Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Winter of the World

by Ken Follett, Dutton Adult, September 2012

...read the first installment of this trilogy and then decide whether to read this one

This is the second installment of Ken Follett’s 20th century trilogy.  It picks up the story in 1933.    There are five interrelated families (how you ask – way too complicated for this review) Welsh, German, English, Russian and American that were introduced in the first book Fall of Giants.  Instead of the narrative being led by the characters from the first book we get the story from the perspective of their children.  All of the major events that occur between the early ‘30s and the end of World War II are seen through the eyes of these characters.  The Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism in Germany, the Stalinist purges in Russia, the fighting in Europe and the South Pacific and much more make this one of the most tumultuous decades in the 20th century lending a great backdrop to this story. 

I found most of the characters to be somewhat clich├ęd and one dimensional but not unlikeable.   I knew this when I bought this book as the first book of the trilogy was much the same.  This book was 962 pages so I guess I am just addicted to historical fiction such as this because I read it in a fairly short period of time and enjoyed it.  I think this whole series would be better with a stronger focus on the character development and perhaps leaving aside some of the historic events.  I am sure this is what the TV miniseries (no doubt in my mind that one will be made) will do and I bet it will much improve it.  I would not read this without having read Fall of Giants first.  After you read the first story you will be able to make up your own mind as to whether to go forward with this one.

I read the Kindle copy of this story which at $20 was way overpriced.  Not sure what to recommend here as the book itself must weigh close to 5 pounds and would be uncomfortable to hold for however long it would take you to read it.  Maybe Amazon will reduce the price for the electronic copy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Face of the Enemy

by Joanne Dobson and Beverle Graves Myers, Poison Pen Press, September 2012 

...if you like historical fiction you’ll find this a quick read with some interesting detail

I may have to start a separate blog to review all of the WWI and WWII historical fiction that I read!  Face of the Enemy is yet another World War II historical mystery, this one set in New York City right around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.  The story features both Japanese and German emigrants who are immediately classified as enemy aliens as the war begins.  Masako Fumi, a Japanese artist married to an American academic is detained by the FBI and suspected of spying for the Empire of Japan. Masako is at odds from her father who is a minister in Tojo’s government.   Helda Schroeder, a German immigrant running a boarding house for young women in NYC is estranged from her husband who has returned to Germany to support Hitler.  There is not a single protagonist in this story but two young women living in Helda’s boarding house serve the role.  Cabby is an aggressive New York Times reporter and Louise is a private duty nurse. 
The plot thickens when Masako’s art showing is cancelled because of anti Japanese sentiment and her art dealer is murdered.  Events move right along after this. We are treated to a whole host of characters- the grizzled NYPD detective investigating the murder, the FBI agent grilling Masako, America Firsters preaching against the war, the hard bitten news editor, closet homosexuals, the German American Bund, the liberal Jewish lawyer and the NYC upper crust are all represented here.  The murder plot of the art dealer is fairly straightforward and the subplot of the returning Nazi husband bent on involving his American son in sabotage is woven into this mystery.  The two roommates, Cabby and Louise are up to their eyeballs in the story, Louise as the private duty nurse to Masako’s ailing husband and Cabby investigating the murder for the Times.  If this story sounds complicate in my description it really isn’t.  It moves along with short chapters that are undemanding in delivering their message.
This story does a good job of creating the New York City of the 1940s.  The period detail is quite good but I found the characters to be very stereotypical and not have much depth. The plot almost takes a backseat to all of the cultural and historical references that are going on in this story.   I think this book would be a good companion piece for teenagers studying WWII a/o civil liberties.  It gives a fairly accurate portrayal of what it was like for enemy aliens in the US as WWII broke out.  If you like historical fiction you’ll find this a quick read with some interesting detail. 

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

City of Women

by David R. Gillham, Amy Einhorn Books, August 2012        

...not an easy story to read but one that has stayed with me long after I finished it. 

One more WWII story, this one from a German point of view.  Set in Berlin in 1943, the story centers around Sigrid a “good” German woman living with her mother-in-law while her husband Kaspar serves at the Eastern Front.  Sigrid works as a typist in the patent office.  Berlin in 1943 is a city where women make up the majority of the population.  Sigrid retreats to the cinema to escape the despair of her life in Berlin.  She meets Egon a Jewish man in the movie theater and begins an affair with him.  She befriends a young girl living in her building, Ericha.  Ericha has been helping an underground group that has been smuggling Jews and others out of the country.  Sigrid also befriends a woman whose half brother is an SS officer.  The German propaganda machine broadcasts information about great German victories but the facts support just the opposite.  Conditions are difficult; food is in short supply, nightly trips to the bomb shelter the norm.  Sigrid slowly evolves from a fairly passive citizen of the Reich into a courageous woman as she becomes involved with the underground group. Her husband Kaspar returns wounded and adrift after a grueling combat experience and then looms over her complicated life. The suspense in the story builds as Sigrid plans the extraction of a small group of people and the SS becomes aware of her actions.

The author does a great job describing war time Berlin.  The suspicions that citizens have of one another are well described, the atmosphere of fear is palpable.  One of the themes here is the myriad of relationships that Sigrid has with women – her mother-in-law a supporter of the Nazi regime; Ericha the young rebel; her colleagues at work who are frightened of Sigrid’s developing radicalism, and the women in her building.  Each of these relationships is different and used to advance the plot nicely.

More than a war story though this is an examination of the personal courage that it takes to work against a totalitarian government when one slowly becomes aware of the evil that is taking place.  The awakening of conscience that Sigrid experiences is so well documented in this story I loved it.  I have always wondered why so few German citizens resisted Nazism.  This story lays out how difficult it was for people to take action and how extraordinary were those who did.  You are clearly left wondering how you would behave given the choices that Sigrid had.  Not an easy story to read but one that has stayed with me long after I finished it. 

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Spies, Code Talkers and Deceit in War

I listened to two audiobooks and read an ebook that I thought would group nicely together in a review because all dealt with deception in wartime.  From the straightforward story of the Navajo code talkers in the South Pacific in WWII, the MI 5 operation in Britain that fooled the Nazis in the D-Day landings to the the work of the British code breakers in WWI we have the work of small groups of creative people that changed the course of history.

Code Talker by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila, read by David Colacci, Tanter Audio, 9 hours, 36 mins. December 2011

Nice WWII story about the Navajos who used their unique language to encode military info in the South Pacific. You also get  a look  into Navajo life in the 20th century as the author Chester Nez relates his life story.  It is a straight on story with out much editorial input or reflection on the part of the author.  Well read by David Colacci.

The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman, read by Wanda McCaddum.  Blackstone Audio, 7hrs, 11 mins.

All of the inside scoop on the entry of the US into WWI.  Background on the British code breaking effort (Room 40) and the personalities of the US, British and German players in international diplomacy.  Nobody is better than Tuchman at writing narrative history.  She hooked me years ago when I first read Guns of August.       Witty and irreverent in her writing, she is a pleasure to read.  She is able to take what are often long dead and faceless people and bring them to life.  First published in 1966 this story is as fresh today as it was then.  She is my all time favorite writer of history.  I listened to this one and was well served by the reading style of Wanda McCaddum.  She is a master of accents and easily slips between German, English and American.  At 7 hours a great audio book.

Double Cross by Ben McIntyre Crown Publishers, July 2012

Ben McIntyre is a talented story teller.  He weaves together the story of the British double agents who feed information to the Germans throughout WWII.  This eclectic group of people were as different from each other as was possible.  A Polish patriot, a Argentine society playgirl, a Serbian gambler, a Spanish patriot and a host of others make up the cast.  Their British handlers are the most imaginative group.  Throughout the war these people feed the Germans a combination of true but unimportant facts and patently false data. leading up to their master deception - convincing the Germans that the Allies would land at Calais not Normandy.  This deception froze in place significant numbers of German soldiers defending Calais.  Eisenhower himself credited this group with ensuring the success of D-Day. This is a great story full of fascinating anecdotes, the story of the Royal Pigeon Service had me laughing out loud.  The deception effort itself is a quirky peculiar British activity, almost like a PG Wodehouse novel (he's in the story too!).  Great history, well told!  

Friday, November 2, 2012


by Alan Brennert, narrated by Anne Noelani Miyamoto, Recorded Books, 17hrs, 27 minutes.

...an epic work of historical fiction

The story begins late in the 19th century in Hawaii.  Rachael Kalama is the youngest child in a native Hawaiian family.   At the age of 7 her mother notices a red patch of skin on her leg that is insensitive to pain.  In short order she is diagnosed with leprosy and quarantined in the lepers’ hospital at Kahili on Oahu.  She spends a year there and is then sent to Kalaupapa the leper colony on Moloka’i.  Even though she has an uncle who has the disease and resides there she is forced to live in a girls orphanage staffed by Roman Catholic nuns.  Physically and emotionally separated from her family Rachael builds a new life and new family among the residents of the leper colony. Although her father remains faithful and visits his daughter Rachael never again hears from her mother.  It was quite common for families to abandon children with this diagnosis.

Rachael’s story as it unfolds is also the story of many leprous patients in the 20th century.  The author does not flinch from describing the effects of this disease on the body and the terrible toll that it takes in life expectancy and in handicaps.  Rachael’s story is interspersed with historical events (WWII, the great depression) and changes that occur on Moloka’i.  There are many strong characters in this story.  First off Rachael – she is strong, charismatic and pragmatic in her approach to life.  Her disease advances slowly so we know her story through her teen years, marriage and old age.  She is surely a character who will remain in your mind long after reading this story.  Of all of the sisters who work in the leper colony we get to know Sister Catherine the best.  She is depicted very realistically.  She has doubts about her faith and struggles to understand why children are stricken with this horrible disease.  Again a strong portrayal.   The author sticks with the story through the development of effective treatments for the disease in the 1970s.  This allows for a happier ending (who doesn’t like a happy ending) for Rachael.  

The book has a strong sense of place.  The descriptions of Hawaii are excellent and the dialogue is replete with native Hawaiian words.  This was a topic and a place that I knew little about, so I really enjoyed this story. The author's note at the end of the story was particularly welcome as it noted the sections that were true and the true life figures who provided inspiration for some of the major characters.  

 I listened to the audio book that was read by Anne Noelani Miyamoto.  In the beginning I did not like her narration but as the story went on I came to appreciate her skill in differentiating the racial diversity of the characters.

I listened to a copy of this audio book that I borrowed.