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.

The Scent of Secrets, by Jane Thynne

The Scent of Secrets Jane ThynneThe Scent of Secrets
by Jane Thynne
Pub Date: September 15, 2015

I’ve had something of a World War II obsession since I was a little kid thumbing through the American Girl catalog. Molly McIntire was one of my favorites of the dolls, and eventually I did get to own her (and as a twentysomething got to meet the author Valerie Tripp!). So ever since about the age of seven I’ve loved any book taking place during the 1940s. Home front, London Blitz, Polish resistance, Jewish survivor narratives, Anne Frank… the whole shebang. So this pick seemed an obvious choice for me — a British-German film actress with some espionage training, Clara Vine, is asked to befriend Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun and glean whatever information she can as the tension of the coming conflict tightens its hold on Paris and Berlin, the two settings of the novel. Since Eva is kept hidden from the public eye, this is no easy matter. And Clara may have to watch her own back as her past creeps up on her. And the whole thing starts with a mysterious death aboard a Nazi pleasure cruise.

(As a head’s up, this book is actually the third in the series featuring the actress Clara Vine. From what I can tell, the series is undergoing a rebranding, and the first two books in the series are not readily available at this time in the States, but I didn’t feel I was missing any major plot points. You pick up any background information pretty quickly.)

Spy stories are always fun. Especially if you have an author like Thynne who’s done plenty of research and adds in marvelous little details about how Clara utilizes her espionage training – like hiding information in the tube of her lipstick, or how she manages to ditch the man she suspects is trailing her. All the while we learn more about Clara’s day job as a film actress, and how the film industry in 1930s Germany was and had been. (Plenty of name-dropping, but not in an annoying way. Thynne doesn’t force Emil Jannings into the narrative just for the sake of having a well-known 1930s German actor show up, for instance.)

But what I particularly enjoyed about this story was learning about how the Nazi elite functioned in the late 30s. Clara enjoys some clout being an actress, and has a rapport with the wives of some of the Nazi leadership like Madga Goebbels and Emmy Göring. It’s certainly a different reading experience to see Nazis being portrayed as more human than demonic — the centers of petty gossip and extramarital affairs, not terribly mindful of the troubles being caused outside of their social circles. Having recently read a book about the concentration camps (which will be reviewed at a later date), it was kind of historical fiction whiplash. Nevertheless, I still got wrapped up in the story, and loved the tension of Clara’s mission, tactics, and personal life all mingled together.

There is some more adult material alluded to in the story, but the details are glossed over. Really, you get so engaged with the various story-lines as they come together that you’ll have trouble putting the book down for long, and you’ll be primed for the next book in the series being published in May. If you enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this is likely a novel you’ll also enjoy. If you’re like me and you’re into books on Germany around World War II, this will offer a different take on the usual points of view. And if you’re into Agent Carter and don’t mind the lack of physical altercations, this might be a pleasant read for you, too.