Friday, June 23, 2017

Prisoner of War: A Novel of World War II by Michael P. Spradlin, 2017

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Survive the war. Outlast the enemy. Stay alive.

That's what Henry Forrest has to do. When he lies about his age to join the Marines, Henry never imagines he'll face anything worse than his own father's cruelty. But his unit is shipped off to the Philippines, where the heat is unbearable, the conditions are brutal, and Henry's dreams of careless adventuring are completely dashed.

Then the Japanese invade the islands, and US forces there surrender. As a prisoner of war, Henry faces one horror after another. Yet among his fellow captives, he finds kindness, respect, even brotherhood. A glimmer of light in the darkness. And he'll need to hold tight to the hope they offer if he wants to win the fight for his country, his freedom . . . and his life.

Michael P. Spradlin's latest novel tenderly explores the harsh realities of the Bataan Death March and captivity on the Pacific front during World War II.

(272 pages)

It's so awful. I can't believe that people were so terrible to each other–and this isn't even the Germans in their usual racist evilness, but the Japanese conforming to their archaic, ingrained ideas about proper military behavior. They literally believed that the American soldiers were despicable, subhuman creatures because they'd surrendered territory, something a true Japanese warrior would rather die than do. Or at least, that's the reasoning they gave–I'm sure the men who actually committed the atrocious acts also just enjoyed the feeling of absolute power their positions offered, and the opportunity to punish someone for the pains of WWII.

I have a hard time reviewing books like Prisoner of War because they are so valuable for me to read, literary qualities aside. I'd never read a book directly focused on the experience of captured soldiers in the Philippines (well I guess I have, but not one focused on the men who experienced the Bataan Death March). It's horrible to read about the depths of inhumanity reached during WWII, so I didn't necessarily enjoy reading this, but I felt like it was a necessary read. We need to know the darkest parts of our collective history as a species so we can move forward and prevent the chain of events that would lead to a similar situation ever again.

As an aside, part of me wonders why today's education/society focuses on the murder of European-born Jews to the almost entire drowning out of stories like the Bataan Death March from WWII. So many more Jews than soldiers were killed, of course, but these were our own soldiers who suffered under the Japanese hand. Was there no public backlash when we discovered how completely the Japanese had ignored the Geneva Convention's rules about prisoners of war? Or were we so emotionally devastated by the waves of horror rolling out of newly-liberated European concentration camps that we didn't have the emotional energy to become angry at this fresh piece of brutality? Or perhaps we felt so conflicted about the morality of bombing innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that we didn't think we were in any position to argue against the mistreatment of our soldiers.

Anyway, as far as the actual story is concerned I liked Henry but I never felt like I got to know him super well. The characters are portrayed with as much nuance as the book's short length allows, and it's clear that the author has done a lot of research. It did feel in some parts like the soldiers were idealized a little bit while the Japanese were almost universally pure evil, but that may well have been what it felt like for the real soldiers in Henry's shoes. Anyway, this is a good starting point for anyone interested in this area of WWII. I probably won't be reading any more on the subject just because it's really depressing, but I'm glad I at least read Prisoner of War. If you know of any other good books about life in the Philippines during WWII, post them in the comments section down below so others can check them out!


Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited, complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Girl Who Wouldn't Die by Randall Platt, 2017

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It’s 1939 in Poland, and Arab knows that standing up for anyone—especially her Jewish family—only paints a target on her back. So she plans to survive the Nazi occupation the way she always has: disguise herself as an Aryan boy, lead her street gang, and sell whatever she can steal.

But though Arab starts the war with the one goal of staying alive, others have different ideas for her. When a stranger asks for her help with a covert rescue mission, Arab has to make a choice. Trying to be a hero is a surefire way to get killed. But if she doesn’t do it, who will?

Hard-hitting and unforgettable, 
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is a story about survival, the necessity of resistance, and the hope that can be found when the world is at its darkest.
(304 pages)

Oof, this book is gritty. And I don't necessarily say that because it has violence (though it definitely does!), I've read books that beat The Girl Who Wouldn't Die when it comes to straight up bloodshed. No, it's super gritty because it's so dang dark. Arab is a street rat in Warsaw, Poland during the German bombings and then the occupation, eking out a living for herself and a band of children made up mostly of war orphans. As we all know, horrible things happened in Poland during WWII–especially to the Jews. Every turn of the page seems to offer some new twist in Arab's story, and it's usually a bad one.

To be honest, I really couldn't get a feel for Arab's character. She was this really cutthroat, merciless street rat who . . . came from a wealthy Jewish family and loved children? What? I still don't really understand why she felt forced into a life of crime on the streets while her family was literally down the street–oh, wait, unless she was saving her neck by distancing herself from Judaism. I suppose that makes sense. But her father literally bought a gravestone and pretended to bury Arab just because she got caught robbing a jewelry store. I can understand him being really upset about her crimes, of course, but completely abandoning his daughter? Why? I just can't comprehend it.

Honestly, though, that's the main flaw in the story for me: I can't understand Arab or her family. Other than that, The Girl Who Wouldn't Die was a very gripping and intense read that was gritty and dark but also managed to focus on the selflessness of a few individuals focused on salvaging all the good they could from a bad situation. It's a little more vulgar than I would like in some parts, especially when it comes to language (the f-word is used sporadically). Because Arab disguises herself as a boy, she's accused of being lesbian a few times. There are also many deaths throughout the book, some described in a passing manner and others in gruesome detail.

I don't usually like books that have bad language or detailed violence in them, but I occasionally make an exception for a WWII book that uses them for the purpose of portraying such a terrible time in the past. This is the case with The Girl Who Wouldn't Die, so while I wouldn't say that I enjoyed the book, I will definitely say that it was a good book for me to read. If you've read it, let us know in the comments what you think!


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Catching the Wind by Melanie Dobson, 2017

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What happened to Brigitte Berthold?

That question has haunted Daniel Knight since he was thirteen, when he and ten-year-old Brigitte escaped the Gestapo agents who arrested both their parents. They survived a harrowing journey from Germany to England, only to be separated upon their arrival. Daniel vowed to find Brigitte after the war, a promise he has fought to fulfill for more than seventy years.

Now a wealthy old man, Daniel's final hope in finding Brigitte rests with Quenby Vaughn, an American journalist working in London. He believes Quenby's tenacity to find missing people and her personal investment in a related WWII espionage story will help her succeed where previous investigators have failed. Though Quenby is wrestling her own demons--and wary at the idea of teaming up with Daniel's lawyer, Lucas Hough--the lure of Brigitte's story is too much to resist. Together, Quenby and Lucas delve deep into the past, following a trail of deception, sacrifice, and healing that could change all of their futures.
(416 pages)

Of all the many WWII books I've read over the years, I can't even think of any that split the narrative between the war-time era and modern day the way Catching the Wind does. I really love the way we discover Brigitte's story alongside Quenby, as the modern-day reporter is hired to track down leads about her aged employer's childhood best friend lost during the tumult of emigrating from Germany to England. I got just as swept up in the investigation as Quenby did, and I was impressed by the way Dobson managed to incorporate pieces of Brigitte's story into letters and the like so that Quenby could mostly stay on the same page as the reader (without the benefit of chapters dedicated to telling her tale!), and to do so in a way that didn't make things redundant.

If I'm really nitpicking this aspect of the story, though, I do have to admit that I can't really believe that none of the other searchers found the trail of clues that Quenby does. A well-trained investigator should have been able to find all the same leads, yet everyone else Daniel hired couldn't. That didn't quite add up to me, because he was supposed to have been hiring the very best people for the search. An everyday journalist does not have the experience or training to beat out a real investigator, I don't care how passionate and empathetic she may be about the case. This is no dig to Quenby, of course, because she does make some incredible discoveries–I'm just saying there must have been something wrong with Daniel's hiring process before.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. It's extremely dramatic–some might even say melodramatic–but in a way that still seems almost possible. Plus, the most unbelievable stuff happens during WWII, a time period known for incredible happenings, so I can mostly buy all the plot twists that happen throughout the course of the book. Except possibly the last one. I totally saw that one coming but I still think it's just too much of a coincidence.

Basically, I highly recommend Catching the Wind. It's a fast-paced and engaging read split between the challenges and deceits of WWII and a modern-day pursuit for truth (sprinkled with a just-right amount of romantic tension, to boot!). While it does skate close to becoming ridiculous a few times, Dobson keeps ahold of the story and manages to steer it safely into port. I do wish the characters had debriefed a little more, because I felt like a lot of relationship issues were brushed past a little too quickly for my liking, but I suppose that just leaves more room for the imagination. Anyway, I hope you like Catching the Wind! Have you read it? If so, let us know in the comments what you thought of it!


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Promise Me This by Cathy Gohlke, 2012

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Michael Dunnagan was never supposed to sail on the "Titanic," nor would he have survived if not for the courage of Owen Allen. Determined to carry out his promise to care for Owen's relatives in America and his younger sister, Annie, in England, Michael works hard to strengthen the family's New Jersey garden and landscaping business. Annie Allen doesn't care what Michael promised Owen. She only knows that her brother is gone--like their mother and father--and the grief is enough to swallow her whole. As Annie struggles to navigate life without Owen, Michael reaches out to her through letters. In time, as Annie begins to lay aside her anger that Michael lived when Owen did not, a tentative friendship takes root and blossoms into something neither expected. Just as Michael saves enough money to bring Annie to America, WWI erupts in Europe. When Annie's letters mysteriously stop, Michael risks everything to fulfill his promise--and find the woman he's grown to love--before she's lost forever.
(416 pages)

I am a total sucker for anything connected to the Titanic. I went through a massive Titanic obsession phase in middle school, reading everything from eyewitness accounts to fictionalized retellings, and to this day I will still snap up any book that promises to tell a story about the doomed ship. That's why I leaped at the chance to receive a copy of Promise Me This, which is marketed with a literal Titanic on its cover.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for those of you who don't like maritime disasters), the time on the ship actually only takes up about two chapters and it's not really dwelt on too much by Michael afterward. The rest of the book is either establishing backstory in Ireland/England or detailing the progression of events in the lives of Michael and Annie through the start and end of WWI. I actually really liked that Gohlke recognized and drew a connection between the ship and the massive war that came after it, because I always felt like books were either about the Titanic or WWI or the Russian Revolution, but never all of them. This one at least was about two of them. And it approached the war from a fairly novel angle, to boot.

To be perfectly honest, though, I didn't actually like the relationship between Michael and Annie that much. I felt like they just sort of started having feelings for each other over time, without much interaction or even letters exchanged, and that even when they did start writing letters to each other regularly we never saw much of a spark between them. I think the main problem was that we didn't really get to read many of those letters: we are told about them, but we don't get to watch Michael and Annie grow to know each other organically. Their relationship moves forward rather erratically because we don't really see it advancing until all of the sudden it has.

Also, the plotline about why Annie is suddenly cut off from contact with anyone else felt really contrived and unrealistic. I can't talk much about it, but there's no way I can see it working like that in real life. Besides that, though, I actually did enjoy the book. It's full of many different storylines that weave themselves around each other very well, and the historical research that went into it was clearly extensive–even this Titanic trivia nut had zero complaints about her description of the ship (except for the fact that I still think the band ended with "Autumn," not "Nearer My God to Thee," but this is quite definitely up for debate!). Anyway, Promise Me This is a good book for when you're looking to read a rather fluffy book that still has some real drama in it. If you do read it, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section down below! And do tell me your favorite Titanic reads so I can check them out!


Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through the Tyndale Rewards program (click here to check it out–by using my link you'll get 25 credits, which is enough to get a book).

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Runaway by Claire Wong, 2017

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Shortly before her eighteenth birthday, Rhiannon Morgan runs away from the remote Welsh village of Llandymna. Camping out in Dyrys Woods, she starts to make a new life for herself. In the woods she finds space for her active imagination--weaving together the stories she loves and memories of her past, including the mother she lost thirteen years ago.

Back in the village, Rhiannon's disappearance triggers a series of events that uncover the cracks in Llandymna's quiet surface. Relationships become frayed as a young police officer is forced to investigate his neighbors, and the village's elderly storyteller hints at a secret that the older generation has kept for decades. But as painful as the village's past may be, it may hold the key for hope in the present...

Claire Wong's strong debut explores how human relationships develop, how we change as we interact with one another, and the role of folktales and mythology in small communities.

(302 pages)

When I agreed to participate in the blog tour for The RunawayI didn't really know that much about it. I thought it would be kind of interesting, with its story of a girl who ran away from home and of secrets in the village, and that the "surviving in the woods" storyline would be Hatchet-style thrilling while the village stuff would be kind of contrived and ridiculously dramatic.

It turned out completely different from how I was envisioning it. For one thing, the story is way more complex and intriguing than I expected it to be. Rhiannon turns out to not have as big a part to play in the story as we're drawn to believe, as most of the action during the middle of the book takes place in the village rather than in the forest, but it was still interesting to see the way she grows up over the course of the book. She's pretty much a self-centered jerk at the beginning of the book, believing herself to be so much better than everyone else in the village because she's "not a hypocrite" and is good in school, but as time goes on she begins to gain perspective on everything as she carves a life for herself in Dyrys Woods. Switching away from Rhiannon, though, I liked learning more about the motivations of her perfectionistic aunt/guardian who copes with tragedy by micro-managing everyone in the village. There's much more beneath Diana's surface than what first meets the eye. I also liked reading about Tom the policeman and Nia the rather oppressed farm-wife and Maebh the old woman who knows everything that has ever happened in the town. My favorite characters were probably Maebh and the sibling pair who came into the village a little ways into the book.

The book is called The Runaway for a reason, and it goes much deeper than just Rhiannon's last-minute decision to leave her aunt's home for the woods. Over the course of the book, we read about two more people who run away to Dyrys, each for their own unhappy reasons. The focus of the book is truly the village, not the woods, because we begin to discover the rotten reasons villagers are driven to run away from their homes and into the woods. You know how some books aren't necessarily super violent, but they still manage to drive home the complexities and occasional horrors of human nature? The Runaway is most definitely one of those books. I can't dive too much into that because of spoilers, but it is in every sense of the word a people-driven novel.

The Runaway was not quite the fluffy quick read I went in expecting, but I loved it even more for that. It's a fascinating exploration of human nature and the community in a small town, and I really, really liked it. I don't usually keep ahold of books I get for review, but I'll definitely hold off on passing this one along because I know I'll want to revisit it sometime down the line. And since this was just Wong's debut (and one of the most impressive debuts I've read in a long time), I'll be keeping a hopeful eye out for many more books by her in the future!


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wings of the Wind by Connilyn Cossette, 2017

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Alanah, a Canaanite, is no stranger to fighting and survival. When her family is killed in battle with the Hebrews, she disguises herself and sneaks onto the battlefield to avenge her family. The one thing she never counted on was surviving.
Tobiah, a Hebrew warrior, is shocked to find an unconscious, wounded woman among the Canaanite casualties. Compelled to bring her to a Hebrew healer back at their camp, he is soon confronted with a truth he can’t ignore: the only way to protect this enemy is to marry her.
Unused to being weak and vulnerable, Alanah submits to the marriage—for now. As she comes to know and respect Tobiah and his people, however, she begins to second-guess her plans of escape. But when her past has painfully unanticipated consequences, the tentative peace she’s found with Tobiah, the Hebrews, and Yahweh is shaken to the core. Can Alanah’s fierce heart and strength withstand the ensuing threats to her life and all she’s come to love?

(352 pages)

I have read very, very few books set before the lifetime of Christ.

Actually, make that books set before the Renaissance. Or maybe even books set before the 1700s. Really, most of the novels I read seem to either be fantasy stories (i.e. not set in our timeline) or based in more modern times. That's why I was really intrigued by Wings of the Wind, which promised to tell a fascinating romance story set during the battles between the Canaanites and the Israelites near the end of the forty years in the desert after God's people had fled from Egypt.

And it delivered. I honestly really, really enjoyed reading Wings of the Wind. I have no idea how historically accurate it was, but it seemed well-researched and relatively plausible. The characters are all realistic, and though I saw some of the plot twists coming from a mile away I definitely didn't foresee how everything wound wind up tying back to the biblical narrative. The romance between Alanah and Tobiah is relatively gradual and realistic, and not as creepy as the whole forced marriage plotline could have gone. I liked them together and was rooting throughout everything for them to stay together throughout everything that was happening. I also really liked the depiction of Yahweh, because he was so active in the Israelites' lives during this period and I think Cossette depicted his powerful justice and simultaneous mercy very skillfully.

That being said, I do want to warn potential readers that this book doesn't pull any punches. There are many references to what soldiers do to unarmed women they come across, and of Alanah's desperation not to let that happen to her, especially at the beginning of the book. Then there are some scenes that describe a couple in love and some *ahem* morning after scenes. Later in the book, Alanah encounters another city that is teeming with vice and prostitutes. Basically, there are a lot of references to both having sex and avoiding molestation throughout the book that I thought were a little bit much. In her author's note, however, Cossette explains her choice to include the atrocities committed by the Canaanites by describing her desire to provide a clear-eyed look at the people who were being wiped out. I still don't know that I can totally be okay with wiping out a whole people in order to steal their land, but I suppose God must have known what he was doing.

Anyway, this is one of the most well-written and fascinating Christian fiction/romance books I've ever read, and–with a warning about the mature material it includes–I do recommend it highly. If you're in the mood for this sort of book, then just know that Wings of the Wind is one of the good ones.


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Washed Ashore by Kerr Thomson, 2017

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On a wild Scottish island, a tragedy washes up on the storm-beaten shore: the bodies of a whale and a man. Fraser, desperate for adventure, and Hayley, visiting from Texas, become tangled in the mystery.

But Fraser's younger brother Dunny is distraught by the discovery. He hasn't spoken in years, and lately he's been acting more strangely than ever.

Together, the three meet a man living in the abandoned caves nearby. They start to wonder if he might lie at the center of something darker than they had previously thought. For the whispering sea conceals a terrible secret, and to discover the truth, one of them must learn to listen...

(320 pages)

Washed Ashore showed up unsolicited on my doorstep one day. I picked it up, shrugged, and read it with basically no expectations about the story (except that there would probably be a whale involved).

Now that I think about it, it's good that I didn't read the description too closely because it basically has nothing to do with the actual story. I mean, the bare-bones idea of the bodies washed ashore and Fraser, Hayley, and Dunny's presence in the story is right, but I'm still not sure who the synopsis is talking about what it says that "one of them must learn to listen." I have inklings, but no firm idea.

Anyway, moving on. What did I think of the book? I thought it was pretty good. I think it's awesome that it's set in Scotland and written by a guy who lives in Glasgow, because I'm actually moving to Scotland in a few months to attend college in (the essentially small fishing town of) St. Andrews, Scotland. My copy of Washed Ashore actually came before I'd made my final decision to go there, and then I read it soon after the decision was made. That's a pretty cool coincidence! I like getting a peek at what life is like on the small Scottish isles, definitely. Though I have to say that I struggled to connect with Hayley at first–I just couldn't believe that there was no part of her that could stop moping about leaving home long enough to look around and appreciate the fact that she was living among the natives on a beautiful little island in gorgeous-freaking-Scotland! Honestly, travel is simply wasted on some people. The only time she ever seems to acknowledge the "other-ness" of Scotland, besides one time when she notices that the shoreline looks kind of nice, is when she's referring to Fraser as "the Scottish boy." This phrase is thrown around almost constantly throughout the book, and from context I think it's basically supposed to have the same connotations as "the boy next door" (i.e. "the boy we've put a special label on and who will eventually be a love interest for the female protagonist"). Meh. Both of these phrases really don't tell us anything about the boy in question, so I don't really like them.

Anyway, the romance plotline is actually handled quite well and I enjoyed watching how all the characters interacted with each other. My favorite character may have been Dunny (who is autistic, though the way Thomson chose to incorporate that into the plot was . . . interesting), just because he seems really sweet and Hayley and Fraser aren't all that nice to or understanding with him. I also felt for Hayley, who is struggling big-time with her parents' separation and upcoming divorce (after her father left them for another woman), and I'm rather horrified about what her mother almost does while on rebound. I liked Fraser least of the three main characters, just because he has the most advantages–knowing everything/everyone on the island, unlike Hayley, and being able to communicate with other people in a way that Dunny can't–and yet is still such a jerk at times to both of them. He's especially thoughtless with Dunny, which is hard to see. Fraser does grow on me, though.

As for the plot itself, I can't discuss much without spoilers. There are some interesting themes explored, that's for sure. I can't say that I love the way everything ends up–it's a little too mystical for my tastes–but I suppose that could just be part of the Scottish culture. There are some interesting ethical dilemmas brought up in connection with immigration and the like, which really got me thinking. I can't go much into this here, so I suppose I'll just say that I don't blame immigrants for fleeing hopeless situations but I also think countries should have the right to decide who they admit into their borders.

Anyway, though, Washed Ashore was a pleasant book that I enjoyed reading but which didn't blow my socks off. It would make a perfect summer read for any of you still looking for something to pass the time with in the next few weeks.


Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited, complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher.