With children out of school and folks going on vacation, summer is traditionally the time for blockbuster movies, usually action-adventure or comic-book-hero sagas designed to snag the interest of kids and families. Then there are “blockbuster books”—novels that strike the popular imagination and become runaway bestsellers.
Though I tend not to like those extremely popular books, since several are set in one of my favorite time periods—World War II—for this month’s column, we’ll take a look at a few that have garnered rave reviews.
First we have ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr (24,150 Amazon reviews.) This instant New York Times bestseller from the award-winning Doerr presents the story of a blind French girl and a German boy who meet in occupied France, both struggling to survive the destruction and privation of war.
Daughter of a lockmaster at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, when Marie-Laure goes blind at the age of six, her father builds her a miniature of their neighborhood to memorize by touch so she can find her away around. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and she flees with her father to take refuge with a great-uncle in a house by the sea in the walled city of Saint-Malo. To protect it from falling into enemy hands, they bring with them from the museum a valuable and dangerous gem.
Orphan Werner grows up in Germany, fascinated by radios. Having become an expert in building and repairing the machine that war makes essential, he wins an appointment to a science academy for Hitler Youth, where he is trained to use his skills to track members of the resistance. Increasingly agonized by the fate of the people he uncovers, he eventually is sent to Saint-Malo, where his fate and Marie-Laue’s collide.
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).
Another run-away hit was THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah. (An Amazon pick of the month it debuted, considered one of the five best books of the year, finalist on numerous award lists, 27,020 Amazon reviews.) Farmed out to strangers by their father, who came back forever changed after World War I, sisters Vianne and Isabelle strike out on different paths. Older Vianne fits herself into life in the quiet village of Carriveau, while younger, rebellious Isabelle is shunted from one boarding school to the next. Expelled from the last one just as World War II begins, she returns to Paris and her father—who sends her back to her sister. Borne along with the tide of refugees fleeing the German advance, Isabelle falls instantly in love with Gäetan, a partisan intent on joining the resistance. Rejected by him as too young, naïve and impulsive to join the movement, he forces her to continue on to Carriveau.
Vianne, who has sent her beloved husband off with the French army, wants only to try to make life as safe and normal as possible for her daughter. But when the Germans occupy first their village, then her house, she is compelled to send her sister back to Paris so her resentful, openly antagonistic attitude toward the invaders will not endanger them. Their paths diverge once again, Isabelle finding her way to prominence in the Resistance, Vianne grimly holding on through increasing privation and indignity, determined to make it through to a war’s end that brings both reconciliation and heartbreak.
In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France … but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can … completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.
Women’s Fiction Historical [St. Martin’s Press, On Sale: February 3, 2015, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780312577223 / eISBN: 9781466850606]
Recommended to readers who enjoyed the first two novels, LILAC GIRLS: A NOVEL by Martha Hall Kelly has already garnered 978 Amazon reviews. Loosely based on the real life of New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, the story alternates between first-person narratives by Ferriday, Kasia Kuzmerick (a composite of some of the real women imprisoned at Ravensbruck) and Herta Oberheuser (a real Nazi doctor at Ravensbruck) as unfolding events bring them toward their fateful meeting.
The light-hearted social round that is Caroline’s life as an employee of the French consulate takes a sober turn in the fall of 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland and threat against France. Alarmed and concerned about the innocents caught up in war, she begins to seek new ways to help.
Polish teenager Kasia Kuzmerick reacts to the Nazi invasion by becoming a courier for the resistance. Under the close scrutiny of the German occupiers and fearful neighbors, each day brings new threats.
A young female doctor in Germany, Herta Oberheuser sees her hiring for a government medical position as a chance to prove herself in a male-dominated world, little knowing the extremes to which loyalty to her country and her superiors will push her.
From the glamour of high-society New York to Paris, war-torn Germany and occupied Poland, the story weaves together the lives of these three women, until in the years after the war, Caroline and Kasia seek to bring justice and healing to the many innocents who suffered under Nazi domination. The courage and resilience of those women shine out from the misery to which they were subjected, leaving most readers uplifted by the strength of the bonds humans build to tolerate and survive impossible situations.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • For readers of The Nightingale and Sarah’s Key, inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this remarkable debut novel reveals the power of unsung women to change history in their quest for love, freedom, and second chances.
New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.
An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.
For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.
The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.
EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN by Chris Cleave (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2016, already 323 Amazon reviews) also uses the stuff of real lives (in this case, the love letters of his grandparents) to create a vivid picture of London and Malta from 1939-1942.
Privileged daughter of a wealthy member of Parliament, when war is declared, eighteen-year-old Mary North defies her family’s expectations that she complete finishing school and marry, and volunteers at the war office. Instead of the glamorous job as a general’s aide or spy she envisions, she finds herself becoming a teacher to those whose color or disabilities prevented their being accepted by families in the countryside when London’s children are evacuated. Through her job, she becomes involved with Tom Shaw, an educator tasked with maintaining the empty London schools. While persuading him to find her a school for her misfits, with her beauty, courage and optimism, she enchants him.
Tom’s roommate, Alistair Heath, an art restorer from the proper class, enlists in the army, where he serves first in France, and after Dunkirk, in Malta. The drama of both war and personal life collide when Mary and Alistair meet, and Tom watches his best friend fall for the woman he wants. The passion, deception and jealousy of a this love triangle set against the vast stage of war and destruction makes the story by turns sweepingly broad and completely intimate.
The day war is declared, Mary North leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up.
Tom Shaw decides to ignore the war—until he learns his roommate Alistair Heath has unexpectedly enlisted. Then the conflict can no longer be avoided.
Young, bright, and brave, Mary is certain she’d be a marvelous spy. When she is—bewilderingly—made a teacher, she finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.
Tom, meanwhile, finds that he will do anything for Mary.
And when Mary and Alistair meet, it is love, as well as war, that will test them in ways they could not have imagined, entangling three lives in violence and passion, friendship and deception, inexorably shaping their hopes and dreams.
Set in London during the years of 1939–1942, when citizens had slim hope of survival, much less victory; and on the strategic island of Malta, which was daily devastated by the Axis barrage, Everyone Brave is Forgiven features little-known history and a perfect wartime love story inspired by the real-life love letters between Chris Cleave’s grandparents. This dazzling novel dares us to understand that, against the great theater of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs that change us most.
Historical [Simon & Schuster, On Sale: May 3, 2016, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781501124372 / eISBN: 9781501124402]
Are any of these blockbusters for you? Have a read, and decide!
About Julia Justiss
Real, intense, passionate historical romance
After twelve years as a vagabond Navy wife, an adventure that took her from Virginia Beach, VA, to Monterrey, CA, to Tunis, Tunisia to Oslo, Norway and back, Julia Justiss followed her husband to his family’s East Texas homeland. On a hill above a pond with a view of pasture land, they built an English Georgian-style home. Sitting at her desk there, if she ignores the summer heat, she can almost imagine herself in Jane Austen’s Regency England.
In between teaching high school French and making jaunts to visit her three children (a Seabee in Gulfport, MS, a clothing buyer in Houston and a mechanical engineer in Austin, TX) she pursues her first love—writing historical fiction.
Leader of Hadley’s Hellions, a group of outsiders who bond together at Oxford vowing to reform Society, Giles Hadley wants nothing to do with the earl, his father who banished him, or his stepbrother George, who is the bane of his existence. But he’s curious about the woman rumor says George is to marry, daughter and political hostess of prominent Tory Lord Witlow.
For her part, Lady Maggie finds angry rebel Giles far more fascinating than George—so fascinating, that though she has no intention of risking her heart after losing her beloved husband, she might just be tempted into an affair…