Wednesday, March 4, 2015

WWRW: Novels about WWI and WWII

It's that time again--time for linking up over at Housewifespice to talk books.
I've gotten back to reading a lot more these days.  This is partly because I'm finished with my own writing project (Erin's Ring), which took up most of my time the second half of 2014.  And it's also because I'm not living at home in NH right now, but with my middle son's family in VA.  If you come here often, you know all about this--and about how Papa and Grammy have been playing nanny to their little grandson, G-Man, for the past couple of months, helping his mommy out until her job ends in May and she can become a SAHM.

Being away from my own house gives me a lot more free time, you see ("free" being a relative term here, when your days are devoted to the care and feeding of a five-month-old).  I mean, I can't putter about, spring clean, purge my attic of old clothing that should go to Goodwill, or even take down our Christmas tree and all of our Christmas decorations, etc. etc. etc., because I'm just not there to do it.  So in some ways, this winter-down-south is a bit of a vacation for me.  And when my grandson is napping peacefully in my lap (because no, I'm not going to put him in his cold, impersonal crib when I can have the joy of his sweet weight resting on me), I do have one free hand to hold a paperback book.  And I've become very adept at flipping the pages one-handed.

So, as I said, I've been reading a lot more these days.  In the past week or so, I've read two novels that I enjoyed very much (enough, in fact, to give them four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads).

The first is Once We Were Brothers, by Ronald H. Balson.  I was drawn to this book for two reasons: it was the author's debut work, and the story had an historical fiction component set in the Second World War.
This was such a terrific read!  I'm always drawn to WWII-era historical fiction, and this novel definitely didn't disappoint.   Although I've read lots of books (both fiction and non-fiction) that deal with the Holocaust and stories of its survivors, this take on that tragic subject matter was fresh and original, extremely moving, and exceedingly well-written.

This book goes back and forth, from 1940's Germany to present-day New York.  It is centered around two boys--one a Polish Jew and the other a German gentile, raised as brothers before Hitler invades Poland--who are divided by the war and go their separate ways, with devastating consequences.  When they meet more than half a century later, a lawsuit ensues, as one "brother" accuses the other of Nazi atrocities.

I couldn't put this book down and devoured it in two days.  I look forward to reading more by this talented author.

(Also, as a Catholic, I was deeply moved by Balson's depiction of a self-sacrificing Catholic priest and a group of brave Catholic nuns, who hid Jews and were instrumental in leading many to safety.  Although this is a work of fiction, I know that there were many such real individuals who secretly risked their own personal safety to save Jewish lives.) 

After I turned the last page of that book, I could hardly wait to start another.  But I didn't have a whole lot of time to search for a new title.  I ended up at Target rather than Barnes & Noble, and the pickins in the book and magazine section there were a tad on the slim side.  But I'd heard of Jo Jo Moyes, the author of The Girl You Left Behind; and judging by the synopsis on the book's back cover, I thought it might be something I would like.
And it was.

This bestselling novel is an endearing and well-written blend of historical and contemporary fiction (with some courtroom drama thrown in there).  Hmmm....that sounds very much like Once We Were Brothers, doesn't it?  It's a different war this time, but it deals with German occupation and wartime struggles and tragedies.  And it jumps back and forth in time...Yes, there are some definite similarities!  I guess I tend to be drawn to the same sorts of books, over and over.

Jo Jo Moyes's complex novel takes the reader on a journey back in time to a small, German-occupied French village during WWI, forward to modern-day, 21st-century London, and then back to France again.  The lives of present-day characters become interwoven with the lives of characters long-dead, in ways that surprise the reader.  The stories of both past and present have at their core compelling and poignant tales of deep love and unbearable loss--and the people involved are intricately linked by "The Girl You Left Behind," an obscure Impressionist painting of a beautiful, red-haired young woman with an inscrutable expression on her face.

My only real criticism is that I'd like to read a love story by a modern author where the players don't fall immediately into bed; I'm always hankering for a good old-fashioned version of boy-meets-girl, with "first comes love, then comes marriage," and so on--and that is definitely missing here.  But otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed this book--a page-turner that gripped my imagination and kept me up way past my bedtime several nights in a row!  I was still thinking about it, long after the surprising and deeply satisfying conclusion.

Okay, that's it for me; now head over to Jessica's for more book suggestions.


  1. My book club had been on this year long WWII reading journey. Now we are past that but I am actually surprised I've never heard of the first one. Both sound like enjoyable reads however! Thanks for the recommends!

    1. Madeline, I hope I'm not steering you wrong, especially with that second one. Because there is one scene that's really hard to get through because there's TMI--you know what I mean. The author didn't need to get all graphic, and when I saw that she was doing so I skipped ahead.

      I do get sick of the whole "falling in love means falling in bed" thing that's presented as if it's just a given, and I wonder what that's doing to the psyches of impressionable young people. Yesterday, I read a recent post over at Mama Needs Coffee on the subject of reading books (and watching movies) that we shouldn't, because we convince ourselves that the trashy parts won't affect our immortal souls...and it made me wonder if I should have stopped reading The Girl You Left Behind, in spite of how much I wanted to see what was going to happen next. Actually, now that I think of it, the two main characters in the modern story in Once We Were Brothers aren't angels, either. (I already can't remember--that's how unimportant it was to the overall story.)

      In the cases of both books, the parts I liked the most were the historical fiction parts.