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.

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The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff

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Emma, a young Jewish woman living in Poland during WWII, is forced to assume a new identity as a Polish girl named Anna. A newlywed, Emma’s husband Jacob is in the Jewish resistance group and he is forced to go into hiding just a short time after they are married.  Emma and her parents are taken into the Jewish ghetto to live in cramped quarters with no comforts of home. Luckily, Emma is secretly taken out of the ghetto in the middle of the night by one of the resistance group members. She assumes the role of a Polish gentile named Anna, a niece to a wealthy Catholic woman named Krysia, who is Jacob’s aunt. Krysia is also involved with the resistance but Emma is much safer in her care than in the Jewish ghetto. Fearing for Jacob’s safety, the uncertain future of her aging parents in the ghetto, as well as her own future, Emma must press on, living a life of lies and secrets in order to remain safe from the Nazis.

To complicate matters further, Emma is introduced at Krysia’s dinner party to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking, powerful, and extremely handsome Nazi official. Emma knows she should loathe the Kommandant, but he is sweet, caring, and very much interested in her. “Anna” goes to work for the Kommandant, which allows her to secretly assist the resistance group in gathering information from the Nazis. She never dreamed she would be so comfortable in the presence of a Nazi official, much less spend all her time with him and become his “girl.” As the war intensifies in and around Krakow, Anna gets even closer to the Kommandant in order to carry out a most dangerous mission for the resistance group. Torn between her vows to Jacob and her feelings for Richwalder, Emma must decide which path to take.

When the secrets of her true identity threaten to come out, Emma’s life will never be the same again. The ending will have readers reeling. I cried for Emma, who lost so  very much, but still had the courage to carry on despite the circumstances.  This is a beautifully written story with a fast-paced story-line which readers will enjoy from beginning to end.

Thank you to Harper Collins MIRA for an advanced digital review copy.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

9781101883075_f1cf2Lilac Girls is a beautiful, heartbreaking story of three strong-willed women with very unique backgrounds and circumstances, but each impacted greatly by WWII and the Holocaust.

Kasia, a young Polish teenager was taken by train along with her mother and older sister to an all women’s prison camp, Ravensbruck, where she and her sister Zuzanna were subjected to horrible torture, as “rabbits” for (sulfonamide) experiments.by the Nazis.

Herta, a young German doctor who was given the opportunity to employ her physician’s training at an all women’s work camp, Ravensbruk, reports for duty. Little did she realize that she would be the only female doctor and would be responsible for carrying out lethal injections, and horrible experiments on healthy women prisoners.

American actress and society girl, Caroline Ferriday, spends her days working in the French consulate in New York City. She organizes and sends care packages to French orphans in Paris, but her mission chances dramatically when her love, Paul, a French actor is taken to a prison camp. As Caroline tries to locate Paul, Kasia struggles to survive at Ravensbruk (while many of her friends and mother disappear or worse), Herta continues carrying out horrible experimental surgeries in the medical ward at Ravensbruck.

The novel switches back and forth between Herta, Kasia, and Caroline’s stories, causing readers to always be wondering what will happen next to each character. Though it is a rather  large book, I read through it very quickly because of the fast pace.

When Kelly connects the three women together in Part 3, it is so well written, providing some much needed closure to the characters and to readers. Readers will experience so many emotions while enjoying this novel; and I challenge anyone to read it through with dry eyes.

One of the neatest things about this novel is that it is based upon the actual Caroline Ferriday and her work for the Ravensbruk Rabbits after WWII. Kelly came across an article in Victoria magazine about Caroline and her lilacs, as well as her work with the Ravensbruk Rabbits, and was inspired to write this story. She based Kasia and Herta’s characters off of women she had read about in her extensive research as well.

For a debut novel, I consider this to be a masterpiece. It reminds me of two of my other favorite WWI historical fiction novels, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. Kelly’s website (http://www.marthahallkelly.com) has many additional resources that add a richness to the story, such as maps, photographs of her research journey, and video clips. It is clear that Martha Hall Kelly researched thoroughly in order to give a voice to so many important women affected by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. I promise you will enjoy this novel. It is just wonderful.

 

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.

Lone Star by Paullina Simons

9780062098153_2230bLone Star will be published on November 24, 2015. I was drawn to this book at first because I absolutely loved The Bronze Horseman series by Paullina Simons. I hoped this story would be as beautiful, and it certainly is.

Lone Star is the story of four teenagers, getting ready to graduate from high school and start “real life.” Chloe and her best friend, Hannah, have always dreamed of visiting Barcelona, and they have been saving money to go before they start college in the Fall. When their boyfriends, brothers Mason and Blake, decide to go with them; the girls have no idea what kind of a trip it’s going to be. It is the story of friendships, and the relationships between each of the four teens, best friends since childhood. Their relationships change drastically once they are in the new & unfamiliar environments of Europe, where they can try to be themselves or continue to keep hold of the secrets and lies which bind them together. Then, Johnny, a traveling musician with a star of Texas tattoo on his chest, joins their group in Latvia. Johnny both confuses and charms Chloe at the same time, never even revealing his real name to her, even during a very passionate few weeks.

Though the book is rather long and the story unfolds over the span of 3 years, the writing is fluid and seamless. Simons writes beautiful, flowing descriptions and vivid scenes, much like in The Bronze Horseman. She blends a bit of historical fiction, regarding the Holocaust, concentration camps, and death camps, in with modern day coming-of-age story. The book includes quite a bit of romance, including some steamy scenes, mystery surrounding Johnny’s true identity, his past, and his future, and much drama between family & friends. The descriptions of Latvia, Riga, Italy, & Poland are wonderful, causing the reader to feel as if they are thrown into the story, regardless of where the characters end up.

I started off reading this a little on the slow side, but once the group of 4 made it to Europe, I couldn’t put the book down. I read the entire second half of the story in one sitting. In a scene at the end, after Chloe takes an extremely long journey (to discover something, she hopes,) I got goosebumps because I could feel her elation and hope, quickly followed by her extreme sense of loss and grief.

I loved reading how Chloe’s character developed, the way she learned by trial and error, by making mistakes, proving that she is human and its ok. Once she opened her eyes to what was in front of her all along, she finally begins to live…and to love.

I would highly recommend this romantic saga, as well as The Bronze Horseman series, which is also excellent!

 

 

Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen

I’ve read all of Tess Gerritsen’s novels and have loved each and every one. Her background in the medical profession is evident by her ease of writing medical suspense with both clarity and interest. Her books are very difficult to put down, as they captivate the reader from the very start.

Her newest novel, Playing with Fire, is a stand-alone and is rather different from any of her previous works. She combines suspense, mystery, family drama, and historical fiction, and she does it beautifully. One of the coolest things about this book is that Tess actually composed a piece, a waltz titled Incendio, which is the theme music for the story. Not only is she a very talented writer, but it turns out that she is just as talented musically. A sample of Incendio can be found at http://www.tessgerritsen.com/. Listening to the music after reading the story made it even more powerful. What a nice treat to have a musical score to go along with such a wonderful story.

The story switches back and forth between present day and 1940’s Italy during WWII. Modern day, Julia Ansdell, a violinist, happens to find some very old music in an antique store in Rome. The music, which has never been published, captivates her and she begins to learn the complicated waltz, titled Incendio. The music starts to affect her three year old daughter in horrifying ways, which in turn causes Julia’s husband to worry that her mental health is unstable. Julia is scared, because her own mother was deemed criminally insane and she died while at an institution. Could the mental illness be passed down to her, or worse, to her 3 year old daughter? Determined to find the source of the waltz and its composer, Julia takes off for Venice while her family thinks she is elsewhere. What and who she finds there will shock the reader, as well as Julia herself.

During 1940’s war torn Europe, young Lorenzo, a talented violinist, and also a Jew, begins practicing music with Laura, a beautiful Italian cellist. Lorenzo finds himself falling for Laura, despite the odds against them. Soon, Lorenzo and his family are rounded up by German soldiers, ripped from their homes, and sent by train to the concentration camps in Poland. Lorenzo is torn from his family by an officer charged with finding musicians to play at the concentration camp. While there, he composes the waltz, Incendio. I won’t give away any more of Lorenzo’s story, because I don’t want to spoil the ending. Let’s just say you’ll want to read it for yourself.

This is a beautiful story, and I wish the novel was longer, because I read through it and found myself wishing for more at the end. Playing with Fire is a wonderful example of the powerful, lasting affect which music has on a person’s life, memory, and attitude. Well done, Tess. This is one of the best pieces you’ve written!

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover will be published November 3, 2015.

This was such a beautiful story that I was fortunate to come across and read. It reminded me quite a bit of another historical fiction book which I absolutely loved called Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. Like in Grey’s book, The Japanese Lover alternates between present day and and back to the 1940’s. Alma is an elderly woman who has checked herself into Lark House, a beautiful assisted living facility for the elderly. As the story progresses, we find out more and more about Alma’s life, including many secret meetings and correspondence with Ichimei Fukuda. Alma met Ichimei when they were 8 years old and Ichimei’s father was the gardener for Sea Cliff, the mansion owned by the Belasco’s, Alma’s aunt and uncle. Ichimei and his family were interned in a camp at Topaz for 3 years, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans living in California. Alma’s family, because they were Jewish, sent her away from Poland at the start of the war to live with the Belasco’s in America. Her family was sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust, and she never saw her parents again. Allende’s story portrays this heart breaking time for so many families with honesty and dignity. Running alongside of Alma’s story is that of her caregiver at Lark House, Irina. Irina, born in Moldovia, came to America and endured a horrifying adolescence, which she is still trying to keep secret and escape from when she meets Alma and her grandson, Seth, at Lark House. Alma takes Irina under her wing almost like a niece, as Irina helps her with daily tasks and takes care of her personal affairs. Irina and Seth realize that Alma is receiving letters from Ichimei, some 70 years after they first met. Seth finds himself falling for Irina, but she is reluctant to let anyone get close to her because of her embarrassment about the past. As the story comes to an end, many long buried secrets regarding Alma, her cousin (who would later become her husband) Nathaniel, Ichimei, Irina, and a newcomer to Lark House named Lenny who seems to know Alma very well. This book will definitely keep you reading until the last page. I absolutely loved the story.