Book Review: The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff @PamJenoff @parkrowbooks

The Kommandant’s Girl
Pam Jenoff
Park Row Books, December 2018
ISBN 978-0-7783-0879-9
Trade Paperback

Pam Jenoff is a wonderful writer. Here she tackles a serious, emotionally dangerous deep penetration into relationships that occurred during world events which continue to haunt and influence our lives.

Three weeks after her marriage to Jacob, Emma Bau, nineteen, watches German tanks and troop carriers roll into her Polish town. Through a series of circumstances she goes to live in Krakow with a Catholic woman and must conceal her Jewish roots. Soon, the Polish resistance pressures her to take advantage of her circumstances to work for the local Gestapo office, headed by a handsome, young Nazi. They become a couple.

The questions raised thus get to some of the fundamental beliefs and attitudes we have about that period. Were there good Germans in that service who tried their best to mitigate the policies of the German occupying forces? Did anyone on the other side ever show compassion or should they all have been irrevocably condemned? Was every member of the Polish resistance a “good guy—or woman”?

The author plumbs some of these questions while offering a thoughtful, careful and in-depth novel. Its scenes move rapidly through the countryside, the characters are deeply and well-conceived, the rollercoaster of danger ridden by the characters is often mesmerizing. Read this satisfying novel and if you enjoy it as much as I suspect you will, find other excellent novels from this author.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2021.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff @PamJenoff @parkrowbooks

The Lost Girls of Paris
Pam Jenoff
Park Row Books, January 2019
ISBN:978-0-7783-3027-1
Trade Paperback

A history of the world will be written one day with particular emphasis on the dangerous decade of the 1940s. A monstrous world war, the development of Atomic weapons and missile warfare, and a realignment of national priorities across the world. And there we began to see shifts in social structure.

In America, the public beginnings of greater gender equality became noticeable as women assumed a variety of jobs in manufacturing and other business traditionally held by men. Women pilots became a crucial link in getting replacement fighters and bombers to forward bases to continue the war effort. Rosie the Riveter became a recruitment poster. In England, women filled many roles heretofore reserved for men and that gradually included the world of spying and espionage, which brings us to this enthralling historical novel.

In 1940, British authorities established the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine agency designed to pass disinformation, arms, munitions and agents into occupied Europe. The novel focuses on the difficulties of incorporating a significant cadre of women agents, even though it was acknowledged that women moved around France more freely than could men. Eventually, due to persistence and grim determination, the head of F section was allowed to recruit and train a group of young talented women to operate in German-occupied Europe. This story tells the emotional and often tragic tales of the director of the unit, Eleanor Trigg, and several of the women agents.

The novel is a well-researched and very well written book. It is important, however, to recognize that this is a historical novel, based and well-rooted in reality, but is, in fact, fiction. Two agents who were flown to France in 1944 are the main characters and the story follows them from training through their adventures in tension-filled France and the post-war time.

The novel is saturated with the voices and unique perspectives of the women, including that of Grace Healey, a young woman living and working in Manhattan when the novel opens in 1946. Passing through Grand Central Station, she almost inadvertently acquires some pictures of former agents of the SOE. Notes intrigue her and she begins an odyssey to find and return the pictures to their rightful owners.

Now the scene shifts to London in 1943. Readers will discover that the structure of the novel shifts by chapter from place to place and from year to year. The structure is very well handled, the events are carefully and logically written to weave an emotional, tension-filled story fabric that will grasp and hold all but the most jaded readers through to the surprising and very well-conceived resolution. Just a fine, fine novel in all aspects.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2020.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Bonnet Book by Nancy Menees Hardesty @YABoundToursPR

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Check out my stop on the blog tour for
The Bonnet Book by Nancy Menees Hardesty!

Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // iBooks //
Smashwords // Amazon // Indiebound

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The Bonnet Book
Diary of an Orphan Train Hatmaker
Nancy Menees Hardesty
Solificatio, August 2020
ISBN 978-0-9977619-4-8
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Sent away on an orphan train at fourteen, smart and lovely Blanche Spencer lands in St. Louis, Missouri as a nursemaid, wearing rags and sleeping in a pantry. To rise above her servitude, she begins a self-education program. A trade booth at the 1904 World’s Fair and a Cobden, Illinois apprenticeship launch her into a hat-making career, which she documents in a tiny diary, The Bonnet Book.

An early example of self-determination and girl power, Blanche—now Bonnie—travels alone to the Wild West, where she’s presented with the chance of a lifetime and the possibility of love—both rife with challenges that test her drive, purpose in life, and sense of self.

The Bonnet Book diary and other historical items in the novel are real-life touchstones in this gripping, inspiring story based on the life of the author’s grandmother.

Imagine being a 14-year-old girl living a simple life in a family much too large for the very limited income her father earns as a teacher. It’s the turn of the 20th century and these conditions are not terribly unusual but things are getting worse, economically, and hard choices need to be made.

Blanche is a very intelligent girl growing up in a family that loves her, especially her father, but that same father makes a life-altering decision with no warning, a decision that sends Blanche into a future bereft of everything and everyone she’s known her entire life. Did he know what was in store for her, the years of servitude, or did he really believe she would be placed in a loving home full of opportunities she would never have if she remained in Oraville, Illinois? That’s something we can only guess at but, by setting Blanche on this path, he certainly changed her future dramatically.

The Bonnet Book is the tale of how this very resilient girl rose above her travails through her own efforts, determined to educate herself and develop a worthy trade, that of hatmaking, and learned to cope with the pain of abandonment. Along the way, I discovered how Blanche became Bonnie and shared in her adventures in the Wild West of Oklahoma. Based on the life of the author’s grandmother, it’s a fascinating story and I was completely captured by the way Blanche responded to her new life and was honored to see bits and pieces of her Bonnet Book diary.

Ms. Hardesty’s notes at the end and the photographs scattered throughout the book are equally fascinating and bring a vibrancy to this tale of a most uncommon girl. This is the best kind of historical fiction, a foray into a “real” person’s life in times very different from our own.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2020.

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An Excerpt from The Bonnet Book

Vinegar Dreams

Robey Household  •  St. Louis, Missouri

September 1902

A uniformed driver with a top hat steered the stylish carriage up Market Street, en route to the Robey household on West Bell Place.

Blanche watched her first city unfold before her blue eyes—tightly spaced buildings with unusual details; advertising services; a store with a carved fish over the entrance; a red-white-and-blue-striped pole at a barber shop; a ten-foot-high beer mug at a tavern. Their swift carriage followed other horse-drawn ones up the wide and busy boulevard. Sometimes they passed a double train car on a track in the center of the street. A city train, Blanche thought. None of what she saw seemed intimidating to her. It was just the first colorful page of her big-city adventure.

After twenty minutes, the carriage stopped at a three-story red-brick building with a glass vestibule. The building was much larger than a house, and it was in a cluster of eight similar buildings.

Blanche followed Mrs. Robey to the bathroom and closed the door. Just a few hours ago, she had seen a flush toilet and porcelain sinks for the first time. It was amazing how quickly one got used to these things! She came out feeling much refreshed.

“Blanche, Greta is cleaning the pantry for you. You can sleep there. You will have your own room for privacy, with a door and a light.” Mr. Robey closed the pocket watch and returned it to his vest pocket.

“Come, Blanche,” said Mrs. Robey. “Greta will walk you to the girls’ room to get your belongings. I have put your white dress in their closet. You can use your shawl as a bed cover.”

The two walked down the dark hallway, Blanche a few feet behind Greta.

As they returned to the kitchen, Blanche smelled the strong odor of vinegar coming from the pantry. Greta stepped aside as Mrs. Robey approached.

The pantry was only six feet wide, with floor-to-ceiling shelves and cupboards on both sides. It had no window and seemed airless. Opposite the pantry door was a built-in cabinet with a pull-out enamel surface for mixing dough. Below that were bins for flour and onions. Beyond the tall cabinet were two more cupboards containing baking supplies and bins of potatoes. The wall that backed the kitchen contained narrow shelves and was generously stacked with jars of jam, preserved vegetables, nuts, coffee, and spices. At the back wall were cleaning supplies, all stored neatly on old newspapers. This left a mere thirty-inch by six-foot space, with a floor drain in the middle. A single gas light hung by a bare cord from the ceiling.

“Well, here we are,” said Mrs. Robey.

Blanche saw a folded tarp with an old feather mattress over it. There was also a ragged pillow covered in purple floral fabric at the far end of the pallet, next to damp mops.

“You will be warm and dry here—much better than at the train depot. Greta will walk you to the bathroom, and then you can find your way back here on your own.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said a very tired Blanche.

Blanche finished her bathroom chores and found her way back to her bedroom, which she knew was really a kitchen pantry, not a bedroom. But on this first night, she was grateful for any safe place to sleep. She turned on the single dim light, closed the door, and took off her gingham dress, hanging it over the aprons. She got the pillow next to the wet mops and brought it over to the pantry door. The smell of vinegar and onions filled her nostrils. She turned out the light, leaned against the pantry door, and wiped a single tear from her cheek.

She thought about the day. She thought about the two sweet girls to whom she was assigned and their very reserved parents. She was in a home with nice furniture, lovely music, and good food. Maybe this was the beginning of “sweet hope” and new things to learn. But then here she was, about to sleep in an airless pantry.

It was not a happy space, but it was safe.

A sob came out as a choke.

Tonight I will have vinegar dreams, she thought. Sour and scary dreams.

She tumbled over and wrapped herself in the blue shawl.

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About the Author

Nancy Menees Hardesty, born in Illinois and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, moved to San Francisco, California in 1969. Nancy spent six years researching and writing her debut novel, The Bonnet Book. She had various family journals and artifacts and the extensive help of her mother, Mary Kay Menees, who was the daughter-in-law of the book’s protagonist, Bonnie Spencer. The tiny “Bonnet Book” of hat sketches and the wooden hat-supply trunk featured in the book are still in the author’s possession.

Facebook // Website 

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Follow the tour here.

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Giveaway

One print copy of The Bonnet Book

Enter here.

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Book Review: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed @sam_aye_ahm @soho_teen

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
Samira Ahmed
Soho Teen, April 2020
ISBN 978-1-61695-989-0
Hardcover

Khayyam’s life is finished and she’s only seventeen.

Ok, that may be a bit over-the-top, but she truly is beyond bummed to have completely blown her chance to achieve her life-long dream. Admittedly, her over-eager attempt to get into the Chicago School of Art Institute was not as well researched as it should have been. The needlessly harsh criticism of one judge plays on repeat in Khayyam’s mind.

The hateful words aren’t wrong; but neither is Khayyam’s theory. A portrait must to be missing from Delacroix’s series based on Byron’s prose. And there is no way that a woman who inspired poetry and paintings was a fictional character plucked from a dark fairy-tale. Khayyam will use her month in Paris to do some proper sleuthing.

Meeting the adorable descendant of Alexandre Dumas and discovering that he, too, is conducting historical studies could prove to be beneficial. And exponentially more entertaining.

As Khayyam gets closer to a truth from the past, she begins to see that even in the present, people are not being completely honest. Going from a having a potential partner to wondering who to trust was unnerving, but uncovering the constantly-controlled life of a mysterious woman was absolutely infuriating.

This woman who had been talked about never got the opportunity to speak for herself. Her name was Leila and her story matters. In learning about Leila, Khayyam’s initial goal to rewrite her essay and prove her case grows distant. She’s no longer focused on her future, but resurrecting Leila’s past is imperative.

Teenagers are completely capable of being many things at once. Inquisitive, determined and tenacious while inexplicably also reckless, romantic and immature. I’ve not seen those traits so perfectly captured and conveyed before “meeting” Khayyam in Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed. Truly terrific YA Historical Fiction!

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2020.

Book Review: Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati @akaSaraDonati @penguinrandom

Where the Light Enters
The Waverly Place Series #2
Sara Donati
Berkley, September 2019
ISBN 978-0-425-27182-7
Hardcover

Where the Light Enters is a massive 672 page book that starts off in an epistolary fashion as Dr. Sophie Savard waits for her husband, Cap Verhoeven, who is afflicted with tuberculosis, to die. They are in Switzerland in an attempt to prolong his life, but when that proves to be in vain, Sophie, and Pip, her little dog, return home to New York. The year is 1884 and, although I believe Sophie’s history with Cap is detailed in a previous novel, that Cap was part of the wealthy New York society clique and married to a mulatto physician is an integral part of the plot.

Sophie tries to make her way both as a physician, a wealthy widow in high society, and a part of a large integrated family from all sorts of backgrounds. She also becomes, with her cousin Anna, another physician, involved in a horrific act of crime. Anna is married to a police detective who is charged with finding a murderer who’s method of killing is especially cruel. It seems the killer is an abortionist who uses expertise in surgery to murder the victims. Who better to help identify such a person than a couple of women doctors?

But don’t read this story as a mystery. It really isn’t. Very soon we can make a good guess at the killer. Even that seems almost incidental as the book could also be identified as a psychological morality story. Or simply a historical detailing not only the prevailing attitude toward women doctors, especially one of color, but of the fashions and mores of the time. And possibly, given the familial aspects, a feel good tale of love and acceptance.

Something for every reader, melded together in the best possible way. The details are wonderfully compelling and you may just find yourself immersed in the historical period.

If I had a problem with the story, it’s that a great many characters were introduced from the first and, although maybe it was just me, I did have a bit of trouble keeping them separate.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, September 2019.
www.ckcrigger.com
Author of The Woman Who Built A Bridge (Spur Award Winner), Yester’s Ride
and Five Days, Five Dead: A China Bohannon Novel

Book Review: This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger—and a Giveaway! @WmKentKrueger @AtriaBooks

This Tender Land
William Kent Krueger
Atria Books, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-4767-4929-7
Hardcover

Literature fills almost as many needs as there are readers. This novel, solemn, deliberate, moving, is not for the harried or the cynical. Or maybe it is, if the reader is at least willing to consider the mysterious and sometimes mystical forces that surround us. Faith, like awareness of the natural world, is largely a private matter. This novel ultimately raises and thoughtfully considers more questions than it answers. Or not. The book is eminently satisfactory as a fine piece of literature for whatever enjoyment and satisfaction any reader gains from the story, a journey of life and death and misdeeds and love and, perhaps, redemption. Certainly forgiveness.

The journey begins with the difficult abusive lives of three inmates of a hard-scrabble boarding school in rural Minnesota in the midst of the deep depression that engulfed the nation in the nineteen-thirties. Three young men, in their early teens, Albert, Odie and Moses, grow closer in their mutual efforts to resist being smashed under by the persistent and sadistic efforts of the school officials who do not shy away from meting out corporal punishment at the drop of a fork.

When the opportunity a huge storm presents, the three boys collect a girl they all know from a nearby farm and lately orphaned like them, then run away from the school and determine to somehow make their way to Saint Louis. So they have a definite goal, however ethereal.

The adventure and the travelers’ desperate need to stay out of the clutches of the law infuses the story with tension and excitement, and the carefully crafted descriptive passages only add to the forward drive. Here readers will find evangelists, storekeepers, the law, liars, good and bad people and a story that ultimate raises fundamental questions of relationships.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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To enter the drawing for a print
advance reading copy of
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger,
leave a comment below. Two winning
names will be drawn on Sunday
evening, September 8th. This drawing is
open to residents of the US & Canada.

Book Reviews: Journey to a Promised Land by Allison Lassieur and Three Twigs for the Campfire by Joseph Cognard

Journey to a Promised Land (I Am America)
A Story of the Exodusters
Allison Lassieur
Jolly Fish Press, January 2019
ISBN 978-1631632761
Trade Paperback

Hattie has a dream. A far-reaching fantasy, some would say, but she knows she can find a way. She will become a teacher.

The spring of 1879 tried to bring a fresh start to a new world in Nashville, Tennessee. Although each of Hattie’s parents had been born into slavery, both obtained an education immediately following the Civil War. Her father works just as hard today, but for it is himself and his family and in his very own black-smith shop. Her mother happily runs the household and Hattie contributes, too. Not only a stand-out student, she also earns money for her family by mending for Miss Bradford.

It’s a good enough life for Hattie. She knows, of course, that recently, black folks have been joining together to make the journey to Kansas. Tales of towns with nothing but black faces tempt her parents and Mr. Singleton sure has been working hard to convince her family to make the move to Nicodemus, a small town being established and in need of a blacksmith.

It isn’t until her father leaves the house for a meeting about the potential move that it hits Hattie. She’s heard stories of what happens to black men who dare attend these gatherings. And suddenly, she is scared for her father. After seeing him on the receiving end of retaliation—Nat had the audacity to charge a white man for his work—Hattie understands the very real danger they are in.

Loathe to miss school, Hattie could not have imagined the education she would receive during her journey. Seeing the stark differences between the group of black travelers when compared to almost every clump of white men, was a shock. Whereas individual black people intuitively worked towards the greater good of their party, sharing the last crumbs and caring for those in need; the freakish faction of inexplicably angry, willfully ignorant and hella hateful white men appeared to unite solely to terrorize black citizens.

I wish I could put a copy of this heroic historical fiction in every single classroom. It is that good and unquestionably, that vital. Although Hattie’s family may be a figment of the author’s imagination, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton was very real and invaluably instrumental in helping hundreds of African Americans move from Tennessee to Kansas.

Ms. Lassieur shares this story of the Exodusters by popping the reader right into the mule-driven wagon to bear witness to the atrocious, senseless acts against black people. But she also demonstrates the intuitive kindness, generosity and strength of each and every black person, automatically reminding everyone to continue the good fight. Oh, and I can’t wait for you to find out why the emigrants were dubbed “Exodusters”.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2019.

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Three Trees for the Campfire
Joseph Cognard
CreateSpace, January 2013
ISBN 978-1482320985
Trade Paperback

At first, I want to judge this book by its cover. The campfire calls to me, then captivates as I notice it’s not at simple as it seems. But before I know it, I’m completely caught up in the quintessential summer read.

Three siblings surround the glowing embers to swap stories and sleep under the stars. Billy, being the youngest, is participating (fully) for the first time, so being in his head at the beginning perfectly sets the scene.

“Billy began to worry that, like the fire, he might not make it through the night.”

The eldest, Jack, begins with a fantastic tale featuring a dragon. When Chelsea follows with her own natty narrative, she subtly weaves in bits and pieces from her brother’s story in a sweet (but not corny) kind of way. Billy may be bringing up the rear, but he can spin a yarn as well as his siblings. And he’s pretty slick about bringing in a real-life character.

Authentic and relatable, in a dreamy sort of way, I thoroughly enjoyed this tiny tome that probably fits best in the Juvenile Fiction genre, but I can easily imagine anyone enjoying it.

Huge thank-you to the author for sharing this with me!

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2018.