Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

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Review #82

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac have a strained relationship. Isabelle feels that Vianne abandoned her to a series of convent school and a life of loneliness after the death of their mother. Vianne, still mourning a series of miscarriages, feels that Isabelle is reckless and never stops to think about how her actions may affects others. In a quiet French town in 1940, both sisters are put to the test as the Nazis edge ever closer to the French borders. Vianne believes that France will never fall, and is determined to quietly live and raise her daughter. Rebellious Isabelle longs for a chance to contribute to the war effort. The following years will test their bond, their morality, and their desire for survival.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and immediately fell in love with her writing style and her focus on relationships and the importance of family. I had heard a lot of good things about The Nightingale and was eager to read another book by this author.

There are dozens of novels published every year that deal with World War II and its aftermath. The Nightingale earns its place in the upper echelons of the genre, but ultimately it has to compete with the likes of All the Light We Cannot See and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and sadly it falls a little short. There simply isn’t anything new or surprising presented by this novel. It felt as if Kristin Hannah had a checklist of “Nazi Atrocities” that she was gradually ticked off as she wrote. The things endured by the Mauriac sisters somehow seem obligatory rather than organic.

The novel occasionally includes chapters that are set in the United States in the 1990’s. One of the Mauriac sisters, now elderly and fragile, contemplates returning to France to confront her past and honor the sacrifices made. These chapters are utterly unnecessary and were obviously put there to lead up to a “twist” that lacked any sort of punch.

This novel has been so highly recommended by so many people that perhaps I went in with expectations that were impossible to fulfill. Ultimately, I enjoyed The Nightingale, but apparently not as much as others.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017)

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Review #57

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.

This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.

In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.

Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a red herring. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than  plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.

The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage. Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.

I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Alice Network here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017)

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Book Review #40

In the aftermath of World War II, three widowed women find themselves seeking refuge and protection within the walls of an old Bavarian castle which used to play host to the aristocracy of Germany. Marianne von Lingenfels, whose husband was executed after a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, is trying to fulfill a promise to a childhood friend, to protect and shelter the wives and children of the resisters should their plans fail. She takes young Benita and pragmatic Ania under her wing, certain that their shared pain and loss will bind them together. But she must come to terms with the weight of secrets and guilt that will haunt the women and their children for years to follow.

This novel by Jessica Shattuck begins with a lot of promise. Readers are introduced to Marianne at a party in the castle before the war, mingling with the upper echelons of German society. She is portrayed as a determined, forthright young woman who is fully committed to resisting Hitler’s growing efforts to rid Germany of “undesirables”. We then skip forward to 1945, as Marianne throws her considerable connections and wealth into tracking down the scattered widows left behind by the failed resistance effort. The chapters then proceed to include the perspectives of the two women that are “rescued” by Marianne. Benita, a young and beautiful woman who unknowingly married a member of the German resistance; and Ania who was the wife of a Polish diplomat but lives in fear of a secret being discovered.

The perspectives of the latter two women are far more interesting than that of Marianne. Once she is fully described as being a forceful presence who takes it for granted that everyone shares her opinions, Marianne isn’t given much to do. Far more compelling is the character of Benita, who never had any allegiance to the German resistance and finds Marianne’s patriotic fervor uncomfortable to duplicate. The third woman, Ania, is equally intriguing, especially as more and more of her history during the war is revealed. All three of these women are devoted to their children, and in the beginning these are the ties that bind them.

There are scores of historical fiction novels that deal with the second World War from a myriad of perspectives. With the glut of available literature, it can be difficult to find a viewpoint that raises new questions. Here, Shattuck succeeds in giving voice to the women who found different ways of surviving Hitler’s Germany and its aftermath. All of  them have either seen or committed horrible acts in the name of protecting themselves and their children. They find themselves being slowly gnawed upon by the never-ending guilt that settled on their shoulders and indeed that of the entire country in the years following the war. Shattuck wisely avoids laying either blame or absolution on any of her characters, instead allowing her readers to reach those conclusions for themselves.

The first two thirds of The Women in the Castle focus on the years 1943-1950. This is easily the most interesting portion of the novel. The last one hundred pages or so skips forward to the year 1991, and here the suspense that has been building since the beginning is entirely lost. Jessica Shattuck seems very intent on hammering home the point that the wounds inflicted on the German psyche during World War II bear lasting scars to those who lived during this time. Unfortunately, this grinds the narrative to a halt and never fully manages to get back up to speed before the end of the book. Dealing with the ideas of guilt and redemption while it is still fresh in the minds of those who experienced it is a far more interesting idea than looking back on those years through the haze of forty years.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. It raised some interesting points when it comes to the repercussions of love, culpability, and surviving through hardships.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Women in the Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017)

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Review #3

 

Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a novel set in the city of Milan during the final year of World War II. Pino Lella begins as an ordinary teenager, obsessed with girls and excited about learning to drive. When he is evacuated to a seminary school high in the Alps to escape the Allied bombings , Pino finds himself risking his life to escort Italian Jews over the precipitous heights of the mountains to sanctuary in Switzerland. This sets him on a course of danger and espionage that will echo throughout his life and the lives of his family.

It is very important to read both the foreword and the afterword that Sullivan uses to bookend his novel. Pino Lella is a real person, who is still alive as of the publication of this review. In the foreword, Sullivan details how he stumbled across the story of this unsung hero and how he managed to track Lella down and record his memories of Italy in 1944. Sullivan is also very clear that Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a work of historical fiction.  Some of the events and characters seem a little too contrived, and this has led some people to claim that the all of the events detailed within the pages of the book are therefore falsehoods. Since we only have Sullivan’s word to go on, it is left to the reader to determine what is true and what is false.

I chose to believe the story of Lella’s life. The story is told in too straightforward a manner to have been fabricated in any large part. One of the things that makes Sullivan’s novel so magnetic is that he largely avoids any subplots. He focuses on Pino Lella’s specific story with utter precision. There are few extraneous descriptions of people or scenery. We view this story through Lella’s eyes entirely, and therefore his becomes the only voice that matters. We feel his desperation as he leads terrified refugees over the dangerous alpine cliffs into safety. We are there with him as he fears for the lives of his brother, his uncle, his parents. The reader is given only as much information as Lella has. Since most of the education I was given on WWII focused on the German and Japanese fronts, this was a very informative look into what Sullivan describes as the “Forgotten Front”.

My favorite aspect of this novel is that it was utterly unpredictable. Most literature follows a relatively straightforward arc. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. But real life rarely follows such simple lines, and I often felt wrong-footed while reading this novel. Characters I thought would live did not. Characters I expected to die did not. No one’s story wraps up neatly in a bow, instead it all just kind of ends. Not all heroes are remembered and not all villains get their comeuppance. Throughout the dozens if not hundreds of historical fiction written on WWII, I found this novel, with its infinite number of unanswered questions, to be one of the most haunting.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. I was immediately drawn into the story of Pino Lella’s life, and finished the book eager to research and learn more. Unfortunately, his story remains largely unacknowledged outside of Sullivan’s pages.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Beneath A Scarlet Sky here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!