Tag Archives: WWII

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

You don’t call it a World War unless the war affects almost everyone in the world. That is why there seems to be pockets of stories about WWII which we might not have heard about before now. One of the most fascinating secrets from the 1940’s is the subversive activities of the British. The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in charge of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Occupied Europe was sometimes referred to as the Baker Street Irregulars (based on their location which is infamously connected to Sherlock Holmes). Also colloquially known as Churchill’s Secret Army, this government organization not only used men, but also had a special Section F which trained and sent women into the field at a time when women were mainly considered as auxiliary units. 55 female agents were sent out as radio operators and couriers with 13 being killed in action, many who died in concentration camps. Their expectations included unarmed combat but they were also trained to use weapons. Once the war was over, the SOE was disbanded. Unfortunately, since these women were not enlisted soldiers, they didn’t get the recognition their male counterparts received. It wasn’t until recently that well deserved medals have been awarded and even then the women had to jump through hoops to prove they deserved this honor.

In her research of this scenario, Pam Jenoff discovered a treasure trove of drama both on and off the field to include in her historical novel, The Lost Girls of Paris. There was secret love, bravery, courageous actions, questionable decisions, rogue behaviors, personal sacrifice, and finally betrayal, all packed into a relatively brief period of time.

To portray these events, Jenoff chose to follow the lives of three women. The book begins in early 1946, shortly after the war had ended, where American Grace Healey, a young war widow, accidentally finds a suitcase left under a bench in Grand Central Station. Opening it to take a peak inside she pulls out an envelope with twelve labeled photographs each featuring a different girl. Her determined quest to uncover the whys and wherefores behind this discovery is a running theme throughout the book.

Next we meet Eleanor Trigg, the one in charge of the secret female agents who were sent to France with their radios to decipher and transmit coded messages to assist the success of the French Resistance and clear the way for the anticipated arrival of American Troops. This time frame in 1944 included the weeks leading up to D Day in Normandy where the importance of  their work superseded everything, including the safety of those in the field. Trigg, feeling responsible for the girls she recruited, kept watch over their activities and wanted answers when anything went awry.

Finally, there is Marie Roux, a single mom, whose motivation for taking on this task is questionable. While fluent in French, there were certain aspects of her character which made her a less than stellar candidate for the position, despite the extensive training she and the other women endured. Yet she still was called to duty and sent to France, expected to execute orders without question (even though following orders was not her strong suit). Through Marie we get into the nitty gritty of espionage, with undercover air flights, hidden radios, and sabotage, all while hiding in plain sight despite the ever present Germans literally living next door. Spoiler Alert: Not everything runs smoothly.

Pam Jenoff, known for the novel The Orphan’s Tale as well as other stories based on WWII and the Holocaust, has found another tale which highlights the heroic role of women during wartime. Parts of this novel were fascinating but despite the fact that it was inspired by real events, some of the details seemed too far fetched to pass the smell test. Even if true, the complexities of the situation were so simplified as to be ridiculous at times which took away from the seriousness of the situation. However, the plot quickly flowed through the eyes of the three women and the reader can’t help rooting for their eventual success despite the reality that when it comes to war there isn’t always a big bow to wrap up a happily ever after ending. The best we can hope for is a couple of colorful ribbons.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The question is: How accurate does an author have to be when writing an historical novel? If it’s fiction shouldn’t they be allowed to take some poetic license, otherwise the book would be more in the nonfiction realm. Well then, do certain topics require a heavier touch? Perhaps books covering more recent history need to be a little more accurate than most so as not to offend those who have lived through those events. (The Cellist from the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo had some harsh works for the author Steve Galloway for adding his own twist to this real life occurrence). What about The Holocaust? While the survivors are quickly reaching the end of their lives, places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum maintain vast records documenting the details surrounding the Nazi concentration camps. They are obsessed about the truth and find offense in inaccuracies which they fear will be fodder for those who believe the Holocaust was a hoax.
Heather Morris had the opportunity to meet Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who while imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 was forced to tattoo numbers onto the arms of thousands of incoming prisoners. At the age of 87, Lali was looking for someone to record his story and what an incredible tale he had to tell. Over a period of three years Morris met with the Holocaust survivor taking extensive notes. After his death in 2006, she created a screen play based on her interviews, but she eventually revised her efforts and published a fiction novel entitled The Tattooist of Auschwitz, changing a few of the details to dramatize the story. Based on this publication, Lali’s story is in the process of becoming a miniseries (although written by Jacquelin Perske and not Morris) with an air date sometime in January 2020 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz (consisting of Auschwitz and its sub-camps, Birkenau and Monowitz) was the only death camp where the prisoners were tattooed, using a series of numbers and sometimes letters to identify not just the captive but the circumstances which led them to be imprisoned. The Tattooist of Auschwitz centers on the charismatic and plucky Lale whose adeptness at five + languages resulted in the “privilege” of being selected as the concentration camp tattooist with all the “perks” which accompanied that position. With sleeping and eating arrangements far superior to those of the other captives, Lale had a better chance of survival. However, by “cooperating” with the enemy, even if under the threat of death for disobeying orders, he feared retribution from the other inhabitants of the camp whose situations were so much more untenable. The reality was that his loyalties remained with his “friends” and he regularly slipped extra rations to those in need. Through ingenuity, chutzpah, and luck, Lale found a way to acquire and distribute contraband allowing some relief from the constant hunger endured by the prisoners. Ultimately this book takes a romantic turn when Lale meets the love of his life, Gita, inspiring a determination that the two of them would survive this ordeal despite the numerous obstacles which stood in the way of them achieving this seemingly impossible dream.
So what is the uproar about the lack of authenticity all about?  Morris, living in Australia, made the mistake of claiming this book was thoroughly researched and 95% accurate, a claim she had to walk back when some glaring recognizable errors as well as a host of logistical inaccuracies were revealed. This raised the hackles of The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum who felt that since the book was based on an actual survivor of the holocaust, the author had a greater responsibility when presenting this story to the world.
Morris responded that she would leave the facts to the historians and the  museum decided to treat the novel as “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”,  which is just fine for the majority of readers who responded positively to this book. Of interest is the comment made by Heather Morris stating that Lali applauded the idea that she was not Jewish, wanting someone with a clean slate to portray his traumatic tale, an opportunity she used to create her debut novel.
While I was annoyed at some of the bigger gaffs (such as Lale obtaining the unavailable penicillin on the black market to treat Typhus when PABA was the accepted treatment at the time), it was the actual writing style which disappointed me. I also felt there should have been more depth in the characterizations and that certain events could have been more fully explored in the plot line. Written in the present tense, this novel reflects the fact that the original intent was to present a screenplay, not a book. Which is not to say that this story isn’t worth reading, it’s just that I expected more.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Bonner Publishjng Australia for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth

Our story, The Light Between Worlds, begins in London during the Blitz (the bombings of England’s capitol during WWII) where three children huddle together in an Air Raid Shelter waiting for their parents to join them when suddenly they find themselves in the “Woodlands” where the indigenous  creatures give them haven. Promised that they can return home at any time  to their original time and place, they take up residence in a castle, assisting in diplomatic discussions to prevent a war (which eventually breaks out anyway). After six and a half years, the two older siblings, James and Alexandra, decide its time to return home bringing the surprised and reluctant Evelyn with them. 

Back home they never quite readjust, especially Evelyn, who is living between the two worlds, longing for one while trying to find some sort of peace in the other. Six years later, Evelyn and James are both at their respective boarding schools while Alexandra has escaped the trauma of caring for her despondent  little sis by going to college in America. 

Told in two sections, from both Evelyn’s and Alexandra’s point of view, the past is featured in Italics. Most of the text is introspective as both girls reflect on their behaviors and their relationships. Poor James is also lost, not knowing what to do, and their parents are besides themselves, never understanding why their children are emotionally falling apart. When tragedy strikes, nobody is surprised, but there is enough guilt to go around. 

The author, Laura Weymouth, is from Western New York, my general location, and I was rooting for her debut novel to succeed. Unfortunately, C S Lewis did it so much better, so I recommend the YA population read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to see how it should be done. I don’t understand why Weymouth would write a book which has so many parallels to the classic The Chronicles of Narnia series. Perhaps this could be forgiven if the text were dynamic, but there is too much lamenting and not enough action. I would have liked to read  a lot more about The Woodlands so I could perhaps understand the attraction. To top it all off, at times I found the narrative confusing. Sorry, it just didn’t come together.

Two stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review,  This review also appears on Goodreads.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

I’d never read a book by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, but his 1992 Man Booker Prize winner, The English Patient, is on my “to read” list, so I thought I’d give his newest novel, Warlight, which is on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a try.

Part one of the novel deals with the childhood in 1945 London of Nathaniel (Stitch) whose parents abandon him and his sister Rachel (Wren) when they are in their teens and place them in the hands of some somewhat unsavory characters (The Moth and his pal The Darter) who involve them in their nefarious everyday activities. Not that fourteen year old Nathaniel minds. Who wouldn’t want to skip school to drive around to various destinations with a car full of greyhounds or, better yet, steer a boat through the waterways of England to various ports to deliver these same goods – unknown quantities with questionable pedigrees – to compete in underground dog racing? He learns a lot about secrecy, especially concealing his sexual trysts with Agnes, who finds them empty houses for sale listed with her real estate brother – homes bereft of furniture where they can do the deed without being disturbed. Fun times, but living on the edge can be dangerous and the siblings start to wonder where their mother really is (they could care less about their dad) when they discover her trunk, which had been carefully packed in their presence, untouched in the attic still full of her things. She definitely is not in the stated destination of Singapore.

Which leads to Part Two, where Nathanial, fifteen years later, is on a quest to discover the truth about his mum, Rose. Rachel is out of the scene and no one else is around from those forgone times of his youth, so he’s going it alone, surreptitiously searching for evidence at the Intelligence Agency where he works. Nathaniel’s narrative provides details from his teen years as clues into the truth, showing up as he attempts to find some sort of explanation, as the faces and names from his past provide the stepping stones necessary to reconstruct his mother’s days during the war to find the answers he desperately needs in order to move forward with his life.

Reading Warlight is like walking through a murky night getting glimpses of where you are headed but still not quite sure you are going in the right direction. Some of the visualizations are fascinating, but the plot meanders making it difficult to follow, causing the reader to make guesses as to what is actually happening, not daring to ever ask why. The concept of Schwer, part of the secret language between siblings, is ever present, representing the struggles during a post war London reconstructing after the Blitz. Even the occasional ray of sunshine Ondaatje allows to peer through his words does not provide enough light to overcome the dreariness left by the war nor its effects on this family. A thoroughly depressing book which fails to be lifted out of its angst by Nathaniel’s discoveries. However, the entire tale has a haunting effect as compared to most literature which is too often read and forgotten, although it is a complicated, difficult read, not for the casual reader. Three and a half stars.

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

Fly Girls: The Forgotten Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII by P. O’Connell Pearson

Fly Girls: The Forgotten Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII by P. O’Connell Pearson is a nonfiction book written for middle school children introducing the lives of various female aviators who made an impact on the world by their contribution to the war effort in World War II. Laying the groundwork, Pearson goes back to the beginning of the unrest in Europe, describing the actions of Hitler and the Axis as well as the relationship between England and its Allies, especially when the Germans invaded Poland and war was pronounced. She then takes us to Pearl Harbor and the start of the United States’ involvement in the war. In between there is a discussion of the rise of aviation with heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart creating a public interest in flight.

During the prewar period, the head of the Airforce realized America needed more military planes. The growing number of female pilots, often overlooked because of their gender, wanted to help, but they were referred to opportunities overseas since the US military did not allow female recruits. Those attitudes changed slightly as the need for volunteers increased resulting in the introduction of the WAVES (Women Accepted For Voluntary Emergency Service) and the the WACS (Women’s Army Corps), but it wasn’t until the establishment of the WASP (Women’s Arlington Airforce Service Pilots) that women aviators were allowed to be of use to the Army Airforce.

In the meantime women could play a role as instructors since male pilots were desperately needed in fighter planes. Women were considered too weak to handle the physical challenges of controlling a plane in rough weather and while they might be capable of filling auxiliary roles, they were not allowed to be involved with combat due to their “unstable”, “feminine” characteristics. At least that was the public perception, in spite of the fact that thousands of women were accepted in the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce in England while the Russian Airforce had three all female combat units complete with women manning the bombers.

Still, the war needed pilots, so Nancy Love was asked to form a Squadron and women were finally recruited to fly in noncombat missions for the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron), but they had to stay civilian until Congress approved the measure. Unfortunately, Congress was reluctant to give their approval for what they considered an experimental program. Twenty eight women answered the call with another twenty five women already in the British Corps. Eventually over a thousand of woman were recruited to become pilots for the newly established WASP. The standards for these female recruits, even though they weren’t officially military, was higher than those for the men because they were expected to prove their worth, despite the unequal rate of pay.

The details of the lives of Nancy Love, Betty Giles, Jacqueline Cochran, Cornelia Fort, Betty Huyler Gillies, Barbara Poole, Evelyn Sharpe, Gertrude Meserve, and Marion Florsheim are intermixed with the war effort. These women took on the more tedious and often dangerous tasks such as transporting planes from the factories to the bases, flying planes pulling targets for artillery practice, and testing newly designed aircraft or piloting those which had just been repaired.

Even though there were many qualified African American women ready to serve, since the black and white troops were kept separate during the war, allowing these female pilots into the WASP would have jeopardized the program. (It wasn’t until 1948 that the military was integrated, after the war was over). In spite of this precautionary measure, in 1944 Congress voted to disband the WASP organization even though the women had done a stellar job on some very difficult and dangerous tasks attempting to overcome the prejudice and harassment from service men who felt threatened by their presence. Unfortunately, the propaganda against female aviators was used against them despite the positive reports from their commanding officers. In 1977 their service was finally recognized as active duty by the military and they received the recognition they deserved, but the right to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery was still being contested as recently as 2016.

With the current emphasis on the role of women in American Society it is appropriate that the actions of these courageous women are revealed, especially for our youth. It’s also important that our young women have these role models brought to their attention as well as showing the male population that women are just as capable as men, even in professions considered too “tough” for a female to handle. In 1991 Congress finally authorized women to fly in combat missions with 1998 the year that women fighter pilots actually flew in a combat mission to Iraq in Operation Desert Fox, but it took until 2004 for the first woman in US Airforce history (Col Linda McTague) to command a fighter squadron.

It is evident by the way the story is told that this is a book aimed at children. While it starts out more like a textbook than a nonfiction book, as the narrative progresses it gains our interest reflecting the fact that this is a worthy topic and the author has done extensive research. There are insets giving background information to help with the reader’s understanding, including a comparison of 911 with Pearl Harbor and a description of the Great Depression. Some of the tidbits are quite informative, such as the annotated list of military medals and honors.

Unfortunately, this is an overview and the lives of the majority of women aviators are given only a cursory glance, instead of an in depth biography. An annotated listing of each woman and her accomplishments would have been a welcome addition. However, the book does include an index, notes, and a list of references, so it would definitely be good for basic research, as long as the reader recognizes that Patricia Pearson has placed her own definitive American slant on events, often simplifying complicated scenarios. A plus is the emphasis on the role of women in the twentieth century and their fight to be taken seriously, especially in the field of aviation. It wasn’t until 2015 that women were legally considered on an equal footing with men throughout the military, but the implementation of this ruling is a work in progress.

There were quite a few photographs in Fly Girls, but I felt that since this book was for youth, even more illustrations were necessary. Overall, a good introduction to a topic full of little known facts from this historic time period appropriate for Middle School and High School Libraries, but also relevant for adult readers.

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

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Since The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is a murder mystery of sorts, it’s difficult to summarize without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that daughter Laurel Nicolson witnessed her mother Dorothy murder a man when she was sixteen and now that her elderly mom is on her death bed, the sixty plus year old daughter decides this is her last chance to discover the truth. Her brother Geoffrey, a babe in his mother’s arms, was celebrating his second birthday, so he only has a vague feeling that something untoward happened on that date. Now, fifty years later, Laurel decides it’s finally time to clue him in so they can work together to figure out the details of their mom’s past.

Moving back and forth through time, from the present (2011) to the strife of wartime London (1941) to life as part of a loving family with five children (1961) and various years in between, the plot unfolds giving us bits and pieces of the tale – like a giant jig saw puzzle which has just enough blank spaces so that the big picture remains unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it takes way too many pages to discover the truth, and not until the disconcerting ending does the story finally come together.

While there are some obscure clues at the beginning of the book, by the time their relevance is revealed we’ve forgotten the details. With a slow start which doesn’t pick up until much later in the narration, I feel the main problem is the characterizations. The self absorbed Dolly is just plain unlikeable and at times her actions are despicable. She’s not the only one portrayed in a bad light. Laurel, a famous actress, is not a warm and fuzzy figure, even if the reader is sympathetic to her quest. Her numerous siblings are one dimensional, although the quirky Geoffrey has been fleshed out a bit. While the main focus was developing the convoluted plot (there’s a lot of tragedy along the way providing some sort of logical explanation for the evolving action), I felt more time should have been spent providing some depth to the secondary personalities. In my mind, any book over four hundred pages needs to justify the extra length and despite the surprise ending, this one fell short.

Four stars (just barely and only because of the “twist”) but it could have been so much better with a little tweaking.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite the spate of novels recently published dealing with the topic of WWII, the subject matter never gets boring. There are so many facets to the war that each book can easily tackle a new concept to explore. In Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly the author utilizes the lives of three intersecting characters to explore the Holocaust, two based on real people and one a fictionalized version representing true events.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite devoting her life to helping the orphans in France. Working full time as a volunteer at the French Embassy in New York City, she assisted individuals in securing visas in order to escape France before the war began. In German occupied Lublin, Poland, Kasha Kuzmerick and various friends and family members get swept up as political prisoners. Sent to Ravensbruck, Kashia and her sister Zuzanna, end up the subjects for a medical laboratory experiment involving battle wounds, which leaves Kashia with a permanent limp. The surgery is performed by Herta Oberheuser, one of the few female doctors in Germany, who was recruited to work at this Women’s Concentration Camp and assigned to perform the operations which permanently maimed or killed the Polish “Rabbits”. Her attitude is fascinating as Herta convinces herself that working for the Nazis is a positive position which furthers the aims of the Fatherland. Yet before the Allies take control, she is involved in a plot to hunt down and murder these covertly hidden patients in order to remove the evidence of her actions. Even at the Nuremberg Trials, Dr Oberheuser still refuses to accept blame for her inhumane behaviors and resents her prison sentence.

The Lilac Girls also explores the after effects of WWII, both immediately following the war and ten years later. Unfortunately, society wanted to move forward and forget the atrocities, but luckily there were many philanthropic individuals ready to help the afflicted integrate back into a somewhat normal life. While this was possible in parts of Europe and the United States, the countries taken over by the Soviet Union, including Poland, went from one oppressive state to another. Caroline, with her connections, is able to find a way to coordinate medical treatment for the “Rabbits” in the United States and encourages the bitter Kashia to find closure.

Alternating between the three female characters, Kelly integrates fiction with information from historical documents to create a realistic scenario. It is heartwarming that women such as Caroline and her mother were able to use their influence for the public good with a focus on those suffering abroad. At the same time, one wonders how Herta could reconcile her actions with her conscience. There is evidence that her outward bravado covered a guilty heart when her visit with a psychiatrist revealed a predisposition for self mutilation (cutting her arm). The fictional sisters were an astute representation of the Polish girls who survived the “Rabbit” experience. While it was heart wrenching to read about their treatment in Ravensbruck, it is a reminder that war can bring out the evil in people, especially when dealing with prisoners of war who are viewed as subhuman. This is definitely not a book for those with sensitive stomachs.

I have several confessions to make. First, I did not necessarily read the chapters in order. Kelly often left a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then jumped to one of the other women, but I was impatient and skipped over to the continuation of that particular plot point, then went back to pick up the storyline. I also thought the entire book dragged at times. I didn’t mind the fictional romance for Caroline, but for a book close to 500 pages, I thought some of the irrelevant details could have been eliminated. There was plenty of subject matter without adding fluff. The most compelling part of the book was the girls’ daily trials in Ravensbruck which were both difficult to read and, at the same time, hard to put down. While the therapeutic visit to the United States was anticlimactic, the concluding chapters seemed a fitting way to wrap up the loose ends. I appreciated all the specifics in the author’s note which indicated the amount of research (including interviews and traveling to the various locales) necessary to blend real events with her imaginings, although to get further details about the inspiration for this book you need to go to Martha Hall Kelly’s website. Ultimately, the entire reading experience was worthwhile, especially since I learned something new about the Holocaust. Four stars.

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