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Elsie is a baker’s daughter in 1945 Germany. Her family is somewhat sheltered from the realities of the war by her older sister’s participation in the Nazi Lebensborn (breeding) program, and the attentions of a Nazi official. When a Jewish boy follows Elsie home and asks for shelter, she must decide whether to continue being her family’s daughter, or if she should choose for herself what is right.

In modern day Texas, Reba meets Elsie, now a bakery owner with a daughter of her own. Reba discovers that the seemingly simple task of interviewing Elsie for a newspaper article opens a floodgate of emotions for both herself and Elsie. Together, the two women reveal pieces of their own stories to each other, and find a way to make peace with the past and the present.

Told in alternating points of view from young Elsie and present day Reba, this novel is hard to put down. While not quite as suspenseful as Sarah’s Key, the story is well-written, and the characters struggle with similar issues of right, wrong and what we can and should do about it.

Soviet Terror

28th April 2011

I read two books recently that shed new light for me on the suffering caused by the Soviets during World War II. The first, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, is a novel based on the author’s family history. Stalin and the Soviet government used the cover and confusion of World War II to “cleanse” the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, killing outright or deporting millions of people. Lina and her family live in Lithuania in 1941. Because of unknown “crimes,” 15 year old Lina, her younger brother and her mother are sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Siberia. Only her mother’s sheer determination, her brother’s childlike innocence, and Lina’s love of drawing can sustain the family during their darkest hours.

The second, Hiding in the Spotlight, by Greg Dawson, is a biograhpy of the author’s mother, Zhanna.  Zhanna and her family were Jews living in the Ukraine during the start of World War II. Already suffering under Stalin’s brutal communistic policies, the people’s torment increased as the Germans swept into Russia. Soothed by false promises of kindness from both the Soviets and the Germans, Zhanna’s parents decide not to flee from the swiftly moving German army. Once the Germans reach their town, the Arshanskys soon realize their terrible mistake. Unable to save themselves, Zhanna’s parents manage to save their two daughters. Through the kindness of strangers, and using their amazing musical talents, the girls are able to survive the war in plain sight, by entertaining the Nazis.

World War II Fiction

22nd January 2011

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr: This juvenile autobiographical novel tells the story of 9 year old Anna and her family.  Anna’s family must flee their Berlin home for the relative safety of Switzerland, leaving friends, family, and most of their belongings behind.  Anna’s life as a refugee is completely different from the one she left in Germany.  In spite of the hardships and danger, she learns to cherish her family even more, and even finds satisfaction in making their new life together.

Black Radishes by Susan Lynn Meyer: Gustave and his family leave Paris just ahead of the Nazis, settling in a small French village that happens to be just across the river from Nazi occupied France.  Even though the Nazis technically aren’t in control of Gustave’s village, the Vichy French government is still in complete cooperation with the Nazi agenda.  Gustave comes to realize that he must face his fears and help the people close to him, even if it means risking his life to do so.  While the story is fiction, many of the events in the book are based on real events from the Meyer’s father’s life.

While We’re Far Apart by Lynn Austin: Penny, trying to escape her domineering parents, agrees to care for handsome Eddie Shaffer’s children, Esther and Peter, when he goes off to war.  Jacob Mendel, still grieving after his wife’s death, spends every spare moment searching for his grown son and family, trapped in Nazi controlled Hungary.  Esther and Peter, missing both mother and father, desperately need someone to love and care for them.  Everyone is searching for meaning, comfort and reason in a broken world.  This was definitely one of Austin’s best books.  The stories of the characters are alternately told, without being distracting.  While the ending was somewhatpredictable, there were a few surprises, and throughout the book, God’s love, mercy, providence and unseen workings are gently shown, without being preachy or overly dramatic.

Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli: Roberto and his friends are taken from their Italian town by German soldiers and sent to a work camp deep in Nazi occupied Europe.  Struggling to survive and to protect his best friend, Roberto must find the courage to finally fight for his freedom.  An excellent book.  There is a sequel, Fire in the Hills, that I am eager to read.

Hannelore was safe at her school in Germany when her mother and brothers received a letter saying that they were to be deported.  Knowing that her family would have a better chance at survival if she were there to care for them, Hannelore voluntarily turned herself in for deportation as well, thus beginning a nightmarish journey through the concentration camps of wartime Europe.  Hillman bravely records her haunting memories in order to ensure that her loved ones will not be forgotten, that the sacrifices of good people will be remembered and that the horror of Nazi Germany will never be repeated.

Book Overload

08th October 2009

The stack of books on my desk, waiting to be reviewed, is insurmountable.  I will never get to them all.  So for the sake of time, I need to do a combo post.  Here are the books I’ve been reading the past few weeks.  Most of them have been fantastic:

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf–Two young girls are missing in the woods.  Told through multiple perspectives, the families work to find their girls, and one of the girls, Callie, works to regain her voice.  I had a hard time putting this one down.

Day After Night by Anita Diamant–A fictional account of the October 1945 rescue of Jewish detainees from the Atlit internment camp in Israel.  A grim reminder that the plight of the Jews didn’t end with the surrender of Germany.

The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam–The autobiographical account of Somaly Mam, who was sold into prostitution in Cambodia as a young girl, was able to escape, and returned to help other girls.  An amazing and heartbreaking story that continues today.

While I’m Falling by Laura Moriarty–A college student and her mom try to figure life out.  I love the way Moriarty writes about mother-daughter relationships.

Blood on the River: James Town 1607 by Elisa Carbone–A fictional account of Samuel Collier, page to Captain John Smith and his journey to Jamestown.  I read this after having visited Jamestown Settlement.  The book brings the familiar story to life.

The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick–I can’t believe I didn’t discover this book earlier!  A love of reading and writing saves a dystopic civilization.  Great book.

Lost and Found by Andrew Clements–Twin brothers take turns going to school, and in the process, discover who they are as individuals.  Not my favorite by Clements, but well done nonetheless.

Shackleton’s Stowaway by Victoria McKernan–One of the most amazing adventure stories I’ve ever read, based on the real journey made by Ernest Shackleton and his crew as they attempted to cross the Antarctic continent in 1914.  Highly recommended.

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