#BookReview: The Secret Midwife by Soraya M. Lane

Soraya Lane Takes On Auschwitz. How can you be a historical fiction writer who mostly focuses on the European theater of WWII… and *not*, at some point, do a story about Auschwitz? Well, the answer here is… you can’t, and this is Lane’s take on it.

Now, how can you be an amateur historian, with large amounts of knowledge about large amounts of things – and familial ties to the liberation of concentration camps during WWII to boot – and *want* to read a story about Auschwitz, knowing all too well the very real horrors there, among the worst humanity has ever inflicted upon humanity? (Arguably worse than the Imperial Japanese military’s Unit 731 in overall scale, though it seems that Unit 731 may have been even more horrific – if such a thing is possible.) My answer is… I didn’t and don’t, but I’ve read many of Lane’s books and trust *her*.

As it turns out, my trust is well placed. Lane manages to craft an Auschwitz tale that never shirks from discussing the horrors of that facility – while never showing them in brutal, sadistic detail the way an author with a more horror-genre nature might. Instead, Lane takes a page from Titanic (and a school assignment I once had that I’m fairly certain predates that movie, and which I’m coming to realize ever more that I had really done the way I want to now as an adult when it was possible as a child) in creating a dual timeline (shocker, I know, for long time fans of Lane) tale of hope and survival against the most brutal and desolate backdrop possible in Europe during that particular period. Taking inspiration from a variety of real life people who really did a lot of the things Lane has her characters doing to help people survive, Lane manages to show the goodness of some people and the willingness to risk their own lives in order to do the right thing, even in the very heart of the place doing so many very wrong things. Indeed, even the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele is a recurring character throughout the tale – though to be clear, while always being clear about the horrors he was responsible for while never directly showing them “on screen”.

Longtime fans of Lane will note her usual stylings are completely in play here, as is her usual historical accuracy to a relatively high degree, while still taking the occasional artistic liberty where necessary to tell the story she is telling in the manner in which she wanted to tell it. Even here, the liberties are more subtle than jarring, almost to the point of being indetectable.

The horrors of Auschwitz in particular are some of the most well known brutalities of the Jewish Holocaust of WWII, at least in the West. (I’m told they still aren’t as well known in certain Eastern circles? But I have no real way of knowing, having never lived outside the southern US.) At on that level, perhaps some might argue that an author like Lane should instead pursue her “normal” focus and tell the *other*, far lesser known, stories. To that, I point out that among the first books I read from her was about perhaps *the* most famous event of WWII in the American zeitgeist at minimum (*arguably* more famous than even the events of D-Day nearly three years later), the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In between these two well known events, Lane *has* been writing about lesser known events, indeed some that even this amateur historian had never heard of and had to learn about in more detail after reading one of Lane’s books. (Which I absolutely encourage all of her readers to do.) I also point out that just because a particular thing is well known, doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t continue to be explored – even as I readily encourage exploration of the lesser known topics as well, which again = Lane also does.

Overall, this is an appropriately sober and stark tale about one of the darkest stories in all of WWII, while still shining a light on the very real lives women lived in the period and events in question and still showing the goodness of humanity and the light of hope even in the darkest of situations, as Lane tries to do in all of her tales. Very much recommended.

This review of The Secret Midwife by Soraya M. Lane was originally written on July 27, 2023.

#BookReview: The Girl In Lifeboat Six by Eliza Graham

Complicated Story. This tale is one of those stories where the front half and back half are wildly divergent, and thus one’s feelings of the overall tale may become more complex and nuanced – even as this book gets ever more preachy towards the end, even though it too started out more nuanced.

The front half of the book, spending roughly 30% of the front of the book establishing the various characters and their relationships, as well as the esteemed luxury liner they all find themselves on in the early periods of WWII – before December 1941. The next 20% or so is then spent in disaster/ survival mode, showing what happens with these characters as the worst happens and they are now in a desperate fight for survival. Indeed, this section even feels very reminiscent of the tales of the Titanic survivors, though I suppose those are only the most famous of the unknowable number of people over the course of human history to survive a ship sinking in the northern Atlantic ocean. Through these two sections in particular, we get a very good degree of nuance and showing, as The Imitation Game said it best “sometimes it is those no one imagines anything of that do the things that no one can imagine”.

The back half of the tale begins to focus more and more on the aftermath of the sinking – and of British efforts to get America involved. This is where, as an American who has studied the relevant histories in some depth and who had direct family involvement in the era… the tale gets a LOT more complicated, personally. The writing is still great, and the tale itself flows very well. But my own thoughts and reactions to the tale became much more complicated.

At the time of the setting of this tale, one of my grandfathers had already enlisted in the US Army, knowing a war was on the horizon. It would be two more years, as the US military built up to the event now known as D-Day, before my other grandfather would come into the Army. While I never knew this second grandfather – he died weeks after my birth – I learned quite well his legacy in my own life, from the stories of my grandmother (his ex-wife) and my dad (who has made his point in life to largely do the opposite of what his own father did). The first grandfather, I shared the last 20 years of his life with the first 20 years of mine, and knew him as little more than a somewhat stereotypical southern US farmer grandfather. By the time I came around – and apparently even when my mom was growing up – he *NEVER* spoke of his time in WWII. I learned much when I got both of their service records about a decade ago now, and this is where my more complicated feelings about this book come to bear.

The first grandfather clearly believed similarly to our characters here in the back half of the tale, that Hitler *must* be stopped and America *must* join the fight. no matter the reason or cost. (Thinking of this now, it sounds eerily similar to statements some make about another ongoing European war in 2023…) Both of my grandfathers were at the Battle of the Bulge, and this first grandfather got a Silver Star and a Purple Heart because when he was ordered to clear a building on a particular corner in a tiny hamlet of a town, the Germans in that building came out in body bags, and he came out with an injury severe enough to send him to the field hospital. That was 38 years to the day before my birth, when his oldest son was something like 18 months old and my mother – his next to youngest child – was far off. He would die 58 years and a few weeks after that day, apparently the most decorated WWII veteran in his home County at the time of his death.

But that other grandfather. He was at the Bulge, but he was AAA infantry – and at that point, AAA infantry was being used for little more than cannon fodder for German tanks, sometimes literally being told to make do with broomsticks painted black to look like rifles. He was in the Division that liberated the first concentration camps on the American side of the war, though I have no record of where he individually was at that time. From hearing the second and third hand stories over the years, these experiences changed him – and little for the better. Nothing excuses what he became… but it was these very experiences, this very change that he had resisted for so long… what would have changed in *my own life* had that grandfather never been there, had the US never been in the war at all?

So getting back to the book, when the back half here is spent trying to manipulate the press into manipulating America into a war, when it is a tale of working to manipulate the press to make certain domestically popular positions as unpopular as they are in other nations – particularly nations America spent literally two *other* wars breaking away from… it becomes a much more complicated tale, both in the setting at the time and in the current environment where press manipulation is all too rampant – and equally, inaccurate cries of press manipulation (itself a press manipulation) are also all too rampant. Reading it with my own history of the war then and my own thoughts on the war now, the tale becomes much more complicated in this back half.

And yet, in the end, it really is a great tale, solidly told, and sometimes… sometimes we need those complicated stories that roil our hearts, without destroying them. Sometimes we need those complicated stories that make us think, both of our histories and of our current realities. Sometimes we need a tale that while escapism on its face, isn’t quite the escapism we were expecting and instead confronts us with these Big Complicated Ideas.

If you’re looking for a more “pure escapism” “Summer Read”… maybe this isn’t that. And maybe you should read it anyway.

Very much recommended.

This review of The Girl In Lifeboat Six by Eliza Graham was originally written on July 5, 2023.

#BookReview: War By Other Means by Daniel Akst

WWII Like You’ve Never Seen It Before. This is an account primarily of WWII and specifically a few particular people and their associates within the war – and these are people who you may have heard of, but likely never heard of their actions within the WWII period. As the description states, some of these people became quite famous indeed *after* WWII for their actions during the Vietnam / Civil Rights era – but those actions were originated when they were 20 years younger, during the trials and travails that history now knows as World War 2. As an anarchist who strives toward pacifism himself, learning of these people – several of whom I had never heard of before, and the others of whom I had never heard of this side of before – was utterly fascinating, and indeed actually eye opening, as even I had never heard of the philosophy of personalism before reading this book. Now, I intend to research it further.

The *singular* detriment to this book is that while it is clear in the narrative that the book is quite well researched indeed… the Advance Reader Copy of this text I read had barely any bibliography at all, clocking in at just 5% of the overall text when a minimum of around 20% is much more common for even barely-researched-at-all texts.

Still, even if the publisher doesn’t correct this flaw at actual publication, this is absolutely a worthy read and one that anyone who wishes to discuss the events and impacts of WWII needs to study in order to have a more complete picture of that era. Very much recommended.

This review of War By Other Means by Daniel Akst was originally written on October 20, 2022.

#BlogTour: The Last Of The Seven by Steven Hartov

For this blog tour we’re looking at a WWII action tale built more for guys, without the emotional impact of similar works in women’s fiction. For this blog tour we’re looking at The Last Of The Seven by Steven Hartov.

Here’s what I had to say about it on Goodreads:

Slow Start Builds To Action-Packed Finish. This book is one that starts with an intriguing mystery – a man shows up at a British post in the northern Africa desert during the Africa Campaign of WWII wearing a German uniform and claiming to be British – and builds a bit slowly and at times seemingly disjointedly – random flashbacks to this soldier’s memories from Jewish persecutions in Berlin – to a bit of a romance middle and then an action packed final mission reminiscent of most any WWII movie. Overall a solid war tale for guys, with a lot of the emotional punch of women’s fiction WWII historical fiction largely removed in favor of showing people actively being blown apart or shredded by machine gun fire. Recommended.

After the jump, an excerpt from the book followed by the “publisher’s details” – book description, author bio, and social media and buy links.
Continue reading “#BlogTour: The Last Of The Seven by Steven Hartov”

#BlogTour: The Secret Keeper by Siobahn Curham

For this blog tour we’re looking at a tense and visceral spy thriller set in an oft-overlooked area of WWII. For this blog tour we’re looking at The Secret Keeper by Siobahn Curham.

Here’s what I had to say on Goodreads:

Tense Spy Thriller In Oft-Overlooked Area Of WWII. This tale was exactly what I said in the title of the review – a tense spy thriller based in the OSS days of the CIA during WWII and apparently based on the experiences of a real-life actress-turned-spy. Here, we see theoretically neutral Spain (under dictator Francisco Franco, in the early part of his reign) as a hotbed for spying by both sides and the tense and sometimes deadly stakes that arise from any spy story. But we also get a much more intimate and personal look at issues involving trust and betrayal, and throughout the text the reader is kept wondering as much as the protagonist is: just who *can* you trust? One of the more interesting features of this particular tale was the series of letters the protagonist’s grandmother writes – knowing she’ll never be able to send them – describing her ordeals in Paris as France falls and during the war. Overall an excellent tale well told, and very much recommended.

After the jump, the “publisher details”, including the book description, author bio, and social media and buy links.
Continue reading “#BlogTour: The Secret Keeper by Siobahn Curham”

#BlogTour: The Girl With The Scarlet Ribbon by Suzanne Goldring

For this blog tour we’re looking at a moving portrait of a loving daughter trying to understand her tortured artist father… and a protective sister trying to prevent her artist brother from becoming too haunted by the war they are living through. For this blog tour we’re looking at The Girl With The Scarlet Ribbon by Suzanne Goldring.

Moving Portrait Of Tortured Artist And Loving Daughter. This is an interesting dual timeline historical, one in which a man is at the center of both timelines… and yet his own perspective is never once actually included in the narrative. And yet despite this, the book does *not* come across as misandristic at all, as the two perspectives we *do* get – the man’s older sister in WWII Florence and his daughter in 2019 – are both seeking to understand him in their own ways. Thus, this book actually becomes an interesting look at how the experience of war ultimately shapes lives in so many divergent ways. While little of the horrors are shown “on screen”, some are, including a few murders, torture with a cigarette, general abuse, and a rape attempt (that may or may not be successful). Also discussed is how the Jews of the area are rounded up, gang rapes (alluded to but not directly shown), and how a citizenry can live with themselves not stopping either. So truly a lot of horrific stuff – and even after the Allies “liberate” the city, at least a few pages are devoted to the continued deprivations. Truly a well rounded look at a difficult and trying period – and the modern story of a daughter trying to understand the messages her tortured father left behind are solid as well, without having quite the horrific impact of the WWII scenes. Very much recommended.

After the jump, the “publisher details”, including book description, author bio, and social media and buy links.
Continue reading “#BlogTour: The Girl With The Scarlet Ribbon by Suzanne Goldring”

#BookReview: Driving Back The Nazis by Martin King

Engaging Account Of Oft Overlooked Era. The period between D-Day (and the summer of 1944 generally) and the Battle of the Bulge (again, and winter 1944-45 generally) is one of the more overlooked eras of WWII, particularly in the zeitgeist of at minimum Americans. (I cannot speak to what Europeans think/ know, as I’ve never been closer to that continent than off the coast of the State of New Hampshire.) Here, King sets out to tell the tales of this overlooked period via numerous first hand accounts and other sources, showing through the eyes of the people that were there what was happening and through the other sources of history what was going on around those events. This is one of those books that will serve as a wakeup call to those who romanticize this particular war and these particular soldiers, as King makes the point quite well – and repeatedly – that given the pervasive and frequent abuses from *all* sides, there truly were truly few innocents involved in any angle of this, certainly of the adult (and even teenager/ young adult) variety. Even knowing that both of my grandfathers were there among some of these very events (both would survive the Bulge itself), I find King’s prose and commentary compelling here. He does a tremendous job of truly showing just how horrific this period was on *everyone* involved, not just the soldiers and not just the victims of the Holocaust – though he does indeed cover many of the horrors both of those groups saw in this period as well. Truly an outstanding book, and one anyone interested in WWII needs to read. Very much recommended.

This review of Driving Back The Nazis by Martin King was originally written on April 25, 2021.