The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa***-****

thegermangirlThe German Girl arrived in my mailbox, a nice surprise from Atria Books. This novel is historical fiction, an international bestseller translated into many languages; it tells the story of Hannah, a survivor of the Holocaust who was sent to Cuba, and her namesake, Anna, who lives in present day Manhattan. This title is available for purchase now.

Hannah is born into a Jewish family just before Hitler’s rise to power. As white supremacy becomes the new order, her picture is taken by a photographer, and it’s titled “The German Girl”. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, she is exemplified as the perfect Aryan child. No one associated with the magazine or the government knows that she is Jewish. And of course, her father, who has been working furiously and quietly to get passports out of Germany for all of them, is absolutely livid. Who dared do this without his permission, and more to the point, what repercussions will there be once someone in a position of authority realizes the error that’s been made?

As the World War II generation dies out, it is essential that works like this one continue to be published. Though it’s fictional, there are primary documents in the back—photographs and the guest book signatures for a cruise ship that bears a lucky cargo away from Nazi shores. There’s also a bibliography, something few writers of historical fiction provide.

The reader should know that this is not a page-turner. It’s a story for those with a particular interest in historical fiction and the history of World War II. It’s written in a relatively formal style, words that one sinks into rather than tears through. Those looking for a steady, steep story arc aren’t going to find it.

Recommended to those interested in the refugees that fled the Nazis; it’s a worthwhile reminder that white supremacy never leads to good results.

 

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.

The Kaminsky Cure, by Christopher New***

thekaminskycureThe Kaminsky Cure is a satire of Nazi Germany previously published and now offered anew in digital format. Thanks go to Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review, and for the DRC, which I received free of charge. This title is available to purchase now.

Who would have thought it possible to satirize such a terrible time and have it come out in anything other than terrible taste? But New carries it off, using a pre-school aged child in a mixed family—with one Jewish parent and one Anglo parent—as his narrator. Several times the precocious tot points out aspects of his own narrative that are actually impossible, as for example when the child tells us exactly what is contained in something written and then blandly points out that he cannot read yet. It just makes it funnier.

The appealing thing about this novel is that it brings up the reality which should be obvious to any thinking person that has paid any attention to this particular time and place: most Germans as well as Austrians were entirely in favor of Hitler’s takeover, and although there were Jewish families, many of them in fact, that wanted out of Nazi-occupied Europe as quickly as they could go, there were others that had never embraced their culture and had converted to Christianity in some cases generations earlier; and such is the case with our protagonist’s family, which wants only to pass itself off as Aryan so that it can join in the party. Young Martin, the protagonist’s older brother, longs to become a member of the fearsome SS, Hitler’s storm-troopers. Ah, the uniforms! The ferocity! The authority!

Our toddler-narrator, meanwhile, observes his own family with platonic remove, contemplating which members have violated one edict or another and should therefore be turned in to the authorities. After all, that’s one of the things he has learned in school. Children are the future, and it’s up to them to weed out those older folk that fail to comply with important social changes.

It’s what Hitler would want him to do.

There’s one twist and then another, but overall I found that the story’s momentum lost steam as it progressed, because there was really just one joke here, and it could only be played so many ways before it became repetitious. Nevertheless, it’s wholly original, and when faced with an event as horrific as the Holocaust, one either has to laugh or cry.

And amazingly, New has created a way to help us laugh, at least for a little while.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave*****

everyonebraveisforgivenThis is one of those rare novels that I have passed by multiple times despite all the buzz it has generated, because it looked as if it was out of my wheelhouse. A socialite. Pssh. A British officer. Sure. But eventually the enormous buzz among readers and booksellers made me curious. The last time I had this experience, the novel was The Goldfinch, and once I had begun it I gasped almost audibly at what I had almost let slip away from me. And so it is with Cleave’s brilliant novel, historical fiction mixed with more than a dash of romance.  I was lucky enough to get the DRC free of charge in exchange for an honest review; thank you Simon and Schuster and also Net Galley. This luminous novel is available to the public Tuesday, May 3, and you have to read it. It is destined to become a classic.

Our protagonists are Mary North and Alistair Heath; she is dating his best friend, and he is dating hers.  The night before he is to leave to serve in the British armed forces, a moment flashes between them in which they know they want to be together; when he leaves, each grapples with issues of personal loyalty when thinking of the other.

If talent were a mountain, then Cleave would be Everest. If talent were an island, Cleave would not be Malta, but rather all of Britain. And Cleave’s use of word play, first to show how undaunted British youth were by the challenges ahead, and later in a sharper way as the characters learn terrible things and develop a new definition of what courage looks like, is bafflingly brilliant, the rare sort that makes lesser writers hang their heads and understand—this will never be you.

My primary reservation about this novel was that it dealt with the social elite, and my first thought was oh heavens no.  That poor rich girl is going to have to suck it up like everybody else. But I underestimated Cleave and what he was about to take on; Mary, Alistair, and the secondary characters around them begin with a set of assumptions that under his unerring pen seem not only reasonable, but the sort of normal to which their entire lives have accustomed them. Their cavalier approach to the war, from those that serve from those like Tom who at the outset, believe they will “give it a miss”, is the entitlement that has cradled and preserved them from the realities of the greater world all their lives.

And it’s about to change.

 

Any other city would be chewing its knuckles and digging a hole to hide in.    Alistair    wanted to yell at people: The bullets actually work, you know! What they did not understand was that the city could be extinguished. That every eligible person could die with the same baffled expression that he had seen on the first dead of the war, in those earliest shocking days before the men had learned to expect it. I’m so sorry—I think I’m actually hit.

 

In turns amusing, poignant, tender, and heartbreaking, this is a novel you will want to reserve hours of your most private moments to read. You may find yourself taking an unexpected sick day so that you can finish it. Based on the overall story of the author’s grandfather with changes, added details, and embellishments, all of which the protagonists would agree are first rate, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is an unforgettable story of love, war, and innocence lost.

 

The Two-Family House, by Linda Cohen Loigman*****

TheTwoFamilyHouse What an amazing book! Once I began reading Loigman’s masterful historical fiction, my other galleys waited, meek and neglected until I was done with this one. Thank you twice, first to Net Galley and second to St. Martin’s Press for giving me a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

I have seldom seen such brilliant character development in a novel. Although Loigman is proficient with setting, it’s really the characters that drive this book. It begins just after World War II. Mort and Rose live downstairs with their three daughters; Abe, Mort’s brother, lives upstairs with his wife Helen and their sons. Though Rose and Helen are not biologically related, they are emotionally closer than many sisters. And what a great thing it is when they both find themselves pregnant, just when they believed they were finished having babies! Mort has wanted a son forever, and his resentment has begun to damage his marriage. He isn’t abusive, but he is cold toward Rose. When she says another baby is on the way, he becomes almost sentimental, making a deal with the cosmos that if he treats his wife well enough, she will bear him a little boy.

Helen loves her sons of course, but she sure would like a daughter; just one. Please.

And then during a blizzard, both women go into labor. Nobody can get to a hospital, and no doctor can reach their home. Instead, a midwife makes her way into the bedroom where both of them labor. Two babies are born.

This story grabbed me by the front of my shirt and wouldn’t let me go. Where I ordinarily make remarks about pacing, setting, and characterization, my e-reader is instead full of indignant comments. First I have become annoyed with Rose, and jot down notes about the things she says and does as if I were gossiping; eventually my remarks are made to Rose herself, because all of these people are so real to me, and she is behaving so badly. The author’s development of her characters, primarily Rose, Mort, and Judith, is so subtle and so sly that at first I wonder if I am imagining the change; eventually I just want to grab Rose and yank her into the kitchen for a good talking-to.

Maybe you think I have said too much, but there is oh so much more. I never saw the ending coming until we were there, and it was so cleverly done. When the story was over, I felt bereaved in a way I had not felt since I read The Goldfinch.

Those that love excellent historical fiction, strong literary fiction, good family stories or all three have to read this book. I gobbled it up early and had to sit on my hands for awhile prior to reviewing; a number of other books have passed between then and this writing, but The Two-Family House still stands out in my mind as having met excellence and surpassed it.

This book is available for purchase March 8. Highly recommended!

Target Tobruk, by Robert Jackson****

targettolbrukMilitary history and World War II buffs will enjoy this well written third installment in Jackson’s  Sergeant George Yeoman series. I hadn’t read any of the others in the series, but it didn’t matter; it serves just fine as a stand-alone novel. Thanks go to Net Galley and Endeavour Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this review.

Yeoman is a pilot; Jackson served as a pilot himself in the Royal Air Force Reserve and flew many different types of planes, so he has personal experience with his topic. The story centers around the battle for Northern Africa before the USA has entered the war.

And did you know how hot the desert is? Those that are considering reading this need to know this one thing: have some water beside you as you commence. I don’t think any novel has ever made me this thirsty!

Those that are not native English speakers may find this too challenging, and so will high school students. The vocabulary, as well as the military and geographic references, calls for a solid literacy level, and those with some knowledge of World War II and the Mediterranean region will be happier reading it than those that don’t. The four star designation is for this demographic; for general audiences unfamiliar with the Africa campaign, I’d take it down to three stars.

The book would really benefit from a couple of maps and some photographs of the many different types of weapons and especially aircraft that are mentioned here.

I am slightly touchy about the racist term that was used during this time period for Japanese; I understand they were adversaries, and yet the ugly racial terms–which went so far further than anything that was said about European members of the Axis forces–turn my stomach. Because of this, I veer away from fiction that has to do with the Pacific theater of this war, because I just know it’s going to be there, probably in liberal doses. The “J” word pops up here just once. On the one hand, it really doesn’t add anything to the plot and could have been left out, but on the other, at least it is in quotation marks, reflecting a character’s mindset rather than the overall tone of the narrative. Given the nature of the story, I felt the author did pretty well in this regard.

Recommended for those with a strong interest in World War II history, this book is more of a novella in length; just 142 pages. It is available for sale digitally now.

The Sleeper, by Robert Janes***

thesleeperThe Sleeper is an espionage thriller set just before Britain enters World War II. David Ashby is living in Germany with his family, but international tensions become so compelling that a British citizen is unable to live there safely anymore. Splitting from his German wife, he grabs their seven year old daughter and goes back to the UK with her. The German government is determined to retrieve the child, and the struggle over little Karen is the basis of the story. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

This one is tough to review, because it has so much going for it, and yet other aspects hold it back. Foremost among the latter is the premise; would Hitler really send this much firepower after one kid locked in a domestic dispute? Youth were a big part of his recruitment campaign, yet it’s hard to conceive of all this time, money, and attention being lavished on the retrieval of one solitary child—and at that, a girl, who by Nazi definition is bound for motherhood, church, and her kitchen. But once we just leap in and let ourselves believe either that this could be true, or that there may be a secondary reason as yet to be revealed to us for Hitler’s diligence, it’s an enjoyable read.

Janes is painstaking in his attention to historical detail. The culture, the more formal reference to others, with the salutation of Miss, Mrs., or Mr. (or their equivalents in other languages) rather than the common use of first names used in Western nations today resonates, along with technology and a host of other historical minutiae. His attention to all aspects of setting is equally outstanding. He weaves a complex, hyper-literate plot that at times is compelling, but the story would be better served if he were to streamline it a little, because there are a lot of side details that lend nothing to the story. For example, whether Ashby has a gay relationship has no bearing on the main story or its outcome. In fact, there is way too much of who is sleeping with whom; I can see why his ex-wife would be motivated partially by jealousy, but the reader is treated to the romantic or sexual inclinations of just about every woman in the village, and it’s distracting rather than useful, and it gets in the way of stronger character development. I also found many of the transitions ragged, sometimes startling, but this may very well only be true of the galley; sometimes the DRC doesn’t include little dividing marks that will be in the final copy to cue the reader of a change of scene; thus I didn’t include this issue in my rating.

About halfway through , the style of writing changes, becomes less fluent and takes on some odd quirks that made me flip to the author page to see whether the writer was perhaps not a native English speaker and the book translated from another tongue. However, since he credits two others with helping him with the brief bits of dialogue in German and French, that doesn’t seem likely. There is one particularly distracting feature of the grammar that I tried to ignore, but after awhile found myself highlighting its frequency to see whether it was really occurring as often as I believed. The specifics of this I will send to the publisher, in the hope that perhaps it can be mitigated by the time it comes out. With this distraction removed, the book would be 3.5 stars, maybe even 4.

The climactic scene in the mine tunnels is absolutely riveting, and the stilted language and grammatical quirks that occur roughly from the 50% to 80% portions are nowhere to be found during this critical part of the book. It is largely Janes’s outstanding word-smithery with regard to setting that makes the climax so palpable and taut.

Should you invest in this novel? I guess that depends on your fondness for WWII fiction, and how deep your pockets are. There are other novels in the same vein that I recommend more highly, but it’s such a large field, and you could certainly do worse.

This title becomes available for purchase December 15, 2015.