Historical Fiction

Book Review: The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes

last letter

Rating: 3.5 / 5

It is 1960 and Jennifer Stirling has just woken up from a car accident.  She doesn’t remember much about her life, or even that she is married.  Her mother and husband are mysteriously reluctant to tell her about the accident, and seem to not be concerned with Jennifer’s lack of memories.  Even her house is a mystery to her, and when she goes digging, hoping to find something that will trigger her memories, she finds a love letter to her, signed B.

Forty years later, Ellie Haworth is working as a features writer when she stumbles across some letters dating back to the 60s.  The letters have been lost in the archive section, and with the move to the new building, Ellie and her boss have come up with the idea to write a piece reflective of that period.  It is Ellie’s task to find out who the sender and recipient are, and if they ever found their happily ever after.

The Last Letter From Your Lover is squarely in the chick lit genre, and while it wasn’t boring or slow, it was formulaic and predictable.  Jennifer Stirling’s story line was interesting, especially since she lived in a time when women traditionally did not work and were reliant on their husbands for financial support.  That fact added a layer of complexity, for she did not have the means to be independent and by following her heart, she bore the scorn of society, even women she considered her friends, and had expected would relate to what she was going through.

The other storyline is Ellie’s, and it wasn’t strong, mainly because of her immaturity.  It is hard to sympathize with “the other woman” and as Ellie is young, her affair is not the great love of her life.  As a vehicle to drive a resolution to Stirling’s love life, Ellie should have been a stronger character.

The Bottom Line: The Last Letter From Your Lover is somewhat enjoyable, but don’t expect to get your socks knocked off.

Book Review: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

valley

Rating: 3.5 /5

Violet’s mother, Lucia is the owner of a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai, but with the political upheaval, and a chance at reuniting with her long-lost son,  Lucia prepares to leave with Violet to begin life anew in San Francisco.  Instead, though, Violet is kidnapped and sold as a virgin courtesan.  While her mother is American, she has never met her father, but recently discovered she is half Chinese, and her exotic looks are an advantage, making her one of the most sought-after courtesans.  Struggling with her identity, and with her mother across the Pacific Ocean thinking she is dead, Violet must make her own way in the world, and discover who she really is.  The Valley of Amazement is the story of Violet, her tragedies and poor decisions, and also the story of Lucia, of how she ended up in Shanghai, and her chance at redemption, which caused her to abandon her only daughter. (more…)

Book Review: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

blum

Rating: 5 / 5

Anna Schlemmer lived in Germany during the Second World War, and after she moved with her younger daughter Trudy, to America, she has refused to talk about those years.  While living with her father, Anna falls in love with the neighborhood doctor, Max, and runs away when her father discovers her secret and has the doctor arrested.  Anna apprentices with a baker, who knew Max, and it is there that she spends the war years, trying to survive and raise Trudy.

Trudy is now in her 50s, a well respected professor of Germany history.  Her mother has never spoken about Trudy’s childhood in Germany, and has never mentioned Max, or the SS Officer who took Anna in as his mistress. Inspired by a co-workers project to document the plight of Jewish survivors, Trudy begins her own project, interviewing Germans living in Germany during the war.  It is through this project that Trudy finally begins to understand what her mother went through, and begins to reveal the past her mother has refused to discuss.

The bottom line is that Those Who Save Us is utterly compelling and moving.  I’ve got a soft spot for WWII novels, and after reading my fair share of them, I’ve got to say that Those Who Save Us ranks as one of the best.  It’s different than most historical novels of this time period because it is from a German woman’s perspective.  Although they did not perpetuate the war or personally harm any Jews, middle to lower class Germans also suffered.  Not being an officer or affluent, they were on rations and struggled to make ends meet.  Anna’s story is particularly tragic as she didn’t have an opportunity to live her life.  She didn’t have the opportunity at a relationship with the man she loved, and didn’t have the opportunity to raise Trudy in a nurturing and civil environment. Although it might seem cold that she chose to keep her past to herself, it is understandable that she did so because that was the only way to move on.

Those Who Save Us moves between the past and the present, and the past is definitely more interesting and emotional.  This novel is an in-depth look at the atrocities of war, and the guilt that lingers with those who survived.  Those Who Save Us is also about duality of roles that people play; the people who saved Anna and Trudy.  On the surface, the Obersturmfuhrer is painted as a ruthless man, taking Anna as his mistress and doing to her as he pleased.  Invariably, though, he also saved her, for he made sure that Anna and Trudy were fed and clothed, and while they suffered immensely because of the war, they were better off than many of their neighbors.  Anna was looked down upon by her neighbors for sleeping with the Obersturmfuhrer, and when she moved to America, her new neighbors were no kinder than the women in Germany.  But everything Anna did, she did to save Trudy, to give Trudy a better future.

Those Who Save Us is complex, heartfelt, and deeply moving. I loved the way Blum weaved the two stories together, and while the book is heavy and sad, it was extremely well written.

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

willow

Rating: 4 / 5

William Eng is a Chinese American boy living at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle during the Depression era.  One day during a group outing he sees actress Willow Frost, and convinced she is his real mother, Liu Song.  With the help of fellow orphan Charlotte, the two escape Sacred Heart to reconnect with Willow.  With William’s journey to reunite with his mother and find out once and for all why she left him at the orphanage, he learns of Willow’s tragic past and hopes for redemption.  (more…)

Book Review: The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman

lost

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Josef Kohn is at the rehearsal dinner for his grandson, Jason.  At the dinner, he notices a woman who reminds him of his first wife, Lenka, but it can’t be Lenka because Lenka, her younger sister Marta, and their parents perished at Auschwitz. Although Josef, also Jewish, made it safely to America, for the past six decades he has been haunted by regret over leaving Lenka behind.  The Lost Wife is the love story of Josef and Lenka during World War II.  It is told from both points of view; Josef’s struggle to find out the fate of Lenka, and then his struggle six years later to accept the fact that she did not make it out of the war alive, and Lenka’s struggle at Terezin.  Josef’s life is filled with longing and dwindling hope.  In America, he married Amalia, another war survivor, but both have secrets and hidden heartaches, and the marriage is about staving off loneliness rather than love. Lenka’s life is purely about survival.  Terezin was a city constructed solely to house Jews, but the facilities are overcrowded and filthy.  There is never enough food, most are overworked, and on a daily basis many of them are shipped off, never to be seen again. (more…)