BOOK REVIEW: Anna And The Swallow Man – by Gavriel Savit

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Title: Anna And The Swallow Man
Author: Gavriel Savit
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
First published: January 26th 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Finished reading: August 25th 2016
Pages: 240
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“Because,” said the swallow man. “A friend is not someone to whom you give the things you need when the world is at war. A friend is someone to whom you give the things that you need when the world is at peace.”

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Ok, here’s the thing: I normally love historical fiction and I have a special interest in WWII stories. As soon as I heard about this novel by Gavriel Savit, I just knew I had to add it to my wishlist. Unfortunately Anna And The Swallow Man didn’t seem to convince me and I honestly struggled to finish it. The idea behind this story is interesting and I liked both the linguistic references and how languages were described; they really woke the inner philologist nerd in me. That said, I found that the tone was all off and I didn’t like the prose itself. It just didn’t seem to fit the middle grade target at all… I also wasn’t convinced by the magical realism elements in Anna And The Swallow Man. I guess this ones just one of those cases were magical realism just didn’t do it for me and I don’t think the target group would be able to fully understand its meaning either. In short, while the linguistic and historical references were interesting enough, the prose and surreal elements made me enjoy this story a lot less.

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Anna Lania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father in 1939 during the purge of intellectuals in Poland. Her father is a linguistics professor and has a gift for languages: he can speak many languages fluently and Anna has been a willing student. Now he is taken away, Anna is left alone. She then meets the Swallow Man. He is a complete mystery… A strange and tall man, a skilled deceiver and a language expert not unlike her father. Anna knows he is in danger of being taken as well, but the Swallow Man seems to have some tricks up his sleeve. Because when German soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see. Anna is entranced, and decides to follow the him into the wilderness.  And they encounter all kind of dangers during their travels together…

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I was really looking forward to this read, but unfortunately it mostly turned out to be a disappointment. I guess that one of the dangers of reading a story with magical realism elements is that it can go both ways, and in the case of Anna And The Swallow Man it just didn’t work for me. And while I liked some of the other elements, I’m not sure if I can actually recommend this book…

ARC REVIEW: The Munich Girl – by Phyllis Edgerly Ring

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Title: The Munich Girl
Author: Phyllis Edgerly Ring
Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary
First published: November 14th 2015
Finished reading: June 16th 2016
Pages: 356
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“Exiting onto the street, I heard a chorus of bells from three churches, then saw the blood-red banners with their dark Swastikas everywhere I turned. I’m accustomed to this in Berlin, but seeing them on these lovely old façades is like finding graffiti scrawled on my grandmother’s house. The Nazis are relentless with this display, like dogs marking territory.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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When I was approached by Phyllis Edgerly Ring with the question if I wanted to read and review her novel The Munich Girl, it was really easy to say yes. Since I love just about every historical fiction read related to WWII, I knew straight away I was probably going to enjoy this book, and this story turned out to be particularly interesting. The Munich Girl has a fast pace and switches between contemporary scenes and the notes of the main character Anna’s mother Peggy which are set in the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. It’s an interesting mix of contemporary and historical fiction where Anna slowly finds out more about her mother’s history, both about her time during WWII and connection to Eva Braun. I particularly enjoyed reading the historical section and I love that this book actually talks about the role of woman during the war, something that isn’t being written about often enough. The only thing I wasn’t fully convinced about were the (contemporary) romance scenes; the romantic developments/love triangle were slightly distracting and took away the focus of the main story. Still, the rest of the story is without doubt excellent and more than makes up for it. I can recommend The Munich Girl to both historical fiction fans and those who prefer reading realistic fiction with a dash of romance, especially since the historical elements are not as omnipresent as in other more ‘dense’ historical fiction reads.

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When her mother Peggy called Anna just before she passed away, she never thought her mother would have been about to finally reveal the truth about their history after all those years. Because fifty years after WWII, Anna discovers that the war-throphy portrait of Eva Braun ment more to her mother than she ever realized. In fact, Peggy and Hitler’s mistress actually seemed to be friends back then! Through the notes her mother left her without her knowledge, Anna slowly retraces the path of the two women as their friendship grows over the years… And she has the help of her husband’s magazine assistent Hannes Ritter during her investigation. They discover more and more about Peggy’s past and her relationship with Eva Braun, and Anna is starting to realize people have been underestimating the true power of the woman behind Hitler; how Eva in the end seemed to be the only woman to actually reach the man and use her influence to save lives. But the notes not only reveal secrets about Eva Braun, they will also reveal the truth about Anna’s history and change things forever…

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The Munich Girl has turned out to be yet another satisfying historical fiction WWII story. The plot is without doubt interesting and makes you think about the role of women during the war. I wasn’t sure about the romantic developments in the contemporary chapters, but the historical section and chapters set in Germany did make up for it. With its fast pace and prose that is easy to read, The Munich Girl is both an intriguing, emotional and entertaining read I can definitely recommend.

BOOK REVIEW: The Nightingale – by Kristin Hannah

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Title: The Nightingale
Author: Kristin Hannah
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
First published: February 3rd 2015
Finished reading: April 30th 2016
Pages: 440
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“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

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Historical fiction is probably one of my favorite genres, especially when the story is set during WWII. After hearing so many great things about The Nightingale and several recommendations, I just knew I had to pick it up as soon as possible… And I agree this is without doubt a very well written, beautiful and heartbreaking story that is a must read for any WWII historical fiction fan. Ever since finishing this novel by Kristin Hannah, I have been doubting the final rating, especially since the ending simply blew me away. Why the seemingly ‘low’ 4 star rating? I did have some small issues with the story that I couldn’t ignore. First of all, it actually took me a lot of time to finish The Nightingale and initially I wasn’t completely convinced by some of the characters either. The plot is intriguing from the start, but some of the actions and dialogues of the main characters (especially Vianne and Isabelle) just didn’t feel all that ‘natural’ in the beginning. And even though that feeling went away mostly as the story continued, it was only in the end that I started to feel a proper connection with Vianne. Why? The fact that Vianne seemed to rely so much on her husband and both feels helpless without him and is quite ignorant in general during most of the story is actually quite annoying… But she did make up for it in the end. Isabelle managed to convince me a lot sooner and like I said the story itself is more than excellent. The Nightingale is without doubt a novel I won’t be forgetting any time soon!

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Vianne Mauriac and her sister Isabelle didn’t exactly have an easy childhood. Their father was never the same after he came back home when WWI ended, and their mother passed away not long after. Vianne ended up marrying young and lives with her husband and daughter in a quiet village named Carriveau. Isabelle was a lot younger when all this happened, and she grew up to be a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl that doesn’t like to be told what to do… A dangerous thing with the threat of the Nazis invasion becoming more real every day. Vianne has to say goodbye to her husband Antoine, who has been called to fight at the Front. She doesn’t believe at first that the Nazis will actually invade France, but soon finds out what kind of trouble they soon will be in. Vianne is forced to take an enemy soldier into her house and her every move is watched… And without food, money or hope, things are becoming desperate. The fact that her sister Isabelle is forced by their father to stay with her doesn’t help either… But Isabelle doesn’t want to sit tight and wait until the war is over. No, she wants to do something to help the cause and fight the Nazis from within France. Joining the Resistance can have deadly consequences for those she loves though; something Isabelle doesn’t seem to fully realize… What will happen to both seemingly so different sisters?

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The Nightingale is without doubt an excellent WWII historical fiction novel and I’m still not sure whether to add an extra 1/2 star to the rating or not. The only real ‘problem’ I had with this story is that the first part read quite slow and the characters didn’t completely convince me in the beginning. The last part of this novel is exceptional though and the ending simply blew me away. Also, I loved the fact that Kristin Hannah wrote about the woman’s side of the war. Recommended!

BOOK REVIEW: All The Light We Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr

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Title: All The Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Genre: Historical Fiction
First published: May 6th 2014
Finished reading: February 24th 2016
Pages: 530
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“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

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I have been wanting to read All The Light We Cannot See ever since it was first published, but somehow I kept posponing it. Maybe it was because of the fact that it won a Pulitzer and I was intimidated, maybe because I’ve seen so many loving this book and I was afraid it didn’t live up to expectations, but now that I’ve read it I wish I would have picked up this novel by Anthony Doerr sooner. I love historical fiction and I have a special interesting in stories set during WWII; it goes without saying that All The Light We Cannot See instantly made it to my list of all time favorite WWII reads. Words cannot describe how beautiful this book is. The prose is simply gorgeous and both the plot and characters are well developed, turning this story into something both unique and breathtaking. The story follows the two main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, as they are growing up under the shadow of the (upcoming) war, and I really loved seeing those completely different storylines slowly intertwine. It’s a beautiful, breathtaking, sad and original story that will leave you speechless even before you reach the last page. If you like the genre, make sure you read All The Light We Cannot See.

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When Marie-Laure is six, she slowly goes blind and has to rediscover the small things in life. Her father works in the Museum of Natural History in Paris and helps his daughter by creating a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can learn to navigate her way home. Marie-Laure is by no means a helpless little girl and she learns quickly to adapt to her new situation. When she is twelve, she has to put those new skills into practice when the Nazis occupy Paris and they have to flee the city… They try to make it to Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle lives. What she doesn’t know is that her father might be carrying the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel with him…

In a small mining town in German, Werner and his younger sister grow up in an orphanage. Werner has been curious ever since he was little and his intelligence starts to show when he is constantly trying to build and fix instruments. His talent wins him a place at an academy for Hitler Youth, where he continues to shine due to his intelligence. But Werner is not so sure he can live with the consequences of his actions…Especially after he is given a special assignment to track the resistance and has to travel through the heart of the war. What will happen to both Marie-Laure and Werner?

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If you normally enjoy reading historical fiction, I’m sure All The Light We Cannot See will be able to take your breath away. Not only is this story exceptionally well written with beautiful prose, but it also has a very intriguing plot and well developed characters. It’s a sad, beautiful and unique story that shows how a war can affect both children and adults alike and that hope can always be found if you look for it hard enough. I feel like my words are failing to describe just how brilliant this book is… But if you think this book sounds interesting, I suggest to just read All The Light We Cannot See. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!

BOOK REVIEW: You Are My Sunshine – by Roberta Kagan

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Title: You Are My Sunshine
Author: Roberta Kagan
Genre: Historical Fiction, WWII
First published: March 20th 2014
Finished reading: August 10th 2015
Pages: 403
Rating 2

“If we forget people, then they will really die. As long as we keep memories alive, then they live in our memories.”

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I decided to start You Are My Sunshine mostly because I wanted to read a proper historical fiction novel after a misleading read a few weeks ago. I normally really enjoy stories set during WWII, fiction or non fiction. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of this novel by Roberta Kagan. There are a lot of different characters and every single one of them seemed flat and quite boring. The way they acted felt forced and unnatural and I wasn’t a fan of the prose at all. The whole plot in general just didn’t feel credible and was quite weak. I guess the author just wanted to include too many things into the novel and it would have been better focusing on less characters and events. I understand why Roberta Kagan wanted to tell us the background story of some of the less important characters as well, but the only result I could see was an even slower pace. And the prose… I’m not sure how to explain it, but the way the characters interacted was almost cartoon-like and not natural at all. All in all it just wasn’t a convincing WWII historical fiction novel for me.

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The Polish Zofia is a Jewish girl who ends up pregnant by a school teacher… She decides to take care of her child unmarried, something that is frowned upon by the Jewish community. But she has the help of two women who give her a home and a job. Her little girl Eidel looks just like a non Jewish child… Something that will end up saving her when the Nazi’s invade Poland. Zofia and the two women are sent to a concentration camp where they end up meeting SS Manfred Blau. The story has followed Manfred ever since his teenage years and shows his rise and fall within the Nazi party… Which ends with him and his wife and adopted child being sent to the concentration camp; Manfred has to work there to show his loyalty to the party and he turns into a monster. What will happen to Manfred, Zofia and the rest of the characters? What impact has the war on their lives?

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It has been a while since I’ve read a WWII historical fiction novel, so I was really looking forward to You Are My Sunshine. Now I’ve read it, I cannot say it lived up to expectations or that it is actually worth reading. I really feel there are a lot better WWII novels out there that show a better picture of the events during those horrible years. The storylines with Zofia and Manfred have potential, but the prose and bland characters kind of ruined the reading experience for me.

BOOK REVIEW: The Storyteller – by Jodi Picoult

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Title: The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary
First published: 2013
Finished reading: April 17th 2015
Pages: 460
Rating 4,5

“History isn’t about dates and places and wars. It’s about the people who fill the spaces between them.”

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The Storyteller ended up being a mix between contemporary and historical fiction, where part of the story is set in the present and the rest of the story during WWII. Jodi Picoult has even incorporated a fantasy story that is written by one of the main characters during the war… This story about a Polish upior (similar to a vampire) plays a big role in the survival of a Jewish girl named Minka and is one of the links to the scenes set in the present. Those contemporary scenes are probably my least favorite, but still I liked most of the main characters. Some of the less important ones were a bit unbelievable though, and that’s probably why I haven’t given The Storyteller the full five stars… But the scenes set during WWII are so well written that they make up for the weaker contemporary scenes. Jodi Picoult described the situation of Minka and her Jewish family so well that I actually had tears in my eyes at some point… And I do not cry easily when I’m reading.

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Sage Singer doesn’t see herself as a Jew, but her grandmother Minka is a Holocaust survivor… Although she never talks about her experience. Sage had a car accident two years ago that left her with a scar on her face and without a mother… And she still struggles with her loss. To hide from society and her loss, Sage prefers to work night shifts at a local bakery. She normally tries to push people away, but one day she starts an unlikely friendship with an old retired teacher named Josef Weber. When they get to know each other a little better, he asks her for a huge favor: to help him kill himself. Sage is shocked, but Josef tries to get her to help him anyway by confessing his darkest secret: he was a Nazi SS guard during WWII, working in one of the death camps. Therefore, he deserves to die…

Sage first doesn’t believe him, but contacts the autorities anyway. The FBI has a special unit chasing old war criminals, and the guy in charge asks her to collect more information; forcing Sage to continue her friendship with Josef. As he starts telling more and more about his past, Sage doesn’t know if she can live with the horrible facts she now knows. How can she ever forgive a man who has done so many terrible things? And is she the right person to hand out that forgiveness? Her own grandmother is a Holocaust survivor; was she one of Josef’s victims?

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The sappy romance scenes were quite annoying, but the rest of the story made up for it. The chapters set during WWII were written brilliantly and full of emotion. Jodi Picoult chose to write from both Josef’s and Minka’s point of view, which gives you a general impression of both ‘sides’ of the situation and the consequences of certain actions. The ending of The Storyteller is definitely unexpected, although it wasn’t a total surprise after Josef’s blood group was mentioned… The upior fantasy story is an unique touch to this historical holocaust testimony, and is probably one of the reasons why I gave this novel such a high rating. That and the WWII chapters… In short, this novel is perfect for those who enjoy reading historical fiction, as long as you don’t mind some sappy romance scenes and bakery talk. The main character Sage is a baker like some of her ancestors, and baking plays an important role in the story…

BOOK REVIEW: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas – by John Boyne

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Title: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA, WWII
First published: 2006
Finished reading: June 23rd 2014
Pages: 224
Rating 4,5

He looked down and did something quite out of character for him: he took hold of Shmuel’s tiny hand in his and squeezed it tightly.
“You’re my best friend, Shmuel,” he said. “My best friend for life.”

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The Boy In The Striped Pajamas was a great read. This book by John Boyne can be classified as amazingly moving and is ingeniously written from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. After seeing the movie various times, I already knew this book was going to be sad… And Boyne was able to make the tears flow perfectly while describing the developing relationship between Bruno and the Jewish boy Shmuel. The way Boyne incorporates themes as the Auschwitz concentration camp and other horrible facts of the Second World War and shows them through the eyes of a boy is refreshing. Bruno is too young to understand what’s happening during the Second World War or what his father’s job really implies… With terrible consequences.

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The story is set during the 1949’s in Nazi Germany, where Bruno and his family live a comfortable life in Berlin. His father is an important man and one day the Fury (Fuhrer) visits their home with important news. Soon his father is offered a job at Out-With (Auschwitz) and the family has to move to Poland. Bruno hates it there and wants to go back to Berlin, unable to understand why they moved there in the first place. Being a naive nine-year-old, he cannot grasp the real meaning of his father’s job… And he doesn’t understand what kind of place Out-With really is. When he looks out of his bedroom window, he sees a big group of people wearing striped pajamas and caps. They are all gathered together in a huge area with small huts and a fench surrounding them, and Bruno wonders what is really out there…

Acting like the explorer he wants to be some day, he decides to walk to the fence himself and find out more about those people wearing the pajamas. He knows he’s not supposed to be going there, but his curiosity wins and soon finds himself close to the fence. Bruno then meets a small Jewish boy named Shmuel, prisoner at the Out-With camp. They discover they were born the same day, and soon share more than that… Bruno tries to visit his new friend every day, sharing thoughts and food with the boy. Somehow sensing his friendship with Shmuel might be frowned upon, he decides to keep him a secret. When Bruno’s mother wants to move back to Berlin, he decides to pay one last visit to Shmuel. Bruno had promised to help find the Jewish boy’s missing father, and he wanted to discover for himself what was behind the fence. He had asked Shmuel to bring him an extra pair of striped pajamas so he could walk around the camp unseen…

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The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is a beautiful, but very sad story to read. Make sure to keep a box of tissues close as you will probably need it during the last few chapters. And make sure you watch the movie too if you haven’t; both are definitely recommended! Keep away if you don’t like sad endings though.