The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner’s newest book, The Last Year of the War, is the story of a German-American girl whose life forever changes when her family is sent to an internment camp in Texas during World War II. I urge you to give this book a try because Davenport, Iowa is the family’s hometown! Most reviews only mention that the family is from Iowa, so I was pleasantly surprised when Davenport and other Quad City landmarks were frequently discussed through character background and development.

The Last Year of the War flashes back and forth between past and present. Elise Sontag’s family has been in the United States for nearly two decades. This fact proves not to mean much when government forces show up at their front door. Elise’s father is arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. Elise’s mother struggles to provide for the family amidst government and local judgment and pressure. Her entire family is eventually sent to an internment camp in Texas where they are reunited with Elise’s father. In Texas, the family lives behind barbed wire and amidst armed guards and other fellow internees. Despite being with her family, Elise feels lost as almost every physical thing her family had loved and was familiar to them is gone. Elise struggles to find a sense of belonging and quickly feels herself becoming unmoored.

The one bright spot in Texas? Mariko Inoue. Mariko is a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles living with her parents and her two older siblings. Mariko and Elise become fast friends, much to the chagrin of other people given that Mariko is Japanese-American and Elise’s family is German. In order to survive the harshness of the camp, the two make plans for what they’ll do when they get out of the camp and turn 18.  Knowing, hoping, and praying that they will have a bright future outside of the camp, they work hard to stay together and build a positive future.

Flashing between past and present, readers see what happened to Elise and Mariko. Were they able to keep their big plans? What happened to both of their families? How did the war and its far-reaching aftershocks affect the different people that they came in contact with? The character development throughout this book really drew me in, as well as the references to places that I was familiar with throughout Davenport. Give this book a read and let me know what you think!


This book is also available in the following formats:

Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson

I have inadvertently been reading a lot of historical fiction about World War II. How is this inadvertent you ask? I put a bunch of audiobooks on hold through OverDrive and as it so happened, five came ready at the same time. The last two that I’ve listened to have all been about World War II with the main women both playing the violin and one of the main men named Max. During the second book, I had to pay very close attention, so I wouldn’t mix up the books. Hidden Among the Stars was the second World War II fiction I listened to this week. It may be time for a lighthearted read…

Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson slips from the past to the future in this gripping tale of hidden treasure, a castle, and ordinary people fighting to resist evil any way possible.  This piece of inspirational fiction unites 1938 Vienna, Austria with 2018 United States.

1938. Austria. Hitler’s troops are sweeping into Vienna, much to the chagrin of Max Dornbach. With political views that differ from his parents, Max has no desire to shun his Jewish friends. Max offers to help his Jewish friends hide their most valuable possessions, so they won’t fall into the hands of the Nazis. Max works closely with the father of Luzia Weiss, a young Jewish woman he has grown to love. Smuggling those goods to his family’s summer estate near Hallstatt, Max quickly finds himself needing the help of Annika Knopf. Annika’s father is the current caretaker of the summer estate, meaning that Annika and Max have grown up together. Annika has loved Max for as long as she can remember and has thusly decided to help him however she can. Her loyalty and love for Max is stretched when Max brings Luzia with him on one of his trips to the summer estate. Agreeing to hide Luzia in the castle, Annika doesn’t realize the full extent of what is on the line until the Nazis come to Hallstatt and destroy the castle. Luzia and the treasure have disappeared, throwing everyone’s lives into turmoil.

Flash forward eighty years. Callie Randall may not be living the life she thought she’d have at this point, but she’s mostly happy with what she has. Callie is running a small local bookstore with her sister where she is known as Storygirl with amazing striped socks. Callie also runs a blog where she writes stories about different authors. While working on her current article, Callie stumbles upon a cryptic list in an old edition of Bambi that introduces her to the bewildering world of Annika’s story. Digging into Annika’s life, Callie finds that this story may be connected to the life of a close dear friend of hers. In order to find the truth, Callie must venture outside of the safe place she has built for herself. She soon finds herself on an adventure with a chance for new love and long-awaited for answers.


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The Huntress by Kate Quinn

In the chaotic aftermath of World War II three very different lives intersect as they all seek one goal – to find and bring a cold-blooded killer to justice in The Huntress by Kate Quinn.

Ian, a newspaperman who went into battle alongside the soldiers he reported on, can no longer find it in him to write. He now hunts down former Nazi’s that have slipped away, bringing them to trial to answer for their crimes. Nina, raised in Siberia to be tough and unforgiving, fought in the war as a bomber pilot for the Soviet Union. When her father is disavowed by the Soviet government, Nina is considered guilty by association and, despite the fact that she has served loyally she must flee, past the front lines into German-held territory where she barely survives. And Jordan, safely tucked away in America slowly realizes that the war has come to her, years after it officially ends.

This is one of those can’t-put-down books not just for the twists and turns and tension (which there is plenty of) but to find out more about the characters and their lives. Nina is especially interesting – her (very harsh) childhood in Siberia, her training to be a pilot and her exploits in the Soviet Army as a bomber pilot (the Soviet Union was the only country to use women in combat roles in World War II) as part of the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment nicknamed the “Night Witches” by the Germans. The blending of Nina’s fictional story and the true exploits of the Night Witches is fascinating and introduced me to a little-known part of the war.

Ian is also an interesting character. He is obviously suffering from PTSD brought on by some of the horrors of war he has witnessed when following soldiers into battle armed only with a notebook. He now channels his guilt and energy into tracking down former Nazi’s that have escaped notice in the chaos at the end of the war. Many of them fled to other countries, changing their names and trying to hide among ordinary people. Many countries, including the United States, turned a blind eye and a war-weary world chose to move on. Ian has not forgotten though and goes after these minor Nazi’s with dogged determination.

Jordan may seem the least touched by the war but in the end it is she that brushes up against it’s brutality most intimately. Her suspicions of her new stepmother only grow as time passes and she is thrust into a race to save the people she loves. It is “The Huntress” herself that ties these people together and when their stories finally intersect, the result is explosive.

A tense, absorbing read. Highly recommended.

 

 

The Tuscan Child

Rhys Bowen’s newest mystery, The Tuscan Child, is one of those books that starts out a bit slowly. But when there is a change of locale, the book really hits its stride. Alternating chapters are set in either the 1970’s  or in the 1940’s.  The 1970’s chapters begin when Hugo Langley’s daughter, Joanna, first learns of her father’s death. She then travels to Tuscany to find out more about his experiences  during the war, and this is when the book really takes off.

The novel goes back and forth between Joanna’s visit to Italy and  the period when her father was  shot down  in the remote hills of Tuscany.  Not only must he brave the elements, hiding in a ruined monastery, but he is nearly immobilized by a broken leg.

The suspense really builds as the reader is excruciatingly aware of the danger faced by those who helped Allied servicemen. The Germans threaten to kill everyone in the village if they find proof that one of them has been aiding the pilot they suspect is still in the area. Bowen supplies lots of detail about life in these towns overrun by the Germans, as well as about the groups of men who resisted.  Even though these groups were anti-Fascist, they could also pose a threat to civilians caught in everchanging alliances that made any kind of trust dangerous.

There is  suspense even in the 1970’s as there are long-held secrets about the war and how the villagers had to deal with the German occupation. Another mystery is the relationship between Hugo and Sofia. Joanna’s impetus to visit Italy is a letter from Hugo to Sofia, the young woman who fed and helped to hide Hugo. Sofia’s son, Renzo, still lives in the village and Joanna wonders if he is, in fact, her brother.  (This would be awkward as there is some romantic tension between the two).

There are many appeals to the substance and the style of the novel.  There is the enjoyment of learning lesser-known facets of history, such as how war impacts civilians, both during the actual conflict and how it resonates decades afterwards. The novel’s structure highlights the contrast between Hugo in his final years and Hugo as a young man. It’s a compelling illustration of how death and loss can change a courageous and generous hero into an embittered man.

Another thread of the plot deals with artistic masterpieces and how, tragically, many were destroyed or went missing. This is given extra relevance because Hugo is a gifted artist, himself.

I love the way information is slowly discovered by Joanna. You get a sense of the terror of the wartime, and why families would not want everything to be known, even 30 years later. It did bother me a bit that one final mystery was never revealed – the fate of one of those villagers who was key to the story. Perhaps Bowen will revisit San Salvatore, and the intriguing cast of characters who live there.

 

Darkest Hour on DVD

Darkest Hour follows Winston Churchill’s early days as England’s Prime Minister, as he battles doubts (his own, those of the politicians and even the King) and leads England into it’s great trial yet.

Europe has fallen to the Nazi invasion, nearly the entirety of the British Army is trapped at Dunkirk and America remains neutral. England stands alone. Should Churchill sue for peace and try to come to terms with Hitler, or fight what seems an impossible war? The politicians around him want to negotiate, feeling that they are in a better position now than if England falls. To fight German will come at great cost – is Churchill willing to shoulder that burden?

Gary Oldman, as Churchill, is masterful. He delivers some of Churchill’s best lines (“We will fight on the beaches. We will fight on the landing grounds….We shall never surrender.” and “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”) with assurance and drama that matches the serious situations. Physically, Oldman does not particularly look like Churchilll, but he captures his quirks, gestures, mannerisms and voice unerringly.

The film does take a few liberties, and fudges a couple of dates, but the overall atmosphere – of England united against a great evil – feels very real. A great choice for fans of World War II history.

The Room on Rue Amelie by Kristin Harmel

After falling in love with and marrying a Frenchman, California girl Ruby moves to Paris despite her parents’ concerns. It’s 1938 and Europe is on the verge of war. Ruby insists on staying, even after war is declared and soon finds herself involved in the French Resistance, facing great danger and heartbreak.

The Room on Rue Amelie by Kristin Harmel takes a look at the homefront in Paris, the deprivations, the very real danger and the fear. At first, the French residents have difficulty believing that anything awful will happen to them, that the French government will protect them. The reality is that the French government flees before the invading Germans, food becomes scarce and citizens turn a blind eye to the rounding up and deportation of Jews.

Ruby, however, cannot look away; she agrees to shelter a Jewish child and begins helping the Resistance smuggle downed Allied pilots out of the country. Along with the stress and struggles of daily life, she and her husband grow apart, watches neighbors and friends fall to Nazi aggression, suffers personal loss and falls in love.

As expected, I enjoyed the setting and the time period and found the glimpse of the French home front to be very interesting. However, I never really connected with the heroine – she seemed very detached and almost untouched by the events surrounding her. I think that descriptions of conditions and hardships were minimized which made everything somewhat distant. But maybe that’s just my interpretation. Did any of you read this book? And if so, what did you think?

If you’re looking for other books about the homefront in France during World War II, I’d highly recommend All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (one of my very favorite books), The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or Sarah’s Key by Tatiana Rosnay.

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.