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The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff

Source: Diary of an Eccentric
Paperback, 352 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff explores the bonds between sisters, particularly twins, and how those bonds can be tested and crack beneath the pressures of war and persecution.  The Nowak twins live in a small fictitious town in Poland, Biekowice, and are charged with raising their two younger sisters and brother after the death of their father.  Ruth is considered the more feminine and nurturing of the sisters, while Helena was adventurous, gathering wood and setting animal traps with their father from a young age.  Ruth was the first to fall in love and have her heart broken, and this heartbreak helped to define her views on family and loyalty, while Helena has yet to fall in love and does the best she can to provide for the family as the Nazis move across Poland and take over not only Krakow, but smaller villages along the way.

“As I stroll beneath the timeless canopy of clouds, the noises of the highway and the planes overhead fade.  I am no longer shuffling and bent, but a young woman striding upward through the woods, surrounded by those who once walked with me.”  (page 8 ARC)

Jenoff is a talented story-teller and her ability to transport readers into the harsh conditions of a rural town in Poland during WWII is nothing short of miraculous.  Readers will feel the biting cold, the harsh stares of neighbors looking for information to sell to the Nazis to get ahead, and feel the warmth of the Nowak family even as it struggles to stay together.  Ruth weighs loyalty above everything, while Helena places her family’s happiness above her own for so long that when she sees happiness for herself within her grasp, she wants to hold it close and not have to share it.  Like all sisters, Ruth and Helena share the burdens of bringing up their siblings alone, keeping food on the table and checking on their mother who is in a Krakow hospital.

Helena stumbles upon an American paratrooper in the woods and the Nowak family’s trajectory becomes skewed.  Jenoff has created twin sisters who are connected but seeking their own individuality while keeping their family together.  These dynamic women must face their own fears, as well as the reality of the WWII knocks on their door, literally.  The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff demonstrates how the unexpected can be a blessing and a curse, how families can pull together even when they don’t really like one another at that moment, and how guilt can compel us forward to make things right.

This book was phenomenal, well told, and would be a great pick for book clubs — also it is likely to make the 2014 Best of list.

About the Author:

Pam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.  Visit her Website and Facebook page.

21st book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Poland)

 

 

 

 

31st book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

26th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

This Is How I’d Love You by Hazel Woods

Source: Penguin
Paperback, 320 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

This Is How I’d Love You by Hazel Woods is a WWI novel set in 1917 that demonstrates the power of the written word.  New York Times columnist Sacha Dench, who graciously agrees to be a pen-pal and chess opponent to Charles Reid, is forced to resign from his position as sentiment in the United States leans more toward entering the war than remaining isolated from it.  He and his daughter, Hensley, leave quickly for Hillsboro, New Mexico, to take up the residence of a former mine supervisor.  Dench’s letters to Reid are philosophical debates about the justice of the war and its final outcome, but they are also a test of wills on a chess board that mirror those tensions.  Hensley is intrigued by the letter and utterly infatuated with a play director in New York City, but when she’s forced to decide between staying in New York with her brother or go to New Mexico, she chooses to leave.  Like the notes in the margins of her father’s letters, her life is lived on the outskirts of the proper role she is meant to play as a young 17-year-old woman without a mother.

“Mr. Dench has taken one of Charles’s pawns in the third move of the game, their bishops facing one another and the next move of utter importance.  Charles must be wary of the temptation to play too aggressively, putting his own pieces at risk in the next turn, which, he senses, is probably his opponent’s strategy.  A classic lure.  But playing like this, without body language or eye contact, is a new challenge.” (page 5 ARC)

It is striking how Woods uses the game of chase to depict the art of war on many levels, from the war between Dench and Reid’s competing philosophies to the difficulties in playing chess without the social cues to guide him as they would in hand-to-hand combat.  Reid is not so much a soldier as an ambulance driver from the United States who signed up to make something of his life, rather than live the life expected of him by his rich parents.  While he finds his actions independent, he is also aware as the war goes on just how foolhardy the decision may have been.  Feeling adrift on foreign fronts, Reid holds onto Dench’s letters and later the secret correspondence he has with Hensley as a lifeline.  But her life is far from as simple as she would like him to believe in their forced exile.

“By the end, the lead had become so dull that his signature is hardly more than a thick looping smudge.  Even so, Hennie moves her index finger across the page, mimicking the script, slowing especially over his name, until she can trace his signature perfectly.  Inhabiting his body, exiting her own, she crouches down under the table, imaging the cramped feel of the cellar, the roughness of chapped lips, the stale smell of urine on her clothes, the sound of artillery just outside.”  (page 71 ARC)

Hensley is living in the world of their letters as much as he is, but soon she is forced to make a choice — not once, but twice — that could change the course of her life forever.  This Is How I’d Love You by Hazel Woods explores the power of letters, the devastation of war and grief, and the societal pressures to which we can succumb or fight against.  Woods has made WWI vivid and gruesome as it must have been, demonstrating the irreparable harm that soldiers may face but also the inner strength it requires for them to move forward and to continue doing so even when they return home.  Expectations should be their own and not imposed upon by others, and only through compassion and love can these men soldier onward.

About the Author:

HAZEL WOODS lives in New Mexico with her husband and two children.

30th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

20th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in France)

 

 

 

 

25th book (WWI) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

 

 

 

 

 

63rd book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

G.I. Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

tlc tour host

Source: TLC Book Tours and William Morrow
Paperback, 368 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

G.I. Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi is a biography-memoir hybrid in which the stories of four women who married American soldiers, known as G.I. brides, during WWII are told.  Sylvia Bradley is a bit young and naive but an optimist, while Gwendolyn Rowe is a determined woman.  Rae Brewer is the tomboy to Margaret Boyle’s beauty.  These stories are romantic as these ladies decide to leave the only home and family they have known to marry an American, only to find themselves facing more than just marital challenges.  Culture shock is just one aspect that is well depicted in these stories, especially as the women marry into not only American families, but families that still maintain their old world cultures and traditions — like the Italians big family dinners to the rowdy Irish parties.  As different as their lives had been from each other during WWII, they are vastly different when they reach America.

“During the day, Margaret did her best to get up on deck as much as possible to assuage her seasickness.  Starting out across the endless miles of ocean, she was reminded how cut adrift she had always felt in her life.  Some brides might feel the ache of homesickness, but she had never had a real home to miss.”  (page 98)

“As she packed her bag, she heard a chugging noise coming from outside and looked out of the window.  There in the distance was the menacing outline of a doodlebug passing over hoses opposite.  Then suddenly the noise stopped.  Rae knew what that meant — the flying bomb was about to fall.” (page 114)

Through extensive interviews with these women and their families, Barrett and Calvi have brought to life the home front in England, as these women struggled with rationing and the fear of bombs killing them on the way to work or in their sleep.  As their families struggled, brothers were sent off to fight the Germans, and they found work to support the war effort, these women were introduced to a whole new world outside the cocoon of their family units.  They went to dances with Yanks and volunteered in Red Cross-sponsored facilities, only to find that these Americans were not as crass as they were told by brothers and parents.

“For months Lyn had felt desperate to return home to England, but now she realized that the thing she had been looking for no longer existed.  It was her younger self — that confident, carefree girl who hadn’t had any knocks in life, who could stand on her own two feet …” (page 340)

Once in American, these women must fight another war — a war within themselves.  They feel like outsiders, they struggle to find their place with their new families, and many times they are met with failure.  But even though they long to return to England and walk away, they also realize that they must first stand on their own and learn what they want for themselves.  G.I. Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi may only breathe life into the lives of four G.I. brides from WWII, but it stands to reason that many of those 70,000 brides experienced similar hesitations, failures, and triumphs in their new lives.  Wonderfully told and executed.

About the Authors:

Duncan Barrett studied English at Cambridge and now works as writer and editor, specialising in biography and memoir. He most recently edited The Reluctant Tommy (Macmillan, 2010) a First World War memoir.

 

Nuala Calvi also studied English and has been a journalist for eight years with a strong interest in community history pieces. She took part in the Streatham Stories project to document the lives and memories of people in South London. They live in South London.

Connect with them through their website.

61st book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

24th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

 

 

 

 

19th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in England)

My Mother’s Secret by J.L. Witterick and Giveaway

Source: Penguin Random House
Paperback, 180 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

My Mother’s Secret by J.L. Witterick is inspired by the real-life story of Franciszka and Helena Halamajowa who in Nazi-occupied Poland were able to save several families and a German soldier from being killed by the Nazis.  Told in understated, spare prose, the novel travels through the perspectives of Helena who grows up in Poland with her mother and brother without a father; Bronek, the head of one of the Jewish families; Mikolaj, the son of a premiere Jewish doctor before the Nazi occupation; and Vilheim, the German soldier who is vegetarian and does not want to kill.

“In all of us, there is a child that exists while we have our parents.

With my mother gone, I feel a sadness for the loss of the child within myself.” (page 68)

Helena’s perspective is the most developed of the four, in that readers garner a deeper understanding of her family and the losses they endure. Despite those hardships, she admires her mother’s commitment to doing the right thing. Her relationship with her brother is heart-warming from the beginning as they struggle to keep their stomachs full and steer clear of their father’s rage. Her mother’s secret is not so much that she begins hiding families from the Nazis but that she has the strength and conviction to do so no matter how much it could cost her personally. And while Helena sees herself differently, she carries with her that same strength, especially when her way of life changes drastically under Nazi occupation.

My Mother’s Secret by J.L. Witterick covers the range of reasons people were in hiding during WWII, and examines the perseverance of those hiding them. But it also takes a look at how keeping up appearances and going unnoticed can be the key to survival, as is showing love to fellow man with no expectation of getting anything in return.

About the Author:

Originally from Taiwan, J.L. Witterick has been living in Canada since her family’s arrival in 1968. She attended the University of Western Ontario, graduating from the Richard Ivey School of Business. My Mother’s Secret is her debut novel. It is a bestseller in Canada and has been published in several countries around the world. Witterick lives in Toronto with her husband and son.

Giveaway:

U.S./Canada residents 18+ can leave a comment below to be entered; list a WWII book that you’ve loved. Deadline to enter is Sept. 22, 2014, 11:59 PM EST.

58th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

18th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Germany/Poland)

 

 

 

29th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

23rd book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

Source: Gift from Anna
Hardcover, 272 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve, which was the War Through the Generations August read-a-long book, is set during WWI.  When the novel opens, a woman who has been wounded finds herself in a field hospital in Marne, France, in 1916.  She was found in the uniform of a British nurse’s aide, but has an American accent and cannot remember her own name.  As she grapples with her lost memory and identity, she plucks Stella Bain from her mind and begins to call herself such, even though she knows it may not be her real name.  Stella continues to work alongside the French women near the front and eventually volunteers as an ambulance driver.  Her jumbled mind takes a back seat to her duties at the front, but eventually, she feels drawn to England and the Admiralty, though she’s not sure what she’ll find there or if she will uncover anything about who she was.

“‘No.  Nothing is normal.  How can it be? I don’t yet know who I am.  I may discover, when I know my identity, that I’m not a good person at all.  I fear that I’m not.  I seek my identity, and yet I’m afraid of it.  But I’m more afraid of never knowing.'” (page 75)

Stella learns her true identity, and her true name is a near-anagram of the one she had chosen for herself.  When she learns of her identity and all that she frantically left behind in the United States, she must make passage home.  While Dr. Bridge and his wife, Lily, helped her to be calm and recover her name and identity, they are left behind in England without so much as a goodbye from her.  However, she never forgets their kindness and through letters, readers are given insight into her gratitude.  Shreve’s prose in this novel is distant.  While we see Stella’s point of view, readers are still distanced from her, which could be intentional given the absence of her memories and true identity.  In many ways, as the mystery unravels and readers learn more about the woman without a name, she becomes an everywoman for those women leaving during the early 1900s — caged in by marriage and family, but yet yearning for something outside of their home and legally allowed to own their own property.

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve is not just about a woman with shell shock or a lost memory, but a woman in an era where the modern world was just beginning to take shape.  A world in which women were fighting for independence from their families and husbands, to live lives as they wished to without seeking permission or approval.  Overall, while the ending could leave some readers wanting more, the novel would make for an excellent book club discussion.

About the Author:

Anita Shreve is an American writer. The daughter of an airline pilot and a homemaker, she graduated from Dedham High School in Massachusetts, attended Tufts University and began writing while working as a high school teacher in Reading, MA.

Interested in the read-a-long discussions at War Through the Generations, go here; though there will be spoilers.

17th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge(Set in France, England)

 

 

27th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

22nd book (WWI) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 389 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson, our August Book Club selection, is part legal thriller and part historical fiction, as Ben Solomon recognizes that one of Chicago’s elite was a former Nazi SS officer Otto Piatek, the butcher of Zamosc, and his one-time brother.  Solomon’s family always strove to help their neighbors whenever possible, and one day take in a German boy, Otto, as their parents face the struggles of lost jobs and opportunities.  On the cusp of Nazi expansion, Poland seems like it is protected from outside forces and immune to Nazi takeover, but suddenly, things change and the Solomons are faced with a variety of tough decisions.  In the present Ben Solomon has aged and is on a crusade to bring Piatek to justice no matter the cost.

“‘Maybe for some.  Not for me.  It is why we must remain diligent and relentlessly pursue men like Piatek.  Evil is contagious.  Much like a pathogen, it must be snuffed out at the source.'” (page 139)

Balson has a great story to tell, but it’s too bad that the modern-day character of Catherine Lockhart is too much of a pain, with her constant interruptions about billable hours and urging Ben to get to the point.  She’s constantly bombarding Ben with questions about property and the basis for his lawsuit and always denying her interest.  While her backstory about a horrible conniving husband gives credence to her lack of confidence as a lawyer and her concern about keeping her current job, her story is pale in comparison to Ben’s Holocaust story.  Moreover, there are times when Ben appears to be spouting off facts in an effort to educate the reader, coming off more as a lecture than a man who is telling his life story.  Despite these flaws, the story is engaging — even if everything that could have happened during the Holocaust happens to Ben and his family — and readers will be sucked into the past, just as Catherine is.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson is intriguing because of the Polish setting, and the story of Ben and his family is engaging, but the lawsuit portion is resolved very quickly and the relationship between Ben and Otto as children is only partially developed.  With that said, Balson knows his history and has created an engaging look into the past that will have readers examining the world today in a new light.  Are we beyond the evil the Nazi’s engaged in or is the potential still here among our own world leaders?

About the Author:

The author, Ronald H. Balson, is a Chicago trial attorney, an educator and writer. His practice has taken him to several international venues, including villages in Poland which have inspired the novel Once We Were Brothers.

What Book Club Thought:

Most of us were displeased with the attorney character and her sob story, which had not place in the book, especially in comparison to Ben Solomon’s holocaust story.  With that said, one member really enjoyed the legal maneuverings near the end of the book, though they were resolved very quickly.  While the novel was readable and went quickly, there seemed to be an abundance of bad things happening to Ben and his family, though like most of these stories there are many who die.  Otto also seemed to be “too” evil and there was little seen of his transformation, which could be because the story was told from Ben’s point of view for the most part.  One member suggested that the modern day characters be cut out or that they be only at the end when Ben makes it to modern day and begins his lawsuit, while another suggested the book be split between the “brothers'” points of view.  Overall, many thought this book could have presented the story in a better way.

20th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

 

 

49th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

 

 

 

15th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge(Set in Poland)

 

 

25th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

Vietnam: The Real War with introduction by Pete Hamill

Source: Gift
Hardcover, 304 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Vietnam: The Real War with introduction by Pete Hamill is a coffee table book that is heavy with photographic evidence of war, the burdens soldiers and civilians carry from those conflicts, and the moral ambiguity soldiers find themselves mired in when faced with unexpected death.  There are images in this collected visual and textual history that will haunt readers for years to come, but the story told in these pages through the eye-witness accounts of journalists who thrust themselves in combat alongside soldiers should make the harsh realities of war even more frightening for those of us who merely read history and have not lived it as a pawn in a larger strategic game of politics and nationalism.

“Most of the experienced correspondents in Saigon doubted that many Viet Cong hidden in their jungle spider holes were debating the Marxist theory of surplus value.  Nationalism was a much more powerful motivator.  They definitely wanted to get the foreigners the hell out of their country.”  (page 21)

Even with all that is known about the war and the inflated body counts made by the U.S. military during the war, there are still some great unknowns and even some smaller more poignant ones for the families of journalists and soldiers lost in Vietnam.  For instance, did the January 1952 bombings in Saigon really happen because of the Viet Minh, the predecessor to the Viet Cong, or was it U.S. intelligence agents?  And what really happened to Sean Flynn, a freelance photojournalist and son of the actor Errol Flynn, in the early 1970s — was he killed in action or captured?  Lest readers think that photojournalists and reporters were kept back at the barracks or the camps, this book sheds light on just how dedicated these journalists were and how close to the action they had been — some of them taking photos only to drop their cameras and help civilians, soldiers, or become wounded themselves.

There are, of course, the most famous images from the Vietnam war from the Associated Press, including the Buddhist Monk who set himself on fire in the streets, the young girl running naked after Napalm was dropped on her and other civilians by the U.S. military, or the shooting of an unarmed Viet Cong after capture in the Saigon street.  But there are other photos that show the beauty of Vietnam, including an aerial view of the newly plowed rice paddies and the pristine beaches, as well as the most mundane activities — watching a soldier shave while battle surrounds him or men on their way to bathe in towels while still carrying their weapons.  Sad photos stretch across these pages from the unknown soldier who looks too young to be in battle, wearing a helmet with the phrase “War Is Hell” written across it or the woman who pleads to be evacuated with her wounded husband, but is left behind.

Vietnam: The Real War is heavy in subject and content. It should give readers pause. The text accompanying the photos and the background on the war are to the point and provide enough detail without getting bogged down too heavily in the politics or the perspectives floating around in hindsight. An excellent starter for those looking to learn more about the war.

About the Author:

The Associated Press won an unprecedented six Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the Vietnam War. To create this book, the agency selected 300 photographs from the thousands filed during the conflict.

Pete Hamill is an American journalist, novelist, essayist, editor, and educator. The recipient of numerous awards, Hamill is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.

19th book (Vietnam War) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

 

 

 

44th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

The Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson

Source: Harper and TLC Book Tours
Hardcover, 384 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson is not your typical novel in that there are three distinct novellas inside with three distinct protagonists, who just happen to be connected.  The atmosphere and settings play a large role in the novel, setting the stage for the mystery and espionage that unravels, but the beginning of this novel is deeply mysterious, almost too mysterious.  It is like the author was unsure of whether this should be a ghost story or something less Gothic.  Readers meet Ellie Brooke at the beginning as she makes her way abroad to Porquerolles near France to meet with a potential client about reviving a memorial garden.  The landscape is lush and old world, almost as if it were stuck in time, and Ellie begins to sense that there is something not quite right with her client’s family and their intentions.

“Under close questioning, however, the picture in her mind did not seem as robust as it had been.  She judged it unwise to say so.  Best to go with her instincts that her memory was true.”  (page 25)

These women are searching for truth in the darkness, with Ellie searching for her client’s motivations and Marthe searching for the connections she had with the outside world before she lost her sight and Iris looking to reconcile the past.  The second section and third sections of the book are set in WWII, unraveling the background of the story in a winding fashion as if following a darkened path through the woods before reaching the vast openness of the sea.  There are clues along the way to help readers gauge where the story is headed and how it all connects back to the first third.  From the underground dealings of the French Resistance that relied upon deceit and subtle signals in the perfume worn by network members to the secret codes embedded in innocuous notes and wireless signals over radio waves, readers will learn about the precarious nature of these resistance fighters’ lives and the love that they shared across the boundaries that they crossed morally, emotionally, and physically.

“On the southwestern side of the island the path opened out into a small bay, reinforced by jagged rocks.  All seemed at peace.  It was too early in the year for tourist hordes; here was freedom from the modern world, for a while at least.  There was a timelessness about being on an island so small that it seemed closed in on itself; the sense of being adrift, not quite connected to the rest of the world.”  (page 31)

The Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson is as mysterious as the rundown memorial garden on the island, but as the crevices are scrutinized and the relics uncovered, they mystery begins to unravel a truth that has long been buried in secrets of the French Resistance and WWII.  These strong women must cope with what they uncover and reconnect with the past.  Being undercover in an enemy territory can be as lonely as living on an island disconnected from reality, but there is nothing more disconcerting than being unaware of your own past, only to uncover it when you least expect it.

Photo credit: Rebecca Eifion-Jones

About the Author:

Deborah Lawrenson studied English at Cambridge University and worked as a journalist in London. She is married with a daughter and lives in Kent, England. She and her family spend as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France, the setting for her novel The Lantern and inspiration for The Sea Garden.  Find out more about Deborah at her website, read more at her blog, and connect with her on Facebook.

 

 

14th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge(Set in France and England)

 

 

 

24th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

18th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

 

 

 

 

43rd book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

China Dolls by Lisa See

Source: Random House
Hardcover, 400 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

China Dolls by Lisa See spans pre-WWII, WWII, and after the war when Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese were constantly stereotyped and pushed to the sidelines, and when America goes to war against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, proving you’re American becomes even more important.  Grace Lee has left Ohio in a hurry and ends up in San Francisco with crushed dreams and no friends, until she meets Helen Fong, who is from a traditional Chinese family in Chinatown.  She’s uptight and traditional, harsh on Grace and later on Ruby Tom, but she’s also searching for her own path, wishing that her own dreams could be realized.  Hollywood is often considered the land where dreams come true, but in this case, these Asian women find their dreams in San Francisco, though those dreams are often marginalized by their own pettiness and the world that looks down on their culture and abilities.

“Helen and I sat on the floor a little apart from the other ponies, who massaged one another’s feet, stretched, and gossiped.  Every day Helen arrived at rehearsal in a dark wool skirt, long-sleeved black sweater, and charcoal-gray wool stockings, but she quickly changed out of them.  To my eyes, it seemed like she was shedding not just layers of clothing but layers of tradition.” (page 47 ARC)

Grace is a broken young woman of seventeen and very naive, and in many ways Helen and Ruby are all too happy to teach her lessons about the real world, but they often underestimate her resiliency, her willingness to forgive, and her determination to succeed.  Whether she is running from her past in Ohio, her failed attempt at stardom at the Golden Gate International Exposition, or the rumors that circulate around her during WWII, Grace must turn inward to find her strength and remain true to her dream.  She may take advantage of every opportunity around her when it presents itself, even if it comes as something tragic befalls her friends, but she never purposefully creates those opportunities.  Ruby and Helen, on the other hand, are downright Machiavellian, though in Helen’s case, her machinations come from an emotional devastation that she struggles to keep hidden daily.

“I don’t want to remind them”—and it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out I was talking about the FBI and the WRA—”I exist.  I don’t want to risk being sent to Leupp to join my parents.  I want to forget all that.  You left your mother behind.  Now I’ve left mine.” (page 262 ARC)

China Dolls by Lisa See is about chasing your dreams, making them come true, and all the petty jealousies and ups and downs that come with that, particularly in show business.  See masterfully weaves the history of the time period into these ladies’ lives.  It would be an excellent selection for book clubs as it raises questions about racial discrimination, inter-race relations, and prejudices within cultures based on socioeconomic and cultural differences, as well as what it means to be patriotic.

About the Author:

Lisa See, author of the critically-acclaimed international bestseller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), has always been intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world today. Ms. See’s new novel, Shanghai Girls, once again delves into forgotten history.  Visit her Website, Facebook, and Twitter.

17th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

War Babies by Frederick Busch

Source: Public library
Paperback, 114 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

War Babies by Frederick Busch is a novel about two adult children whose lives connect long after their fathers have died in the Korean War and not by accident.  A thirty-plus year-old attorney decides he’s established enough in his career to seek out the answers he wants about his father’s role in the Korean War and how it landed him in jail.  Peter Santore has struggled with the loss of his father, who is said to be a traitor in a Korean War POW camp, and he decides it is time to travel to England to get some answers.  He discovers through his research in the United States that his father may have played a role in the death of Hilary Pennels’ father in the POW camp.  Traveling to Salisbury, he debates how he will find this woman and introduce himself, but clearly he decides that he will use her to get the information he wants if he has to.  Along the way, he also runs into Mr. Fox, a survivor of the Korean War POW camp.

“I had two canvas bags and a wrinkled blazer, and the sure sense, as I left London, that I didn’t know what I would do if I found Miss Hilary Pennels, or whatever her married name might be.  How do you do.  My father committed treason in Korea at about the same time your father, terribly wounded, was saving the lives of his men and distinguishing himself in the eyes of history forever.  I just wondered if my father might have done anything to, er, kill yours?”  (page 6-7)

Busch’s third person narrative, which also changes to first and second person randomly, distances the reader from these characters in a way that makes the instant connection between Hilary and Peter tough to believe.  Moreover, how they interact with one another is by turns sympathetic and hurtful, perhaps more so by Hilary who seems manipulative.  While Peter struggles with his feelings for this woman and the “relationship” they’ve started, he also wants to close a chapter in his life that has to do with the Korean War and his father.  How does he navigate this fragile relationship to get the information he needs?

Mr. Fox is a damaged war veteran, but the horrors of the Korean War are never far from his mind, and how he lurks in the corners of this “conversation” between Hilary and Peter is downright creepy.  His hatred of Peter’s father is evident and understandable, but the projection of that hatred by Mr. Fox demonstrates just how broken and lost the veteran is.  He’s brutal in describing the camps, but he’s also brutal in how he approaches the tale and other people he interacts with.  Busch even describes his rotting breath and fetid teeth and gums, which can only signify his moral depravity.  Fox’s issues go beyond the PTSD, and Busch relays his story of the camps in just the way a veteran who is bitter would, and these are the strongest parts of the story.  Some readers may find connecting with these characters difficult because their motivations are hidden and how they interact really has no context.

“Mind you, I don’t know how easy it might be.  But you should make the effort.  You should prosper in the wake of your past, not live a cripple.  England’s full of cripples.  It’s the country of cripples.  You see them all over the towns, in braces and wheelchairs and with no arms, wheezing and spitting blood and falling over in pubs.”  (page 62)

War Babies by Frederick Busch is complex and deals with the after effects of war on the children of veterans, POWs, and traitors.  It is ultimately about the choice that these families and their individual members must make for themselves — they need to learn to accept the past that cannot be changed and to move forward.  Connections can help strengthen the will to move on from the past, but those connections also must be bred in honesty and mutual respect.

About the Author:

Frederick Busch was an American writer. Busch was a master of the short story and one of America’s most prolific writers of fiction long and short.

Interested in the War Through the Generations discussion, see part 1 and part 2.

13th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge(Set in England)

 

 

 

 

23rd book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

16th book (Korean War) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

 

 

 

 

39th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion

Source: Penguin
Paperback, 368 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion is a collection of short stories by a number of great authors from Karen White to Sarah McCoy and Pam Jenoff in which the linchpin is Grand Central Station in New York City.  What makes this collection a solid five stars (a designation I never use in reviews) is the connections — small as they may be — between the stories and characters.  You’ll find one character from a story early on is in the background and evokes an emotion in a character in a story later on.  This collection is so strong and examines that various aspects of reunion and love after World War II — whether that is love between father and daughter or an instant connection between strangers in a train station.

From “Going Home” by Alyson Richman

“But no matter the style, the clocks all gave a sense that one had to keep moving, and Liesel liked this.  It enabled her to focus on her responsibilities.  When she wasn’t dancing, she was sewing.  And when she wasn’t sewing, she was dancing, either at her ballet studies or performing at the supper clubs that helped pay her bills.” (page 14)

In these talented ladies’ hands, Grand Central comes to life with the bustling passengers on their way to trains and coming from trains and the subway, the people earning a living with their art in the hallways, and those waiting for their soldiers to return from war.  World War II was a pivotal time in history, but it also was the last time that the country was truly united behind a cause — the cause against a pervasive evil that must be vanquished.  These stories are about what happens when that cause is complete and those who fought and those left behind have to pick up what’s left of their lives.  What does it mean to be lucky, especially when you are all that’s left of your family — like Peter in “The Lucky One” by Jenna Blum?  Or what does a mother do after the Lebensborn program ends when her children are gone and the Nazis are vanquished in Sarah McCoy’s “The Branch of Hazel.”

From “The Harvest Season” by Karen White:

I glanced down at my ruined hands, thinking of Johnny and all the boys in the county who would never be coming home.  I wanted desperately to hold on to this moment for Will, to allow him to believe that while he’s been away we’d held on to the life he remembered so he could slip back into it like a familiar bed.  But time could not be fenced no matter how hard we tried.”  (page 336)

Some of these men and women face pivotal moments in their lives in Grand Central Station, while others are merely passing through onto that moment that will change their lives forever, but all together these are tales of strong people living beyond the hurt of the past to seek out the hope of the future.  Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion is stunning, an emotional collection tied together by love, sadness, loss, and Grand Central Station. No matter who passes through their lives, there is an indelible impression left behind.

22nd book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

15th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

War Babies Read-a-Long and Happy Birthday

First, this message for my husband:

Secondly, Today, at War Through the Generations, Anna and I are holding our first discussion for the Korean War read-a-long pick, War Babies by Frederick Busch.

We hope that you’ll join us in a discussion of this short book. For this week, we’re focusing on pages 51-end of the book.

Check out the discussion here.

For the first part of the discussion, go here.