Tag Archives: World War Two

Helen Bryan – War Brides (2006)

war-brides-by-helen-bryanHelen Bryan’s novel opens in the present day with an elderly woman packing to get on a plane to Europe. Her distination is unknown, but we know that whoever she plans on seeing, she hasn’t seen in over 50 years.

The bulk of Bryan’s novel takes place 50 years earlier during the Second World War and follows the lives of four women, Evangeline who has eloped from New Orleans, Alice a spinster living in the English countryside, Elsie evacuated from London, Tanni who has fled Vienna, and Frances a high spirited society girl sent to live with her Godmother, as how their lives intersect as they all find themselves in Crowmarsh Priors for the war. The novel had a great set up, but fell rather flat and had an unsatisfying conclusion.

I won’t say too much more at risk of spoiling the book, but there is a lot of character development during the first half of the novel which is well done, but Bryan seems unsure of where to go from there. Each woman is introduced on her own and has a compelling backstory; Evangeline is the daughter of a planter in New Orleans and is having an illicit affair with her mulatto cousin, Elsie is a slum rat in London but clever nonetheless, and Tanni find herself married to a family friend studying at Oxford in order to escape Nazi occupied Austria. Once all the women find themselves in Crowmarsh priors, their stories get tiresome. The women’s stories end before the war does, and the epilogue tacked on to the end is sloppy and seems out of place. It feels as though Bryan was rushed in writing this in order to make a deadline or something. I was quite disappointed after what seemed like such a promising start to the story.

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Lisa See – China Dolls (2014)

18404427In defining this book I would say that it was totally and wholly expected. It’s one of those historical fiction novels that you pick up in an airport for a pleasant, although unremarkable read. Maybe some will disagree with me, but there wasn’t anything in this book that really stood out for me; nothing took my breath away.

Essentially the book takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown just before the United States enters the Second World War. Following three characters; Grace, a young Chinese girl from the mid-west who has run away from her abusive father; Helen, a young Chinese widow from a prominent family; and Ruby, a Japanese girl posing as Chinese, Lisa See tells a story of fame, female friendship, and betrayal set against a looming war. All three work as dancers at a nightclub each pursuing their own dreams, and quite unsurprisingly their lives are turned upside down when Pearl Harbour is bombed.

The characters were charming although one-dimensional, and it was easy to see where the story was going from the start. Maybe I’m asking a bit too much of the author or expect too much from the fiction that I read but overall this book was good, but nothing special.

Hazel Rowley – Franklin and Eleanor (2010)

FranklinandEleanorIt’s pretty well agreed upon that there is a sense of romanticism that settles around FDR, as well as his wife Eleanor. FDR managed to lead a country through wartime while battling debilitating illnesses and Eleanor has been an inspiration to generations of women. It should not be surprising that two such extraordinary individuals had an extraordinary marriage, but it does as a President’s private life is often treated as just that, private.

In her novel, Hazel Rowley provides an intimate look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s partnership from the day that they met to the day of his death. She details the number of affairs that both, either formally known or suspected, engaged in and how the pair made their marriage work. Franklin was a notorious flirt and enjoyed the company of young women, while Eleanor also had her fair share of “special companions.”

I for one have always been a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong silent presence in Franklin’s life and always stood by him. While this may have caused her to have a bit of a martyr’s complex, having to play the role of a put-upon wife, she was always willing and ready to put the needs of others, especially her husband’s before her own. Franklin relied on Eleanor and in turn supported her causes where he could even when certain issues, such as Eleanor’s support for Civil Rights, could hurt Franklin’s popularity.

Even though the couple spent a great deal of time a part, especially during the later half of their marriage while Eleanor was traveling supporting her own causes and Franklin was constantly visiting other world leaders during the Second World War, their letters to one another show a level of tenderness and love. While they may have taken other lovers, it is very clear that Franklin and Eleanor were life partners and needed, and loved each other vey much.

Wayne Grady – Emancipation Day (2013)

EmancipationDayThis book has been getting a lot of buzz in the past year from Canadian book reviewers, mostly for the style of writing. I will agree that Wayne Grady has written this book in a rhythmic way that evokes the jazz music that appears throughout the story. The music is not the driving force as it is in Half Blood Blues however, but rather belongs in the background, providing ambiance music to set the scene. As much as I enjoyed Grady’s writing, for me the story was about 60% there.

Essentially Grady is telling the story of Jack, an African American boy who is born with white skin. He grows up in Windsor Ontario during the 30s and 40s before the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, while stationed in Newfoundland Jack meets Vivian and marries her but tries to keep his family a secret. Things get complicated however when the pair travel to Windsor to meet his family and Vivian finds out she is expecting a child.

It’s a good story, but I feel like it either should have been a lot longer, or much shorter focusing in on Jack’s refusal to acknowledge, and even hatred of, his own race. There is so much interesting emotional stuff to dissect with his character which wasn’t really done. There is no real climax or conclusion to the novel, and the characters do not really develop. I still liked the book but I’m not so sure if it deserves all the immense praise it has received.

Tilar J. Mazzeo – The Hotel on the Place Vendome (2014)

HotelOnPlaceVendomeIn general, if a book is written about Paris during the Second World War, there is a very good chance that I am going to love it. With this book however, I started out loving it, then I didn’t like it, then I liked it, then I didn’t again, before finally deciding that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or hated it.

This is mostly because Mazzeo tries to present a history of the Ritz during the Second World War without actually talking about the Ritz during the Second World War. She starts off with the founding of the Ritz, then the German invasion of Paris, before jumping immediately to D-day in the third chapter. I assumed that maybe she wasn’t going in chronological order, which turned out to be only half true. The events going on at the Ritz are alluded to, but are not explored fully, which is crazy because you had high ranking German officers living in the same hotel that became a hub for clandestine activities for the French resistance.

Where Mazzeo does exel in in her profiles of the rich and famous people who lived at the Ritz either before or during the war including, but not limited to Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, and her favourite, Coco Chanel. Because her focus is on these personalities, she writes at length about the press battle that waged with covering D-Day and the Allied invasions. I’ve seen all the famous photographs, but never really stopped to think about the process reporters, like Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa, went through to get them. I also learned that Ho Chi Mihn worked in the kitchens at the Ritz, and interesting factoid that Mazzeo threw in during the last chapter.

It was interesting, and I liked parts of it, I just wish that Mazzeo had done more on the events that took place at the Ritz during the war, especially regarding the resistance movement that so many of the staff were involved in. She captures the spirit of the Ritz during the war, the eternal glamour that the hotel sought to maintain, but I wanted more regarding life “behind the scenes.”

This seems to be a period of time that is of interest to Tilar J. Mazzeo and she has written another book solely on Coco Chanel’s dubious life during the war. Because the chapter regarding Coco Chanel was one of my favourites, I think I will add it to my TBR list.

Caroline Moorehead – A Train in Winter (2011)

ATraininWinterHow does one begin to explain the unexplainable? Convince others to believe the unbelievable horrors that awaited the women of the French Resistance, Les Convoi des 31000, once they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the hundreds of women sent to Nazi death camps only a handful survived to tell the story. This is their story.

This book was so hard to read, I found myself stunned at times needing to put it down. I couldn’t read too much in a day or else I would end up too depressed. While the first part details the involvement of the women in the French Resistance, the second part deals with their lives in Nazi death camps. The horrors they witnessed and the helplessness they felt watching their friends die.

Reading about the Holocaust however, and other historical atrocities should be uncomfortable and hard to read. Even though the death camps have been common knowledge to me ever since middle school, I don’t think I have ever really truly grasped the full extent of the horror, nor do I think I ever will. Moorehead writes in so much detail about the conditions in the camps, the rampant disease and lice, the lack of food and emaciated bodies, the cold, the mud, the wet, and still I cannot begin to comprehend that anyone was able to survive this for 2 and a half years. Most did not, but some did.

Moorehead’s story is optimistic about the strength of women’s friendship and their lasting bond. She interviewed as many surviving women as she could and writes that no one would have been able to survive in the camps on their own. They all stuck together and helped one another, pooling rations, hiding sick or injured women, as much as they could. Moorhead also writes that “The French as a national group were more cohesive than other nationalities and more prone to look after their own.” She credits the survival of a number of women to this fact.

While Mooreheads story is one of women, friendship and survival it does not necessarily have a happy ending. The women who survived had returned to France but discovered that they had forgotten how to live. Many came home as widows, finding out that their husbands who were also involved in resistance activities were shot, or to children who did not even recognize them. Combined with the nightmares of the camps and the lack of a support network, many of these women withdrew into themselves finding it impossible to be happy again. While life went on, many women could not. Survivor Charlotte Delbo wrote, “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.”

Moorehead’s book shed important light on the important role that women played during the Second World War through their involvement with the French Resistance, and the sobering reality that many paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to their country. She deals briefly with the aftermath of the war, and the treatment of war crimes in France, but her main focus us on Les Convoi des 3100, the 42 women who managed to survive out of the 230 that did not.

Rating: 4.5/5

Maria Duenas – The Time in Between (2011)

TheTimeinBetweenThis book falls somewhere in between for me. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t dying to pick up and read it either. It wasn’t compelling for me, although some will probably disagree.

The Time in Between follows, Sira a quaint Spanish dressmaker who gets caught up, first with a conman, and then in the word of high espionage, in the years leading up to the Second World War. Sira travels from Madrid, to Spanish Morocco, to Lisbon, and then back again all while never sure of whom she is. Throughout the novel Sira struggles with her own identity, first as a shy seamstress working with her mother in a workshop, then as “fallen women” considered to be a criminal, working a dressmaker to pay off the debts incurred by her conman lover. She amasses some important clientele and fashions herself as a high class courtier catering to the wives of important government officials when the English secret service decides to make use of her talents and insider connections.

Duenas paints beautiful scenes of Spanish Morocco and Tangiers during the 1930s, but I’m afraid that something has been lost in translation. Because the book is originally written in Spanish, I fear that some of it’s magic may have been lost in the English version. Translating a book is a difficult thing to accomplish, and something that it is almost impossible to perfect. Still the book moves at a good pace and was a pleasant read, although not a terribly thrilling one.

I did not realize the book was based on real characters until reading the authors note at the end. It changed the book for me a bit and I wish I had done a bit more research before reading. I still might go back and read it again if I have the time.