The Italian Ballerina

The Italian Ballerina by Kristy Cambron is one of those books that makes you want to put everything aside and just read.

Delaney Coleman has just returned home to help her parents after the death of her grandfather. She learns that they’ve received notices from a family in Italy saying they have a claim to something of her grandfather’s. Delaney’s mom has ignored the messages, but Delaney looks into the claim.

She speaks to Matteo, who says that Delaney’s grandfather owned a small ivory suitcase printed with cherries on the outside. He claims that the suitcase belongs to his grandmother, and she’d like to have it back. His family offers to fly Delaney and the suitcase to Rome.

Intrigued and confused, and as a writer “between pens,” as she puts it, Delaney decides to accept the offer. In Rome, Delaney meets Calla, Matteo’s grandmother. Calla can’t speak English, but she gazes at Delaney and says, “Salvatore.” Delaney and Matteo work together to learn the connection between their grandparents.

Scenes switch back to Delaney’s grandfather’s time before and during WWII. Court Coleman had gotten himself into trouble and pushed away Penelope, the girl he loved. Roped into helping Penn’s father at their orchard in order to pay off his debts, Court begins to settle down and wonder if he might have a chance with Penn again. But then America enters WWII, and Court is sent to Italy as a medic.

One day as his unit is on a reconnaissance mission, Court and his commanding officer, AJ, are stranded while a Nazi troupe is rounding up Jews. They are horrified to watch the Nazis shoot a couple in cold blood and leave their daughter in the streets. Against orders, Court rescues the girl and is injured in the process.

He wakes up in an Italian hospital. He finds that he is in a quarantine ward, where a mysterious, deadly illness called Syndrome K is running rampant.

Except—Syndrome K is a made-up illness, created to keep the Nazis away from the ward while the doctors and Catholic priests who own the hospital hide and send out Jews.

A British ballerina named Julia and her partner are stranded at the hospital as well while he heals from a gunshot wound in his leg. She helps Court and A. J. and the little girl with them, as well as the doctors in the ward.

Unfortunately, the audiobook I listened to did not include the author’s information about what parts of the story were true, and our library system didn’t have a copy.. But the part about Syndrome K was real, as detailed here.

There are many strands nicely woven together in this novel, many developing relationships, and the unfolding mystery of the connection between Matteo’s and Delaney’s grandparents. The Amazon description says, “Based on true accounts of the invented Syndrome K sickness, The Italian Ballerina journeys from the Allied storming of the beaches at Salerno to the London ballet stage and the war-torn streets of World War II Rome, exploring the sometimes heart-wrenching choices we must make to find faith and forgiveness, and how saving a single life can impact countless others.”

I’ve gotten used to time-slip novels that go back and forth between history and present day. Kristy has written a few with three timelines. The only problem was that the scenes flashing back to Court’s earlier life weren’t in chronological order. The first scenes were in Italy during WWII–then there’s a scene at Penn’s family’s orchard before the war. The same thing happens with Julia’s timeline. The format made it a little confusing and jarring, although it only took a sentence or two to get reoriented. I had to train myself to listen for the date and location listed at the beginning of each chapter, which is a little harder to do with an audiobook.

But other than that, I loved everything about this book. I wanted to race to see what happened, yet didn’t want it to end.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by Barrie Kreinik.

The London House

In Katherine Reay’s novel, The London House, Caroline Payne was working through an ordinary day until she received a phone call from an old college friend, Mat. He wanted to meet with her about her aunt, of all people. Caroline had been named for great aunt, the twin sister of her grandmother. But the older Caroline had died of polio when she was a child. What could Mat possibly want to know about her?

Mat was working on an article where he inadvertently uncovered information claiming that Caroline’s great aunt had been a Nazi collaborator who ran off with her German lover. As Caroline refutes Mat’s claim, Mat brings up evidence that looks genuine.

Caroline asks for time to research the issue on her own. She flies to London to the home of her late grandmother, now occupied by her mother. They find letters between the twins and diaries of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret. As Caroline wades through them, she is taken back to the 40s and the twins’ coming of age in a life of privilege before war hit. But life-threatening illness and family tension separated them. Some of that tension remained to the current day in the distanced relationship Caroline has with her own parents. Will Caroline’s discoveries heal old wounds or make them worse?

I don’t know if this would be classified as a time-slip novel, but with some of the letters and diaries, we’re transported back to the setting and activities of the twins’ earlier days. In that sense, it’s also partly an epistolary novel. Katherine has a note at the end of the book sharing what elements were true or fictional.

I enjoyed the uncovering of clues in the older Caroline’s letters and the dynamics that brought healing to the younger Caroline’s family. Although WWII seems to be the setting of more novels than any other era, I do enjoy them even while I sometimes long for glimpses of other time frames.

It’s funny how certain themes seem to go around at the same time. For instance, I had never heard of the Monuments Men (who recovered art stolen by the Nazis) until the movie made about them a few years ago. But just this year I’ve read a book about them and seen them mentioned in others. Now there seems to be a theme of dressmakers involved in WWII, with The Paris Dressmaker by Kristy Cambron and this one and others. I hadn’t realized this book was going to involve haute couture and dressmaking until I got into it.

All of Katherine’s other books that I have read have been Christian fiction to some degree. I didn’t know that this one was not until I saw a review on Goodreads noting that this book was published under the new Harper Muse imprint and not Christian fiction. That’s not a problem in itself. Christian authors have many reasons for writing stories that aren’t blatantly Christian. Katherine does mention C. S. Lewis’s radio talks of the time which were later transformed into Mere Christianity.

But I was disturbed by a couple of elements in the book. One of the older Caroline’s letters describes her first sexual encounter. Thankfully, it stops before it gets too explicit. But the younger Caroline suspects her grandmother tore the rest of the description out of the letter because she was a “prude.” Then, the older Caroline was employed by Elsa Schiaparelli, a rival to Coco Chanel. She mentions the sexual innuendoes of some of the designer’s work, especially those in collaboration with Salvador Dali—and then proceeds to bring one beyond innuendo and spells out the sexual connotation of it. I could have done without that.

So, I have mixed emotions about the book. The story overall was good, but I was disappointed the sexual elements. Even though they probably would be considered tame by most other modern secular fiction, they were still too much for me.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Madeleine Maby, but then also caught the Kindle version on sale and read parts in it as well.

Shadows In the Mind’s Eye

In Janyre Tromp’s novel, Shadows in the Mind’s Eye, Sam Mattas is on his way home from WWII. He’s changed and scarred physically and mentally by what he has experienced, seen, and had to do. He jumps at loud sounds. He’s not always sure what’s real and what’s imagined.

But he’s going home. Back to his dear wife, Annie, and Rosie, the daughter he’s looking forward to getting to know. Good, hard, familiar work on the farm and peace and quiet will set him right soon. He hopes.

Annie has dealt with trauma of her own even before her marriage. Her abusive father was a corrupt judge. When she was a girl, she found her dead mother in a lake. But Sam rescued her from all that. Life was hard while he was away. She had to scrabble for supplies, do all the farm work herself, and take in her mother-in-law.

But Sam is on his way home. She knows, from what her mother-in-law told her about her husband’s return from war, that it might take a while for things to return to normal. But everything will be all right.

Except everything is not all right.

Much has changed, and their wounds run deep. They have to learn new rhythms and ways of relating.

Then Sam starts seeing things. Lights in the woods, men in the shadows. Sam is convinced that something nefarious is happening out there, and he must protect his family. However, his delusions only put them in harm’s way.

But what if he is not actually hallucinating?

The chapters switch back and forth between Sam’s and Annie’s points of view. Their mistakes and learning how to deal with each other is interwoven with the suspense of what’s actually happening behind their house, not knowing whom to trust, and everything not seeming as it appears.

I had not heard of Janyre Tromp until Anita interviewed her about this book on a podcast, Working Through Trauma in Literature and Real Life. Janyre’s experience with caregiver trauma and her grandfather’s experiences after the war led her to study PTSD. Her book was not out yet at that time, but I pre-ordered it then.

Some of the quotes that stood out to me:

Happily ever after don’t happen lessen each person in marriage works. It’s like a team of horses, They both have to carry their own load (p. 155).

Once you let yourself start feeling, it all breaks loose (p.147).

I stood quiet, soaking in her peace. Every motion was calm, sure, She knew where she belonged, and that sent her roots deep into the ground, able to weather whatever life threw at her (p. 122).

You’d think holding joy right up against sadness would shatter a body. But it don’t. Joy…it sneaks in all around where things is broke, sticks it all together and finds a way to make you whole. It’s where things is broke that joy shows through.

My one criticism is that characters say “Lord Almighty” and such. In my book, taking the name of the Lord of glory and using it as an expression is taking His Name in vain. If something is done in vain, it’s useless; it hasn’t accomplished the purpose for which it was meant. God’s name in meant to be reverenced, used in prayer, in worship, or in talking about Him.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the book. Parts near the end were quite suspenseful. I liked the realistic way Sam and Annie reached out to each other yet made mistakes as well.

The Paris Dressmaker

The Paris Dressmaker by Kristi Cambron is a tale of two women in WWII Paris.

Lila de Laurent is a dressmaker and budding designer for Chanel. But the salon closed its doors as Nazis took over Paris. Working odd jobs for a while, Lila is surprised by a call from an old friend from Chanel who has become a collaborator with the Germans. She needs a gown for a party and knows Lila’s style. At first Lila is repulsed, but then decides this opportunity affords her the chance to pick up information for La Resistance.

As Lila flees from danger one night, she runs into the man she once loved, whom she thought was dead. But whose side is he on now? Can she trust him with her secrets?

Sandrine Paquet’s husband is a French soldier, and she lives with her son and mother-in-law. The place where she works is taken over by the Nazis, who demand that the employees catalog and crate art work the Nazis have stolen from French Jews. The German captain, von Hiller, has taken an interest in her. To refuse his attention outright would be fatal, but she takes pains to be cooperative while keeping him at a distance so things don’t get too personal. Neighbors misunderstand, however, and accuse her of being a collaborator. What they don’t know is that she and her boss are working for La Resistance as well, right under the Nazi’s noses. Though their shop doesn’t deal with textiles, one of the items that came to them was a beautiful blush Chanel gown. In a few moments alone, Sandrine searches the gown and finds a cryptic note initialed LDL sewn in the hemline.

Kristy Cambron is one of the best storytellers around. She weaves historic and personal details into the lives of these two women with suspense, pathos, and a touch of humor. The faith element is subtle but vital.

I miss the days of linear stories that start at the beginning and unfold until the end. But that’s not the fashion these days. The scenes alternate between the two women at different times in their lives, before and during the war. It was a little hard to keep up with at first until I learned to pay attention to the dates at the beginning of each chapter.

The author’s afterword shares which elements were historical and which were fiction, something I love to see in historical novels.

The Kindle version of this book is free with Amazon prime membership at the moment, and I got the audiobook at a 2-books-for-one-credit sale. With the Whispersync function, it was nice to delve into whichever one worked best for me in a given situation and pick up where I left off in the other.

Kristy has written another winner, in my opinion.

Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men

In the novel Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men by Cara Putman, Captain Rachel Justice is a photojournalist during WWII. Her mother is dying of tuberculosis, and Rachel takes an overseas assignment to Italy to try to find the father she never knew to see if he can help provide for her mother’s treatment. All Rachel has to go on is a sketchbook given by her father to her mother with the initials RMA on some of the pages. Her mother refuses to say any more about her father and does not want Rachel to find him.

Lieutenant Scott Lindstrom is an officer with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division, and stationed in Naples. He had arts degrees from Harvard and was a curator of a museum in Philadelphia. But he felt he could use his expertise to do something meaningful, to save history, to salvage beauty and meaning to sustain people after the war. He says, “We are defined by what we love and respect” (p. 28, Kindle version).

The problem was, his superiors and many soldiers didn’t take his job seriously. When lives were at stake, what did art matter to them? He had trouble getting the men and resources he needed.

When he did get a chance to talk to local people who might know where art was hidden, they didn’t trust him. The Germans had said they’d protect art, too—but they stole or destroyed much of it.

And now he was assigned to babysit a woman photojournalist who shouldn’t be so close to the danger.

So Scott and Rachel get off to a rocky start. But as they get to know each other, they appreciate each other’s mission and characters.

When Rachel shows Scott the sketchbook, hoping his knowledge of art and Italy may help her identify the artist, she doesn’t say the artist is her father. Scott thinks he recognizes the early work of an artist friend and mentor in the sketches, but he’s suspicious about why Rachel would have such a prize.

Scott is a Christian. Rachel isn’t sure she believes or trusts God. Her own father’s disinterest in her colors her view of God.

There is historical fiction that contains a romance, and romances that occur in a historical setting. I prefer the former, but this story is the latter. Still, the peek into the Monuments Men work, art history, photojournalism, the problems women in the military faced, the refugee situations in Europe all made for an interesting story.

One thing that jarred me just a bit was a major betrayal in the story that seemed to blow over much more quickly and easily than I would have expected.

But all in all, this was an enjoyable book.

Cara shares some of the influences that went into the book in an afterword and in the video below.

Were you familiar with the “Monuments Men” and their work?

Memories of Glass

Memories of Glass by Melanie Dobson is a time-slip novel. One time line is modern day, and one begins in 1933 but quickly progresses to WWII.

In the older timeline, three childhood friends in Amsterdam are joined by a fourth when Anneliese Linden moves into their neighborhood. Just a few years later, the war has begun. Eliese’s father’s bank was closed because he was Jewish. Samuel works in another bank and sends his sister, Josie, on missions to deliver hidden correspondence in baskets of flowers and jam when she’s not taking classes at the teacher’s college. Klaas—well, no one knows quite where he stands, so they don’t trust him.

Eliese had moved to London for a time. Her friends don’t know that she’s back in Amsterdam with a young son. Her father has a position helping the Nazis, which he thinks will protect him and Eliese. Eliese feels conflicted registering the families that the Nazis round up, but she doesn’t know what she, as one young woman, can do. When she finds that Josie is working at a creche nearby, they form a plan to rescue some of the children.

In the modern timeline, Ava Drake helps her grandmother, Marcella Kingston, with her charitable foundation though the rest of the family disapproves. Ava’s mom had left the family years ago, but when she and Ava’s brother died in a fire, a case worker found Ava’s connections to the Kingstons. The Kingstons all view Ava as an outsider except Marcella, and since Marcella is the matriarch and holds the purse strings, they all go along—at least in public.

Part of Ava’s job is to vet the charities that apply to the Kingston Foundation for grants. In that capacity, she travels to Uganda to visit a man, Paul, who runs a coffee plantation as a means to help Ugandans. Later, Ava travels to the coffee company’s headquarters in Portland and meets Paul’s sister and grandmother, where she finds a surprising connection.

Ava determines that her family won’t heal until its past is brought to light. As she digs into her family history, she finds connections with the young friends from Amsterdam—connections that some of the Kingstons don’t want known.

The part about rescuing children away by deleting their names on the registration forms was a true one, and Melanie tells that story in her afterword. It’s a reminder that even thought it looks like someone is collaborating with the enemy, he or she might have another purpose in mind.

I felt for Eliese here—there were probably many who were in similar positions, stuck “helping” the Reich. If she resisted, she and possibly her father would have been killed. I was glad she found a way to help after all.

I found myself reading parts of this while also reading Women Heroes of World War II, mentioned yesterday. It was interesting seeing some of the activities there fleshed out in the novel.

There were a lot of details to keep up with, and I am not sure I caught all the threads in the end. But I enjoyed the stories of hope and redemption.

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?

Book Review: The Medallion

In The Medallion by Cathy Gohlke, Sophie Kumiega is a Brit living in her husband’s city of Warsaw, Poland, in 1939. He’s a fighter pilot, in the air during the German attack on Warsaw. He can’t get back into the country after Germany’s occupation. Sophie first tries to work, until the library where she is employed is bombed and taken over. Then she helps the underground in various ways, still unsure whether her husband lives.

In the same city, Rosa and Itzhak Dunovich are a Jewish couple dealing with the increasing encroachment of German occupation. They welcome their first child into the Jewish ghetto. Itzhak worries about his family in another town. He devises a way to go to them to see if they’re safe or bring them back to Warsaw if they’re not.

But Itzhak doesn’t return. Food becomes even more scarce, atrocities increase. Rosa makes a heart-wrenching decision. The only way to protect her daughter is to send her with an underground nurse who finds places to hide Jewish children. Rosa cuts in half the tree of life medallion Itzhak gave her on her wedding day and places it on a chain around her daughter’s neck. When the war is over, hopefully she will be able to match her half of the medallion to her child’s and reclaim her.

I can’t imagine living through what either Sophie or Rosa did. Both saw loved ones die and conditions grow worse. Sophie had to constantly be aware of who was around and who might see and report her. Rosa dealt with the effects of deprivation and starvation.

I had an idea how the plot might end, but it took quite a different route there than I had guessed.

In the afterword. Cathy told how she became intrigued with two different true stories—one of a woman who posed as a nurse and hid Jewish children in convent schools or with Gentile helpers, and another involving searching for a child with half a medallion given up during the war. She wove them together in this story.

Somehow I happened to have both the Kindle and Audible versions of this book. It was nice to be able to pick up either one where I left off from the other. Normally the audiobook narration enhances the story, but this one felt a little overdone to me.

But all in all, an excellent, touching book.

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

Book Review: Sandhill Dreams

Sandhill Dreams: A WWII Homefront Romance by Cara Putnam is the second in her Cornhusker Dreams series. The first book, Canteen Dreams, was a fictional retelling of Cara’s grandparents’ love story. Sandhill Dreams features a friend from the first book, Lainie Gardner.

Lainie’s dream was to be a nurse and serve her country. She began her training but then contracted rheumatic fever. She recovered, but still experienced residual symptoms. She had to be careful about overdoing, stress, or anything else that might trigger a relapse.

Still, she wanted to do something to help during WWII. She traveled to Fort Robinson in Nebraska without any prior arrangements, figuring surely they’d find some use for her there.

Tom Hamilton had a serious accident involving a dog bite as a boy, and he’d been afraid of dogs ever since. He joined the Army hoping to work with horses, but the Army assigned him to the canine unit. He hopes he can successfully battle both his disappointment and his fear without any officers or soldiers noticing.

Lainie and Tom get off on the wrong foot. They both have issues to deal with. But perhaps they can help each other recover from their broken dreams and find new ones.

I like stories that aren’t just romance, but have the characters grow, overcome obstacles, etc. This book fit the bill. I thought it ended just a touch abruptly, but perhaps that’s because it’s the middle of a series, and the story is ongoing.

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