Tag Archive | historical fiction

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

This historical novel is based on a true story, and interviews with Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who ends up being sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of concentration camps during World War II.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz (The Tattooist of Auschwitz, #1)

Lale speaks multiple languages, so he is chosen to be the one who tattoos prisoner numbers on the new arrivals to the camps.  That is, of course, the prisoners who are selected to live, and are not immediately sent to the gas chambers.

Lale resigns himself to his gruesome task and the fact that he receives privileges as a result of his position that others in the camp do not.  One day, he meets a young woman who captures his eye, and his heart.  He decides in that moment, that he will marry her.  But he does not even know who she is.

Lale seeks her out and courts her, a love story in a place of unspeakable horror.  Lale and Gita vow to remain strong for each other, so they can survive the camp together.  Lale begins to use the relative freedom he has to get extra food for the camp prisoners, but he is risking his life to do it.

This story is one that documents the incredible atrocities that occurred that Auschwitz and Birkenau, but also is the story of hope and survival.

Despite the amazing story and the fact that it is true, I found myself not being able to get into it.  I felt that the writing was superficial and glossed over the weight of what truly happened in these concentration camps.  I had a hard time feeling connected to the characters and the tragedies they experienced, because of the lack of depth in the story-telling.  I learned later that the story was originally written as a screenplay, which may explain the more superficial writing style.

It was still a good book, but I felt it could have been so much more.  

3 stars.

Book Review: The Weight of Water

The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve

The outer shoals of Maine, is one of the most inhospitable places in the United States.  But the fishing is incredible.  So John and Maren Hontvedt, newlyweds, make their way from Norway to make a new life in America.

The Weight of Water

They live for five years on Smuttynose Island, part of the state of Maine, but actually closer to Portmouth, New Hampshire.  It is a remote outcropping with barely any soil, only a couple permanent residents, and few summer visitors.  The Hontvedts along with a few family members and an employee, build a life in their new, harsh home.

One day Maren, her old-maid sister and her beautiful sister-in-law are home alone when tragedy strikes.  After two brutal murders, only one woman is found alive, hiding in a sea cave, frozen to the core in her nightdress, clutching her dog for warmth.  The year was 1873.

In the present day, Jean Janes is on assignment as a photographer, to document the island and the little that remains of the murder site, for a magazine article on the murders.  She goes with her husband Thomas and five year old daughter, along with Thomas’ brother Rich and new girlfriend Adaline.  The five of them are traveling on Rich’s sailboat, trying to enjoy a vacation while Jean completes her assignment.  Little does Jean know that her story is heading for its own tragic ending.

Shreve’s novel goes back and forth between Maren’s life in the period of time leading up to the murders, and Jean’s present day life and troubled marriage.  Shreve weaves the story skillfully, and makes good use of the true story of the Smuttynose murders; although her ending diverts from the historical account.

It is a quick read, following Anita Shreve’s typical storyline on a woman experiencing a challenging relationship issue.  I enjoyed the book from beginning to end.

4 stars.

Book Review: The German Girl

The German Girl is the debut novel of Armando Lucas Correa, a Cuban author.  It was published in 2016 in both Spanish and English.

The German Girl

The story is that of two girls, brought together over time.  Hannah Rosenthal, a German Jewish refugee fleeing to Cuba via ocean liner in 1939.  And Anna, a 14 year old girl living in New York City.

The perspective shifts back and forth between the two of them as the story unfolds, piece by piece.  Hannah’s flight from Germany, trying to escape the reach of the Nazis.  Anna’s trying to learn why her father left her, and understand why her mother just doesn’t have the energy to get out of bed.  I don’t want to reveal much, as the suspense and hold of the story would be diminished if you knew what was waiting around the next corner.

This novel was incredible.  Sweet, and heartbreaking, it pulls you in page after page, not wanting to put it down.  What will happen to these girls as their lives unfold?

5 stars.


Book Review: Dragonfly in Amber

Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

Claire Randall has a secret.  She’s kept it for over 20 years, but finally it is time to return to Scotland and confront her past.  Dragonfly in Amber is the second in the Outlander series, but my friend assured me that you can read them out of order.

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander, #2)

The story begins with Claire searching for historical records that will confirm her difficult to believe story.  20 years before, she went missing for months as a young, married woman, before arriving back at home malnourished and pregnant, as mysteriously as she vanished.  But where was she?

Now 20 years later, Claire’s husband has died and it is time to reveal to her daughter the truth about her father.

The book is a long saga weaving in the 1960s with the 1740s, in Claire’s attempt to stop the slaughter at Culloden during the Scottish Jacobite rebellion.  It weaves history into the novel’s story and is extremely detailed and painstakingly researched.  You will learn about the family connections of the clans in Scotland, the political motives of the various players, and some pretty gruesome medical treatments of the time.

I don’t want to give away the story, but highly recommend the book. The only challenge was that it took so long to get through (I admit I had to put it down to read other things in between), it was hard to remember the beginning once I got to the end.

5 stars


Book Review: Mistress of the Ritz

Mistress of the Ritz, by Melanie Benjamin

This book was another pick from the “available now” section of audiobooks on the library website.  I hadn’t heard of the book, or the author, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Mistress of the Ritz

Blanche wanted to be rich and famous – she was going to make it as an actress!  She arrived in Paris in the early 1920s with her silent film star friend Pearl White, and met the assistant manager of the Hotel Claridge, Claude Auzello, when they checked into their rooms.  Claude found out that in a weeks’ time, Blanche was set to rendezvous with her paramour, Egyptian Prince J’Ali Ledene; he set about to sweep Blanche off her feet by showing her Paris.  And it worked…

Blanche and Claude married, and he jump-started his career with a move to The Ritz Paris, where he secured the role as Hotel Manager.  Their lives were wonderful until the Nazis came and set up their headquarters in the Hotel Ritz.

The book is a story of secrets, and a marriage built upon those secrets.  Their marriage crumbles, as Claude takes a mistress, and Blanche begins working clandestinely for the French Resistance.  But even more so, it is a story of love.  Love tested by hardship and betrayal, and love that blossoms in the most unexpected of places.

It wasn’t until I finished the book that I learned that Blanche and Claude Auzello were real people, who navigated their way through the French Occupation while living right underneath the noses of the Nazis at the Ritz.  The framework of Blanche’s life is known, but Melanie Benjamin filled in the gaps in this wonderful historical work of fiction.  A must read for lovers of historical fiction, and World War II history.

5 stars. 

Book Review: The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer is first and foremost a novel about love.  It is set against the complicated backdrop of World War II and the Holocaust, but throughout, it retains its focus on love.

The Invisible Bridge

Andras Lévi is a young Hungarian Jew, setting off for Paris to attend architectural school in 1937.  He has earned a scholarship for his studies, and is eager to get his education and make his mark on the world.  As a favor to a stranger, he agrees to carry a letter with him to Paris, and as a result meets a woman ten years his senior.  Clara is a beautiful ballet teacher, with a secret history; Andras falls deeply in love with her despite their age difference.

Of course, the late 30s across Europe was an uncertain time, as Hitler consolidated his power and the continent descended into World War II.  The novel follows Andras throughout the next several years of his life, detailing his experiences as his home country of Hungary allies with the Nazis, goes to war and eventually begins its deportation and murder of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews.

Yet through it all, there is love.  A reminder that when all seems hopeless, a glimmer of sunlight remains.

It is beautifully written, pulling the reader effortlessly around the next corner even when we want nothing more than to shield our eyes and hide.  Orringer’s character development is stunning, and she weaves the narrative skillfully through a decade that includes some of the most heart wrenching events in world history.  What a profound and poignant novel, that both breaks your heart and makes you believe in the power of love…

5 stars. 

Book Review: The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, is a work of historical fiction about a woman whose story has largely been lost to time…

Mileva Marić Einstein was Albert Einstein’s first wife.  They met when they were physics classmates together at the Zurich Polytechnic, where they were both studying physics and mathematics.  She was brilliant in her own right, being the second woman in the history of the university to finish the course of study.  Marić and Einstein collaborated on several projects while they were students, and historical records show that they were equals in the scientific field, although their fellow students believed Marić’s mathematical abilities surpassed Einstein’s.  He was an attentive and passionate suitor, and showered her with love and affection during their courtship.

The Other Einstein

Things changed once she got pregnant out of wedlock with his child.  Marić returned to her family home during her pregnancy and remained there after the birth of their daughter.  She repeatedly requested that Einstein visit them, and that he marry her and make their child legitimate, but he let her down, and left her alone for several months during her pregnancy and after the birth of their daughter.  Even after she was born, he refused to marry her and legitimize their daughter; the record is unclear, and does not account for what happened to their daughter, other than the fact that she was no longer in their lives when they married.

Marić and Einstein finally married in 1903; and by all accounts, it was an unhappy marriage.  Einstein had a brilliant mind, but the historical record does not reflect kindly on his ability to maintain a kind or loving relationship.  It was his way or the highway; he expected his wife to act as a servant during their marriage, rather than a partner.  Her wishes went unheeded and her aspirations were ignored.  It is unknown whether Marić played a role in collaborating with Einstein on his theories, especially his Theory of Relativity, but it is quite possible that she was involved in his research and never received credit.  It must have been heartbreaking for her to be in love with a man who simply wanted control and submission from her, rather than a partner in life.

The book is insightful into the mind of a man who had many talents, of which his ability to treat people kindly was not one.  Over time, their relationship suffered as a result of his ongoing emotional abuse and neglect.  Her academic passions, her career and the love of her husband had all been stripped from her by the man who once swore that they were one.  They separated in 1914, and finally divorced (after the mandatory waiting period) in 1919.

This book is part love story, and part the story of an incredibly strong woman who was ahead of her time…  She had to make a choice between her career and a marriage, and in the end she got neither…  Her story is not uplifting, but relatable for intelligent, career women to this day.

4 stars. 


Book Review: The Winemaker’s Wife

The Winemaker’s Wife, by Kristen Harmel

In this historical novel, Inès and Michel are a young newlywed couple in the Champagne region of France at the beginning of World War II. Michel’s family business, the champagne house of Maison Chauveau and its elaborate wine cellars are the perfect location to hide guns for the French Resistance. Inès and Céline, the wife of Maison Chauveau’s winemaker, have a strained relationship and do not see eye to eye.

Liv is the American granddaughter of a French woman who whisks her off to France after Liv’s marriage falls apart and she finds herself starting over. She soon learns that her grandmother has secrets; the frail, elderly woman is taking her on a wild goose chase to uncover her long-buried family history, a history she tried to leave behind at the end of the war.

Harmel takes the reader on a series of twists and turns; each character is not who they initially seem to be. They are complex and multi-dimensional, making it impossible to either love or hate any of them. Each one has their good and bad qualities, much like we all do in real life, which are exacerbated by the stress and privation of war.

I don’t want to give much away, because each twist in this winding road is worth discovering for yourself. Just know, it is well worth the read.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

I found this historical romance novel in my neighborhood free library, and it looked interesting.  And it was!

The Winter Sea (Slains #1)

The book tells two parallel stories.  An American author, Carrie, living abroad, trying to overcome her writer’s block and get moving on her next historical novel.  A young, orphaned woman, Sophia, living in the early 1700s at Slains, a castle owned by a distant relative who has taken her in.

The novel weaves expertly from the past to the present, with Carrie writing the Sophia’s story, learning more and more about her, and realizing that Sophia is her own ancestor.  The story is set during the Jacobite Rebellion, where an exiled King James is attempting to mount a revolution to regain the throne from France.

I don’t know much about the English kings and queens of the 17th and 18th centuries, and I don’t know how historically accurate this book is, but it was interesting and it read quickly.  The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter made me want to continue reading long after I should have gone to bed.

There is a fair amount of romance in it, both in the historical portions and the present day, but it is mild if you aren’t a romance reader.  I enjoyed the combination of history and love story.

3 stars.

Book Review: Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham may be the most incredible woman you have never heard of.  Of, if you have read this blog for a while, you may remember that I blogged about her memoir a couple of years ago.

Markham lived an incredible life, as the first woman licensed race horse trainer.  She was also the first woman bush pilot in Africa.  And the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West.

Circling the Sun

This historical novel details Markham’s life from childhood to the time of her momentous flight.  Paula McLain researched her life and told the story that many have probably never heard of.

Markham had a significant amount of tragedy in her personal life.  She was born in England but her parents moved to Africa to find their fortune when she was a young child.  Her mother wasn’t happy there, and abandoned her at the age of 5, leaving Africa to return to England with her brother; Beryl and her father remained there on the ranch he had founded.

Her father’s bankruptcy in her teens was the end of her sheltered upbringing; she chose to get married in order to be able to remain near her childhood home, but her husband was a drunk, and both physically and emotionally abusive.  He did not allow her a divorce for years, and when he finally granted it, she was financially ruined. Markham’s second marriage was a disaster too; her second husband essentially used his wealth and power to keep her son from her, while trying to smear her reputation in the process.  She had returned to England with him to have her son, but eventually went back to Africa when she divorced, seeing her son only sporadically.

She had a number of affairs which significantly damaged her reputation, both real and some potentially only errant rumors – either way they affected her standing in society.  According to the novel Beryl found true love in the arms of a man named Denys Finch Hatton, who had a long and committed relationship with a woman whom Beryl also had a lasting friendship with.  Complicated…

After her second divorce and return to Africa, she rebuilt her life training race horses and enjoyed a measure of success that was rare for a woman of the time.  She was introduced to people who were on the forefront of aviation and set her mind to learning to fly.  Sadly, she experienced the death of several close friends in air crashes, including her beloved long-term lover Denys.  She was supposed to go with him that day but stayed home after a close friend and fellow pilot allegedly had a premonition and urged her not to go.  The death impacted her deeply.

McLain tells the story fluidly, and her character development is superb.  Her descriptions of the African landscape show the reader what it would have been like to live in Africa in the nineteen teens, twenties and thirties.  Unlike Markham’s own memoir, West with the Night, which deals almost exclusively with Markham’s professional exploits, Circling the Sun tells the story of the Markham’s personal life in a way that is candid yet non-judgmental.

Markham lived on her own terms, but it was not without consequences.  It was a well written novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

4 stars.