Tag Archives: Germany

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff is a tale of survival for two women, each with something to hide from the Nazis. Noa at sixteen has been seduced by a leering eye and long after the German Soldier is gone she finds herself pregnant and homeless when her unforgiving father shows her the door. Her Dutch heritage, blond hair and blue eyes, allows her asylum in a home which nurtures unwed mothers, the right sort who can contribute their offspring to the utopia fostered by the motherland. Now Noa, once again homeless, finds employment at the local train station, earning a meager keep by cleaning the grounds. It is in this capacity that she discovers a train car full of screaming infants, taken from their mothers and in danger of dying from neglect and the cold elements. Not thinking, she grabs one and runs off through the bitter winter night, collapsing somewhere in the woods from exhaustion. Luckily she is found by some circus folk, whose performers are at their winter quarters preparing for the spring season. The kind hearted ringmaster takes her in along with her (circumcised) “brother” on the condition that she learns to become an aerialist for the trapeze act. Her teacher, Astrid, has her own sad saga. Born into a circus family, she fell in love and married a high ranking German Soldier. Unfortunately her Jewish faith eventually caused a problem for her husband with him being asked to “divorce” his wife. Returning home she discovers that her entire family has disappeared and the circus disbanded. Her carney neighbor, Herr Neuhoff, is still allowed to perform, providing entertainment in selected locations throughout Europe, and she is invited to stay. Adopting a stage name, she continues the career which she had followed since birth, hiding her Jewish heritage within the big top. At first Astrid resents the younger Noa, reluctantly teaching her the ins and outs of an act which normally takes years to develop. Eventually though they form a bond, protecting one another from an outside world which threatens harm on a regular basis.

Don’t expect a feel good story, this is, after all, the era of Nazi Germany where everybody’s life is in danger for one reason or another. However, the trappings of the circus make this tale somewhat unique and anyone who has been lucky enough to attend such a performance will be fascinated by the particulars of the daily doings necessary to run the show. The tale is alternately told from the viewpoint of the two female characters, but despite the interesting setting and some details based on true events, I felt the plot dragged at times with too many repetitive reflections of the angst facing the two women. While there is a lot of movement, especially towards the end of the book, there are also long drawn out passages where nothing important seems to be happening. This is a 300+ page book which could have been edited down and tightened up to make for a fast paced more enjoyable read. Three and a half stars

A thank you to Netgalley and Mira Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck is another World War II story, but this one comes from a different angle, exploring the mayhem in Germany after the Allies storm Berlin and the Fuhrer is dead. In the small villages throughout Germany, the common people supported Hitler and are secretly angry at the Americans who have taken over. Necessities are scarce, not only food and clothing, but fuel needed for the coming winter months. They refuse to believe the atrocities described on the radio and the films depicting emaciated prisoners being released from the concentration camps are in their minds a hoax (or much worse, really German prisoners who have been mistreated by the true enemy). Although deep down they know the truth, they refuse to take any blame or even acknowledge a crime against humanity has been committed by their beloved country. In this case, pretended ignorance is bliss. Yet, even accepting guilt won’t change the past. Despicable behaviors were too often forced upon them in order to survive. In a way, they too were victims.

Yet not all Germans were culpable. Many were appalled by the Hitler regime and a small group, the German Resisters, set out to destroy the Fuhrer before he could do further damage. Unfortunately they failed in their attempt and were hanged for their efforts. Left behind were their wives and children and this is where our story takes us, to an old-fashioned Bavarian castle without modern amenities where three women and their young ones band together to survive the post war period.

Marianne von Lingenfels, married to Professor Albrecht, an aristocratic descendent of famed German Generals, played an active role in dissent, but, being a woman, is left behind to pick up the pieces when her husband and his compatriots are sentenced to death. Her childhood companion Conrad (Connie) Flederman has extracted a promise from her to look after his wife and son, and so she diligently seeks out Benita and their sensitive child Martin, and also tracks down fellow widow Ania Grabanek and her two reticent sons, Anselm and Wolfgang, rescuing them all from the deplorable conditions common in the aftermath of war. Together, along with Marianne’s own three children, Fritz, Elizabeth, and Katherine, they live in the Von Lingenfels’ ancestral Castle, working as a team to raise their newly formed family, surviving as best they can during the reconstruction of Germany.

The tale meanders back and forth between 1938, 1945, 1950, and 1991, presenting varying points of view as each of the characters explores their particular circumstances during those time periods revealing hidden truths through their introspections. While the modern day ending should be one of hope for those who survived such trauma, I found it eerily unnerving, even depressing, as the “family” has difficulty moving forward and discovering happiness. Even success is tinged with a sense of sorrow, as if the yolk of war crimes is a millstone which can never be set down.

This is a novel with a lot to say giving the reader a somewhat different perspective of the war, requiring some reassessing of the truths we learned about Hitler’s Third Reich. Jessica Shattuck’s mother was born in Germany in 1943 and after her death, the author spent time with her Grandmother trying to find out more about her mother’s childhood. This plus all the other research is evident and I can see why it took seven plus years to complete. While her personal family history inspired this book, it is a work of fiction and not strictly biographical, although the viewpoints of her grandmother, an unabashed Nazi, are definitely reflected in the tone of the novel. If you find yourself drawing some parallels between this story and the current political climate in the United States, then consider that a bonus. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Woman of God by James Patterson with Maxine Paetro

IN 2002 I bought my first ever brand new car. During that initial year of ownership, I was stopped at a red light on Sheridan and was rear-ended – twice. Over the life span of that car it was in so many accidents I was on a first name basis with the owner of the collision shop. Even though the majority of these incidents were not my fault, my insurance went up because I (or perhaps that particular car) was considered “jinxed”.

In James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God, the main character, Brigid Fitzgerald, is jinxed. Not only does she find herself in difficult situations, but those around her are also endangered with many unable to survive the ordeal. Brigid herself is not left unscathed, experiencing a multitude of near death experiences.

How does this girl, an on again, off again Catholic, end up being considered for the role as the “first” female pope?

It starts with a stint in South Sudan as a member of the staff for Helping Hands (a sort of Doctors Without Borders). Brigid, a young doctor just out of medical school, is thrilled to be at this remote location – think “MASH on Steroids” – right in the middle of the action. When the protective forces move on, the unit is left to the mercies of an adversary who refuses to distinguish between neutral volunteers or the enemy in their quest for genocide. Instead of evacuating, Brigid tries to save one more victim, becoming a target herself. When her vitals indicate death she has an out-of-body experience resulting in an ethereal connection to God after the medics on the rescue chopper bring her back to life. Despite this divine linkage, her continued exposures to traumatic events make her question the existence of a deity, yet God relentlessly reaches out, wordlessly urging her forward. Brigid’s bad luck isn’t helped by her insistence on placing herself in dangerous situations, tempting fate. Even when trying to eke out a somewhat normal life, trouble follows her and those she loves.

After various encounters with the assorted men who are drawn into her circle, she eventually settles down and marries a Priest. Becoming disenfranchised with the Roman Catholic Church, he starts the JMJ (Jesus Mary Joseph) Movement for forward thinking Catholics and other believers. Within a few years, the movement leads to a chain of churches across the United States and into Europe. Brigid is ordained a Priest and her popularity draws huge crowds plus all manner of enemies who disdain what they consider her blasphemy. After her five year old daughter nonchalantly mentions that her mother talks to God to one of the stalking media, Brigid suddenly finds herself on Sixty Minutes admitting her connection with The Lord to the world. This leads to an audience with the Pope and the speculation that she is next in line for the papacy.

What goes around comes around. While my Saturn celebrated its last day of service by spewing its subframe onto the road at the very same intersection as its first accident, Brigid finds herself at a crossroads, not knowing what comes next, but leaning towards the same activities which brought her a sense of fulfillment when she was in her early twenties, back in South Sudan. Whether she survives her further anticipated adventures is up to the reader to decide.

A great book for the light reader who wants some quick entertainment. Cowritten by Maxine Paetro, this is one of a myriad of publications by the Patterson machine, whose popularity endures no matter how many books a year he cranks out.

However, if you want something more from your reading material, keep searching. Trying to create an anology between Brigid and Job, the authors throw one catastrophe after another into her path. While there is a lot of action, everything is superficial, and all too often the reader has to suspend all sense of reality. The writing lacks depth, the characters are one dimensional, the plot moves too quickly and at times is confusing or even senseless due to a lack of detail. I won’t even mention the two to three page snippets called chapters. I personally feel this is an outline for a movie, with its faced paced “drama and trauma”. Brigid travels throughout the world with stops in the Sudan, Italy, Germany, and the United States, flitting from one locale to another meeting a myriad of characters who may or may not be significant in her life. I certainly hope Carrot finds her way home, but we never do discover what happens to the majority of Brigid’s chance encounters unless they die while driving her somewhere. Not my cup of tea, but obviously beloved by others. A generous three stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

If you are looking for an HEA (Happily Ever After) story, then you need to look elsewhere. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys takes place towards the end of World War II in winter of 1945 and any tale involving the Holocaust and the savageness of war is not a feel good read. Yet, during the most adverse conditions, despite the despicable actions surrounding each individual’s struggle for survival, there is love, compassion, and even humor amongst the tragic events.

Salt to the Sea has four narrators who each give us rotating glimpses of their thoughts and actions as a means of advancing the plot. Three are in an incongruous entourage of refugees on their way across East Prussia to the Baltic Sea to catch a ship to Kiel in order to escape the advancing Russians and the marauding Germans, both likely to kill on sight. The fourth is a German Soldier preparing a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for departure. How their lives intersect is the basis of this story. The youngest of the four is Emilia (Shame is a Hunter), a Pole who was sent to safety by her father and then betrayed. Then there is nineteen year old Joana (Guilt is a Hunter), a trained nurse from Lithuania whose guilt ridden need to help others leads her to befriend a wandering boy in search of his dead grandmother. Finally there is the young Prussian artist, Florian Beck (Fate is a Hunter), who has a secret hidden in his backpack which must be preserved no matter what the cost. Somehow Emilia attaches herself to Florian who she views as her savior after he rescues her from some savage thugs. Although Florian wants to travel alone, he finds himself tagging along with the others, all moving in the same direction. Ingrid, whose blindness allows her to hear hidden sounds, a grandfatherly cobbler they refer to as the “Shoe Poet”, and Eva, a Viking Giantess, round out the pack. The fourth narrator is Alfred Frick (Fear is a Hunter), a foolish young man who creates mental letters to a girl called Hannelore referring to himself as a war hero. Yet instead of courageous deeds, the inept German soldier is sent to scrub toilets, a job which better suits his talents. Each of the four carries a secret which is revealed as the events unfold. Their lives intersect at the Port of Gotenhofen leading to an exciting climax which is guaranteed to mesmerize the reader.

Whenever I think I have a handle on WWII, (for God’s sake I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Schindler’s List as well as a myriad of other books, both fiction and nonfiction), I realize there is always something new to learn. I’m glad that Sepetys wrote this book as it explores a subject which is not common knowledge. Truths such as these must be quickly told as time is running out. How many eyewitnesses are left to share their stories? History will soon be relegated to the distant past as we continue to forgot the lessons Iearned by our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. Even in the US, there are still white supremacists and other radicals who wait for their chance to annihilate the enemy. The identity of this enemy depends upon the speaker, but those of us who know how easy it would be to repeat history, are terrified by the rhetoric and violence we see throughout the world.

The story of the maritime evacuation, Operation Hannibal, which despite its rescue intent resulted in the death of over 25,000 people, mainly retreating women and children, is a secret that must be revealed. Neither the Russians whose uboats torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff, nor the Germans who were facilitating the refugees escape, wanted to admit their culpability in the death of over 90% of the 10,000 fleeing passengers, so the truth remained hidden. Yet there are survivors who have a tale to tell and storytellers, such as Sepetys who had the wherewithal and connections (her father’s cousin had a ticket to board the fatal ship but miraculously missed the launching), that are willing to share these horrors from the past. Over three years of research, including interviews with eyewitnesses and their families, allowed the author to create a realistic scenario as a background for the fictional trek towards freedom. While this book is written for teens (the extremely short chapters and young main characters will be a draw for the YA crowd), adults will also be fascinated by this historical saga with a new angle about the atrocities of war.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein is a new genre for me, that of historical fantasy. Although you could label this as a novel dealing with the holocaust, it really is the story of a young girl named Kisci who lives in a small Jewish community bordering Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. At the age of twelve, her life is simple. Her biggest complaint is that she must wear her older sister, Istvan’s, hand-me-downs. Imre, her father, runs the local printing press, publishing whatever news he can glean from the radio. The powerful Rabbi puts a curse on their home when Imre refuses to keep his children away from the local school.

And thus the magic begins.

Enter Voros, a stranger in town. Kind Imre invites him to stay and enjoy some home cooked meals and hospitality. Kisci is drawn to Voros, who tells fascinating stories of travels throughout the world. She begs Voros to take her away with him when he leaves, but Voros has a mission. He has come to the village to warn them all of impending doom. Voros trained under a great magician and can do a little magic. Kisci feels a connection. They both have the same nightmare of a toothless man.

During the marriage ceremony for the Rabbi’s daughter, the event is disturbed by a woman who wants to know what has happened to son who was visiting family in Germany. Voros calls out that he is dead, and the Rabbi accuses him of cursing his daughter.

Thus begins the battle of magic – Rabbi vs Voros – an underlying theme which helps drive the story. Ironically, in the end, both leave the village vulnerable for attack.

Since life in the village is simple, the story itself is simple. The calm and soothing everyday life has been jarred by the effects of magic. We are not surprised when the toothless one comes and takes the villagers away. The horrors of death and the concentration camp are unfolded calmly. This is the way life is now. Kisci barely knows what is happening, she sleep walks through the trauma. There is a song about a stranger bearing magic who is known to rescue the prisoners. Kisci feels some hope, but by the time Voros finds her, she has given up and is barely alive.

And here the true magic is revealed through their love for one another, revealed in a most unusual way. Together they must defeat the Rabbi and the evil he has hidden in the temple.

Since the holocaust is such an unbelievable event, the magic within the story does not seem out of place. We want Voros to succeed in his quest, even though we know the Holocaust is coming and there is nothing he can do to stop it. We understand that the villagers do not believe that other human beings could harm them this way. Even as they march to their deaths, they can’t comprehend the evil being perpetrated. And we understand why Kisci’s mind goes blank at times. It is all too horrible. So, compared to this unreality, the magic makes sense.

Although I enjoyed the book, there were times when it was confusing, especially when the magic became intense. Mainly, I grew to love Kisci and root for Voros to help her survive the ordeal. The entire novel had a bitter sweet feel, both at the beginning and at the end. It was inbetween that we held our breath and waited for the “hard part” to be over.

I give this book three and a half stars.

Thank you to Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me to download this book in exchange for an honest review.