Book Review: Lilac Girls

If you liked The Alice Network, you’ll love this beautifully written, multi-perspective view into an event that crossed continents.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I celebrated my birthday during the state-wide stay-at-home order for coronavirus precautions, but a friend surprised me by dropping a package on my doorstep and singing “Happy Birthday” from my driveway. Knowing I couldn’t get enough WWII books, she gave me this one. It made my whole week.

Cover Description

“Caroline Ferriday is a former Broadway actress and liaison to the French consulate whose life 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, sinks deeper into her role as a courier for the underground resistance movement. In Germany, Herta Oberheuser, a young doctor, answers an ad for a government medical positions—only to find 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 across continents, as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.”

Characters

Caroline is not your typical New York socialite. She works tirelessly, for no pay, to help those in need, and her stubbornness accomplishes the impossible. Kasia begins the story as an innocent teen, pining for her first love, wishing for life to be normal again after the Nazis and Russians invade. The strength which helps her survive Ravensbrück later makes it difficult to let go of the rage she harbors within. Herta is a woman in a man’s world, striving to pursue her passion of surgery, forbidden to women, when she is swept up in the horrors of the Nazis concentration camp. This trifecta of perspectives provides a global, yet personal, view of a forgotten part of history.

For me, the most interesting perspective was Herta’s. I haven’t read too many books that include the perspective of the Nazis themselves. Despite having been indoctrinated into the Nazi mindset, her initial attitude toward the war is one of cold ambivalence. She only wants to become a surgeon, and when she first witnesses life at Ravensbrück, she plans to take the next train home. Circumstances “force” her to stay.

Her descent into the wickedness of that place kept me turning pages long after bedtime. She even found the Nazis’ new religion “convenient,” as it helped soothe her rioting conscience. No matter how much Herta rationalized her “patriotic” experiments, her “only chance” to become a surgeon, her body knew the truth. Plagued by sleepless nights, Anxiety, Depression, and engaging in self-harm, she is proof that evil takes its toll not only on the victims, but the perpetrators.

Plot

I love that this story does not end with the end of the war. It continues to describe Kasia’s—everybody’s—difficulty in readjusting to “normal” life. Kasia does not rejoice at the end of the war, for Poland trades Nazis for Soviets, an “even trade,” as she calls it. She wrestles with her guilt and her hate until the last page, unable to relate to her loved ones because of it.

Overall, the plot moves slow enough to make the horrors of WWII sink in, but fast enough to make you check the clock and think “When did it get that late?” It is a story of justice, reconciliation, and moving on.

Writing Style

I have been reading a lot of sparse prose in YA lately, so Kelly’s detail-rich writing a refreshing change. Her descriptions made me feel like I could paint each scene, but were not so thick as to slow the plot. Beautiful work.

Conclusion

I never tire of WWII stories. There is always something new to learn, an angle unseen until I crack open another book. If you liked The Alice Network, you’ll love this beautifully written, multi-perspective view into an event that crossed continents.


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Book Review: The Book of Lost Names

The Book of Lost Names has everything a reader could want—intrigue, heroism, romance, and of course, a special book.

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel

I have my book club to thank for this one, though I’ll admit I read it the month after we discussed it. Better late than never, right?

Cover Description

Eva Traube Abrams, a librarian near retirement, is shelving books when a magazine photograph catches her eye. It’s a book she hasn’t seen since the Nazis looted library in a small French town sixty-five years ago, one she dubbed The Book of Lost Names. Now, German researchers are trying to find the rightful owner, as well as crack the code inside it. Only Eva holds the answer.

In 1942, Eva fled Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Upon finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she forges documents to help smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland. Erasing people, and hiding her own faith, comes with a price, one confounded by her attraction to the Catholic forger named Rémy. To help make sense of her competing feelings, she insists on keeping a record of the children’s real names in The Book of Lost Names. The book becomes even more important when their resistance cell is betrayed and Rémy disappears.

Characters

Eva begins the story with clear plans for her English degree, but the war throws her life into chaos, creating immense emotional insecurity. Much of the story takes place inside Eva’s conflicted thoughts. Her guilt, her attraction to Rémy, her tense relationship with her mother, and her concern about the war all feature prominently—too much at first. I had trouble connecting with Eva because it felt like she did nothing but deliberate and worry. Perhaps I saw too much of myself in her. By the end, however, I was rooting for her, and I found the ending to the book emotionally moving.

Rémy is the generic gallant hero found so often in women’s fiction it’s almost cliché—but I liked him anyway. The Catholic priest is similarly standard, but again, I liked him anyway. To use another cliché: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Eva’s mother was underdeveloped. Though her reactions to the circumstances were realistic, her behavior lacked cohesion, feeling…stringy. I can’t think of a better word. Toward the end, I wished the author had spent more time demonstrating the mother’s true feelings directly, instead of Eva hearing them by second-hand report.

Plot

The plot begins with the Nazi’s arrests, slows briefly while Eva establishes herself as a forger, but speeds up again toward the end when the conflict and drama intensify. I will admit I didn’t see the twist coming, but the author should have included more hints. I suspected someone else, and there wasn’t any reason to suspect the real betrayer. The personality change in the betrayer was too dramatic, too quick. Overall, the plot was well-rounded with enough ups and downs to keep me reading.

Writing Style

Harmel’s prose is simplistic but clear. Nothing to swoon over, but it gets the job done.

Miscellaneous

I never tire of reading WWII fiction. The conflict is a treasure trove of stories, and I’m sure we’ve barely scratched the surface. The heroism and self-sacrifice of that age inspire me. Sometimes wonder how my own generation would handle a similar situation. Not well, I fear, but perhaps I am too cynical.

Conclusion

The Book of Lost Names has everything a reader could want—intrigue, heroism, romance, and of course, a special book. Eva’s emotional turmoil is authentic, and her heroism inspiring. In simple but clear prose, Kristin Harmel adds another perspective to our understanding of one of the most defining conflicts of the twentieth century.


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The Book of Lost Names

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Book Review: Salt to the Sea

After I turned the last page, I was so upset there wasn’t any more that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

After reading Fountains of Silence, I had to read another by Ruta Sepetys. This one did not disappoint. After I turned the last page, I was so upset that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour. Though I have a stack of books waiting to be read, I wanted more of this one.

Back Cover Description

“Winter 1945. Four refugees. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war.

As thousands desperately flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

But not all promises can be kept.”

Characters

A lot of characters act in the pages of this book, but with creativity and skill, Sepetys brings them all to life. Each minor character has a quirk that allows the reader to keep track, and each of the perspective character’s voices is distinct enough that the narrator is clear even if you don’t read the chapter headings.

The main characters are all moving toward the same goal—the Wilhelm Gustloff—but each of them flees a different past. They carry their guilt, fear, in grief in different ways, and their backstories come to light throughout the book. Much like The Things They Carried, you can tell a lot about each character based upon what they took with them, and what they risked to keep it. Eva, for example, risks her place upon the boat by waiting for her mother’s silver.

I liked the author’s inclusion of the delusional German sailor. Constantly teased and never taken seriously, he wasn’t a “villain” per se, but his sick mind served as a reminder that evil is a machine with gears both large and small.

Plot

The innocent refugees are trapped between two evils—the invading Russians behind them, and the Nazis in front of them. They each take their chances with Germany. The tension is high throughout the story; I couldn’t help rooting for each of them as they ran from the horrors of their pasts straight into the jaws of the future.

The story depicts a tragedy that was six times deadlier than the Titanic, yet remains obscure. I love reading about WWII because there are so many aspects of the global conflict. Not only did this story move me emotionally, it educated me. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but now, as I often do after reading, I wonder why there isn’t a blockbuster movie about it.

Writing Style

Sepetys uses multiple perspectives for this tale—the right call for a story like this. Because of the shifting perspectives, the chapters are short. In theory, that should make the book easy to put down. I knew I was in trouble about two-thirds in. I spared a token glance at the clock, but I knew I would stay up to finish it. No regrets. Sepetys writing is beautiful and powerful.

Other

I love the cover with the shoes. The “shoe poet” is one of my favorite characters, and the different shoes on the cover highlight the different backgrounds of each character.

Conclusion

You really should have stopped reading a while ago and bought the book, but if you’re not convinced yet, let me add that this book joins only four others with the rank of Binge Read. An incredible read from an incredible author.


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Book Review: The Alice Network

Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

At my last visit to the library of Grandma, I mentioned I never tire of WWII books. She came over the next day and handed me a stack of them, including this one.

Back Cover Description

“1947. In the chaotic aftermath of WWII, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and head to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. That is until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth… no matter where it leads.”

Characters

I loved both the main characters. As an unwed, pregnant woman in 40s, Charlie faces significant challenges. She has a head for numbers, not the surrounding men believe her. She approaches life like a math problem, always trying to solve for x, but she soon discovers that life is not so straightforward. Through the course of the story, she grows from an uncertain disappointment to her parents into a confident young woman with plans of her own.

Eve also breaks many stereotypes. As a speech therapist, I appreciate the author’s accurate representation of stuttering. I love how Eve turns her stammer into an asset and takes advantage of people’s assumption that she is simple. Eve reminds us all that behind every cranky old neighbor lady is a story we could never imagine. In a culture where we often dismiss our elders in favor of youth-worship, Eve’s determination and courage are an inspiration.

Plot

Her entire family assumes Rose is another war tragedy, but Charlie recruits Eve to continue the search. In an alternate timeline, Eve works as a spy during WWI. As they continue searching for Charlie’s lost cousin, their stories intertwine.

Upon reading the supplemental information in the back, I was surprised to learn just how much of the story was factual. Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

Writing Style

The story alternates between Charlie and Eve’s perspectives and timelines. Charlie tells her tale in the first person, while Eve’s narrative is third-person. An odd difference, but not inhibitive. The suspense left between shifting perspectives could have been more intense; it took a while for the story to hook me.

Miscellaneous

I love the cover, especially since the car plays such a huge role in the plot. My grandmother’s paper has pages that alternate in width, giving it an old-school touch. At first, I enjoyed the novelty, but I soon came to hate it. The inconsistent page size makes it impossible to page through to see how many pages remain in a chapter.

Conclusion

This book smashes stereotypes and highlights the oft-ignored role of women during the two world wars. The protagonists are loveable yet flawed. While the story took some time to build suspense, it left me wanting to learn more. I recommend this book to fans of WWII fiction and to anyone wanting an engaging way to learn more about women’s role in the wars.  


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Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Cleave wields words like a miner wields a pickax: he strikes hard and sharp. His descriptions leave you feeling as if you experienced the setting not from the comfort of your living room sofa, but in all the grit and passion of place itself.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

As I wrote in this post and this post, I never tire of WWII stories. Everyone Brave is Forgiven tells the story from the perspective of those who stayed in London and experienced the war on their own front porches.

Back Cover Description

“The day war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up. Tom Shaw decides to ignore the war—until he learns his roommate Alistair Heath has unexpectedly enlisted. Then the conflict can no longer be avoided. Young, bright, and brave, Mary is certain she’d be a marvelous spy. When she is—bewilderingly—made a teacher, she finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget. Tom, meanwhile, finds that he will do anything for Mary.

And when Mary and Alistair meet, it is love, as well as war, that will test them in ways they could not have imagined, entangling three lives in violence and passion, friendship and deception, inexorably shaping their hopes and dreams.”

Characters

Mary North is a delightfully rebellious socialite who has more backbone than many soldiers. Her relationship with her disenfranchised students—African Londoners and children with disabilities—shines a light on the period. Even Nazi bombs couldn’t destroy prejudice. It’s no wonder Tom Shaw, a soft-hearted sloth of a man, falls for her. She loves him too, until Alistair’s quick wit sticks to her heart and forms a love-triangle that crosses oceans.

Mary’s high society rebellion, Tom’s “why’s everyone so upset about all this” attitude, and Alistair’s stark irony each give a striking perspective on the war. Cleave’s characters are well-rounded and realistic.

Plot

The plot reminds me of digging in the rocky soil of my landscaping. Every page reveals a stone, a new ugly truth about the war. From prejudice, to war crimes, to overblown bureaucracy, Cleave leaves no room to romanticize war. This book made me think.

As a romantic myself, I wanted things to work out better for Tom, Mary, and Alistair. Like all well-written characters, they became my imaginary friends, and I wanted a fairy tale ending for them. Don’t misinterpret this to mean that I didn’t like the ending. It was a satisfying ending, but like the rest of the plot, reflected the difficulties of life at war.

Writing Style

Cleave’s writing has a no-nonsense feel to it that differs from the female authors that I typically read. He is particularly gifted at Alistair’s wit, which reminds me of my older brother. His writing style reflects the overall tone of the novel. With little in the way of flowery fluff, Cleave wields words like a miner wields a pickax: he strikes hard and sharp. His descriptions leave you feeling as if you experienced the setting not from the comfort of your living room sofa, but in all the grit and passion of place itself.

Other

I like the cover image, though I wish it showed London in its damaged state. That was one of the more striking parts of the book, experiencing the bombings of London.

Conclusion

My grandmother loaned me this book, but it would be worth buying a used copy, unless you’re one of those people who can’t resist that new-book smell. If you’re stingy like me, this could be a library read, though I wouldn’t have regretting purchasing it.


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