girl, not only her will to live, but to find happiness.

The choice of Death as narrator is especially interesting as is the fact that he’s presented as a sympathetic character. His ability to see across history and vast distances brings a unique perspective. His descriptions of gathering the soul’s of the dead and taking them to their eternal rest is often gentle and tender; he always carries the souls of children in his arms. The view of the war from the German home front is also interesting. There is no such thing as simple “good” or “evil” (with the exception of the Nazis) – they are like any human with complex, often conflicting emotions and actions, capable of great cruelty but also great kindness.

This is not a light and happy book, yet it is also not altogether a dark book. The sadness and suffering are very real, but hope for humanity remains. That there is some kindness and that there is an end to the suffering combine to create a book of lasting power. Highly recommended.

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May is nearly here – on Monday we’ll start on the next step on our year long Reading Challenge – graphic novels. Who’s with me?!

The Good War – Halfway Point

ReadingChallengeBWHello Fellow Readers!

How are you getting along with this month’s Reading Challenge? I haven’t gotten very far in my book (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak) – spring happened (finally) and a lot of my time has been taken up by garden chores. However, I have some great opportunities coming up soon for time to read and look forward to getting caught up.

Have you found a great World War II book to read yet? Or are you still searching? There are so many good ones, maybe you’re having trouble picking just one! If you’re struggling – or just looking to read more World War II fiction, here are a few more suggestions.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. A long-lost letter arriving at its destination fifty years after it was sent lures Edie Burchill to crumbling Milderhurst Castle, home of the three elderly Blythe sisters, where Edie’s mother was sent to stay as a teenager during World War II.

The Race for Paris by Meg Clayton. A moving and powerfully dynamic World War II novel about two American journalists and an Englishman, who together race the Allies to OccupiedParis for the scoop of their lives.

China Dolls by Lisa See. A rich portrait of female friendship, as three young women navigate the “Chop Suey Circuit” – America’s extravagant all-Asian revues of the 1930s and ’40s – and endure the attack on Pearl Harbor and the shadow of World War II.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. In London covering the Blitz with Edward R. Murrow, Frankie Bard meets a Cape Cod doctor in a shelter and promises that she’ll deliver a letter for him when she finally returns to the United States.

Louise’s War by Sarah Shaber. Louise Pearlie has come to Washington DC to work as a clerk for the legendary OSS, the precursor to the CIA. When she discovers a document concerning a college friend, Louise realizes she may be able to help get her out of Vichy France. But then a colleague whose help Louise has enlisted is murdered, and she realizes she is on her own.

The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara. As Hitler conquers Poland, Norway, France, and most of Western Europe, England struggles to hold the line. When Germany’s ally Japan launches a stunning attack on Pearl Harbor, America is drawn into the war, fighting to hold back the Japanese conquest of the Pacific, while standing side-by-side with their British ally, the last hope for turning the tide of the war. First of a trilogy.

Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly. As the shadow of World War II descends over Europe, Detective Inspector Thomas Lamb hunts for an elusive killer behind the veil of a seemingly charming English village.

Pacific Glory by Peter Deutermann. A thrilling, multilayered World War II adventure following two men and an unforgettable woman, from Pearl Harbor through the most dramatic air and sea battles of the war.

Let us know what you’re reading! And good luck with the rest of your April Reading Challenge!

April’s Reading Challenge – The Good War

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217th General Hospital posting in Swindon, England, 1944

Hello and welcome to the April Online Reading Challenge! This month’s theme is The Good War – World War II in Fiction. There are lots of amazing titles this month – it’s going to be hard to pick just one!

First off, no war is “good” – terrible things happen during every war. But World War II is sometimes called the “good” war because we (the Allies) were fighting true evil (the Nazis) and the only way to stop them was through force. On the surface, at least, it was a war fought for noble reasons. It’s also a war when ordinary people took on an extraordinary task, fought by a generation (the “greatest generation”) that faced this challenge with the same grim determination that got them through the Great Depression. It is a time period that has been romanticized, but we should always remember that there was great pain and suffering as well.

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Orderlies from the 217th General Hospital unit, Paris France 1945

World War II has long been one of the most popular subjects in the library, both in fiction and non-fiction. While many of the people who actually lived during that time period (1939-1945) are now gone, many of us have heard stories from our parents and grandparents, so it is still vivid in our memories.

There is no shortage of excellent books set during World War II; the problem is narrowing the list to manageable proportions! Here are a few of my favorites to get you started.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Set primarily in France and Germany, it moves between two main characters, one a blind French girl living in a small town along the Normandy coast, the other a young German soldier who is recruited into Hitler’s army as the lesser of two evils. These two very different lives are, with the imminent invasion of the Allies, about to intersect in unforeseen ways. I love this book – the beautiful, evocative writing, the examination and contrast of opposite sides, the almost unbearable suspense – come together to create a truly memorable experience.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Most of the World War II fiction that we see is set in England, France or Germany (I don’t have scientific proof of this, just observation as a librarian) This novel brings focus to the home front in Russia, specifically the siege of Leningrad. A young man jailed for theft and an army officer convicted of deserting are given a choice – find a dozen eggs within the next week, or be executed. In a city where many have been reduced to cannibalism and many more have died of starvation, it is a nearly impossible choice. That these reluctant partners find kindness, friendship and even some joy, elevates this book above the usual war novel. Another excellent book set during this time is The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, focusing on the docents and art historians of the Hermitage and their efforts to protect its priceless art.

Other books that shed light on forgotten or little known incidents of World War II include Sarah’s Key by Tiatiana de Rosnay which focuses on the deportment of Jews from Paris, Corelli’s Mandolin about the occupation of the Greek islands, first by the Italians and then by the Germans, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer about Guernsey Island, the only part of England that was invaded by the Germans during the war. For a look at the war in the Pacific, try A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute or Tales of the South Pacific by James Michner. For a look at a dark period of American history, try Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, set during and after the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.

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The Arc ‘d Triumph, Paris, France, May 8, 1945 (VE Day)

My choice for this month is The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. This has long been on my “to read someday” list. Narrated by Death, it is set in Germany at the start of the war and focuses on ordinary citizens trying to survive day by day. It sounds grim, but also hopeful (which I need!) as one of the main characters finds and shares books as a way of coping. If I have time I may try to read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein which is about a young woman that has been shot down behind enemy lines. It comes highly recommended.

What about you – what book or books are you planning to read this month? Do you have any favorites set during World War II that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments! And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to stop by the library and pick up a Reading Challenge bookmark!

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Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

symphony for the city of the deadBiographies or any sort of nonfiction relating to the siege of Leningrad that occurred amidst World War II can become depressing to read because of the many, many atrocities committed and the vast number of people who died. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the opposite of the traditional heavy nonfiction. Anderson breaks up his story of Shostakovich and the evolution of Leningrad by dropping in back-and-white historical photographs that allow readers to put a face to a name. This inclusion breaks up the chaos and destruction happening within his descriptions of Stalin’s purges and the eventual siege of Leningrad by bringing in pictures and maps to connect the history presented with an actual physical place and actual people. It may seem easy for people to ignore and write off atrocities committed, but I find that when authors choose to add pictures into their books, the subject matter becomes even more real and life-changing.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad really brought to life for me the importance of art and culture to a nation and its citizens, both in a negative and a positive light. Anderson tells readers the story of Stalin and his purges: how he rid the country of top military officials, science experts, and a wide variety of other people and effectively set his country up for more widespread disaster when Hitler invaded and he had no experts to ask for advice. This book focuses on art and culture, specifically music and Dmitri Shostakovich. This Russian composer escaped death at the hands of Stalin and instead found himself navigating the tricky tight-rope of composing the music that Stalin finds appropriate while still staying true to himself. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is the one that he writes for Leningrad, “The City of the Dead,” and this book effectively sets the stage for discovering Shostakovaich’s mindset around that time and also the necessary cultural and political framework that he was up against. Highly recommended!

Check out the following fiction and nonfiction books for more information about the siege of Leningrad and related topics!

the madonnas of leningradcity of thievesleningrad siege and symphonyinferno the world at warstalin the court of the red tsarabsolute war