Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category


It is the tail end of World War II. Throughout the war, the Germans headed east through Poland and Prussia while the Soviets headed west through Lithuania and Prussia, destroying everything in their path. The result, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. Truth be told, both armies showed a barbarism that is unequaled.


Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys folds the wandering of refugees into the story of the “deadliest disaster in maritime history, with losses dwarfing the death tolls of the famous ships Titanic and Lusitania.” Told in first person by four dramatically different people, the plight of refugees is vividly told by the characters and experienced by the readers.

Emilia, a pregnant Polish teenager, is saved from the rape of a Russian soldier by Florian, a disillusioned and deserting German soldier who has taken retribution against his superiors for their duplicity. Joana, a Lithuanian, is traveling to find her mother after years of separation. Alfred is a foolish, dimwitted German soldier who has seen the light of Hitler’s words and fancies himself medal-worthy, although he is far from it.

These four end up in the port of Gotenhafen and board the evacuation ship the Wilhelm Gustloff carrying 10,000+ passengers, which was ultimately torpedoed by a Russian submarine.

Characters in Salt to the Sea run the gamut from the self-centered, fearful of everyone Eva to the selfless old shoemaker Heinz. While you can understand Eva’s survival instinct and don’t dislike her for it, it is Heinz that comes through as the shining star, the wise old man always with words of comfort and encouragement.

The alternating chapters by the four individuals works well.  The writing and storyline keep readers wanting more. Salt to the Sea is heartbreaking at times, poignant at other times, scary most of the time.

My only criticism, and it isn’t a big one, is that the background of the story is included in the Author’s Note at the end. Having very little knowledge about the war in Prussia, a little history at the outset would have been nice. However, Sepetys includes a list of resources used in researching the book which was several years in the making.

There is no happy ending because how can there be with the devastation and destruction brought about by the war? But there is hope because there are people who tend to others before themselves, although they are vastly outnumbered.

Although it is the beginning of the year, I’m sure Salt to the Sea will be on my 2016 Top Ten list.



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How do I get you interested in Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen without giving away PlayingWithFirethe story is the issue, because the book is definitely worth reading. Julia Ansdell is a violinist. On her last day of a music tour in Rome she stops at an antique store because she sees an old music book in the window. As she flips through it (a book of gypsy songs), a single sheet of music written hastily in pencil falls out. Sight reading, she realizes how beautiful the piece is and so she buys the book and sheet music. It is signed by L. Todesco.

At home several days later, she is in the backyard with her 3 year old daughter Lily. She sets up her music stand, takes out the sheet music and begins to play this complicated piece. She’s immersed in the music. When she looks up, however, something horrible has happened.

In an alternate story, Lorenzo Todesco, a Venetian Jew, is asked by his grandfather, Alberto, to practice a duet for a competition with his old friend, Augosto Balbani’s daughter, Laura. Laura is a cellist and Lorenzo a violinist. Dreading the practice, fearing Laura is totally ugly, he reluctantly says yes. How could he refuse his grandfather? Several days later, he packs up his violin, which has been in the family for centuries, and visits the Balboni’s to find Laura is beautiful. However, she is also Catholic. Catholic and Jew are not a good combination in 1938 Venice, as Hitler and the Nazis are on the rise. The Todesco family, with the exclusion of Lorenzo’s brother Marco, are turning a blind eye to the new rules that are constantly being issued barring Jews from owning businesses, going to school, etc. Only Marco, Lorenzo’s brother, is the realist, but a lot of good that does him when no one will listen. They are living in a fantasy world.

Gerritsen alternates sections of Playing With Fire between Julia (in the first person) and Lorenzo (in the third person). The story centers around Julia’s efforts to track down the composer, wondering if the music has ever been published, and Lorenzo’s life under Nazi rule and his family’s eventual forced deportation to a work camp.

I originally thought that much of Playing With Fire would discuss the emotional impact of music on people and to some extent it does. But it goes much deeper than that.

Gerritsen, who has an MD degree and is the creator of the Rizzoli and Isles series, typically writes medical thrillers. Playing With Fire is a departure from her other mystery works. In her Historical Notes at the end of the book, Gerritsen describes the staggering impact of the Nazis on the Jewish population in Europe and Italy in particular. Apparently, Italy set itself apart in that a smaller percentage of Italian Jews were exterminated than the percentage in other European countries. She describes her desire to honor those unsung heroes who hid Jews, helped them leave the country, etc. at the possibility of personal harm to themselves and their families. She has done an outstanding job in this regard.

I do have one (very) minor criticism, however, and that is the ending as it relates to Julia…which you’ll have to find out by reading the book. I’m not sure how else Gerritsen could have ended her story, but it didn’t sit well. However, this issue did not in any way diminish my reading enjoyment. I stayed up late to finish the book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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I must be going through my quirky character phase. I’m cCrookedHearturrently reading The Little Paris Bookshop and if that doesn’t have quirky characters, I don’t know what book does. Crooked Heart, though, follows a close second. Crooked Heart is Lissa Evans’ first book published in the United States, although she is no stranger to writing, having published three other books for children and adults. It is a book about dysfunctional LittleParisBookshopfamilies, connivers and swindlers coming together and it’s two main characters are endearing.

It is World War II London. Noel is 10 years old when his godmother, Mattie, with whom he lived and who he adored, dies in a snow bank. Having nowhere to go, he ends up living with Mattie’s cousin, the insufferable Geoffrey Overs and his fragile, neat to a fault, wife Margery. As the war closes in, Noel is forced by Geoffrey to evacuate. Ending up in the small town of St. Albans, he along with his classmates, is paraded door to door to find a suitable foster home. However, having big ears and a limp, placing Noel poses a problem…until Vera Sedge sees him and has an idea. A schemer and always short of money, she realizes that she will get compensated for tending to ‘poor Noel’.

Noel had been mostly silent at the Overs’ and continued this with Vee, as well. But, his intelligence and her lack of common sense in her efforts to raise money, force him to start talking. Her need for money and his lack of (some) scruples, lead them to team up and together they form a formidable pair. Add Vee’s illegitimate son Donald, a schemer in his own rite, her mother who doesn’t speak a word and constantly writes letters to England’s leaders stressing her opinion on their ineffective leadership and Hilde, the Austrian girl living in England and working at a munitions factory and always comparing her spare life to the grandeur of her former Austrian home and the quirky characters get quirkier.

Noel is smarter than the average 10 year old, with an ethical code that is unusual. While he doesn’t mind swindling some people, he is outraged when others act similarly. Vee is just a down and out in need of some money to survive. What begins as a financial transaction for Vee, however, turns into true caring and it is this process that makes Crooked Heart so heartwarming.

I don’t know how Evans came up with the idea of the book or how the schemes she describes came to mind, but they are unique. Her descriptions paint images of people, places and situations, including war torn London. While I was reading the first hundred pages sporadically, I whizzed through the last 150 pages because I couldn’t wait to see where Evans took Vee and Noel.

For those readers looking for the unusual, not your run of the mill best seller, you’d be wise to pick up Crooked Heart. It’ll do your heart good.

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DeathOfSantiniGosh, what to say about The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy. I could and will say that if you read The Great Santini, you’ve read some of this Conroy biography, but certainly not all of it. I could say I liked the book but it’s not a book you ‘like’, it’s a book you get sucked into because there’s so much raw emotion going on…love, hate, racism, abuse, family, sorrow, joy. When I first started reading The Death of Santini, I was appalled at Don Conroy’s treatment of his wife and children and no one would have faulted me for putting the book down. But on I went, to the very last page.GreatSantini

The Death of Santini is a raw book, not filled with flowery language. It is the factual recounting of Pat Conroy’s life as the son of Don and Peg Conroy, the union of an Irish Catholic from Chicago and a poor southern girl from the Appalachian mountains whose mother abandoned her family at the height of the depression, leaving them with nothing. Pat and his six siblings moved around a lot, the life of a Marine family, were the recipients of beatings from an abusive father and the fallout from this was everlasting and widespread and powerful.

I’m not sure why Conroy felt compelled to write this book since it’s predecessor, though fiction, pretty well recounted many incidents in the current book. It felt like he had to purge himself of his demons, his guilt at standing idly by while siblings were abused, his hatred, or more accurately love-hate emotion towards his father, his adoration of his beautiful but surely imperfect mother, his dives into the depths of depression, his distance from his sister.

But as you read, you see Conroy’s problem. Children love their parents, typically, yet both his parents, to some extent, were abusive. What is a boy and then a man supposed to feel? Two of his siblings were spiraling towards mental illness, yet his parents refused to acknowledge it and Pat was powerless.

As Conroy introduces you to his northern and southern relatives you learn so many things: (1) abuse, while maybe not genetically transferred, certainly runs in families and is transferred to following generations, nor is it limited to liberally or conservatively thinking people, (2) racism is not only a Southern emotion, (3) the impact of dysfunctional families is widespread and deep.

I’ll conclude by telling you, as I did in the beginning, I’m not sure I ‘liked” The Death of Santini. I’m glad I read it and will highly recommend it to others, but did I like it? Hmmmm. No. If you’re looking for a literary masterpiece with flowery language, I suggest you look elsewhere. The Death of Santini is, at times, disjointed (as is this review) and repetitious within itself. However, it has a cast of interesting, unimaginable characters that some of the most able fiction writers could never conceive. It didn’t make me laugh. It didn’t make me cry. Coming from a ‘relatively’ normal family, I think it made me sit there in disbelief.

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