Review: Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly

Published April 5th 2016 by Ballantine Books

Hardcover, 496 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley
25893693New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.

I have to confess, I had a very rocky reading relationship with Lilac Girls.  I almost quit more than once, but I am glad I stuck it out.  I admit that I really am not familiar with what happened at the concentration camp at Ravensbruck.  The attention to Sarah Helm’s book last year Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women caught my eye and I think was the first time I really learned there was a camp that was just for women.  When I was offered a chance to read Lilac Girls with a fictional account of one prisoner’s story I jumped for it.  Lilac Girls follows three very different women; New York socialite Caroline, Polish Girl Guide Kasia and frustrated German medical student Herta.  Caroline and Herta were real women while Kasia is based on one of the Ravenswood Rabbits – healthy women that the Nazis performed horrific medical experiments on.

I know not to judge a book by its cover – but I feel like the cover of Lilac Girls suggested a story that didn’t happen.  I’m not complaining that I didn’t get that story – but I am complaining a bit that I was misled!  Maybe that is part of why I couldn’t connect with this book to begin with.  I simply couldn’t see how a Polish resistance member and a Nazi believer would connect.  That being said, I think the contrast between Herta and Kasia’s stories was very powerful when they were both in the camp.  

Hall Kelly clearly put a ton of love and research into this book so I just wish it had been more consistent.  The first third, I felt Caroline was totally underplayed and made me almost ready to quit the book.  Once I did get into this book I was IN and didn’t want to put it down.  Caroline Ferriday was clearly an amazing woman, but she’s played as such an airhead until the final third that it was kind of shocking to see what she was capable of.  Even her dialogue was weaker than the other characters which made her annoying.  I would love to read more about her actual life.  I think the fictional romance created for Caroline almost weakened her real life story.  

Herta is nearly forgotten until the end which was also disappointing.  It would have been interesting to learn more of how her life was after Hitler died.  Despite being the fictional character Kasia’s emotions came across the most powerfully.  Her story was heartbreaking and made me all the more determined to read more about Ravensbruck.  

It was eye opening for me to read a World War II and Holocaust book that was not about the atrocities against the Jewish people – this is a lot of what made the book for me.  Lilac Girls left me thinking about the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Iron Curtain in a way I never have.  Our great-grandparents came from Poland and I’m curious now about what might have happened to the family they left behind.  My next step is to get my sister working on genealogy to understand where our history might lead.  

3 stars
Thank you Ballantine Books and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: A Conspiracy of Blood & Smoke

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (Prisoner of Night and Fog #2), Anne Blankman

Amanda

Published April 21st 2015 by Balzer + Bray

Hardcover, 416 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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From Goodreads…

The girl known as Gretchen Whitestone has a secret: She used to be part of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. More than a year after she made an enemy of her old family friend and fled Munich, she lives with a kindly English family, posing as an ordinary German immigrant, and is preparing to graduate from high school. Her love, Daniel Cohen, is a reporter in town. For the first time in her life, Gretchen is content.

But then, Daniel gets a telegram that sends him back to Germany, and Gretchen’s world turns upside-down. And when she receives word that Daniel is wanted for murder, she has to face the danger she thought she’d escaped-and return to her homeland.

Gretchen must do everything she can to avoid capture and recognition, even though saving Daniel will mean consorting with her former friends, the Nazi elite. And as they work to clear Daniel’s name, Gretchen and Daniel discover a deadly conspiracy stretching from the slums of Berlin to the Reichstag itself. Can they dig up the explosive truth and get out in time-or will Hitler discover them first?

I really enjoyed Blankman’s first book, Prisoner of Night and Fog which was published last year.  In the first book we meet Gretchen Cohen, who grew up under the influence of her “Uncle Dolf,” a rising star in the National Socialist Party in Germany.  Gretchen lost her father as a child when he heroically took a bullet for his dear friend Hitler.  At least that is what Gretchen grew up believing.  Then she meets Daniel Cohen, a young Jewish reporter who tells her a very different story.  I won’t recount the whole plot Of Prisoner of Night and Fog for you but beware of spoilers ahead!

In Book One, Gretchen finds out from Daniel that her father is not the martyr portrayed, but that Hitler himself murdered him.  Gretchen was a character that grew so much! She was basically raised on Hitler’s platform of hate and had to completely reframe her view of the world.  She learns hard truths about her whole family in Book #1 and basically her world view is completely rearranged.   This book gave me the chills as I really don’t ever think of Hitler as a real person with relationships.  While I enjoyed Prisoner of Night and Fog as an adult, I think young adult readers, as intended will really love this book, with it’s great characters and fast and tense plot – with historical accuracy as an added bonus.

In A Conspiracy of Blood & Shadows  we find Gretchen and Daniel now living in Oxford, England.  Gretchen has a new happiness that she’s never had with a loving adoptive family.  Daniel watches the news from Germany anxiously and is trying to find any politician willing to listen about the menace rising with the Nazi party. When word reaches Daniel that a family member has been assaulted and is close to death, he feels he must sneak back into Munich to find out what happened.  Gretchen next receives a telegram stating Daniel has been accused of murder in Berlin and she follows him back to Germany.

Knowing what we all know about the history of Germany in the 1930’s I wanted to shake the book and tell Daniel to stop.  The best part about A Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke was the look at the world right before Hitler seizes total power*.  Churchill is referred to as washed-up and while Germany is poor and her citizens restless, there is no outright hate campaign yet.  This series gives a very different look at Germany under Hitler than you get from the average book about World War II.

While I liked the book, I would say the plot itself is not as strong as Prisoner of Night and Fog.  The search into why Daniel would be framed for murder is tense within the context of the burning of the Reichstag fire in Berlin and the merging of the police forces with Hitler’s SA; however the action surrounding Daniel and Gretchen themselves just isn’t as exciting.  Perhaps it is because we know that their actions can’t change history and no matter how determined the character is in the book Hitler’s path is set.  This was still completely worth a read if you enjoyed Prisoner of Night and Fog.  Daniel and Gretchen are great together and develop further as they get deeper into the mystery.  Again, this is a series I would have loved as a teenager.

* For this, Holly also recommends In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson.

3 stars!

Thank you to Balzer + Bray and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.  

Review: At the Water’s Edge

At the Water’s Edge, Sara Gruen

Amanda

Expected publication: March 31st 2015 by Spiegel & Grau

Hardcover, 368 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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From Goodreads…

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

I admit to some trepidation to beginning At the Water’s Edge.  I loved Water for Elephants (who didn’t?) but her sophomore effort was a book that I wish I hadn’t finished.  That being said, when I saw this was a book involving the Loch Ness Monster I had to read it!  I’m so glad I did because I really enjoyed At the Water’s Edge.  Maddie and Ellis are not a likeable couple when we meet them.  They’re spoiled rich kids living off Ellis’ father and waiting for Maddie’s father to die to “earn” their own fortune.  They drink days and nights away and find all the trouble they can with Ellis’ best friend Hank- another rich ne’er do well.

Maddie has historically been up for any adventure Hank and Ellis suggest, so they assume she’ll also be willing to take an ocean voyage across the Atlantic in the midst of WWII to help them find the Loch Ness Monster.  The trip across U-boat infested waters begins to bring a bit of awareness to Maddie about how lucky they really have been in life.  They arrive in Scotland after a whirlwind beginning to the book and I had my first real look at what marriage is like between this couple.  Ellis is an ass and I didn’t think much better of Maddie at first either.  Ellis and Hank are both deferred from the Army for “medical reasons”.  This causes them both great shame at home and is a major factor in starting their quest.  Maddie finds the deferrals even more disturbing as they’ve actually moved to the UK; a land of rationing, black-out curtains and needing a gas mask with one at all times.

As days of attempting to get footage of Nessie swimming turn into drunken hours at the lakefront Maddie turns away from Ellis and Hank.  She spends her time in the small inn that they’re staying at and even finds herself developing friendships with the hired help-something she’d have never done in Philadelphia.  Maddie starts to question not only Ellis’ motivation in marriage but where she wants her life to go.  As I said, this book does not begin with likeable characters-but I loved how Maddie changed herself once they arrived in Scotland.  I was sure that I would still not like her in the end, but she really finds inner strength and proves herself.  The romance was sweet and also not what I was expecting.

Let us not forget Nessie.  There may or may not be a bad-ass appearance by the monster that steals the book.

4 stars!

Thank you Spiegel & Grau and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Nonfiction November Week Two – Reading List

We’re back for more Nonfiction November – a series of posts celebrating nonfiction and why you should read it. You can find our Week One post here – along with a bunch of comments on books we had to immediately add to our to-be-read lists.

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For Week Two, we were (okay, I, Holly was) struggling to put together a list of books on a particular topic. I looked at the nonfiction books that I want to read and suggested my topics to my sister. Weather? Books about reading? Or Weird Books about Data?

Amanda was unimpressed with my random categories. She posted last week that she wants to read some modern American History, so we came up with a list of books we’d both like to read on that subject. (Maybe we need a nonfiction sister read-along soon!)

20th Century American History Gun In Act One Reading List

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Issac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson – Erik Larson is the man

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Hugette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman – This has gotten rave reviews from other NFNers!

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan – Quite the contrast to one directly above

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown – Another one that we’ve seen a lot of praise for

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – Thanks to a comment last week from Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan – I have been waiting for this to be available at the library!

Any recommendations to add to this list? Or, any weird books about data to add to Holly’s list?

Review: China Dolls

China Dolls, Lisa See

Amanda

Published June 3rd 2014 by Random House

376 pages

Source: Edelweiss

From Goodreads…

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In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco’s exclusive “Oriental” nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?

Grace, Helen and Ruby meet as they’re all auditioning as dancers in a Chinese club in San Francisco.  These are great paying jobs for women at the time-especially for Chinese women, but this is not innocent dancing and there’s also a price they pay for that.  Eventually they leave San Francisco and start traveling the country with other Chinese entertainers or those passing as Chinese due to the times.  I had never heard of the “Chop Suey Circuit” of Asian entertainers traveling the United States so the stories were fascinating to me.  This was a shocking read from a 2014 perspective of the racism that was present at all levels and the way that it was just part of these girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately these characters didn’t really come to life for me the way that I felt about See’s previous work such as in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Ruby, Grace and Helen’s lives become deeply intertwined and they depend heavily on each other.  Despite that dependence the interactions between them just felt forced to me at times.  They professed to be such true friends, but really were frenemies.  Maybe that’s just show business?  Reading about false friendships can be fun and all-but this wasn’t supposed to be that kind of book.  I felt like I could see what was coming far ahead of time-the great reveals really weren’t any kind of revelation for me.  If See had put as much into her characters as she did into the historical setting this would have been an amazing book.

 3 stars

Thank you Random House and edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Waiting on Wednesday: Prisoner of Night and Fog

Prisoner of Night and Fog, Anne Blankman

Amanda

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

From Goodreads…

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In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her “uncle” Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.

Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler.

And Gretchen follows his every command.

Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can’t stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can’t help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she’s been taught to believe about Jews.

As Gretchen investigates the very people she’s always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

From debut author Anne Blankman comes this harrowing and evocative story about an ordinary girl faced with the extraordinary decision to give up everything she’s ever believed . . . and to trust her own heart instead.

Sounds intense!

Review: Code Name Verity

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Title: Code Name Verity

Author: Elizabeth Wein

Well, we took a bit of a Christmas hiatus, and there may be a New Year’s hiatus (you’ll have to ask Amanda. She is in charge of hiatuses), but anyway, I am bursting with excitement over how much I loved this book, so I had to tell you about it RIGHT NOW. Only I’m not going to tell you much.

When Amanda told me that I must read Code Name Verity, the conversation was something like: “you must read this. I don’t want to tell you anything about it and give anything away, so just read it.”

I finally listened (six months or so later), and that is exactly what I want to say about this book: You must read this. I don’t want to tell you anything about it and give anything away, so just read it.

Worst book review ever, eh?

Okay, let me try and expand (slightly). Code Name Verity is the story of a young British woman caught by Nazis in Occupied France.

Here is the basic basic description from the jacket: “Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

And here is a list of things that happened to me whilst reading this book, in no particular order:

1) I fell in love with all the characters. (Well, not ALL of them, obviously. Some of them are awful people. But I am in love with all the good ones.)

2) My mind exploded. (I texted Amanda halfway through to tell her that.)

3) My heart broke, but in the best way possible. (Probably more than once.)

4) I fell in love with the author, especially when I read these details on the jacket about her: “She is an avid flyer of small planes. She also holds a PhD in Folklore from the University of Pennslyvania.” (Did you know that was even a thing?)

5. I fell more in love with the author reading her “debriefing” at the end, where she wrote: “it pains me to admit that Code Name Verity is fiction – that [names withheld] are not actually real people.” (For the record, the author lists the names in her note, but I withholding them. It’s part of the story. I am serious – don’t read any reviews or comments on this book. Just go read it, now. You can thank me later.)

Parting Words: I’ve decided to try and add a line or two that jumps out at me from each book to my reviews. Here goes:

“Maddie gasped at the river’s inadvertent loveliness, and all at once she found herself spilling childish tears, not just for her own beseiged island, but for all of Europe. How could everything have come so fearfully and thoroughly unraveled?”