The Last Year of the War

The Last Year of the War

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Most of us are aware that Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast of the United States during World War II were put in internment camps. What many of us might not know is that German-Americans who were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers were also interred.

Elise Sontag and Mariko Inoue are fourteen-year-old Americans in 1943 when they and their families are sent to an internment camp in Texas. Although no one in Elise’s family is a Nazi sympathizer, her family is at risk of being repatriated to Germany, where her parents were born. Likewise, while Mariko was born in the United States, she and her family may also be repatriated to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war.

Needless to say, their lives are no longer those of carefree American teenagers. Still, as they become best friends, they share their dreams and make plans for their future. And then they are torn apart.

Now, sixty-seven years later, Elise is determined to reconnect with her old friend.

This book just kept getting better and better. The richness of Meissner’s writing drew me in, and the need to know how things turned out kept me reading late into the night. The ending was satisfying while being neither pat nor unrealistic. Meissner (As Bright As Heaven; A Bridge Across the Ocean) creates characters I want to know more about and reveals historical information that is fascinating. I always learn from her books while becoming absorbed in places and times I might not experience otherwise.

Five Stars.

This reviewer received an ARC from the publisher with a request for an honest review.

The Last Year of the War will be released on March 19, 2019 and is available for pre-order.

 

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The Wartime Sisters

The Wartime Sisters

The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman (Historical Fiction)

Another World War II novel, this one set in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the Springfield Armory. The author grew up in the area and has done a thorough job of researching the armory’s history and physical setting. She has read all of the old armory newsletters,  knows how the officers and their families lived, and understands how work in the munitions factories went. Still, I have a hard time thinking of this as historical fiction, for the story that is told could be set anywhere, any time. The armory and World War II simply provide an interesting (and currently popular) environment.

Two sisters have been estranged for most of their lives. Ruth, the serious one, has always resented her younger sister’s beauty and active social life. Everyone notices Millie; Ruth is invisible. They go their separate ways as adults, but then circumstances throw them back together when Millie shows up at Ruth’s door with a two-year-old and a husband who is MIA.

Ruth is happily married. Her husband is an officer stationed at the armory, and she has young twin daughters. Still, she is reserved and unsure of herself in social settings, and when Millie comes back into her life, old resentments flare. She relives every petty conflict and every perceived slight from their youth. Millie, meanwhile, is struggling to make ends meet and to take care of her child. She takes an armory job making triggers. But instead of endearing her to Ruth, their reversed social status only seems to make things worse. Ruth finds Millie a burden she must endure. Millie longs to get away from her bossy older sister.

The blurb for the novel refers to “deep secrets” that each sister carries, but they weren’t that deep nor were they a big surprise. There is some tension, a fleeting moment or two of danger, but any dangerous situations are quickly resolved. In short, there’s not a lot of new stuff here. As for the era, other than some name-dropping and a rare reference to a restaurant or club where Jews are not allowed, we’re not overly aware of the times. The war doesn’t really influence our protagonists’ daily lives beyond the fact that the armory makes arms and there’s a shortage of sensible shoes. The working class goes to work, and the haughty officers’ wives could be high society matrons anywhere.

Three stars.

This reviewer received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

This book will be released on January 22, 2019, and is available for pre-order.

The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida (Historical Fiction)

Northern Italy in 1923 is the setting for this story of Maria Vittoria, a young woman about to begin an arranged marriage. We travel with her through the next two decades as Fascism and Mussolini take over the country and “Trust no one” becomes her mantra. World War II brings cruel Nazis and marauding Partisans, hunger, deprivation, and fear. Meanwhile, she is raising five children, enduring an abusive marriage, and doing what she believes she must to feed her family and keep them safe.

In addition to painting a picture of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, this is a tale of a loveless marriage, misplaced pride, religious dominance, and the devaluing of women, not only by their fathers and brothers, but also by their husbands and sons. Maria endures not only political tyranny but also that imposed by the men in her life. Yet, she is a traditionalist willing to impose the same fate on her daughters.

As with any story spanning several decades, children grow up before you have a sense of who they are, things happen in the background, the main characters age, and, unless it’s a three-volume saga, you begin to feel like you’ve missed a lot. I care about Maria’s children because they’re Maria’s children, not because I know them as individuals. In fact, mostly, I don’t like them, based on the little I’ve seen. I dislike her husband, and because I’m judging from a blurry snapshot, it’s hard to tell if he has changed much after all these years.

Still, this is the story of a survivor, a woman who perseveres. It is a tale of the sort of hardships that drove many of our own ancestors to seek a better life in a different country. It is well-written and kept me engaged enough to finish it in two days.

Grandma gives The Madonna of the Mountains four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (Paranormal, Mystery)

The girls referred to in the title of this book have been sent to Idlewild Hall, a creepy, second-rate boarding school in a small Vermont town. They are the girls no one knows what to do with – hard to handle, illegitimate, or simply unwanted. Built in 1919, the school is rumored to be haunted, and the girls who live in this dreadful place over the years pass along stories of Mary Hand, the resident ghost. Even after the school is closed in the 1970s, the abandoned buildings continue to throw a chilling pall over the town and its inhabitants.

In 2014 Fiona Sheridan, a local journalist, has her own reasons for hating Idlewild Hall. Twenty years ago, her older sister was murdered and her body was dumped in the abandoned school’s playing field. Now the place has been purchased and is about to be restored, and Fiona uses the potential story as cover to feed her obsession with the property and its history. She is on the grounds the day a shocking discovery is made, and soon she is delving into more than she bargained for.

The novel follows two different timelines – Fiona in 2014 and four Idlewild Hall girls in 1950. We get the points of view of all five characters in alternating chapters, and before long their stories begin to intertwine. Each 1950s Idlewild girl has a unique backstory, and when one of them goes missing, her friends must fight to have authorities take her disappearance seriously. That disappearance, along with sightings of Mary Hand, will affect Fiona, as well.

The author has created an eerie setting populated with characters we come to care about. I thoroughly enjoyed her writing style and found her dialogue to be exceptionally true to how people speak. The story itself is a gentle inclusion of paranormal with mystery, suspense, and historical fiction, and the ending satisfyingly answers the questions raised throughout the book.

Grandma gives The Broken Girls 4.5 stars. 4.5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Broken Girls will be released by the publisher on March 20, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

Payback

Payback

Payback by Michael FitzGerald (Alternative History Thriller)

What if the Mafia and FBI joined forces to assassinate Hitler in 1938? Could it have succeeded? Could it have prevented World War II? Could it have changed the world?

Michael FitzGerald has written a mesmerizing alternative history thriller that partners American gangster Bugsy Seigel with an FBI sharpshooter, Luigi Carmona, in a daring plot to assassinate Hitler. The volatile and unpredictable Seigel, a Jew who hates Hitler but has a hard time keeping himself under control, and Carmona, a Jewish Italian expatriate working for the U.S. government, travel to Rome together in 1938 when Hitler is meeting with Mussolini to cement their countries’ alliance in support of fascism and Germany’s quest to expand its borders. With the help of local Mafiosi, Seigel and Carmona plan to assassinate Hitler during a welcoming parade and then quickly escape the country.

FitzGerald writes well and obviously knows his stuff. He successfully combines the reality of historical characters and events with a clear vision of what might have been to produce a story that rings true with possibility. By taking us into the minds of all the characters, including Hitler, Mussolini, and their closest compatriots as well as the warring Mafia Dons and the honest Roman police lieutenant seeking to meet his commitment to uphold the law, we get a close-up look at the action from multiple points of view. That action never stops, and, because of the subject matter, at times the reader is torn over whom to root for.  The result is a book that kept this reader engaged right up to the end and one we recommend for fans of alternative history fiction.

Grandma gives Payback five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Orphan’s Tale

the-orphans-tale

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff (Historical Fiction)

The Orphan’s Tale is a story of survival during World War II from the point of view of two women: one a German trapeze artist hiding from the Nazis because she is Jewish, the other a Dutch teenager who has rescued a Jewish baby from a boxcar full of babies bound for a concentration camp. Each has found refuge in a traveling German circus whose owner is quietly doing his best to save whomever he can.

Both women narrate the story in first person, alternating chapters, and we get to know them well. Each has painful secrets she keeps from the other for reasons of self-preservation, and at times they clash more than they get along. But their survival depends on the teenager, Noa, becoming a passable aerialist to justify her presence in the circus and to give Astrid, the professional, a partner for her act.  Forced into cooperation, they eventually become fast friends, tying their survival and their futures together, although the road to friendship is a bumpy one.

The author has done a good job of conveying a sense of circus life as it applies to the story, including the difficulties of life on the road complicated by the shortages of war, the dangers of traveling through occupied France, and the financial decline of the circus itself. Her characters are believable, flawed individuals who make mistakes, hold grudges, and distrust others, yet long to connect for they know they cannot go it alone, either through this war or through life. Nothing about this book was predictable, and the ending was a complete surprise, yet plausible. Jenoff kept my interest throughout, the teaser in her prologue driving me to read late into the night to find out what that was all about.

Grandma gives The Orphan’s Tale five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Orphan’s Tale will be released on February 21, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

A Bridge Across the Ocean

a-bridge-across-the-ocean

A Bridge Across the Ocean by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

During World War II, the luxury oceanliner Queen Mary was commandeered for transporting troops, and in 1946 it became the vessel carrying European war brides across the ocean to their American G. I. husbands in the U.S. Among those brides are Annaliese Kurtz and Simone Robinson. One is a German ballerina traveling under an assumed identity and one is the daughter and sister of French Résistance fighters. Each seeks to leave the horrors of the war years behind and start a new life.

In present time, Brette Caslake is a young woman struggling with the effects of having “the Sight,” an inherited ability to see and communicate with the ghosts of people caught between this world and the next. It’s a gift she prefers to downplay and ignore but cannot always control. When prevailed upon by an old friend to help his young daughter cope with the recent death of her mother, Brette visits the Queen Mary, now docked in Los Angeles as a floating hotel and tourist attraction. The oceanliner has a history of ghost sightings, and the child felt her mother’s presence there. But when Brette visits, the presence she feels is that of another who connects with her and wants her to solve the decades-old death of a war bride while traveling on the Queen Mary in 1946.

This fascinating tale is told from the points of view of four entities: Brette, Annaliese, Simone, and the unnamed presence on the ship that communicates with Brette. The result is a story that kept me reading when I should have been doing other things, like sleeping. The fate of each character became important to me, including that of the unknown on the ship. The very intense stories of Annaliese and Simone during World War II were vividly portrayed, providing a level of depth and understanding that made the conclusion completely believable. Brette’s fears and concerns and how they are resolved send a strong message about our need to do something meaningful with what life gives us rather than striving to control that which we cannot.

As happens with the best of historical fiction, Susan Meissner’s rich portrayal of disparate characters living in very different environments and times was an education as well as entertainment, leaving me with the satisfying sense of having spent my time wisely, even if I lost sleep.

Grandma gives A Bridge Across the Ocean five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book will be released by Penguin Group (USA) in March, 2017, and is available for pre-order.