When I was Yours by Lizzie Page (historical fiction)

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 2.5

I loved the beginning of this book — tight prose, humorous, great writing, and the promise of a story that spanned two world wars (as told in alternating chapter time periods). In 1914, Vivi Mudie-Coates is the young, beautiful, and conventional British woman who wants nothing more than to marry Edmund, the handsome, upper crust friend of her cousin Richard. In 1939, she is indeed married to Edmund, but is anything but happy. When the children begin to be evacuated from London, the childless couple are given Pearl, somewhat against Edmund’s wishes.

The parallel stories wander through all the standard places — nursing on the continent during the Great War, the bombing of Britain in WWII, the evacuation of London children, driving ambulances, friends and relatives killed… There is a theme of casual anti-semitism threaded throughout that becomes more personal to Vivi as the story evolves. This book has all the elements of a great story but it just didn’t work for me. The plot was dragged out, so what started as a tight beginning just went on and on without any of the depth that would make the time spent feel worthwhile. Instead, it veered into pure melodrama with increased bombing deaths, close calls, suicides, and missed opportunities for true love. Even worse (for me), I found the main character to be shallow and kind of stupid. She did not behave in a way that I found at all believable. I never warmed to her, and even towards the end — when she finally started to do the right thing — she did it in a petulant, selfish manner that I found quite off-putting.

This is possibly the first book I’ve reviewed that kept me going to the end because I wanted to know what happened, but that I really disliked. I hate to be so negative — I tend to only review books that I like because I don’t bother finishing the others but …

Thank you to Bookouture and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Historical / Foreign Fiction)

<New word (to me) stichomancy: divination by opening a book at random >

As explained in the prologue, Kemposwki’s mission in life was to ensure that the detailed history of this time and place did not get lost. He compiled an immense archive of the diaries, photos, letters, and other memorabilia from East Prussia during WWII and its aftermath and used it to inform the characters and plot in the novel.

The book centers on an aristocratic family that has retreated to their country villa to wait out the war. The time is January, 1945 (remember that the war in Europe ended in May 1945); the place a small town in East Prussia. Eberhard von Globig is an officer in the German military — stationed in Italy he is assigned to manage supply (he is currently “busily confiscating wine and olive oil from the Italians” for use by German troops; in the past he has been responsible for requisitioning topsoil from the Ukraine for use in Bavaria!). His wife, Katharina, is a seemingly vacuous beauty from Berlin, an unwilling and incapable mistress of the estate. 12-year old Peter, Auntie, the family spinster, and workers Vladimir the Pole and the Ukrainian girls, Vera and Sonia, complete the household.

The Russians are heading their way and there is a constant stream of visitors heading from East to West. The visitors bring news and their own stories, which they often feel compelled to keep repeating as if otherwise they would be lost completely. While multiple people urge the family to leave soon, there seems to be a lassitude with regards to any real action — or perhaps they don’t feel they have agency in this regard. Everything is carefully controlled by the authorities — nothing is allowed without a permit.

The story is meticulously, yet concisely, detailed. There are no long streams of names and dates and actions, but instead the intimate particulars of lives disrupted by war and imminent invasion. Each character has their own perspective — some pepper their commentary with “Heil Hitlers” and mean it, others warn the family to hide any evidence of Naziism before the Russians arrive; some are appalled at seeing books by Jewish writers displayed, others whisper about the strange prisoners in striped shirts at the local brickworks. There is constant refrain — “Where did these things come from? Where would they end up? Who knows what may happen?”

Things don’t end well — it is inconceivable that they would — but the slow unwinding of events, the minutiae of survival, the confusion of authority, and the unremitting examination of life and attitudes in a failing Germany is incomparable. I found it darkly interesting that while everyone is afraid of the Russians coming (and with good reason), most of the bad things that happen are a result of the Germans and their system — there appear to be just as many authorities ensuring obedience and punishing “bad behavior” as there are those out fighting the enemy.

It is told in an unemotional style — while a character might be thinking “I am terrified,” the reader is not exposed to any of the literary tricks that would evoke a sympathetic emotion within them. I’m grateful for that — those are not emotions I want to feel, even briefly.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on March 19, 2019 .

Writing: 4 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4

An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066. We follow her along a tortuous path from Iowa to an internment camp in Texas to an unwilling repatriation to Germany in the last year of the war (she doesn’t even speak German). Each step provides a slap-in-the-face kind of opportunity to learn how labels change the way we perceive and treat others.

The book opens when Elise is 81. She is coming to terms with an Alzheimers diagnosis and more than anything wants to find Mariko — the friend she made in the internment camp many years prior. As an aside, I fell in love with this book because of the way Elise anthropomorphizes her disease:

“What I feel is that I’ve been saddled with a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own. I can’t get rid of her, the doctor assured me, and I can’t outwit her. I’ve named my diagnosis Agnes after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport — Agnes Finster — who was forever taking things that didn’t belong to her out of lockers.”

Each of the four parts of the book starts with a scene from elderly Elise’s life as she gets closer to finding Mariko. The rest of the book details her journey: Davenport, Iowa after her father’s arrest (part 1), the largely Japanese internment camp (part 2), Germany during the last year of the war (part 3), and finally, her path to and life in California (part 4).

It’s an utterly gripping story — very difficult to put down. Elise’s voice is real and thoroughly human as she struggles to find her place in the world and understand why people behave the way they do. She struggles with finding a place she can call home. The narrative clearly articulates how war affects everyday people who want no part in it and yet are given little choice. I found the historic details to be largely accurate (although I did wonder about a few small details).

Surprising plot twists! Great for both adults and young adults.

The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks

Thanks to NetGalley and Tin House Books for an advance review copy. The Orphan of Salt Winds will be published on Jan. 16, 2019.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

A dark and moody historical drama set against English marshes on the eve of WWII. Virginia — a ten-year-old orphan — comes to live at Salt Winds as the adopted daughter of Clem and Lorna. Clem is the author of wildlife books and Lorna a somewhat reluctant housewife. Tension unfurls at a steady and insidious pace as Virginia works to makes sense of the strain between her adoptive parents and the perfidious and disagreeable neighbor Max Deering. When a German aviator crashes into the marsh, events unfold that lead to a terrible denouement. Alternating chapters take place in 2015 when Virginia, in her dotage and still haunted by past events, spies a young girl clinging to the marsh wall in the bitter winds.

The writing is very good and the tension palpable. The descriptive prose brings the marshes and the time to life. The pacing is a bit slow for my taste with not enough story to warrant the length, and I would have liked a more upbeat ending. One of the more interesting aspects of the book for me is the way Virginia’s (and therefore our) understanding of individual characters changes over time. For example, Clem is the sympathetic character at the start — he behaves like a father while Lorna doesn’t seem to know what to do with the role of mother that has been foisted upon her. However, over time Virginia begins to see, and understand, how circumstance shaped Lorna and how she finally pushes through a learned submissiveness to become the person she needed to be. It’s interesting to realize that we see everything through the eyes of a ten- to twelve-year-old, and later through the eyes of the (somewhat bitter) old woman she becomes.

Good for fans of Kate Morton.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

Richly detailed historical fiction with a convoluted plot pulled from a set of narratives scattered across time but centered on place: Birchwood Manor — a 400 year old house immersed in myth and mystery. Murder, mayhem, stolen heirlooms, and old artifacts form the center of the story, but they exist in a sea of love, loss, and a range of historical settings including Queen Elizabeth and the Catholic persecution of 1586, the (fictional) Magenta Brotherhood artist group of the mid 1800s, the establishment of a school for young women in the late 1800s, London and environs in WWII, and modern day archival work. It’s engrossing but complicated — I found that documenting a timeline as I read was extremely helpful.

The writing is good but a little long winded for my taste. On the other hand, if you love historical dramas you may enjoy the longer opportunity to immerse yourself in the 500 pages of intriguing characters and historically accurate details. Did I mention that one of the narrators is clearly a (compelling) spirit that has been bound to the house for over a century?