The Last Year of the War

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner opens with an elderly Elise Dove, who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Elise calls her disease “Agnes” and describes her as “a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own.”

As Elise mourns the memories she will some day lose, she thinks of a long-ago friend she met in an internment camp during WWII.

Elise was a teenager then, living like any American teenager in Iowa. One day Elise came home from school to find strangers rifling through their belongings while her German parents were seated at the table. Elise thought they were being robbed. In a way, they were. A few statements and actions of her father’s had been misinterpreted, and he was suspected of being secretly involved in Nazi activities. The whole family was eventually shipped to an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas.

There Elise met Mariko Inoue, a Japanese teen girl who sounded every bit as American as Elise. The two became friends for the eighteen months they were in the camp, and even beyond. But their families were repatriated to the parents’ home countries, and the girls lost touch for the next sixty years.

Now Elise’s housekeeper has taught her how to look people up on Google with her new iPad. Elise decides to fly out to the place where she thinks Mariko is, without telling her children about the trip or about “Agnes.”

The present-day Elise’s search is sprinkled with flashbacks of her family’s trials, time in the internment camp and then in Germany, and what happened to them after that.

I had known about internment camps, but didn’t realize German and Japanese Americans were interned together. I also thought of the camps like POW camps. But they were actually like small towns, with schools, stores, jobs, etc. However, there were also fences, barbed wire, and guards with guns.

Both the present and past narratives are compelling. Having had a mother-in-law with dementia, I was a little on edge during the older Elise’s travels, hoping she’d be okay. For that reason, the very end, the last couple of paragraphs, were disappointing. They fit in with a metaphor raised earlier in the book, but they left Elise hanging, which left me without a satisfying resolution. But the rest of the story was very good.

I’ve read Christian or inspirational fiction from Susan Meissner, but this is pretty much strictly historical fiction. The only mention of God I can recall is a passing statement. Sadly, there are a few bad words, which I was disappointed to see.

I very much enjoyed Kimberly Farr’s narration of the audiobook.

I’ve read lots of WWII fiction, but this is the first I’ve read that is partially set in an internment camp. How about you? Have you read anything about the camps?

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

In Kim Michele Richardson’s novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Cussy Mary Carter was one of the Pack Horse Librarians. A Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative by FDR during the Depression employed librarians to bring books to people in the Appalachian mountains. Books were donated, and the Pack Horse Librarians sorted, distributed them, and made scrapbooks for residents which included recipes and tips. The librarians, mostly women, rode hundreds of miles.

Many of the residents were eager for books and magazines. Some were suspicious.

Cussy Mary had to fight more than the usual amount of suspicion and superstition because she was colored: blue.

A family line in Kentucky produced people with a blue tint to their skin due to a recessive gene, though the cause wasn’t known at the time. Some people treated the “blues” like anyone else, but negative reactions ranged from a desire to keep a distance to fear of disease to superstitions to hatred. “Blues” were included in “No coloreds allowed” signs and laws.

Kim Michele Richardson ties together the blue people of Kentucky and the Pack Horse Librarian initiative to create unusual and interesting historical fiction.

The story begins with Cussy Mary’s father trying to arrange courtship for her, though she doesn’t want to be married. He has worked in the mines all his life, and his lungs are affected. He wants to make sure Mary is provided for before he dies. But no one is interested until he offers the deed to his land. A disastrous wedding night leaves Mary a widow.

We follow along with Mary on her travels, meet her patrons, hear their stories, see her interactions with townspeople, encounter the dangers on the trail.

The town doctor has always wanted to take blood samples and study Mary and her father, but they’ve resisted—until the father has a secret he needs the doctor to keep. The only way the doctor will agree is if Mary’s dad will let him take her to the hospital in Lexington for tests. Against Mary’s will, she’s subjected to all kinds of indignities. When the doctor finds a temporary “cure” for Mary’s blue skin, she enjoys being white at first. But the side effects and the lack of change in how people treat her leave her wondering if the change is worth it. The author says in her notes that the study and treatment she described didn’t actually occur until about thirty years later.

Mary’s courage and determination shine throughout. She remembered being read to by her mother, who passed away. That hunger for learning stayed with Mary, and she wants to help those with the same hunger.

I first became aware of this book through reviews by Susan and Susanne.

There is a smattering of bad words, and Mary’s wedding night is told with more detail than I’d like.

But otherwise, this was a fascinating story.

I listened to the audiobook, which I was pleased to get for free–it was included with either my Audible subscription or Amazon Prime, I forget which. Katie Schorr did a wonderful job with the narration. I checked out the book from the library to read back matter not included with the audiobook, including a nice interview with the author.

Had you heard of blue people or the Pack Horse Librarians? Would you be willing to brave mountainous trails in the back woods on a mule to get books to people?

Review and Giveaway: The House at the End of the Moor

Michelle Griep’s novel, The House at the End of the Moor, is set in England in 1861.

A woman known as Mrs. Dossett lives at the title house with only a sheepdog, mute maid, and a manservant. It’s obvious she’s in hiding, but we don’t know from whom at first.

So when she finds a severely wounded unconscious man on her property, she’s torn. It can only mean trouble to bring him home. But she can’t leave him to the elements.

As the man, Oliver, heals and his head becomes clearer he and the woman are wary of each other. He’d like to leave, but he’s too injured.

Just as the two are beginning to trust each other, Oliver opens the door to a room where a beautiful gown is displayed along with a gorgeous red jeweled necklace–the very necklace he was falsely accused of stealing and for which he was thrown in prison.

The mystery of who each of the characters are, where the jewels are from, and what the characters decide to do all make for an interesting read. The faith element is naturally woven into the characters’ makeup and thinking.

A secondary character, Barrow, is the constable seeking Oliver since his escape from prison. Barrow is similar to Javert in Les Miserables but is much more cruel. His motivation is seeking justice for righteousness’s sake. But he has to learn what justice truly is and who is supposed to mete it out.

Somehow I ended up with both a Kindle and paperback version of this book. So I’d love to give away the physical copy to one of you. I can only offer it to someone in the US due to mailing costs. If you’d like to enter the drawing for this book, just leave a comment on this post before Wednesday, June 30. I’ll draw a name then from among the entries. I’ll count all comments on this post as entries unless you mention that you’re not interested in winning the book. Also, I must have a way to contact you to let you know you have won. If I don’t hear back from the winner within a couple of days, I’ll draw another name. Best wishes to each of you!

(Update: I originally scheduled the contest to end Saturday, but decided to extend it to Wed., June 30.)

The giveaway is now closed. The winner is Paula! Congratulations!

(I often link up with some of these bloggers)

The Orchard House

If you’re familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s life, you may know that one home where her family lived was called the Orchard House (though Louisa called it Apple Slump). Orchard House is beloved by Louisa’s fans not just because she lived there, but she wrote her most famous novel, Little Women, and several other books there. Orchard House is open to the public for tours and special events.

Heidi Chiavaroli wrote a time slip novel, The Orchard House, using Louisa’s time and town as the setting for one plot line.

Johanna Suhre had written to Louisa for more information about her brother, John, whom Louisa tended while a nurse during the Civil War. John had died, and Louisa featured him in her Hospital Sketches. Johanna and her mother and brother longed for any details Louisa could give them.

That’s as much as we know about the facts, but Heidi imagined Louisa’s and Johanna’s correspondence and friendship growing.

When Louisa needs someone to stay with her parents while she travels, she asks Johanna. Johanna is eager not only for something new and different, but delighted to meet her friend in person and visit the town so steeped in literary talent. Johanna had written some poems that she hoped to work up the courage to show Louisa.

While in Concord, Johanna meets the Alcott’s neighbor, Nathan Bancroft. Louisa cautions Johanna against Nathan, but she doesn’t have any specific details to warn against. After Nathan and Johanna marry, however, Johanna discovers another side to him.

The modern timeline also takes place in Concord. Taylor’s mother had abandoned her. The family of her best friend, Victoria, took Taylor in. Though Taylor appreciates the Bennetts’ kindness, she doesn’t quite fit in. Though she and Victoria rejoiced at becoming real sisters, the situation feels awkward.

Both girls enjoy writing and attending a young writer’s camp at The Orchard House. One of Taylor’s most treasured possessions, one of the few things she has left from her childhood, is a beat-up copy of Little Women.

Though Taylor never quite feels like family, she and Victoria work out their differences. At least, they had until Victoria unexpectedly betrays Taylor.

Taylor packs up her things and drives to the other side of the country. She becomes a famous author, writing under a pen name. She keeps her distance until eighteen years later, when she learns that her adoptive mother has cancer. She goes back to Concord, intending to stay for a short while. She and Victoria take tentative steps to at least be civil. Victoria would like to explain and make amends, but Taylor’s not sure she wants to hear it.

Victoria, who now works at the Orchard House, invites Taylor to speak at the young writer’s camp. Then she shares with Taylor some poems by a woman named Johanna Bancroft that were unearthed in the schoolroom. As the sisters try to unravel the mystery of who Johanna was and how Louisa knew her, they learn some things about themselves and each other as well.

I took a chance on this book when I saw it on a Kindle sale back in April. I had never heard of this author, but the story sounded intriguing. Plus the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge was coming up, and this would be a good choice for that.

I’m so delighted I took the chance. I enjoyed both timelines and felt for both Johanna and Taylor in their trials.

I also liked the quotes from Louisa at the beginning of every chapter. One favorite was, “All the philosophy in our house is not in the study; a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and scrubs.”

Though I wouldn’t call this book full-out Christian fiction, there were references to forgiveness, faith, and yielding to God.

I’m happy to recommend this book, and I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

Since this is the only book I am reading for Tarissa‘s LMA challenge, I’ll let this serve as my wrap-up post as well.

Daughters of Northern Shores

Daughters of Northern Shores is the sequel to Joanne Bischof’s Sons of Blackbird Mountain (linked to my review).

Picking up in 1894, four years after the first book, youngest Norgaard brother Haakon has fled his family and gone to sea after betraying his family’s trust. He wrote just a brief note to them when he left and has not written since. They don’t have an address for him. He has lived far from the morals he was raised with. One particular woman who was only a good friend makes him wonder if life could be different for him, if he could settle down with a family. But first he must go home and face those he wronged.

Back on Blackbird Mountain in Virginia, Thor and Aven had married and are expecting their first child. Business has gone well since Thor decided to quit making hard cider with his apple orchard produce after his grueling battle with alcoholism. Aven and her sister-in-law make apple pie fillings, applesauce, and other items for the local grocer. But Thor has a nagging pain in his side that is growing stronger. He had watched his father succumb to liver disease after years of alcoholism, so he knows the signs. But he has been sober four years—he thought he staved off affecting his liver.

To add to their troubles, their former neighbors, the Sorrels, cruel former Rebel soldiers and Klansmen, are back for revenge after the Norgaard brothers routed them in the last book. The sheriff has searched for them without success, but the Sorrel men know how to hide. Thor and oldest brother, Jorgan, try to attend to business while keeping their families safe and watching out for a Sorrel ambush.

I loved the first book so much, I was eager to continue on with the Norgaard family. I enjoyed this book just as much. Haakon was not my favorite of the brothers due to his personality and wrong choices in both books. But his desire to come back and apologize to his family starts him on the right path, and I warmed up to him as he slowly learned and changed.

A couple of my favorite quotes:

While words were potent, a man’s caring ran through deeper waters. It dwelled right there in what he was willing to do.

She moved as though wood being forced to bend to wind rushing in.

Both the major and minor characters are so well-drawn, and Joanne weaves together the various threads of the plot so well. Parts of the book were touching; other parts were edge-of-your-seat suspenseful. I also enjoyed the author’s afterword about how this book was not planned at first, and then didn’t go the way she expected. Originally she was going to have Haakon die at the end of the first book. I’m glad God led this way instead. I’m sorry to leave the Norgaards behind.

I listened to this via the audiobook nicely read by Amy Rubinate. I kept forgetting, while reading the first book, that Aven was Irish rather than Norwegian. So Amy’s adding an Irish lilt to Aven’s voice was pleasant in itself, plus a reminder of her heritage. Then, since audiobooks don’t usually contain the back matter of a book, I got the library edition to read Joanne’s comments about the story.

. (I often link up with some of these bloggers)

Sons of Blackbird Mountain

In Joanne Bischof’s novel, Sons of Blackbird Mountain, Aven Norgaard is newly widowed in 1890 Norway. She had long corresponded with her husband’s aunt in Virginia, who now invited her to come help keep house for “the boys,” Aven’s husband’s cousins.

But when Aven crosses the sea and arrives on Blackbird Mountain, she finds that Aunt Dorothe has died and “the boys” are grown men.

The three Norgaard brothers invite her to stay. Aven has no other prospects, so she does.

The oldest brother, Jorgan is steady and wise and soon to be married. The youngest, Haakon, is energetic and mischievous. The middle brother, Thor, is deaf. He’s also addicted to the alcohol the brothers produce with their apple orchard. His last attempt to wean himself off the hard cider ended in disaster. But he is kind and considerate.

Thor and Haakon both find themselves attracted to Aven. She had not come thinking about getting married again, she doesn’t want to come between the brothers.

There are so many layers to this story. Thor, Haakon, amd Aven each carry their own private pain. Then there are conflicts with their nearest neighbors, the Sorrels, who head up the local Klan and threaten the Norgaards’ longtime housekeeper and the youths they hire to help at harvest. The fact that the Sorrels own the deed to the Norgaard orchard creates extra pressure.

The author includes a brief preface where she explained a bit about ASL (American Sign Language). I had not realized that the deaf don’t sign every part of a sentence. But it makes sense that they’d streamline their words while signing. So when Thor jots a note (since Aven doesn’t know sign language yet), his sentences are mainly subject and verb with no articles, because that’s how he thinks. The author shared in her afterword how she became interested in sign language and the challenges of having a deaf character who can’t express himself in the usual ways.

All of the characters are nicely drawn, but Thor was the most intriguing. I don’t feel I am doing this book justice, but I enjoyed it very much. I had never read Bischof before, but I am eager to read more from her.

(Sharing with Senior Salon, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: A Portrait of Loyalty

A Portrait of Loyalty is the third in Roseanna M. White’s Codebreakers series which takes place during WWI.

Lily Blackwell inherited her mother’s artistic eye, but her medium is photography rather than paint. Skilled in retouching as well as taking pictures, Lily’s father recruits her into the government’s propaganda department. But they keep her involvement a secret from Lily’s mother, who doesn’t approve of art being used that way.

Zivon Marin’s outspokenness against Lenin led to his fiance’s murder and his having to flee Russia. He had been second in command in Russia’s cryptography department and now offers his services to England. Though England accepts his offer, not everyone in the department is sure they can trust him—especially when compromising pictures begin mysteriously showing up.

When Zivon and Lily meet, neither can be completely forthcoming. So how can they ever truly know and trust each other?

And as WWI seems to be winding to a close, another threat looms: the Spanish flu, known at first as the three-day fever.

A few favorite quotes:

The world may still look dark, but if photography had taught her anything, it was that there was always more light to be found. Sometimes you just needed to change your lens. And sometimes you need a flash. Neither ever changed what was really there… but it showed it in a new way.

We must be still – not our hands and feet, but our minds. And know that He is God. That He has not changed. That the same Lord who loved us when all is well loves us still when all is lost. His promises are as true today as they were yesterday. He has been enough to see people through the worst since the dawn of time. We must trust that His love is enough to see us through now.

She had a feeling he was like a matryoshka doll too–a placid exterior that hid layers of secrets and mysteries. And she couldn’t help but wonder what lay beneath this carefully crafted shell.

Once again, Roseanna has woven together an intriguing story with a lot of depth and layers. The only problem with listening to the audiobook raher than reading is that the audiobook doesn’t include the author’s end notes explaining where she got her inspiration and what parts of the story were based on true happenings.

Although I think any of the books in the series could be read alone, I really enjoyed reading/listening to them straight through. The Codebreakers series continues the timeline and some of the characters of the Shadows Over England series.

Shadows Over England:

Book 1: A Name Unknown
Book 2: A Song Unheard
Book 3: An Hour Unspent

Codebreakers series:

Book 1: The Number of Love
Book 2: On the Wings of Devotion
Book 3: A Portrait of Loyalty

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: On the Wings of Devotion

In Roseanna M. White’s novel, On Wings of Devotion, Phillip Camden’s nickname is “Black Heart.” He earned it when his squadron went down in flames and he was thought to be the cause due to a loud argument and threat to one of his men. A friend pulled some strings to get Phillip out of prison and into Room 40, where the codebreakers worked during WWI. But his surliness and bitterness keep everyone at bay.

Arabelle Denler is a nurse and an heiress. She’s warm and kind, but not considered attractive. Since her father had been absent most of her childhood, all she ever wanted was a family. When a lifelong friend suggested a marriage of convenience so her money could help preserve his family home, she readily agreed. But then her fiance fell in love with someone else.

Phillip puts himself forth as Arabelle’s protector from the stream of men seeking her hand—and her money—now that she’s free. As they come to know each other, Arabelle sees beyond the surface of Phillip’s brusque exterior. He sees the goodness and kindness of her heart.

But an old acquaintance seeks Phillip out. He knows she’s up to no good. But he doesn’t realize that she’s setting him up as part of a larger target.

This book is the second of the Codebreaker series, which is a continuation of the Shadows over England series. I enjoyed seeing a few characters from the previous books pop up. But I enjoyed Phillip’s and Arabelle’s stories even more. All the threads of the story—the characters, the spiritual and mental journeys, the intrigue—kept me listening to the audiobook every chance I got, especially the last fourth or so of the book.

A couple of quotes:

This war was destroying her entire generation. Those it hadn’t wiped out entirely it was trying to take apart piece by piece. And what could she do?

We can be sure it will be painful. Cutting out what stands between us and God always is. But we can also trust that in the giving, we’ll gain something far more precious.

The audiobook was wonderfully read by Susan Lyons. The only negative about the audiobook is that it doesn’t include the author’s notes at the end, where she tells how she came to write the story, what historical details she drew on, etc.

Each book I read from Roseanna is my favorite. Until I read the next.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Under a Cloudless Sky

In Chris Fabry’s novel, Under a Cloudless Sky, two girls from widely different circumstances become friends in 1933 West Virginia. Bean, short for Beatrice, is the daughter of a coal miner. Ruby’s father is one of the coal mine’s owners. The other owner, Mr. Coleman, employs some shady practices, and the conflict between him and Ruby’s father comes to a head.

Fast forward to 2004. The community wants to make the old coal mine’s company store a tourist attraction. They invite Ruby, now in her eighties, to be their special guest for the opening. But she had never returned and never planned to. There were too many painful memories and hidden secrets.

But Ruby’s grown children are pressuring her to give up her keys and her independence. So she decides she’ll go back to that little coal mining community on her own without telling her children where she’s going. Maybe that will teach them that she’s perfectly capable of handling herself.

Hollis Beasley is one of the last holdouts who refuses to sell his land to Coleman Coal and Energy. But with his neighbors succumbing to CCE one by one and his wife’s illness, he’s not sure if he’ll be able to keep the promise he made his parents to keep the land. “It was in a man to fight and it was in a woman to nest, and those desires competed and wore both down until they became one flesh.”

As the story goes back and forth between timelines, secrets come to light and provide unexpected connections between characters.

Chris Fabry’s stories always contain a lot of warmth and heart, and this one is no exception. He shares in his afterword the people and stories the book is based on. He skillfully brought them together in a compelling way.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: The Number of Love

Margot De Wilde thinks in numbers. Numerals line up differently in her head when all is well or something is off. Her father developed a system of cryptography before WWI with young Margot as his main pupil. After his death, Margot and her mother were rescued from Belgium (in A Song Unheard) to be with her brother, famous violinist Lucas De Wilde, in London. Though a teenager, Margot is recruited to work in the admiralty’s secret Room 40 deciphering Germany’s coded messages.

Margot had one good friend back in Belgium, but she’s not interested in the silly things most girls are. She’s content to be alone, but when she notices Dot, another young woman at the admiralty seemingly on the outskirts of society, they strike up a satisfying friendship.

Dot thinks her brother, Drake, is in the Navy. Their grandfather in Spain thinks Drake is a student. Neither suspects Drake actually works undercover.

Drake finds Margot fascinating and loves her sarcastic sense of humor. But Margot has no time for or interest in romance.

Then Margot suffers a tragic loss that turns her well-ordered world upside-down. Not only do the numbers in her mind stop, but God seems silent.

And Drake returns from Spain wounded with an enemy who may pursue him all the way to London.

The Number of Love is the first in Roseanna M. White’s Codebreakers series, which follows the Shadows Over England series. A few of the characters carry over. This novel is every bit as captivating as the first three. It may be my favorite of Roseanna’s so far.

A couple of quotes from the book:

Faith isn’t just feeling. We have to know He’s still there, unchanged, even when we can’t feel Him. When the grief’s too loud to let us hear His voice.

There were never any guarantees. Even being sure God wanted him to do this didn’t mean he’d come home safely. Sometimes God’s will meant bullets searing flesh. Death coming too soon. Sometimes God’s will was to let man taste the consequences of his folly and his hatred and his supposed self-sufficiency. Sometimes God let people die. Let His children break. And then pieced them back together into something new. Something that He could use for His glory instead of theirs

I enjoyed the suspense provided by the intrigue and mystery concerning Drake’s pursuer and the historical detail. At the end of the book, Roseanna differentiates between the actual historical facts she used and the details she made up.There was an actual Room 40 of codebreakers during WWI that few knew about.

I love that Margot is an imperfect heroine. Even though she’s smart, she’s also young and a bit immature. And she can come across as a little arrogant sometimes. But her experiences help mature and humble her and teach her to rely not on her abilities or systems, but on God.

I’m so glad Roseanna continued this series. I look forward to the next book!

(See also: Why Read Christian Fiction)

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)