Category: WWII

Thoughts on The Nightingale

TheNightingale2You might have noticed that there have been and continue to be a lot of World War II novels on bookstore shelves these days. This particular setting has always been a storyteller’s sad paradise; there are just so many untold tales of the courageous and cunning and clever and cowardly and compassionate. So many little and big backdrops in which to place a character on a quest. I availed myself of this setting for Secrets of a Charmed Life.

I knew when Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale was due to be released that I would grab it up, and not only because it’s a WW2 tale, but it’s a French Resistance tale (always of interest to me) about two sisters, just as my WW2 is a story about two sisters. The Nightingale was one of those books that I could not wait to get back to. I read for pleasure at the end of the day, and I know I’ve got a great book when I can’t wait for night to fall, for the clock to strike ten o’clock, so to speak, so that I can crawl into bed with the pages.

This book, like All the Light We Cannot See, Life After Life, Those Who Save Us (all five-star WW2 novels in my opinion, is not an easy read. War is a cruel canvas for any story to be told and yet this tale is inspired by true events. This story of two French sisters named Vianne and Isabelle did not really happen but you know without a shadow of a doubt that it could have.

occupied_franceThe story in a nutshell is this:  When France is occupied by the Nazis, Vianne Mauriac is forced to board an officer of the Third Reich in her house, and suddenly “her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.” Her sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old searching for purpose who races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real–and deadly–consequences.

Goodreads says: “The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”

Just a few days ago America quietly noted that it had been 70 years since VE Day -Victory in Europe. Seven decades had passed since the Allies – against incredible odds and a formidable enemy – accepted the unconditional surrender of  Germany’s Nazi forces. I was stunned by how noiselessly May 8, 2015 came and went. I think the older we get and the more generations there are removed from WW2, the more out of touch we become with how it changed the landscape of who we are. I am glad for books like this one that will resonate into the future (it’s a runaway bestseller right now) so that we won’t lose sight of how this season of history shaped humanity.

Highly recommended.


Today’s the Day!

SecretsOfACharmedLifefinalcoverToday Secrets of a Charmed Life hits bookstore shelves! This WW2 story began first as just an image in my head of a teenage girl sketching wedding dresses in the tiny bedroom she shares with a younger half-sister. I could see Emmy in my mind’s eye imagining a life far different from the one she is living. She wants a happily-ever-after life where love and comfort are in abundance, and for her, that charmed existence begins with a wedding dress worn on that day a girl’s childhood dreams come true. I decided to set Emmy in London at the start of the war because I knew that even for a young woman not yet sixteen, war is a crucible. It is a tester of dreams and desires and determination. I knew the London Blitz was an opposition that would bring out the very best and the very worst in this girl, as war so often does.

Like many of my other novels, Secrets of a Charmed Life is historical fiction framed by a contemporary layer linked to the past. An American college student studying abroad at Oxford interviews Blitz survivor Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets she has kept all her life – beginning with who she really is. The story then takes the reader to England in 1940, where an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population is about to take place and half a million children are evacuated to foster homes in the countryside. Fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, but Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. The sisters’ lives are forever changed when—acting at cross purposes—they secretly return to London on the first day of the Blitz.

As always, if you decide to read this book, and I so very much hope you do, I’d love to hear what you thought of it. Your reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes and Noble are appreciated more than you know. Readers trust other readers, and your honest reaction to any book of mine is the best kind of word of mouth. If you haven’t already ordered a copy of Secrets of A Charmed Life, today would be a great day to do that!

As Iwrite this, Secrets of A Charmed Life is #44 on Goodreads’ Top 200 most anticipated February releases, and #20 on Amazon’s hot new digital releases for February! What a wonderful way to release a new book into the wild.

There are a number of drawings for this book on the web right now. Here’s one of them.  There’s an interview there where I shared some of what I told you above, plus lots more.

Thanks so much for being a part of my life. You are the reason I write.

When the past and present collide

ThiefofGLoryI’ve long been a fan of fiction that dovetails a historical story with a contemporary framework. I like reading books with this kind of construction and I like writing them.  When I was asked to read an advance copy of my friend Sigmund Brouwer’s THIEF OF GLORY, and was told that it was a WWII story framed by the current day, I said yes immediately. I’m a fan of Sigmund’s style, have been since his BROKEN ANGEL a few years back. It wasn’t hard to come up with glowing words for Thief of Glory. This one was unputdownable on so many levels.  Here’s just a bit about the book:

Jeremiah Prins was the 12-year-old son of a school headmaster in the Dutch East Indies when Holland declared war on the Japanese in 1941. In retaliation, the Japanese army invaded, and Jeremiah and his family were placed in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp; a hell on earth as all war camps are. After the war he finds himself in California, where he struggles with lingering anger and anguish from his experiences and the decisions he made.

In the present day, a now-elderly Jeremiah tries to make sense of his life by journaling all that his children do not know about his past, intending to leave his writings as an apology after he is gone. An online encounter puts Jeremiah in touch with his true love from the war years, Laura, and when they meet again, long-buried secrets are unearthed that will surprise and shock you, and ultimately endear this wounded soul to you.

Before reading Thief of Glory, I had no idea what the war was like for the Dutch residents living in what had been Dutch-occupied Indonesia. The novel was eye-opening to say the least. As with other books I’ve read with young protagonists dealing with the harsh realities of adults at war (The Book Thief, Sarah’s Key, Diary of A Young Girl, Stones from the River) this one yanked fiercely on my mother-heart and left me astonished at what war expects of the children swept up into its maelstrom.

The book won’t be released until mid-August but I suggest you put it on your To Be Bought list and then most definitely on your To Be Read pile. You will be moved, appalled, changed.


Try, try again

lifeafterlifeYou know those moments when you say to yourself – or maybe even out loud – “If I could do that over again, I’d____” and then you fill in the blank with how you would relive that moment, do it better, gain a more advantageous outcome?

Imagine for a moment what it might be like, however, to have no say in the matter at all. Imagine that you are going back and back and back to relive your life, and you are barely aware of it? You don’t have Hermione Granger’s time-turner where you’ve absolute control over how far back you go. And you don’t have it to come back to where you are now after you’ve made your changes.

Imagine that your stillborn birth is changed on the second-go-around so that you now survive. A drowning when you are a little girl  is reversed so that this time the artist on the beach sees you going under and dashes in to save you. A chance encounter with the Spanish flu which killed you before is held at bay because for some reason you know you must stop the maid from meeting up with her beau who is already infected with the virus and doesn’t know it.  Imagine you know that somehow the new chancellor of Germany with the postage stamp mustache will inflict such horrors on his fellow man that the world will be forever changed because of him. Imagine you know you will see him in a cafe before he ever has a chance to do anything truly terrible.timeturner

Kate Atkinson’s brilliantly conceived Life After Life is the imagined life of Ursula Todd. She’s a girl who keeps reliving her life, almost as if she is being handed by Providence chance after chance after chance  to alter the course of human history.  Only the reader truly knows the full breadth of Ursula’s multi-layered existence.  Because, of course, she can’t know everything, can she? Doc Brown in Back to the Future told us why. Remember this line, when Marty wants to tell Doc on the night he travels back in time that Doc is shot by the Libyans he stole from?

docbrown“No! Marty! We’ve already agreed that having information about the future can be extremely dangerous. Even if your intentions are good, it can backfire drastically!”

So our heroine, sometimes young, sometimes a teenager, sometimes an adult, keeps taking one step forward and five steps back, with strange inklings of things yet to come, inner nudges to avoid this, go after that, and all against the backdrop of the years leading up to and including World War II and the bombing of London.

Because I was on vacation and in a car for long periods, I “read” Life After Life via audio, something I rarely do. The recorded version, read by Finella Woolgar, is stunningly impacting. Ms. Woolgar aptly reads as narrator and dozens of other voices. You can see it all, every relived moment. If you’ve ever wanted to give audio books a try, I’d recommend this one.

Like all books that deal with World War II, the content can be be heavy. There are plenty of sad moments, but there are just as many subtly triumphant ones, especially when you, the reader, know — for example — that Ursula has just reinvented her life by a chance decision to rescue a dog during a London Blitz air raid.

I am always in awe of a writer who can invent a new way of telling a story. The premise of this one is so unique, and the writing is beautiful, even the most tragic parts.

And of course any book that makes you stop and deeply ponder, “What if that could really happen, and what if happened to me?” is a keeper. If language offends you, know that there are a few f-words here and there.

Here is the link to an excerpt on Goodreads.

And a few of my favorite quotes:

“There was always a second before the siren started when she was aware of a sound as yet unheard. It was like an echo, or rather the opposite of an echo. An echo came afterwards, but was there a word for what came before?”

“No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”

“Dr. Kellet himself wore a three-piece Harris tweed suit strung with a large gold fob watch. He smelled of cloves and pipe tobacco and had a twinkly look about him as if he were going to toast muffins or read a particularly good story to her, but instead he beamed at Ursula and said, “So, I hear you tried to kill your maid?” (Oh, that’s why I’m here, Ursula thought.)”

Next week, my review of The Book Thief, which I am nearly finished with and loving to the point of dreading the finishing…



War and remembrance

A few years back, when I was editor of a small-town newspaper, my staff and I were preparing for the issue that coincided with Veterans Day. We agreed we wanted a front-page interview with a WWII vet. We wanted a feature story with a personal account to run alongside a sidebar noting the time and place of the annual ceremony taking place in the city park.

It was a production decision that made sense. From an editorial standpoint it was a nicely put-together front page.

But whenever I’m given cause to remember that particular moment in my community journalism career, I recall the interview with a man who farmed most of his adult life, who was soft-spoken and Mid-West mild-mannered. And who had suvived the Bataan Death March. I can still remember how he quietly told us that on the march, if you stopped to catch your breath, they shot you. If you stopped to scrounge a drink of water, they shot you. If you stopped to help a wounded comrade, they shot you. He spoke in measured tones of his time in a Japanese prison, of his doubts of seeing home again, of the friends he saw die before his eyes.

And there we were as he talked in the last lingering moments of a Minnesota autumn, surrounded by harvested corn fields and open sky, leagues away from the Pacific, the Philipines, and the smell of death. You could almost talk yourself into thinking such a thing could never have happened. But it did. We all know it did. His was an amazing story of fortitude, courage and resiliency.

I remember thinking everyone should hear this man’s story. It didn’t seem right that only a handful of subscribers would read it. I still feel that way.

Earlier this month, around the Fourth of July to be exact, I learned there is a concerted push for the YouTube generation to help record the stories of the brave men and women who make up what many call the greatest generation. It’s a wonderful idea. And anyone can be a part of it. It’s called the Veterans History Project and it’s open to anyone. It encompasses not only WWII but all the major conflicts and wars of the last 100 years. If you can run a video camera or record a voice or type up an interview, you can help preserve the oral histories of events that shaped our nation in many ways. Wouldn’t it be great if the young, creative minds who flood You Tube with videos of their cat singing Christmas carols or their uncle doing magic tricks or their bungee-jumping vacation in Maui took the time to record the personal accounts of WWII veterans? Statistics tell us 1,000 WWII vets pass away every day, and when they die, they take their stories with them. The YouTube crowd is perfectly gifted to make sure the stories don’t die with them. Stories like these should not be forgotten.

Check the website for yourself. Consider interviewing a neighbor or a family member who you know has a story to tell. Then help them tell it. Make the effort.

What have you got to lose?

Well, actually, a lot.