Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls Martha Hall KellyLilac Girls
by Martha Hall Kelly
Pub Date: April 5, 2016

I had fully expected this book to be another disappointing novel about women in World War II, with me getting irritated at the characters and the writing and being upset that a great story was botched by the author. (Can you tell I’ve been burned before?) I had such a bad attitude starting this book I could barely get through the first chapter. And then someone on Twitter said they couldn’t put the book down, and I decided to push through my misgivings and give it another shot. AND I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

The book focuses on three women at the beginning of World War II – Caroline, Kasia, and Herta – all from wildly different backgrounds, all with wildly different paths ahead of them. You have no idea how their stories work together, as one is an American socialite, one a Polish village girl, and another a German doctor. And as the stories unfold through the entirety of the war and its aftermath, and the reader starts to guess at what is going to happen, you won’t be able to put the book down, either. This is almost edge-of-your-seat reading, with a little bit of romance thrown in to not only add to the drama, but also lessen the blow of the stories being told.

The author details in her afterward about all the research she put into the book, and it shows in a very good way. It’s a difficult read in sections because these are atrocities that happened to real people, and the author does not skimp on detail. I was reading this book at a restaurant and had to fight back tears as I read. I don’t want to give away too much because I think that would lessen the impact of the book, but remembering that these are real things that happened to real people will break your heart. And it’s eerie to read about refugees in the 1930s and 40s and all the pushback from other countries and reflect on what’s going on in our world today. Even in the span of the book some people were quick to forget the horrible things done to each other.

At nearly 500 pages this book can seem a little daunting, but it is a journey worth having. You are going to cry when you read this book, but the tears are worth shedding. This is absolutely going to be one of those frequently talked about books (at least among us folks in the book industry it will be), and would make a somber but enlightening read for a book group. Or even an intense read on your own. The author provides a bibliography in the back of the book, and I’m guessing most readers are going to want to read even more about these women’s stories. This book is heartbreaking and devastating, yet also beautiful and hopeful, and well-crafted and engaging to keep you reading from beginning to end.

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

UnbrokenUnbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive
by Laura Hillenbrand
Pub Date: November 11, 2014

Due to the popularity of Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand created a young adult version of this popular biography adapted for the big screen. I am glad she did. I have not read the original biography since I am not fond of biographies, but I found myself reading late into the night for “just one more chapter” as I read the young adult version of this book. This is one of the best biographies I have ever read, and is an inspiring story of achievement, resilience and forgiveness.

Growing up, Louis Zamperini was considered a trouble maker and a pest. Still, his older brother could see Louis’ potential and convinced the high school principal to put Louis on the track team. From there, Louis discovered a talent and determination to succeed that affected the rest of his life. This skill took Louis to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but WWII interrupted his running career and directed him to the US Army Air Corp where he became a bombardier. After a plane crash, Louis survived being stranded on a life raft for over a month and then becoming a prisoner of war with the Japanese, who were known for their brutality to POWs during WWII. Reading his story, I couldn’t believe all that Louis was able to survive, and survived with dignity and honor.

For me though, what amazed me the most was how Louis was able to overcome his fear and hatred for his Japanese captors enough to forgive them– to visit POW camps where he was held, see his guards, and tell them he forgave them. After the atrocities committed against him in the POW camp, it takes a great amount of inner strength, confidence, and compassion to be able to forgive those who hurt you and brought you to the brink of death. Louis Zamperini is a great example to me of true empathy and forgiveness.

I highly recommend this book to those who want to read this amazing story with more pictures and less of the emotionally difficult passages contained in the original biography. The guys in my teen book club were especially excited about this book, but the girls also found this an amazing story worth reading—even those who don’t read anything but fiction as a rule. This book does discuss smoking, drinking, and violence, but not in graphic detail or in a positive light. I am definitely recommending this to teens and their families as an example of overcoming the odds, forgiveness, and compassion.