Wunderland

Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein is a historical fiction page-turner that brings readers into the lives of two teenage friends, Ilse and Renate, who have vastly different perspectives and experiences during World War II.

The story begins in 1989, shortly after Ilse’s death, when her daughter, Ava unearths Ilse’s long-held secrets. The story then heads back in time, to Berlin in the late 1930’s when Ilse and her best friend Renate are teenagers. It’s through the bond of these two young women that we get varying views of the war and witness the disintegration of their friendship and the reasons for it.

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What made this book stand out from the many, MANY WWII historical fiction books I’ve read, is how Epstein vividly describes what life was like for German citizens leading up to and including WWII. She describes the rise of the Nazi regime and their horrific methods of growing their power and shows how some German citizens began to believe the propaganda and felt justified when they participated in fear mongering and terror of their own neighbours. She also reveals the dire restrictions, discrimination and abuse Jewish families faced from their own government as well as the pitiful aid from other countries as they tried to flee.

While there’s a fair bit of jumping back and forth between time lines (and one that I was less invested in), in the end, Wunderland is an engaging read with story lines that merge into an incredibly revealing look at the rise of Nazism within Germany. But ultimately, the focus on the poignant, heart-wrenching tale about a complicated friendship, long-held secrets, loss and betrayal is what will keep readers glued to the pages.

— Laurie P.

The Island of Sea Women

Fans of Lisa See know and love her for her detailed historical fiction stories that include strong female characters. In See’s latest book, The Island of Sea Women, her story begins in the 1930’s and 40’s during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the island of Jeju. Through the eyes of best friends, Young-Sook and Mi-ja, two young haenyeo, we witness the political upheaval after WWII, the atrocities committed against citizens, and their desire and struggle to control their own country without interference from others.

I had never heard of the haenyeo before reading this book. With her meticulous research, See introduces readers to these well-respected, strong and staunchly independent women and their unique matrilineal society. They are the heads of their families and the sole providers who risk their lives daily to fish using the methods haenyeo have used for generations while their husbands typically stay home to watch the kids (and apparently not much else).

While the haenyeo culture and its matrifocal way of life was interesting to witness, the story itself is a bit of a slower read. A lot of historical detail is given and having that background is important to understanding Korea’s struggle for independence and how that influenced the haenyeo. While some scenes were difficult to read due to their violence, I respect that See doesn’t hold back on her descriptions detailing the horrors inflicted on the people of Jeju as they struggled under Japanese occupation and later when the US got involved.

51kn-DDoHlL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Island of Sea Women is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the lives of the unique and powerful haenyeo (a culture many people have probably have never heard of), the history of Korea (that many people may have never learned about in school) and the lives of two friends whose sister-like bond is put to the test by family loyalty, hardships, loss and misunderstanding. This is an eye-opening and touching read about culture, friendship and the struggle of a nation to be autonomous.

— Laurie P.

Note: our friends at Kitchener Public Library are presenting “An Evening With Lisa See” on March 25, 2019 at 7:00pm at the Central Library on Queen Street. Registration is required for this free event.

The Defiant

Rarely will I ever read a book series out of order. Reading a series out of order can be a recipe for disaster. You risk the plot not making sense. You risk missing key character points. And truthfully, you’re losing the overall effect of the author’s storytelling. But every so often I will come across a book that is so interesting that I fall to the temptation of starting a series in the middle. The Defiant just had too many of my interests to pass up. It’s historical fiction, it takes place in ancient Rome and it has strong female characters that kick butt and take names. And it’s written by Lesley Livingston, who wrote The Wondrous Strange series which I adored. I was so thrilled when I saw it; I dove right in without reading the first book.

Set in ancient Rome during the reign of Julius Caesar, The Defiant tells the story of Fallon, the daughter of a Celtic King.  Her homeland was attacked by Roman forces and she was taken captive. Sold as a slave to a ludus (a gladiator academy) she now fights as a gladiatrix named “Victrix.” Over time she wins the love of the crowd but earns the ire of those she has defeated. She finds herself in a violent feud with a rival ludus and one night her academy falls under attack. Fallon and the other gladiatrices escape, however their survival as fugitives is uncertain.

Although there are records of female gladiators during Roman times, very little is known about them. Male gladiators were depicted in artwork all across the Empire, while only one example of female gladiators exists. Nothing is known about their training or fighting styles. This leaves the narration of their story wide open. Author Lesley Livingston makes good use of this creative freedom. Fallon’s fighting style is so formidable, I found myself silently cheering her on as I read.  There is a tight comradery between Fallon and her fellow warriors that isn’t common to read. Most often stories will pit woman against woman in a rivalry for success. In this story, these gladiatrices will gladly die for one another.

The Defiant may be the second book in the series but I didn’t find myself lost or confused. The back story was blended into the plot so well that I could navigate the story without missing anything. As soon as I finished the book, I put a copy of The Valiant (book #1) on hold, only to discover that there is third book (The Triumphant) in the series set to be released this spring.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, action based stories, ancient Rome or women who kick butt.

— Lesley L.

 

The Widows

I have to admit at the outset that I struggled a bit to get into The Widows by Jess Montgomery. I don’t know if it was the book or just my attitude at the time but I came very close to bailing. However, I am glad that I didn’t as I became quite engaged with the story and the strong female characters within.

Based in 1924 Ohio coal-mining country, this is the story of two women, both young widows, who overcome the powerful grip of grief and pain to stand strong for what they believe in. Lily Ross’s husband, Sheriff Daniel Ross, had been murdered and pregnant Lily is asked to replace him as Sheriff until elections can be held to fill the role ‘properly’. Marvena Whitcomb, Daniel’s best friend, (unbeknownst to Lily) is in the throes of grieving for her own husband who was killed in an explosion at Ross Mining Company’s Mine No 9, also known as “The Widowmaker”.

Two prominent themes, still evident today, thread through this story. Both Lily and Marvena are powerfully courageous women butting up against a male-dominant societal norm that is eager to suppress and negate them.

In a town where corporate greed has been responsible for the killing and maiming of many of the town’s miners, organizing for unionization puts Marvena directly in the sights of the ruthless mine owner, Luther Ross. He will stop at nothing to suppress calls for improved conditions at his mine.

Lily too meets powerful resistance as she tries to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder. In a town where trusting someone can be a fatal mistake, these two women must find the courage to overcome their fear and join forces to uncover the truth that will set them and their community free.

All of the female characters in this story demonstrate an iron rod of internal strength and commitment to caring and nurturing their families and their community.

In the author’s notes, Jess Montgomery talks about learning that in 1925, in Vinton County Ohio, a woman by the name of Maude Collins was elected Sheriff after filling the post temporarily upon the unexpected death of her husband, Fletcher Collins. She went on to have a long career in law enforcement.

Technically, The Widows is at times well-written and then, variously choppy. I struggled off and on to keep characters straight but the underlying story was strong and some of Montgomery’s descriptions of the countryside landscapes were just gorgeous. So, I would rate The Widows 3*** for writing but 4**** for the story and the character development.

— Nancy C.

Marilla of Green Gables

Enthusiasts of Anne of Green Gables always worry –rightly so! – when a contemporary author takes on the task of writing a new story involving their favourite setting and characters. Is it possible to get it right or will the writer make a mess of it?

As someone who personally owns the full collection of Anne books, this was certainly my concern when I discovered that Sarah McCoy – an American author, no less! – had tackled Marilla’s story, bouncing off of this exchange between Marilla and Anne in chapter 37 of the original book:

“John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.”

Anne looked up with swift interest.

“Oh, Marilla–and what happened?–why didn’t you–”

“We had a quarrel. I wouldn’t forgive him when he asked me to. I meant to, after awhile–but I was sulky and angry and I wanted to punish him first. He never came back–the Blythes were all mighty independent. But I always felt–rather sorry. I’ve always kind of wished I’d forgiven him when I had the chance.”

“So you’ve had a bit of romance in your life, too,” said Anne softly.

“Yes, I suppose you might call it that. You wouldn’t think so to look at me, would you? But you never can tell about people from their outsides. Everybody has forgot about me and John. I’d forgotten myself. But it all came back to me when I saw Gilbert last Sunday.”

McCoy’s story begins when Marilla is 13 years old and chronicles her life in Avonlea and at Green Gables. We experience her joys and sorrows and encounter familiar characters including Matthew Cuthbert, Rachel Lynde, the Barry family, and of course, John Blythe. We attend sewing circles, church picnics, Ladies’ meetings and a hanging, and visit a Nova Scotia orphanage on more than one occasion.

Just as Budge Wilson captured the essence and tone of Anne in Before Green Gables, Sarah McCoy has encapsulated Marilla’s story in this additional prequel, bringing in historical aspects such as the Underground Railroad and the rebellion of 1837. Marilla is smart, strong, capable and independent, but struggles with pride and difficulty communicating the deepest feelings of her heart to those she cares about most. She is family-oriented to a fault. Does this sound like the Marilla we know? It certainly makes me want to reread the series to remind myself!

McCoy herself reread the Anne books and conducted considerable research in writing this book, consulting primary and secondary resources, visiting the “Avonlea” area of PEI and interviewing L.M. Montgomery’s descendants, who gave her their stamp of approval.
Marilla of Green Gables is a great addition to the series and Christmas gift idea for your Anne fan. I only wish it had been written by a Canadian author!

— Susan B.

The Girl They Left Behind

I’m an avid reader who reads many different genres but historical fiction is the one genre that I regularly gravitate towards. When you read a lot of one genre, you sometimes feel like you’ve read it all. The Girl They Left Behind by Roxanne Veletzos brings something new to this very popular genre with an engaging, informative and heart-felt story based on her mother’s early life during WWII and later during the Soviet occupation of Romania.

During the horrors of the 1941 Pogrom in Bucharest, Veletzos’ grandparents made the difficult choice to leave their three-year-old daughter, Natalia, on the steps of a building hoping to give her a chance to survive. Sent to an orphanage, she was quickly adopted by a wealthy couple who were devoted to her and gave her life of privilege.

Veletzos follows her mother’s early life and also provides vivid descriptions of Bucharest during WWII and afterwards when the Soviets took control, a time when life for many Romanians continued to be fraught with uncertainty and danger – especially those who didn’t support the Communist regime. She includes the lesser known history of Romania during these times and blends her personal family history into a riveting, fictional read. This is a captivating, sometimes heart-wrenching story about family bonds, resilience and hope.

I highly recommend The Girl They Left Behind to fans of historical fiction who enjoy getting a different perspective in the popular WWII historical fiction genre and especially for those of us who think they’ve ‘read it all’. Veletzos may just surprise you.

— Laurie P.