The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

After having seen the book-to-movie film preview for this novel, I purchased a copy, thinking it would be like so many of the historical fiction novels of WWII that I’ve read and enjoyed. Though it was very different, I still enjoyed it very much. It took me quite a bit longer to read it than others, but I believe that is because of the large amount of quotations and well-researched background information. This is a nonfiction narrative based upon the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski during WWII in war-ravaged Warsaw, Poland. Jan was the zookeeper for the well-known and successful Warsaw Zoo. His wife, Antonina, shared a special bond with the animals at the zoo, and her courageous and compassionate personality allowed her to save over 300 people, mostly Jewish, who were seeking refuge from the Nazis during WWII. The reason the Zabinskis were able to hide so many Jewish people on the zoo property and in the villa is because of the Nazis obsession with preserving certain animals in their purification scheme. Were the Nazis not concerned with animals and zoology, Jan and Antonina would likely not have been able to save lives like they did.

The descriptions of exotic zoo animals and even common animals in the story are detailed and realistic. The author clearly completed many hours of extensive research in order to tell the Zabinski’s story, as evidenced by the lengthy chapter-by-chapter details section and the bibliography at the end of the book. This story was different from most of the WWII novels that I normally read because rather than focusing on life in a concentration camp, it detailed the daily life of those living in Poland during the war, which for some was living in constant terror and fear. Because of the wealth of detail and personal stories weaved into the story, this was not a quick read. It took me a while to get through the book, but it was worth the read and I did enjoy it very much.

I look forward to seeing the movie, because I believe it will be a nice complement to the book.

Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

9781501112171_6e1b5.jpgI’m back again with another WWII historical fiction novel, which seems to be one of my favorite genres of late. This is written for a YA audience, but like Salt to the Sea, adults will also enjoy reading it. Girl in the Blue Coat will be published April 5, 2016.

The story takes place in Amsterdam in 1943. Hanneke is a brave, young Dutch girl with nothing much else to lose, having recently lost her true love, Bas, to the war, as well as her best friend Elspeth. She supports her mother and crippled father working for a funeral director. What she actually does for Mr. Kreuk, however, is locate and deliver items found on the black market, items such as chocolate, cigarettes, and extra meat which have become scarce during the war efforts. As German soldiers roam the streets in her village and Jewish families are rounded up all around her, Hanneke’s courage shines. She becomes skilled at tricking the soldiers so they let her pass without any trouble. Her small acts of rebellion against Nazis and Hitler, though done mostly in secret, provide a small measure of satisfaction to combat the immense grief she struggles with daily.

One day, during a routine delivery to an older woman names Mrs. Janssen, Hanneke’s is asked to help locate a missing girl in a blue coat, named Mirjam. She was hiding in Mrs. Janssen’s cellar since her family was transported and killed by German soldiers, but has recently turned up missing. The problem is that the girl is Jewish, and if Hanneke is caught helping a Jewish girl, she will also be sent away or worse.  As Hanneke searches in secret, with the help of some members of an underground resistance group including Bas’s brother Ollie, she finds out that the girl in the blue coat either doesn’t want to be found, or that she may not be the girl Hanneke is searching for after all. Is it worth risking lives to locate one missing Jewish girl, when so many Jewish people are being rounded up like livestock and sent to uncertain death? Hanneke gave Mrs. Janssen her word, and she will not stop until she finds Mirjam, the girl in the blue coat.

This is a coming-of-age novel with so much going on. There are stories of Jewish babies and young children who are rescued by brave resistance workers, much like Hanneke’s friend, Mina, as their families are taken to concentration camps. There is hope, even in the most dire circumstances, and there is love between family, and between best friends. The author has done a beautiful job bringing light to a portion of history which should always be remembered. Overall, Girl in the Blue Coat is a wonderful story, for which you won’t be disappointed. My only disappointment is that it had to end.

Thanks to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for the early review copy.

The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay

9781501112171_6e1b5

The Railwayman’s Wife will be published April 5, 2016.

The story takes place in the town of Thirroul, in 1948, on the coast of New South Wales. The author’s vivid descriptions of the water, the library, the train station, and the beach really help the atmosphere of the book, allowing readers to imagine such beauty.

Anikka (Ani) Lachlan, wife to Mac Lachlan, a railway worker, and mother to 10 year old Isabel is happy to have made it through war times without any real devastation hitting her immediate family, when so many of the townspeople around her have become widowed. She spends her days caring for the family’s home and their daughter, listening to the distinctive, constant trains passing through, with an ear for that which will carry her husband home each day.

When Mac perishes in a devastating railway accident, Ani finds herself in a state of grief and disbelief, but knows she must continue on and provide for the family. She is offered a job as a librarian at the Railway Institute’s library, a job she is both nervous and excited about. When Mac was alive, she had dreamed of some sort of work to fill her days, but she knew her place in the family hierarchy was to be at home. Now, she is given a chance to step outside of her comfort zone to help others find literature for various reasons. Here, she forges unlikely friendships with two men. Roy McKinnon, a poet who was able to write during the harsh war, but since has been unable to come up with any words. Frank Draper, a young doctor, was in the first group of men to arrive as help to Nazi concentration and labor camps. Haunted with guilt at not being able to save so many people, he cannot find any happiness in his present occupation, even though the war is over. These men, friends since they were young, are both back in their hometown, sort of wandering through life aimlessly, trying to grasp a purpose for their futures. Enter Ani Lachlan, a beautiful, smart, quiet widow who brings a new warmth to the library. As Ani grows close to Roy and Frank, she finds herself slowly starting to swim away from the grief which was drowning her in the wake of Mac’s sudden passing.

There’s more to the plot than what I have mentioned of course, but I dare not give out any more details. I was captivated by the honesty of the characters, as well as the lyrical text. If you are looking for a fairy-tale ending, however, you won’t find it here. The ending is startling and tragic, but it fits with the mood of the story.

 

 

The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons

book

The Song of Hartgrove Hall, written by Natasha Solomons, begins in post-WWII Britain in the 1940’s. The story alternates between 1940s – 1960s Britain and present day, with the same family, the Fox-Talbots, inhabiting Hartgrove Hall. Hartgrove Hall itself has such a pivotal role in this story; the once stately, then crumbling, then restored once more, colonial mansion is a character itself.

The Fox-Talbot brothers, Jack, George, and Harry (known as Fox), have all returned home to Hartgrove Hall after Jack & George fought in the war and Harry was away at college. The only people awaiting them at Hartgrove Hall are their father, the General, his butler and various maids on staff. Their mother passed away when young Fox was only a toddler, leaving the three boys in care of their stern, military minded father. The mansion itself is crumbling, after being used by soldiers as a home base during the war. The home Fox has always loved is falling apart, and he can hardly bear it. The brothers decide to try to save their home, begging the General not to sell, hoping they can make ends meat. Unlike his brothers, Fox has always held a special love for music and his favorite past time is to collect songs, mostly folk songs passed down through the generations in his home country of Britain. He dreams of being a composer, though his brothers and father find it laughable that one of their own be more interested in music than farming or military pursuits.

To celebrate the coming home of the brothers and the end of the war, they throw a New Year’s Eve party at Hartgrove. The eldest brother, Jack, who is loved and treated much like a movie star by anyone he meets, especially ladies, has brought a young Jewish wartime singer named Edie Rose to the party. Everyone is quite taken with the famous, beautiful, young, and talented singer. The problem is, Jack isn’t the only brother who is cast under Edie’s love spell. Young Harry (Fox) is quite taken with Edie, an infatuation which grows into love as they spend time together collecting songs, discussing music, and even performing together over the years. When bonds between brothers come up against bonds of love, herein lies the making of a great romantic love triangle, and this story will not disappoint in that regard.

In present day, fifty years later, Jack is an old man who has lost his wife, Edie, along with his ability or passion for playing the piano. Just when grief and guilt threaten to take him under, his daughter drops off his 5 year old grandson for a few hours out of the blue for Jack to mind. Trying to redirect the young, energetic boy from total destruction of his home, Jack plays a few notes on the piano, and young Robin is enthralled. As it turns out, Robin is quite the piano prodigy, a fact that Jack can hardly believe, but ultimately gives him hope for the future, urging him to live out the rest of his life the best way he can. Is it too late for Jack to seek forgiveness after such a long life together with the one he loved?

Fans of music, historical fiction, family drama, and romance will surely enjoy this novel. It’s a beautiful portrait of a family and how they dealt with the many hardships which life brought them. Readers interested in knowing more about the art of song collecting will find a most helpful notes section about contemporary song collecting and links for more information on the topic at the end of the book.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Letters to the Lost will be published on May 26, 2015.

This is one of the best and most beautiful stories I have read in a while, which is saying a lot because I read so many different types of books. I’ve not read anything by this author previously, but I do hope she writes more! The book has two separate story lines going on, one in 1943 London during WWII with Stella and Dan and the other in present day London with Will and Jess. Stella is a young Vicar’s wife who married too soon and not for love. Dan is an American pilot stationed in London for a short time. On the flip side, Jess is a young woman on the run from an abusive boyfriend and Will is a young man living in the shadow of his extremely handsome, successful brother, and dealing with loneliness and general unhappiness. When the characters meet up both in the past and present story lines, it is breathtaking. I won’t give away too much of the plot because I don’t like to be a spoiler. However, I will say that I was absolutely captivated by this story. I couldn’t put the book down, and when I was forced to stop reading, I couldn’t wait to dive back in and find out what happened next. The romance between both character sets was just beautiful and heartbreaking in times. It reminded me a little of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and I enjoyed it just as much. Well done, Iona Grey. I’m a huge fan!!!