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Historical Fiction Reviews: Wartime Settings

Hey everyone!  Hope you all had a nice weekend and that this week is off to a good start for you.  In a departure from the rom-com spree I have been on for most of the pandemic, I actually found myself craving some good historical fiction last week so I was excited to find that I actually had a couple of March ARCs on my TBR that fit the bill.  Both feature wartime settings with World War II for the first one and the Civil War for the second, and I’m excited to share my thoughts on both of them with you.

 

Historical Fiction Reviews:  Wartime SettingsThe Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz Goodreads

Author: Ellie Midwood

Publication Date: March 9, 2021

Publisher:  Bookouture

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley.  All opinions are my own.

Ellie Midwood’s new novel The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz tells the inspiring yet tragic true story of Mala Zimetbaum, a young Jewish woman sent to Auschwitz and is known as the first woman to escape, and Edek Galinski, a long-time Polish political prisoner who also happens to be a member of the underground Resistance. Imprisoned in absolutely inhumane and hellish conditions, surrounded by cruelty and death, Mala and Edek somehow manage to find each other and fall in love.  They make a promise to each other – that they will either escape the camp together or will die trying…

As with most accounts of Nazi atrocities, this is such a hard story to read, just knowing that the awful things described within the pages actually happened to real people, and that these monsters slaughtered so many innocent people. I found myself in tears often as I read the graphic and horrific accounts of the gas chambers and the crematoriums, and the story also had me furious as I read about how the Nazis were so easily able to fool the Red Cross into thinking they were treating their prisoners well.

What makes the story such a beautiful one in spite of everything, is the love story of Mala and Edek and just the overall selfless way they lived their lives in the camp.  Although she was a prisoner, when it was learned that she was fluent in several languages, Mala was given a job as an interpreter and camp runner.  She uses her position of privilege to help better the lives of as many fellow prisoners as she can, finding them jobs that are suited to their skills, slipping them extra rations whenever possible, etc.  Edek, as a member of the Resistance, lives his life in much the same way.  When the two of them meet and fall in love, they become a symbol of hope to those around them.  A light in the dark.

I don’t want to spoil their story so I’m going to stop here so you can experience it for yourself.  I’ll just conclude by saying that The Girl Who Escaped from Auschwitz is a powerful but heartbreaking story of strength, courage, hope and love against all odds. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys WWII historical fiction. 4.5 STARS

 

Historical Fiction Reviews:  Wartime SettingsSunflower Sisters (Lilac Girls, #3) Goodreads

Author: Martha Hall Kelly

Publication Date: March 30, 2021

Publisher:  Ballantine Books

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley.  All opinions are my own.

Sunflower Sisters is the third and final book in Martha Hall Kelly’s historical fiction series, The Lilac Girls.  For those unfamiliar with the series, the first two books introduce us first to Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who does all she can to help young girls released from concentration camps during WWII, and then to Caroline’s mother, Eliza Woolsey, who, a generation earlier, helped displaced Russian families who made their way to America during the Russian Revolution and WWI.

The final book in the series, Sunflower Sisters, takes us back yet another generation to the Civil War to meet another Woolsey ancestor, Georgeanna (Georgy) Woolsey. Raised by an abolitionist mother, Georgy is determined to do her part to bring slavery to an end and so she trains to be an Army nurse.   From New York City to Washington D.C. to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Sunflower Sisters follows Georgy everywhere her passion for nursing takes her.

One of my favorite things about all three books in the series is the way Martha Hall Kelly crafts her stories so that the events unfold from the perspectives of three very different characters, gradually pulling the threads of their stories together until their lives intersect.  In Sunflower Sisters, we follow not only Georgy, but also a slave girl name Jemma who is sold off and then somehow ends up conscripted into the Union Army, and we follow a woman named Anne-May Wilson, a plantation owner in Maryland who also happens to be Jemma’s owner.

The story itself started off a little slow for me as each of these characters were introduced, but I quickly became invested in both Georgy and Jemma and just wanted to see Anne-May, as a cruel slave owner among other things, get what was coming to her.  I loved Georgy’s determination and tenacity, especially as she was constantly being told by men that women should not be helping on the battlefront. She never let their blatant sexism deter her.  As much as I loved getting to know Georgy, Jemma was the character who ultimately stole my heart.  Jemma’s strength and determination in the face of endless cruelty from Anne-May and her nasty overseer was incredible to witness and I was wishing with every fiber of my being for her to find a way to safely escape to freedom.  Where I loved Georgy and Jemma, Anne-May, on the other hand, was a character I loved to hate.  She is a desperate, evil, manipulative woman and I was wishing for her to fail just as hard as I was wishing for Georgy and Jemma to thrive.  The story became quite riveting as I was waiting for the lives of these three women to come together in what was shaping up to be an epic clash between slave, abolitionist, and slave owner.  I don’t want to give anything away, but the clash does not disappoint!

Sunflower Sisters was a bittersweet read for me, just because I’m sad this wonderful series is ending, but the Ferriday/Woolsey family is filled with extraordinary women and I’m grateful to this series for introducing me to them. 4 STARS

Early Review: LOST ROSES by Martha Hall Kelly

Early Review:  LOST ROSES by Martha Hall KellyLost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
Also by this author: Lilac Girls
five-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on April 9, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 448
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

LOST ROSES Review

I was a huge fan of Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel Lilac Girls, so I was thrilled to hear she has a new book, Lost Roses, coming out this year and that it actually ties in with Lilac Girls.  Where Lilac Girls featured American socialite Caroline Ferriday and was set during WWII, Lost Roses takes us back a generation and features Caroline’s mother Eliza and is set during WWI and the Russian Revolution.  While Caroline does make an appearance as a little girl in this latest novel, it is definitely Eliza’s story and can be read as a standalone.

As she did in Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly chooses to focus the narrative of Lost Roses on three very different women and show not only how their lives are impacted by the harsh reality of war, but also how their lives become intertwined with one another. Eliza lives in America and is a socialite, while Sofya, who is Eliza’s best friend, is a Russian aristocrat who is related to the reigning Czar.  Varinka, the third character who is a central figure in the story, is also Russian, but she is lower class, living in poverty.

I loved the focus on these women and how the novel showcased how strong and resilient each of them could be in the face of adversity.  Eliza was especially easy to love because she’s such a loyal friend to Sofya and because she’s just so kind-hearted in general.  As she’s trying to get news about Sofya, whose letters from Russia have suddenly stopped coming, she also fully dedicates herself to helping all the Russian women who are arriving in New York.  These women have managed to escape war torn Russia, but they have nothing except the clothes on their backs.  She devotes herself to finding them shelter and employment.  I just adored her determination and her compassion.

Sofya is also easy to love because even though she’s an aristocrat, she’s clearly in an underdog role once the Revolution begins.  The aristocracy is under fire, and Sofya is just trying to survive and be the best mom she can to her young son, Max, something that’s hard to do when you fear for your life every moment of the day. I admired Sofya’s inner strength so much while reading her chapters.  As the Revolution presses on, she endures tragic losses that would have made many people give up, but instead of giving up, she manages to dig deep and find an inner strength that she didn’t think she had.  It was clear Sofya would do whatever she had to do to make sure Max was safe.

Varinka was the character I was probably the most conflicted about.  I sympathized with her so much in her earlier chapters because she is really living in dire straits.  Varinka’s life becomes entwined with Sofya and her family when they flee to their country estate, hoping they’ll be safer there, and decide they need a nanny for Max. Varinka manages to secure the job for herself, but in doing so, unknowingly brings danger right to Sofya’s doorstep.  My sympathy for Varinka wavered because she makes some very questionable decisions at times that bring harm to others, but ultimately, even though her actions frustrated me, I could understand why she made the choices she did, based on her circumstances, and because we get a very clear picture of what’s going through her head and the moral dilemmas she is facing.  Her struggles felt very authentic and human, so in the end, I still felt sympathy towards her.

In addition to these three characters and their moving stories, I was also impressed by how well-researched the story is.  It’s historical fiction based on the real-life Eliza Woolsey, and it’s clear that the author knows her subjects well. She brings Eliza to life beautifully, and she does a tremendous job of capturing the atmosphere of lawlessness and anarchy that came with the Russian Revolution. And finally, she does an equally brilliant job of showing how badly the aristocracy treated the poor, thus contributing to the onset of the Revolution in the first place.

None!

My love for Martha Hall Kelly’s style of storytelling has only grown with my reading of Lost Roses.  The writing is exquisite, and I’m just constantly fascinated by the way she shows war from the perspective of women, which in most cases, is very different from what we’re used to seeing.  In addition to being about war, Lost Roses is also a well-crafted, moving story of strength, determination, and friendship. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Lilac Girls, enjoys historical fiction in general, and especially to anyone who would like to know more about the Russian Revolution and the beginnings of WWI.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

The runaway bestseller Lilac Girls introduced the real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday. This sweeping new novel, set a generation earlier and also inspired by true events, features Caroline’s mother, Eliza, and follows three equally indomitable women from St. Petersburg to Paris under the shadow of World War I.

It is 1914 and the world has been on the brink of war so many times, many New Yorker’s treat the subject with only passing interest. Eliza Ferriday is thrilled to be traveling to St. Petersburg with Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Romanov’s. The two met years ago one summer in Paris and became close confidantes. Now Eliza embarks on the trip of a lifetime, home with Sofya to see the splendors of Russia. But when Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia’s Imperial dynasty begins to fall, Eliza escapes back to America, while Sofya and her family flee to their country estate. In need of domestic help, they hire the local fortuneteller’s daughter, Varinka, unknowingly bringing intense danger into their household. On the other side of the Atlantic, Eliza is doing her part to help the White Russian families find safety as they escape the revolution. But when Sofya’s letters suddenly stop coming she fears the worst for her best friend.

From the turbulent streets of St. Petersburg to the avenues of Paris and the society of fallen Russian emigre’s who live there, the lives of Eliza, Sofya, and Varinka will intersect in profound ways, taking readers on a breathtaking ride through a momentous time in history.

 

five-stars

About Martha Hall Kelly

Martha grew up in Massachusetts and now splits her time between Connecticut, New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. She worked as an advertising copywriter for many years and raised three splendid children, while researching and writing Lilac Girls, her first novel. She is excited to share the prequel, Lost Roses, coming this April and is thrilled she doesn’t have to say good-bye to Caroline and Eliza. You’ll find more info about the incredible, true stories behind both books at her website: http://www.marthahallkelly.com and clues about the prequel Lost Roses on her ever-changing Pinterest page.

Book Review: Lilac Girls

Book Review:  Lilac GirlsLilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Also by this author: Lost Roses
five-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on April 5th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 496
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

 

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and secrets that were hidden for decades.

New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.



My review:

Let me just start off by simply stating wow, what an incredibly moving read! I honestly don’t think a book has ever made me shed so many tears! If Lilac Girls doesn’t end up on all of the ‘Best of 2016’ book lists, there is just something wrong with this world.

Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel Lilac Girls is a powerful and beautifully written exploration of how women in particular were impacted by the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII. The primary setting of the novel is the Nazi concentration camp Ravensbruck and its primary focus, the women — primarily Polish political prisoners — who were detained there, with special attention paid to those known as the “Ravensbruck Rabbits”, a group of prisoners who were experimented on against their will by Nazi doctors.

One of the most compelling qualities of Lilac Girls is its brilliant portrayal of the strength and courage of the Ravensbruck prisoners. Up against inhumane treatment and almost certain death, they demonstrated such resilience, determination, and even at times, defiance, that it just blew me away. I found the sisterhood they created for themselves within the camp very moving as well – the way they worked so hard to keep hope alive, no matter how hard the Nazis tried to dehumanize them and strip that hope away.

The strength that the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck displayed, especially considering what they were up against, just blew me away, as did Caroline Ferriday’s efforts to fight for those who had been forgotten once the war was over. Caroline, who had already devoted much of her time to fighting for French children who had been orphaned by the war, made it her mission to get the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” both the medical attention that they desperately needed after being experimented on by the Nazis, as well as the justice they deserved. As many tears of sadness and outrage as I cried watching those women suffer at the hands of the Nazis, I have to say I shed an equal number of tears of joy at what Caroline is able to make happen for them. Her determination to make sure they aren’t forgotten was so inspirational.

I also very much liked the three-pronged narrative approach. I thought it really added a lot of emotional depth to experience WWII firsthand from these three very different points of view: 1) Kasia, a Polish woman who is actually imprisoned and experimented on at Ravensbruck, 2) Herta, a female German doctor who actually performed experiments at the camp, and 3) Caroline, a non-European who is watching from afar but who has a personal stake in the war not just because of the orphans she is trying to take care of, but also because the man she loves, a French actor, was rounded up and imprisoned in a camp when the Nazis invaded France.

The perspective that was most troubling for me to read, yet added a lot to the story, was Herta’s. What we see through her eyes is that even though she is a German, as a woman, she is still deemed as inferior to the men, as someone who should just have babies to help with the “purification” of their race. Although she is training to be a doctor, the Nazis frown upon women being doctors and so the only job she can find is the one she ends up with at Ravensbruck. What she does to the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” is clearly unconscionable and unforgivable, but it was interesting to see how she ended up where she did and what her motivations were. I thought it humanized her a bit. Her actions and her own prejudices toward anyone who wasn’t German ultimately kept me from feeling any sympathy toward her, especially her belief that she was helping her people by experimenting on the “Rabbits”, but her point of view is unique in that it’s one we don’t often see in WWII stories – that of the perpetrators of the atrocities.

Not only is this a very compelling story, but for me anyway, Lilac Girls is very educational. I was not at all well educated about the Iron Curtain and what happened to Poland after WWII ended and I also had no idea who Caroline Ferriday was, so I was grateful to Martha Hall Kelly for her extensive research in planning this novel. I would also recommend to anyone who reads Lilac Girls to also read her notes at the end as well – they add a lot to the story itself and elaborate on what was fact versus what was fiction. That said, she did a marvelous job blending the factual with the fiction to create one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

So, who would I recommend Lilac Girls to? Because of the way it shines a light on the way Poland and the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” were all but forgotten after the war ended, this is one of those important books that I would recommend to anyone and everyone. I would also highly recommend it as a must-read for anyone who loved Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale or Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. If you were moved by those stories, this one will not disappoint.

five-stars

About Martha Hall Kelly

Martha grew up in Massachusetts and now splits her time between Connecticut, New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. She worked as an advertising copywriter for many years and raised three splendid children, while researching and writing Lilac Girls, her first novel. She is excited to share the prequel, Lost Roses, coming this April and is thrilled she doesn’t have to say good-bye to Caroline and Eliza. You’ll find more info about the incredible, true stories behind both books at her website: http://www.marthahallkelly.com and clues about the prequel Lost Roses on her ever-changing Pinterest page.