“Even In Darkness” by Barbara Stark-Nemon

I’m a sucker for World War II fiction. There really isn’t any other way to put it. That being said, I was very excited to get into Barbara Stark-Nemon’s EVEN IN DARKNESS. The story she writes is one of those tricky historical fiction ones that are based on actual events, in this case her great-aunt Klare’s experiences during World War I, World War II, and the years in between.

This balance, I’ve learned from reading a lot of these books, can be delicate because the author must keep true to historical fact, keep true to the characters who were real and who were important, and keep a narrative going that makes everyone want to keep reading.

Stark-Nemon does that well in this story.

The places her great-aunt existed, including Thereseinstadt, are described in ways that I have read them described before but not with the intense detail that might leave the narrative lacking. The focus is kept solely, for the most part, on Klare Kohler and what she sees as she goes from an eighteen year old girl with the world at her fingertips to a survivor of Nazi death camps and beyond.

Honestly, the thing I wanted more from the story was a longer, more detailed note at the end. Stark-Nemon referenced her family and how they survived but she didn’t mention Ansel Beckmann, the Catholic priest who figured so heavily in the story and who I am not sure was even real, or details on Bernhardt Steinmann and Melisande Durr, who were heroes in the story. I want to know more about them. So, basically, I want a non-fiction accounting of this story too.

And that, it seems, makes it an excellent book.

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Reviewed: “Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad” by Catherine Butcher

27168912.jpgAfter reading Catherine Butcher’s biography of English nurse Edith Cavell, I kind of feel like all the history classes I took shortchanged me by never teaching me about this extraordinary woman. Florence Nightingale is fine but Edith Cavell should have been included too.

At the end of Butcher’s biography she quotes Prince Reginald de Croy as telling Edith Cavell’s mother that her daughter’s only crimes were “Pity and Humanity.” That simple phrase essentially sums up all that Edith did during her lifetime. Raised in a Christian household, she was taught early on that giving on oneself is more important than anything else. Unlike a lot of people, she remembered that until the day she was executed fairly early in World War I – executed for the crime of helping British and French soldiers trapped in Belgium escape capture and death by the Germans. Before that, though, she was a governess, a nurse, and a teacher. The things she did were for the betterment of others.

When the war began, it didn’t stop. The hospital she founded in Brussels continued to operate and it became an ideal place for soldiers to pass through.

Edith could have said no, refused to be a part of it. She could have gone home to England as her family tried to convince her to do. She didn’t. She said yes. Believing that the soldiers faced being shot if captured, she said yes. And when interrogated and put on trial, she admitted to helping 200 – though Butcher contends that sources place the number at closer to 1000. Knowing that the Germans wanted death for her, she told them at least a version of the truth so that they would not go after the nurses she thought of as sisters and daughters.

And when an Anglican priest was allowed to see her before the execution and he told her that she would be remembered as a heroine and a martyr, she told him she only wanted to do good for others.

Butcher’s biography focuses heavily on Cavell’s religious devotion. That almost put me off the book at first but I reminded myself that Victorian England was a time of religious devotion and that such devotion, whenever and wherever it appears, should work to produce extraordinary women like Edith Cavell.

Her story is tragic in how it ended but the meaning of her life is not. What she did, that two of the women in the resistance with her were spared execution and joined the resistance movements during World War II, is proof that there is hope for us yet.

I received a copy of Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squadthrough NetGalley and Lion Hudson Plc in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “The House of Velvet and Glass” by Katherine Howe

The House of Velvet and GlassKatherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass is a complicated book to describe after the last page is read. Set in 1915 in Boston, situated about evenly between the sinking of theTitanic, it is the story of Sybil Allston and how those two events shape her being.

Sybil, you see, lost a mother and a sister on the Titanic, a sister who was younger but still ahead of her in the all-important social scene. Sybil became the mistress of her father’s house when her mother perished and she became surrogate mother to the youngest in the family, brother Harlan “Harley”. Harley, inevitably shaped by the social world his family lived and the loss they suffered, becomes the bane of just about everyone’s existence as he gets kicked out of Harvard, dates a girl he most assuredly should not know, and throws himself into preparations for the oncoming war. His father doesn’t seem to know what to do with him, because his father knows more about him than he can let on, and it’s up to Sybil to look after him. Mostly futilely.

Sybil distracts herself with Spiritualism, an interest she shared with her mother, and seances at the home of one Mrs. Dee. Mrs. Dee, a character right out of Hollywood casting, gifts Sybil with a scrying glass, apparently not to be confused with a mere crystal ball, and the glass is housed in a velvet lined box – which is presumably where the title of the novel comes from – but Sybil finds it useless.

Until Harley’s stage actress girlfriend takes the prim and proper Sybil to the place she finds inspiration – an opium den in Chinatown.

Opium, and the visions that result from opium use, becomes a running thread in the Allston family, one that pulls in the most unlikely characters and weaves seamlessly into the historical accuracy of the time and the place Howe writes about.

There are dropped threads, like a beating Harley receives and how fast Sybil spirals into full-blown addiction, but the story makes up for it. It took me a long time to get through it, but I had to see it through.

If psychics, seances, and liberal drug use (used purposefully but addiction is dealt with, and well) are something you like in rich historical fiction… this book is for you.

Reviewed: “Meadowlands: A World War I Family Saga” by Elizabeth Jeffrey

MeadowlandElizabeth Jeffrey’s novel set at Meadowlands – the family estate of the Barshams in rural England – during the span of the First World War is a splendidly intricate portrayal of a family and their servants.

The book is likely classified first as historical fiction but there are so many sub-genres to the story that it’s almost hard to know where to begin. History, war, romance, family, friendship, drama, love, women, men… Jeffrey has managed to cover it all with “Meadowlands.”

The war is the over-arching theme to the story. It colors every action that Sir George, Lady Adelaide, Miss Gina, Miss Millie, James, Ned, Polly, Tom, and so many more take in the story. It’s not an overly long, epic sort of book so some of them are minor, supporting characters but it does not make them any less nuanced and individual from one another where it may have been easier to make the common things they share define them.

The primary focus on “Meadowlands” falls on Gina Barsham and Polly Catchpole. The story is told in relation to how it effects and alters them. Gina is the privileged daughter on the family estate – one who tolerates her mother’s antiquated ideas on upper class and lower class while founding a soup club to feed the poorest war wives, widows, and children in the nearby town. Polly is the daughter of the Meadowlands estate manager who goes to work as a maid, and later ladies maid to Lady Adelaide, in the house. She does her work the best she can – including being integral to the soup club the town, and most of England, so badly needs – and lets it distract her from the nearly lifelong love she’s felt for James Barsham, the second son of the estate – someone she believes she can never have.

With the focus on Gina and Polly, two entirely likable and relatable characters in large and enjoyable canvas, the novel could be considered one of friendship first and foremost. The two don’t want the same things from life and they don’t need the same things but neither ever lets the other down, even if it means incurring the anger and frustration of Lady Adelaide for mixing classes of people into her rarefied world.

“Meadowlands” is, in the end, a story of heartbreak and hope, of love and loss, of perseverance and pride. It is fantastic.

“Meadowlands: A World War I Family Saga” will be available for purchase April 1, 2015.

(I received a copy of “Meadowlands” from Severn House Publishers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest & original review. This review will be cross-posted on NetGalley, my Goodreads account, and my blog.)

Reviewed: “The Daughters of Mars” by Thomas Keneally

Daughters of MarsMy newest literary addiction is World War I fiction so I was thrilled to win a copy of Thomas Keneally’s “The Daughters of Mars” – the story of two Australian nurses serving just behind the front lines of the biggest battles in World War I.

The novel starts off a bit slow, even as Naomi and Sally Durance are bonded by the tragic, possibly assisted suicide death of their mother who has suffered greatly from cervical cancer. That thread of story follows them the entire novel but it seems somehow separate from the rest.

When the sisters volunteer as nurses and are immediately sent to Gallipoli on a hospital ship, the story changes. Sally and Naomi go through a rollercoaster of emotions, experiences, and events that define who they were before the war and shape who they will be after the way. It’s not always easy to see what they’re seeing but Keneally leaves no doubt that what he puts in their eyes is what any nurse in World War I would have seen.

The brightest parts of the novel are the somewhat vast cast of supporting characters. Matron Mitchie, Honora Slattery, Karla Freud, Ian Kiernan, Charlie Condon, Lady Tarlton… each are so different from the other, each are so independent and believable and honest. None of them come from the same background and each of them support Naomi and Sally in different, essential ways.

Even below them, the more secondary supporting characters – the soldiers Naomi and Sally see on the doomed hospital ship, on Lemnos, in the hospitals of France – are individuals and men that you will remember long after you finished the book. They serve to show the horrors of war. Maybe it would be easier to read if it were fictional but… it’s not. Men really went through what the soldiers in this book experienced. Keneally paints that picture with haunting words and descriptions.

I want to give the book five stars, I really do. But I can’t. I got over the total lack of quotation marks because it quickly didn’t matter to me, and that’s the original thing that bothered me. It doesn’t anymore. The thing that bothers me now is that the last fifteen pages had a sort of “choose your own adventure” feel to them that seemed inappropriate to the gravity of the rest of the story. I just wanted it to end, even in heartbreak, one way. I didn’t want to know what it could have been if this happened and then what could have been if that happened instead.

“The Daughters of Mars” is available for purchase.

(I received a copy of “The Daughters of Mars” through the Goodreads FirstReads program in return for a honest review. This review will be cross-posted on Goodreads and on my blog.)

Reviewed: “Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing & Trappings, 1914-1918” by Nina Edwards

Dressed for WarNina Edwards’ “Dressed for War” is a fascinating look at the fashion that defined the years of the First World War. Anyone with an equal interest in fashion and history will see this book as enlightening and important.

As someone more interested in history than fashion, someone who wants visuals when it comes to art – and fashion is art, I thought the book could have used more photographs or illustrations but it doesn’t take away from the overall importance of the book.

(I received a copy of “Dressed for War” through NetGalley in exchange for a review. This review will be posted on NetGalley, Goodreads, and on my blog.)

Reviewed: “The Steady Running of the Hour” by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the HourNovels that set out to tell the story of two people, or rather two pairs of people, living decades apart don’t always succeed in telling a succinct and interesting story. The problems of tying to stories together and creating something that makes the reader want to read two more chapters again and again just to make sure she finds out everything she can about both people is a daunting task. For Justin Go, it doesn’t seem so hard.

There has been hype about THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR and Go lives up to the hype with his twin tale of Ashley Walsingham and Tristan Campbell.

Walsingham’s story is the more compelling of the two and Campbell is more of the vehicle by which the reader gets to see Walsingham. It changes the tone by making it seem as though the reader isn’t just watching Walsingham fight in the World War I trenches in France and climb Mount Everest but that the reader is helping Campbell search for evidence of Walsingham and the woman he loved while he did both those things. It makes the story more personal.

That the novel is based on the idea of an eighty year unclaimed trust, with what can best be described as just a few too many legalistic descriptions about it, possibly belonging to Tristan Campbell – as the maybe heir to Walsingham’s estate – is a little bit shaky. It might have worked just as well to have Campbell be a historian who stumbled onto family letters and just wanted to find out the truth. Then again, seeing the modern man weigh the value of knowing the family he never really knew in life with the value of a priceless estate is a good way of moving things from one place to the next.

It’s because of the parallels between Ashley in the first two decades of the 20th century and Tristan in the first two decades of the 21st that the story works. Both men are in their early twenties and both men dive headfirst into the thing which their society suggests they don’t. Neither cares for rules and neither particularly wants to follow them if it can be avoided. They know they are other things that are much more important, even if they can’t quite say why.

The two supporting characters in the story are the women in the lives of the men. Mireille, the modern woman, is the lesser character but by far the better one. She shares an uncertainty with Imogen, the woman Ashley loves, but she doesn’t lash out against her insecurities as Imogen does. Instead, she lets Tristan do what he needs to do and hopes against hope that he’ll come back to her. Imogen throws away her world and everything in it because she can’t change the world to her liking. She’s selfish and she does suffer for it but it’s a part of the reason the reader may feel compassion for Ashley – he’s horribly treated by her and he loves her just the same.

One story ends in a tragedy of sorts that will leave the reader feeling a little empty. One story ends in a hopefulness of sorts that will leave the reader feeling a little full.

It’s an excellent balance to a very good story.

(I received a copy of THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR through a Goodreads.com FirstReads giveaway. This review will be cross-posted on my blog and my Goodreads account.)