Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Winter Guest - Book Review

From the cover :

A stirring novel of first love in a time of war and the unbearable choices that could tear sisters apart, from the celebrated author of The Kommandant's Girl

Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn't be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day. 

Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena's concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.

My thoughts :

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff sounded like just the novel to fit my current reading mood--a historical fiction combined with a love story and a family saga. It starts with promise. Helena is a likable character who has such hope even in her dire circumstances. Though she's no romantic, Helena can't help but fall in love with the wounded American. Thus becomes the moral dilemma as she must choose between attempting to escape the growing hostilities as the German forces move in or remaining with the family that she has been charged with caring for. 

There is an awful lot happening in this novel. Helena and Ruth are embattled in a constant cold war of sibling tension. Helena uncovers deep and dangerous family secrets. She's falling in love with a man she must protect and keep hidden. She's toying with the idea of joining the underground resistance. All while observing the horrifying atrocities committed by the Germans against the Jewish people. 

Unfortunately, even with so many ideas and themes crammed into the tale, the story moves along at a slow and meandering pace before concluding with a sudden rushing yet weak ending. The epilogue, in an attempt to fill in the unanswered questions left by the rushed ending, seemed ridiculously unbelievable and unemotional. Though I can't exactly put my finger on it, something throughout the novel just felt "off". 

Overall, I was left wanting more build up to the passionate love affair; more equilibrium to the pacing of the plot; and more careful characterization of the supporting cast.

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff was published by Harlequin MIRA in August 2014.

**I received a complimentary copy of The Winter Guest. No additional compensation was received. All opinions are my own.**

Thursday, November 6, 2014

GI Brides - Book Review

My local book club has been meeting consistently each month for six years now. While several of the original members have moved away and others have joined us since, we always look forward to an evening of visiting, eating delicious treats and perhaps even discussing the book. Many of us stay up very late with the last stragglers sometimes leaving my house as late/early as 4 am. Last night we headed to our beds around 2:30 am. This morning I am definitely suffering from what we call our book club hangovers (and we don't even drink).

Our book club was chosen to participate with the Book Club Girls and our first selection from them was GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi. The authors traveled the United States interviewing women who had come from Great Britain to the US after marrying a World War II soldier. In their narrative history, the authors share the stories of four women who met, loved and married soldiers during the war.

While I knew that European women had married soldiers, before reading this book I did not realize the number of women or that the US government had changed laws to help accommodate the women's passage across the Atlantic after the war. I was fascinated by the information and the look into the lives of people struggling to survive the horrors of war and finding love. While many in the US suffered loss and shortage during the war, I always appreciate the reminders that those in Europe have a different and much more traumatic war experience as their homes and places of business were subjected to nightly air raids.

GI Brides is an engaging read. I felt compelled to learn more about Sylvia, Lyn, Rae and Margaret and their lives. The blissful love and dreams of a future together when they first met their future husbands were not fully realized when the war ends and they come to the US. A variety of struggles face them. Many of these struggles are the typical trials that any new wife may face after marriage but some were unique because of the change of country and culture. In spite of speaking a common language, phrases had various (sometimes humorous) meanings. Climates were different. Food was different. Expectations were different. They frequently had to live with their in-laws which presented additional trials. Reality was not necessarily as romantic as they imagined when they were dancing at the Club in London.

Overall, I enjoyed GI Brides. I've always been interested in people and the social histories behind the political histories we learn at school. However, I had a few reservations about this book. First, I had some trouble remembering the various characters. I'm usually pretty good at keeping characters straight, but I often had to refer back to tell the difference between Sylvia and Lyn and especially their husbands. Their early stories when they were first meeting their husbands are especially befuddling. Second, Americans in general were not shown in the greatest light. While I have never really complained about an unhappy ending, I could have used at least one happier story interwoven with the more dramatic stories in the book. Surely, some of the 60+ women that were interviewed by the authors had happy, loving relationships with their soldier husbands. Also, I thought it might have been nice to get a little more perspective from the men. Did their experiences in battle effect their lives and choices after the war?

I appreciated the epilogue. By the end I did genuinely care about the women (more so, because they were real) and hoped for the best for their lives. I very much enjoyed learning about this social history. Two women in our book club learned that they had relatives (a great aunt from Denmark and a grandma from Germany) who married soldiers during and shortly after the war and came to America. A third member had an uncle who married a woman from Vietnam during that war. As we discussed the book, I had to wonder about those women who may have come from the Pacific and the unique trials they may have faced with their husbands in the US.

Barrett and Calvi present a very enlightening look at a small but interesting part of the World War II experience. I applaud their efforts to collect and share these stories. It is a compelling and important part of our history.

GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi was published by William Morrow in September 2014. Copies of the book were provided to our book club through the Book Club Girl Blog.