Review: War Girl Ursula by Marion Kummerow

I know this post is coming a few days after the release, but Marion Kummerow’s latest novel War Girl Ursula is a fun, dynamic, and emotional read. It has just enough hope and whimsy to balance out the horrors of Berlin and mass execution in Berlin during the height of WWII. War Girl Ursula is an outstanding start to what is sure to be an exciting series, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next instalment!


war girlTitle: War Girl Ursula

Author: Marion Kummerow

Publisher: Washington Square Press

Publication Date: June 28, 2017

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Themes: WWII, Survival, Family, Romance

Features: N/A


My Rating: 4/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

A prisoner escapes. A guard looks the other way.
In Berlin 1943 compassion is a crime. Now both have to fear for their lives.

Ursula Hermann has always lived the law, never broken the rules in her life. Her discipline serves her well in her job as a prison guard.

That is until the day she finds escapee British airman Tom Westlake and all the right she’s worked so hard to maintain goes wrong…

He runs.

And she does nothing to stop him.

Torn with guilt about what she did, Ursula battles with her decision when suddenly Tom returns, injured and pleading for her help.

This is her opportunity to make things right.

But shadows from the past tug at her heart, convincing her to risk everything, including her life, in order to protect a man she barely knows.

As they brave the perils and dangers of the ever-present Gestapo, will Ursula find a way to keep Tom safe? Or will being on the opposite sides of the war ultimately cost both of them their lives?


My Review

What a fun little book! And I say little not because of the content, but because it was a lovely reprieve from some of the larger tomes I seem to have been reading lately. At 190 pages I sat down to read the first few chapters, found myself enthralled, and was suddenly infuriated by the cliff-hanger ending and desperate for the next instalment in the series. It was so good!

Despite being a shorter novel, Kummerow manages to pack in a good deal of heavy hitting history, some serious soul searching and moral dilemmas, and a sweet little romance. I love the backstory for the Blonde Angel in Kummerow’s grandparent’s letters, and think that she has done a wonderful job breathing imagination into a passing character from her family’s past. It is heartening to consider the stories of those who quietly resisted and opposed the Nazi regime, the depth of their bravery when it came to assisting those who were being unjustly persecuted.

I found myself infatuated by the Steel Helmet Weddings, and was surprised to learn in my own research just how tiny the wedding helmets actually were… Like, a war helmet for a hamster! Regardless though, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be married by proxy and then loose your spouse before they ever have a chance to return home. I really felt for Ursula, and while I disliked her staunch adherence to dictated thought at the beginning of the novel, I was happy to see that her husband’s death served as a catalyst for some positive change.

I enjoyed the breadth of characters, as well the depth of the character growth and development throughout the book. Each of the sisters had such distinct personalities, and yet just enough similarities that you easily draw the family connections. Also, I really loved the mother, because sometimes you just have to know when not knowing is the best thing for everyone! But more than anything, I enjoyed how much attention was paid to the prisoners as it really embodied them as human beings and as something so much more than the byproducts of war.

And don’t even get me started on Frau Weber. She is easily the most believable character in the story, and that’s only because we have all had one of those neighbours. She transported me back to my first home, my Greek widowed neighbour, and the calls to my parents that went along the lines of ‘your daughter, she’s a-kissin’ a boy on the front step!’ – ugh. Although Frau Weber plays a relatively minor role, I found that her presence was a wonderful tool when it came to advancing the plot, breaking and/ or increasing the tension, and adding some welcome comic relief at just the right moments.

Would I recommend this book? Oh, heck yes! I can’t wait for the next instalment of the War Girl series, as I love Ursula, Anna, Lotte and their mother. With a cast of strong women, just enough intrigue, a steamy English pilot and one of my favourite time periods I will undoubtedly recommending this book to all of my friends and family.


Many thanks to Marion Kummerow for providing an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Early Review: The Diplomat’s Daughter by Karin Tanabe

After a crazy week where I barely had time to eat and read, let alone blog, I am delighted to be back with a review of The Diplomat’s Daughter by Karin Tanabe. This beautifully written story effortlessly transported me back in time and around the world in a gripping and emotional tale of love, survival, and loyalty in the Second World War.


diplomatTitle: The Diplomat’s Daughter

Author: Karin Tanabe

Publisher: Washington Square Press

Expected Publication Date: July 11, 2017

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Themes: WWII, Internment Camps, Survival

Features: N/A


My Rating: 5/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

During the turbulent months following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, twenty-one-year-old Emi Kato, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat, is locked behind barbed wire in a Texas internment camp. She feels hopeless until she meets handsome young Christian Lange, whose German-born parents were wrongfully arrested for un-American activities. Together, they live as prisoners with thousands of other German and Japanese families, but discover that love can bloom in even the bleakest circumstances.

When Emi and her mother are abruptly sent back to Japan, Christian enlists in the US Army, with his sights set on the Pacific front—and, he hopes, a reunion with Emi—unaware that her first love, Leo Hartmann, the son of wealthy of Austrian parents and now a Jewish refugee in Shanghai, may still have her heart.

Fearful of bombings in Tokyo, Emi’s parents send her to a remote resort town in the mountains, where many in the foreign community have fled. Cut off from her family, struggling with growing depression and hunger, Emi repeatedly risks her life to help keep her community safe—all while wondering if the two men she loves are still alive.

As Christian Lange struggles to adapt to life as a soldier, his unit pushes its way from the South Pacific to Okinawa, where one of the bloodiest battles of World War II awaits them. Meanwhile, in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, as Leo fights to survive the squalor of the Jewish ghetto, a surprise confrontation with a Nazi officer threatens his life. For each man, Emi Kato is never far from their minds.


My Review

Hope, war, tragedy, love… what more could you hope for in a work of historical fiction? I was absolutely enamoured by The Diplomat’s Daughter, Tanabe’s attention to detail, and the depiction of the events that are too often left out of capital H ‘History’. Beautiful and heart wrenching the narrative seamlessly blends geographically disparate settings, multiple viewpoints, and raw emotion in a way that brings the story to life and stokes the fires of the imagination.

I’m normally not a huge fan of having more than one or two narrators to carry a story, as they are normally cluttered and difficult to follow, but the use of three really allowed for a wholistic and conflicted view of the war. I appreciated that all of the characters occupied grey spaces in the societal structures that were constructed during WWII, and also how the division of the story between Emi, Leo, and Christian took the reader around the world as well as providing snapshots into marginalized and dissonant perspectives.

I was particularly struck by the depiction of the treatment and trading of foreign nationals and Americans in internment camps across the US. While I knew that many Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans had been interred, I knew very little about the arrest and internment of those with German and Italian backgrounds, and nothing at all about the arrest and exchange of persons residing in Latin America. My heart broke again and again with each story and each voyage, especially knowing that this fictionalized depiction represents only a glimpse of the conditions and despair that internees faced.

Of all the characters presented, I was most touched by Christian’s story as despite the fact that he faced horrible atrocities and unwarranted persecution, he stayed true to his promises and acted both honourably and honestly to the best of his ability. I felt terrible for Leo, and the choices that he had to make, and even understand and support them, I just wish that he hadn’t;t hidden behind his father in end. Also, I loved Keiko! While Emi was a wonderfully strong and independent young woman, the blending of traditional and modern values in Keiko in a time of rigid social customs created a unique and intriguing character. More than anything, I wanted to know more of her story – how exciting and interesting would it be to be the wife of a diplomat through not one, but two, world wars?

Ultimately though, the Diplomat’s Daughter is a touching and emotional exploration of what it means to be human, to make moral choices even if they run against the dominant ideology, and what it means to love in a time of war. I believed every moment, every emotion, and found myself constantly rooting for these three underdogs. Any crying… lets not forget the crying, but I do love a book that gets me right in the feels.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Not only is this a beautifully written and engaging story, but it offers a healthy does of history. The blending of fact with fiction is so seamless, and I hope that it inspires readers to explore the history of the Crystal City internment camp and the exchange of ‘Enemy Aliens’ for American POWs.


Many thanks to Karin Tanabe and Washington Square Press for providing an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Early Review: Poe: Stories and Poems – A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Gareth Hinds

I’m a sucker for Graphic Novels, and this adaptation of Poe’s classic works was absolutely spot on. Hinds’ experience and expertise in adapting the classic really shone through and the result was a text that will hopefully inspire a new generation of horror readers.


poeTitle: Poe: Stories and Poems – A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Author: Edgar Allen Poe

Illustrator: Gareth Hinds

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication Date: August 1, 2017

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Graphic Novel, YA Fiction, Poetry, Horror, Classics

Themes: Darkness, Death, Disease

Features: Annotations and Supplementary Information, Biographical Information


My Rating: 4/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

In a thrilling adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe s best-known works, acclaimed artist-adapter Gareth Hinds translates Poe’s dark genius into graphic-novel format.

It is true that I am nervous. But why will you say that I am mad?

In “The Cask of Amontillado,” a man exacts revenge on a disloyal friend at carnival, luring him into catacombs below the city. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” a prince shielding himself from plague hosts a doomed party inside his abbey stronghold. A prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, faced with a swinging blade and swarming rats, can t see his tormentors in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a milky eye and a deafening heartbeat reveal the effects of conscience and creeping madness. Alongside these tales are visual interpretations of three poems “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and Poe s poignant elegy to lost love, “Annabel Lee.”

The seven concise graphic narratives, keyed to thematic icons, amplify and honor the timeless legacy of a master of gothic horror.


My Review

I loved this book, so much. Which says something because Poe always gave me nightmares growing up! Hinds adaptation is the perfect blend of classical horror with a modern medium. And, seeing as Poe’s works are still on most Canadian school curriculum, I seriously want to find a way to get class sets into every school library – especially since it includes annotations and supplementary materials!

The only complaint that I have about this text is that I would have preferred for more of the dialogue to be incorporated into graphics as it would have really enhanced the graphic novel experience. Regardless, the artwork is beautifully rendered with vibrant colours, exceptional expression, and really serves to heighten the narrative. I enjoyed the variety of styles and colour palettes between the stories from the pencil sketches to the watercolours, and from those in varied palettes to monochrome. The distinct style of each story really served to establish the mood making each story or poem distinct from one another.

The structure itself is very word specific, with Poe’s original texts accompanying the illustrations. It reads a little like an exceptionally mature picture book, but the art is so wonderful and expressive that I could have followed Poe’s stories and understood the horror even without his words. The panels are arranged with a logical flow, and enough action happens in the gutter that the eye is drawn from one panel to the next while the imagination in constantly firing. Further, Hinds does a fantastic job of capturing the invisible realm of sense and emotions through the variation in letting styles for the sounds represented, the encapsulation of movements, and the externalization of fears.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Not only is it a perfect read for those who enjoy Poe and graphic novels, but it is also the kind of book that could easily find a home in a school library. Poe’s language is so far removed from our current vernacular that the  skillful illustrations create a beautiful and seamless reading experience that brings these classic stories to life.


Many thanks to Gareth Hinds and Candlewick Press for providing an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Early Review: Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn by Elizabeth Kiem

I seem to be on a bit of a Cold War kick as of late, so requesting Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn via NetGalley happened entirely on a whim. I didn’t even realize that this was the last book in the Dukovskaya series until the authors notes at the end, and I have to say that it was a truly captivating read. Kiem creates an immersive experience that can be enjoyed by teen and adult readers alike, and especially by those who love ballet Cold War era Russia!


orphanTitle: Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn

Author: Elizabeth Kiem

Publisher: Soho Teen

Publication Date: August 22, 2017

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller

Themes: Cold War, Espionage, Orphans, Family, Spies, Ballet

Features: Character guide, glossary of terms, recommended reading


My Rating: 4/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

The year is 1958, and sixteen-year-old Svetlana is stuck in a Moscow orphanage designated for the unwanted children of Stalin’s enemies. Ballet is her obsession and salvation, her only hope at shedding a tainted family past. Sveta’s dream is to make a new life as a dancer.

Her dream comes true: she’s invited to join The Bolshoi Ballet, whose power as a symbol of Soviet prowess is unmatched—except perhaps by the dreaded KGB secret police. Sveta is stunned when officers show up at her door. Inexplicably, they know about a fainting spell she once had: a trance she slipped into. Something like a vision.

Some very powerful people believe Sveta is capable of serving the regime as much more than a dancer. They want to enlist her against the West as a psychic spy. She must explore this other talent if she is to erase the sins of her family, if she is to dance on the world stage for the Motherland—if she is to survive.

 


My Review

Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn has a lot going for it from the integration of Russian words and phrases to the incorporation of meticulously researched historical fact, and from the beautiful imagery to a complicated love story that could have entertained on it’s own. But what I love the most about this book is how strong and prominent the female characters are – very rarely do we see a damsel in distress, and the only mention of hormones comes from the protagonist herself in a completely understandable situation. While I absolutely loved this aspect of the book, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there may a narrower audience of readers than some other YA espionage reads, but that’s absolutely ok!

I really enjoyed how the narrative was divided into four distinct sections, which really gave a sense of organic growth and development and helped to establish Svetlana’s degree of involvement with the KGB. It mirrored nicely the rise and fall of the Soviet leaders mentioned throughout the text, and didn’t downplay the harsh realities and endings that faced many who existed behind the iron curtain. The interweaving of memory and the story within a story created some beautifully emotional, as well as exceptionally effective, transitions between periods. In this was, time jumps of several years and many major events seemed very natural and I was never left feeling like there was a hole in the plot.

I struggled bit, however, with the love triangle between Svetlana, Gosha, and Viktor. Admittedly, it did get a little bit more exciting at the very end, but I felt that the good boy/ bad boy/ prima ballerina thing has been done a few too many times. But, and here’s the big thing, it’s still fun and will very likely not be met with the same degree of ‘oh that’s cliche’ from the intended target audience! And, truth be told, given that the text is filled with echoes of classical ballets such as Swan Lake, The Firebird, and Romeo and Juliet the choice of this particular plot device is completely understandable.

Now, onto the asymmetrical warfare aspects of the book – I loved this concept! At first I did a little double take, but I ended up really enjoying the twist that it put on the Cold War as perceived through pop culture. It was interesting to watch how perceptions of not only self, but also actions, shifted and developed as Svetlana matured. Despite significant fictional liberties being taken, the ability to connect to a universal mind or tap into others memories and feelings really forces introspection and the consideration of multiple narratives – which I think are fantastic elements in YA reads! And seriously, who doesn’t love the idea that dance can course of history…

I really enjoyed this book and can’t wait for it to hit the shelves later in August as I have a whole host of little ballerinas that I think will absolutely love it! I loved Orphan, Agent, Prima, Pawn as a stand alone text as it was easy to follow, but I have no doubts that I will be tracking down the first two texts in the series ASAP. If you love Ballet, the Cold War, and the KGB and their alternative warfare this might just be the book for you!

 

 


Many thanks to Elizabeth Kiem and Soho Teen for providing an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Loyalty: Secrets by David Wiltcher

Lately I have been taking a few gambles on the books that request via NetGalley, and hot dang, I was not disappointed by Loyalty: Secrets! Filled with action, suspense, wit, and perfectly timed snark from a strong female lead this novel hits in all the right places.


loyaltyTitle: Loyalty: Secrets

Author: David Wiltcher

Publisher: Cameron Publicity & Marketing Ltd

Publication Date: January 31, 2017

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Themes: WWII, Cold War, Espionage, Orphans, Family, Spies

Features: Historical timeline


My Rating: 5/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

Kathy, an orphaned and feisty child and young woman, instinctively rebellious, drawn to challenges, a chancer but an idealist, is compelled to confront these issues, making choices and commitments that have major political and personal impacts on herself and others who are drawn to her.

The story follows her journey from quiet East Anglia to the growing nightmare of 1930s Berlin, meeting an inspirational agent, thenfighting her way out and across Europe to confront new challenges and dangers in wartime and post-war London. Here she discovers her true identity, a name change, and is compelled into an ideological choice of allegiance.

These are worlds of dreadful violence and hatreds, of nationalisms and developing Cold War conflicts, of treachery, paranoia and endless intrigue, of secrecy and deadly ideological rivalries, times of lethal danger.


My Review

There isn’t much about this book that I don’t love. After having read a good number of texts lately that have alternating perspectives, following a single character from childhood through to maturity was as refreshing as it was beautifully executed. The mixture of memory and event creates a believable balance and you really get the sense of who Kathy is and why she does what she does. I love her bold, bolshy, attitude and found myself laughing at the spectacle of this precocious girl saying exactly what aggravates the most.

Loyalty: Secrets had all of the elements that you come to expect from a WWII novel – persecution, loss, a daring escape and the depravity of many of those in power, as well as all of the key elements of a Cold War espionage adventure – subtle recruiting, corporate and government infiltration, a touch of poison, and more than a few clandestine meetings. Although either could have a been a stand alone tale on it’s own, these two elements are perfectly married through the tale of orphan Kathy, his discovery and loss of her family, and the exploration of the moments that defined her life. I really appreciated the subtle interweaving of major historical events such as crucial radio broadcasts, key newspaper articles, and the trickle-down reporting and even the tactful misrepresentation of certain events. The inclusion of a historical timeline was a really nice touch as it helps to contextualize the tumultuous atmosphere in which Kathy was raised.

And, just as this book had all of the elements that you would expect given the time frame, it also had enough twists and turns that I simply couldn’t stop turning the pages. Trying to avoid spoilers, but man! Wiltcher got me right in the feels more than I thought he would. I was ready for so horrible concentration camp/ captured spy torture, and instead I found myself bawling when Hanne wasn’t a drunk, broken after the passage through the mountains, and furious with the American in the Foreign Office. I was shocked, I was angry, and ultimately I was thrilled with how everything turned out.

I loved the writing style and found it easy to engage with. The vocabulary was playful and had a beautiful and challenging variety that I haven’t come across often enough. I enjoyed how difficult concepts and word were introduced as it allows for readers to learn alongside Kathy if they are unfamiliar with the concepts, as well as humour, innuendo, and abounding personality and snark. I particularly loved the use of the word ‘bolshy’, the prevalence of dictionaries and definitions (they make my librarian heart sing!), and subtle message that all news should viewed through a critical lens and with constant questioning.

Would I recommend this book? Oh, heck yes! I have already ordered a few copies to give as gifts to family and friends. Loyalty: Secrets is the perfect marriage of historical facts, espionage, and feminism. For anyone who loves WWII, Cold War spies, or even just lovers of strong female leads this book is an absolute must read.


Many thanks to David Wiltcher and Cameron Publicity & Marketing Ltd for providing a copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.