A lookery at “A Place We Knew Well” by Susan Carol McCarthy

A Place We Knew well

A Place We Knew Well

Susan Carol McCarthy

Bantam

September 29, 2015

272 pages

$27.00

It is mid-October, 1963. Homecoming Week in the sleepy town of College Park, Florida. Unbeknownst to the locals, it is also the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy drops the reader into the middle of the terrifying events that held the nation captive for weeks.

Wes Avery is a veteran of World War II, and has seen firsthand the complete devastation wrought by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He owns a Texaco gas station on the main road in and out of town. Not far from the location of his business is the McCoy Air Force Base, which is suddenly much more active than usual.

Charlotte, Wes’ shy, intelligent, Titian-tressed daughter has just been informed that she will be on the high school’s Homecoming Court. Meanwhile, her mother Sarah is frantically trying to cope with the pressure of putting on a bomb shelter display for the local Civil Defense show. And the micro-managing Women’s Club president is driving her crazy with the task.

Emilio Alvarez is one of the Cuban “Pedro Pans” — a program sponsored by the Catholic Church to get youngsters out of Castro’s Cuba. Emilio works for Wes at the Texaco station and attends the local parochial high school.

President Kennedy defines the crisis for the entire country on television and radio. Bordering the Orlando Strategic Air Command Base, all of the Cape Canaveral area is especially anxious and alert. The local residents are either fleeing the area, stockpiling supplies or trying to maintain an atmosphere of normalcy as College Park prepares for the Homecoming festivities and the Civil Defense show. Romances blossom, marriages are strained, others can’t handle the intense pressure of the crisis and other events, and a deep, dark, secret raises its ugly head to threaten the delicate peace of the Avery family.

The author lets us in on the townies’ efforts to remain normal in exceptionally abnormal circumstances. The terror of the time is evident, and McCarthy exposes the emotions of her characters’ strife, trust, camaraderie, fear, anxiety and frayed nerves. Life in the quiet town continues as it brings out the best and the worst qualities of its citizens. During a national emergency, Susan Carol McCarthy shows how human strengths and frailties exist and struggle side by side. Gifts of generosity are evident, as well as selfish, self-serving acts.

In A Place We Knew Well human nature is put to the test by extraordinary circumstances. Susan Carol McCarthy uses this small community to give readers a glimpse of just how frightening these few weeks were for the entire country. Her novel shows the big picture of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the story of a small town in the midst of the stand-off. McCarthy’s talent lies in her ability to bring to life just how heroic and flawed we can be during dangerous times. I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Place We Knew Well, and highly recommend this insightful novel to all with little or great knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bantam for an advance copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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A lookery at “The Scent of Secrets” by Jane Thynne

The scent of secrets -- Jane Thynne

The Scent of Secrets

Jane Thynne

Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine

Ballantine Books

September 15, 2015

448 pages

$16.00

The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne is a historical mystery set in 1938 Germany as the world waits to see if Hitler will invade the Sudetenland.

Ada Freitag is a passenger on a luxury cruise ship sponsored by the National Socialist Strength Through Joy movement. These cruises are now the only way ordinary German citizens can leave the country. Although the trip is supposed to be a treat for its travelers, Ada finds the strictly regulated schedule and activities too regimented for enjoyment. But she is on this trip with a specific and covert purpose. Bored, she strikes up a friendship with fifteen-year-old Erich, before disappearing from the ship.

Cut to Paris and actress Clara Vine. Daughter of a Nazi-supporting British aristocrat and a German mother, Clara is a rising star in the German film industry. As war looms and conditions deteriorate in Germany, Clara turns down a marriage proposal to work as an agent for British Intelligence. She has the perfect personality for a spy and as an actress has the skills to wear a mask when needed. Her career gives her unprecedented access to the upper echelons of Nazi society — especially to the gossipy and loose-lipped wives of the Third Reich’s most elite officers.

It is Clara’s last day in the City of Lights. The filming of her latest role is finished and she is anxious to explore Paris on her own. Before leaving her hotel room, however, she receives an invitation to meet with a representative of London Films at a local cafe.

Clara is instructed to become friends with Hitler’s rarely seen girlfriend, Eva Braun. She is to pinch Eva’s diary and turn it over to British Intelligence. Because Eva is an ardent film buff and admires Clara’s work, a mutual acquaintance introduces the two. Soon Clara and Eva have a quietly forming friendship. Eva shares her passion for creating perfumes with Clara, designing an original scent for the actress.

It is an on-going balancing act for Clara; spending time with Eva, her godson Erich, Nazi officers and their wives, persistent suitors and acting obligations. The tension she feels is palpable. Yet Clara proves resourceful time and again.

Jane Thynne’s The Scent of Secrets is actually the third book in a series featuring Clara Vine. The U.S. publisher released this novel first in the States. I have not read the previous two novels in the set, which have been printed in the United Kingdom. It is my feeling that the back story would have been strengthened by releasing the books in order, but The Scent of Secrets can be read on its own. The background information in the first two books would probably convince me more of Clara’s motivation to serve the British intelligence community and to remain in Germany in spite of her perilous position.

Thynne develops several plots within the story that recreate the atmosphere of fear and confusion the German population must have felt without being sentimental or sappy. The insight she shares into typical and not-so-typical German lives is thought-provoking and interesting. The author uncovers the hardships of Nazi Germany and exposes some of the ridiculous and restrictive rules, as well as the harsh treatment of those who do not fit the Aryan ideal. Even the perks and punishments of the Nazi elite are revealed.

The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne can be read as a stand-alone novel. The book would have been enhanced by the release of the first two novels in the series, but on its own, The Scent of Secrets is captivating, and the ending will leave the reader begging for more of Clara Vine.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at “Jade Dragon Mountain” by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain

Jade Dragon Mountain

Elsa Hart

St. Martin’s Press

Minotaur Books

September 1, 2015

336 pages

$25.99

Elsa Hart’s historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain takes place in early 18th century Dayan, located in China’s southwest province. The Manchu Emperor, the Kangxi of the Qing dynasty is due in the city in six days to command a solar eclipse. For nearly a year, the Emperor has been traveling from Beijing to this outpost of his empire, while the local population has been preparing for his imperial visit and the wonder and power of the eclipse.

Li Du, the exiled and disgraced court librarian arrives in town, unaware of the Emperor’s upcoming presence and the festival to be held in the Kangxi’s honor. As an exile, Li Du must inform the magistrate of the province of his arrival, and obtain permission to pass through the area to his intended destination of Tibet. Tulishen is the province magistrate, and cousin to Li Du. When Li checks in with him, Tulishen is anxious to have his cousin leave the city before the Emperor arrives. It would be inappropriate for an exile of the court to cross paths with the Emperor, and Tulishen does not want to lose face.

But the magistrate allows Li Du to stay for dinner at his mansion. The town is abuzz with activity and visitors, and the magistrate has many guests. China is a closed country, with Jesuits being the only foreigners allowed in the empire. The Emperor favors the order because of their extensive knowledge, and the priests are eager to learn about Chinese history, customs and culture.

There are two Jesuits staying with the magistrate — Brother Martin and Brother Pieter. Other guests include the Arab storyteller, Hamza, who entertains with his tales and Sir Nicholas Grey an ambassador from the East India Company who is to present the Emperor with gifts, and perhaps gain trading rights within the empire.

The household is run by Tulishen’s favorite consort Lady Chen, who has yet to provide the magistrate with a son, Jia Huan the administrator’s efficient secretary, Old Mu the recordkeeper, Mu Gao, the librarian and Old Mu’s cousin, as well as various other staff, including the disgruntled but pretty maid, Bao.

Tulishen hosts an elaborate dinner for his guests, and Hamza provides the entertainment after the meal with his storytelling. Several people come and go during the story, including Brother Pieter, who is later found murdered in his room.

It is imperative that the murderer be caught before the imperial visit in six days. The magistrate calls on his cousin, Li Du, to remain in Dayan to solve the mystery of the murder.

False leads have Li traveling to visit the Khampa traders outside the town, interviewing members of the household, the guests, as well as a few outsiders. Hamza, who is staying at the same inn as Li Du, often discusses the case with Li. The motive for the murder is increasingly confusing and most believe Li Du will not be able to solve the crime prior to the powerful Kangxi’s eclipse.

At first, I was confused about the plot of the book. Jade Dragon Mountain starts with a brief history of the Yunnan territory, the reason for the presence of Jesuits, and background information on the Qing Dynasty. The story is told in 1780, but flashes back to the first decade of the century. Up until the murder, it wasn’t clear where the story was headed.

However, Li Du’s adventures lead the reader into the meat of the mysterious murder. As a historical mystery, the important role of the Jesuits, provincial and imperial politics and history, the inner-workings of a magistrate’s estate, and the politics of trade are explained.

The murderer is elusive, the rush to find the culprit is critical, and the suspects are many. The book was hard to put away when other priorities called. I found myself thinking about the characters and the country wile anxiously waiting to get back to Jade Dragon Mountain to learn more about the hunt and the era.

Once the story gains traction, Elsa Hart’s fast-paced debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain is an intriguing murder mystery wrapped up in historic background. Much is learned about China’s culture at the beginning of the 18th century while Li Du sets about solving the problem of the Jesuit’s untimely death. Elsa Hart is a new author worth following.

With thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at Lauren Willig’s “The Other Daughter”

The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter

Lauren Willig

St. Martin’s Press

July 21, 2015

304 pages

$25.99

Rachel Woodley, raised in a remote English village by her widowed mother Katherine, is employed as a governess in France. After several years abroad, Rachel receives a telegram, maliciously and intentionally delayed by a member of the household staff. The news is horrible. Rachel’s beloved mother is bedridden with influenza and Rachel is summoned home.

She arrives home to find her mother dead and buried, and receives notice from the landlord that she has but a few days to move out of the home she has shared with her mother since the death of her father Edward, a botanist. Amongst her mother’s belongings Rachel discovers a recent photo of her father, now called Lord Ardmore, escorting his daughter Lady Olivia to a debutante ball.

Suddenly, the only life Rachel has known is a lie. Her father is an earl, her mother his mistress, and she has a half-sister — the legitimate daughter — she has never met or heard of.

A visit to her Cousin David, keeper of the family secrets, confirms that the Woodleys have been quietly living a lie for decades. Rachel storms out of her cousin’s digs, determined to confront the father she remembered so fondly, and who abandoned his by-blow family.

A chance encounter with gossip columnist Simon Montfort gives Rachel the opportunity to enter London’s aristocratic social circle of Bright Young Things under the assumed name of Vera Merton. Simon supplies the flat, the attire and image that Vera needs to gain a toehold with this crowd, and Simon gains a new subject for his column. Rachel’s ultimate goal — to be given an invitation to her father’s estate where she will challenge Lord Ardmore’s duplicity, and force him to acknowledge her.

Rachel soon finds out that there are a myriad of rules governing the behavior of the BYTs, and struggles to remain herself while pretending to be one of the fast crowd. She learns that even the most superficial and shallow of her new friends are complicated companions. Vera also discovers the far-reaching effects of The Great War on soldiers, their families and friends, nearly ten years after the Armistice.

In The Other Daughter, Lauren Willig displays a flair for societal and historical details, develops complex and conflicted characters, presents surprising plot twists and delves into the manner in which deceit and lies become tangled, taking on a life of their own. The conclusion of the novel is surprising and satisfying, and in keeping with the true personalities of the characters.

I have wanted to read one of Lauren Willig’s novels for some time. Courtesy of NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, an advance copy of Willig’s latest novel The Other Daughter, was made available to me in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A lookery at “The Flying Circus” by Susan Crandall

The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

Susan Crandall

Gallery Books

July 7, 2015

368 pages

$26.00

Author Susan Crandall first caught my attention with her recent novel Whistling Past the Graveyard, which I always recommend to readers looking for a wonderful title. Her newest novel, The Flying Circus is likewise excellent.

Set in the Midwest shortly after the Great War, a trio of misfits come together by accident to form an aeroplane and motorcycle barnstorming act. Meet Henry Schuler Jefferson, on the run from his Indiana foster home and in great fear of being arrested for a heinous crime; Cora Rose Haviland, a tomboy of a socialite who escapes on her brother’s motorcycle the stultifying life as a marriageable debutante; and Charles “Gil” Gilcrest, a daredevil pilot and veteran of World War I — with a past, a secret and a death wish — who flies from town to town earning his living as a barnstormer. The new act, Mercury’s Daredevils, features Gil as the pilot, Cora as the racing motorcyclist with a mutt, and Henry, who acts as the show’s mechanic. The little group has modest success with their act until they encounter Hoffman’s Flying Circus — a professional air show featuring several pilots with shiny new planes.

It becomes obvious to the three friends that they must join the larger group in order to survive as an act and to keep flying. Cora has learned to fly, becoming a rare female pilot. She also has a strong desire to pursue daring stunts in the air. Henry signs on as part of the mechanical crew and a stunt coordinator and is thrilled to be on the move farther away from Indiana. Gil begrudgingly joins the Flying Circus too, moody as always with his secret past hidden at the bottom of a bottle.

When winter arrives, Hoffman’s Flying Circus goes on hiatus. Gil returns to his home while Cora and Henry strike out for Santa Monica, California. There, Cora hopes to find a career in films as a stunt pilot. What Henry and Cora find in California astonishes them and brings unwanted pain and attention to the fugitive and the debutante.

Each character is hiding a secret. As they return to their base camp, secrets and lies begin to unravel. Crandall slowly, teasingly, offers up bits of information on each intricately designed character. By the time all three of the show people are back together, it is uncertain how Henry, Gil and Cora are going to fare. The three of them are caught in their lies as their lives fall apart just in time for an air race in Miami with a big cash prize.

Susan Crandall brings to life both the post World War I prejudices as well as the flashy and phony life of early Hollywood. Her characters are flawed but genuine human beings, who have banded together to form a family. The awe-inspiring world of early aviation is explored in detail, illuminating the glory, the wonder and the disasters of flight.

The Flying Circus gives a glimpse into the current and future states of aviation. It also exposes the effects of war and narrow-mindedness in both the upper echelon of society and the working class. Susan Crandall’s novel shows her readers that everyone has a past and secrets that bring out the best and the worst in people. It also depicts the importance of family and friendship, which make us better human beings. One of the most anticipated releases of the summer, The Flying Circus will entertain readers on every page. And once you’ve finished The Flying Circus, read Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard, too. Neither novel will disappoint.

With thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for a preview copy of this novel in return for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A Mother’s Day lookery at “The Mapmaker’s Children” by Sarah McCoy

Mapmaker's Children

The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

Crown Publishers

May 5, 2015

320 pages

$25.00


In honor of Mother’s Day today in the United States, this lookery examines two women who redefine “mother” and “children” in Sarah McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children.

To be frank, the opening paragraph of this historical novel did not appeal to me. If I had picked up the book in a bookstore, it would have gone right back onto the shelf. However, because Crown Publishers were kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review, I stuck with it — and I’m glad that I gave this novel another chance. The following pages were well worth reading.

Sarah Brown is a daughter of abolitionist John Brown. Her story starts in New Elba, New York in 1859. Although her age is not revealed, she seems to be in her teens. She has barely survived a wide-spread plague of dysentery, only to overhear her physician tell her mother that Sarah would never be able to have children. Mrs. Brown is devastated by the news. Who would love and marry her barren daughter?

Fast forward to 2014, New Charlestown, West Virginia, where Eden and Jack Anderson have moved into an older suburban home. Like Sarah, Eden is not been to conceive, in spite of years of trying and enduring various fertility treatments. As much as she loves Jack, Sarah’s mood swings and other treatment side effects have left her feeling hopeless and on the verge of proceeding with a divorce.

Jack attempts to enlarge their household with the addition of a dog. Eden is NOT amused, and rejects the pet at once. Jack travels for work, so he hires Cleo, a ten-year-old girl to care for Cricket until he can find the mutt a new home. Although Eden and Jack have lived in the small town for some months, Eden’s unsettled health kept them housebound. Cleo becomes Eden’s guide to life in the hamlet of New Charlestown.

The author alternates between Sarah’s and Eden’s stories. Sarah stumbles upon her father’s secret Underground Railroad (UGRR) activities late one night. She draws a map to guide an illiterate group of slaves to safety. John Brown and his select group of trusted friends of the railroad are so impressed by the simplicity and accuracy of Sarah’s map, that they swear her to secrecy and set her to work on creating pictures with hidden codes and symbols directing escaping slaves to freedom in the North.

Eden and Cleo become close friends as Eden drifts away from Jack. Soon the two are cooking organic dog food for Cricket. Keeping her strange eyes on the cooks is an antique porcelain doll’s head found when Cricket discovered a forgotten root cellar beneath Eden’s home.

Back in the nineteenth century, John Brown is arrested for his part in ambushing the Harper’s Ferry armory. Sarah, her mother and sisters rush to Virginia to see the horribly wounded prisoner before his death sentence is carried out. The Hill family are their hosts in New Charlestown, and also trusted friends with an active role in the Freedom Train. George Hill and his son Freddy accept Sarah’s involvement as well, although her family remains ignorant of her activities. The Browns return to their home in New York, but Sarah and Freddy maintain a lifelong friendship and correspondence.

McCoy traces the life of Sarah and the Brown and Hill families based on documents and research into the families’ histories. She ties Sarah’s life to Eden’s, a century and a half later using compellingly believable creative license as well as historical facts. Both women’s stories are intriguing — one real, one fictional. With letters, newspaper articles and other devices, author Sarah McCoy has created an exceptionally readable novel of two women’s struggles to define themselves in their personal lives and communities. Meticulously researched, but never dry or boring, The Mapmaker’s Children is a testament to the abilities of women to take on the mantle of motherhood without being broodmares both one hundred fifty years ago and today.

A lookery at “The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand” by Elizabeth Berg

Dream Lover

The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg

Random House

April 14, 2015

368 pages

$28.00

The prolific author George Sand, born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in 1804 to an aristocratic father and commoner mother, is the subject of Elizabeth Berg’s, The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand. This fictionalized autobiography, written in the style of a personal memoir of Sand’s is typical of the era of the 19th century, giving the reader some insight into how the writer viewed her life experiences.

Aurore was raised by her paternal grandmother on the family’s country estate of Nohant, where as a child she was tutored by the philosopher Deschatres. Her grandmother tried to instill the duties of a lady in Aurore, who preferred nature and freedom to the conventions of her time. At the age of eighteen, she married Casimir Dudevant and later gave birth to a daughter and son. However, Aurore was bored with domestic life, and eventually separated from Casimir, sharing custody of the children with him. Although Aurore was wealthy in her own right, under French law her husband had control of her finances. Unhappy with his wife’s decision to move to Paris for a more exciting existence, Casimir allotted her a pittance of an allowance. Eventually the couple sought a formal and legal separation (divorce being illegal in France), and Aurore took the children to live with her.

Realizing that she would have to work to support the lifestyle she wanted to experience in Paris, Aurore began writing for a local paper in tandem with another journalist, and eventually took the nom de plume of George Sand. As a theater critic for the newspaper, Sand was required to pay her own admission to the plays she reviewed. At the suggestion of her editor, she dressed in men’s clothing to gain access to the less expensive seats in the house. Sand discovered great freedom dressed as a male, and continued to dress as one the rest of her life, although she carried on numerous affairs with men.

Among her friends and lovers were Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Gustave Flaubert, Alfred de Musset and the actress Marie Dorval. Her social and intellectual circle consisted of some of the greatest minds of the European Enlightenment. Sand was often perceived as a promiscuous and fickle bisexual lover, even to this day. In Berg’s novel, she is portrayed as a woman constantly searching for true love. Love, not necessarily sex, is what drove Sand’s affairs, but she was rarely satisfied with her romantic relationships. At the end of her life, she discovers her key to true and constant love, and also realizes which of her many lovers was the one that captured her heart.

At times long-winded, The Dream Lover:  A Novel of George Sand can be difficult to read. The stylized writing and Sand’s constantly shifting romantic loyalties begin to wear on the reader. However, for fans of George Sand who’d like to discover more about the woman’s thoughts and heart, this novel explores the mind of the great writer. It is not simply biographical details of the author’s life; Elizabeth Berg’s novel is an interesting view of this extraordinarily gifted woman’s unconventional life in 19th century France.

Thank you to the publisher, Random House and NetGalley for a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A Lookery at “Leaving Berlin” by Joseph Kanon

leaving-berlin

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
Atria (Simon and Schuster)
March 3, 2015
384 pages

Alex Stein, a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany to America with the help of close family friends, is now going back to Russian-occupied Berlin, leaving behind his son Peter, and his estranged wife, Marjorie. Stein is a victim of McCarthyism, refusing to inform on his friends who may have Communist sympathies. Singled out because of his membership in the Party prior to World War II, Stein is forced to leave the United States for being in contempt of the Congressional committee.

Alex is asked by the precursor to the CIA to “keep his eyes open” while in Berlin; the incentive to comply with this request being the possibility of returning to the U.S. and his family.

Such is the premise of Joseph Kanon’s latest espionage thriller Leaving Berlin.

But immediately on arrival in the divided city, Alex’s singular contact with the U.S. government is killed, and he is left adrift without support from his adopted homeland. He is welcomed by the German Kulturbund, which is recruiting previously exiled artists to create a new artistic community in the Russian sector of Berlin. There he meets old friends — actors, directors, playwrights, poets, authors and of course, Irene, an old flame who is part of the family that helped him escape to the U.S. fifteen years ago.

But there is no free ride in the new Germany, under Russian control in the East. Before long, Stein is asked to inform on certain members of the Kulturbund and is unwittingly tricked into reporting on friends’ activities and conversations. At the same time, the U.S. makes contact with their green asset and pumps Alex for kernels of information on Russian and German actions only whispered about in the West.

Alex becomes involved with hiding Erich, an extremely ill escaped political prisoner. Friend and family ties are tested in the efforts to heal and hide the young man. When Stein makes arrangements to get his friend to the safety in the West, all hell breaks loose.

It is at this point that Joseph Kanon’s expertise at plot twists involving betrayals and secrets becomes evident. His characters don’t know who to trust and the tension and their fear is palpable on the page. Leaving Berlin is an excellent look at the emerging Communist society of what will become East Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift, the appalling rubble and ruin towering everywhere one looks and the confusion and fear of average citizens (even those who support Communism) is reported faithfully by author Kanon.

An insightful look into the fledgling East German Communist society, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin is a tension-filled exciting page-turner. Recommended for fans of the early days of the Cold War and post WWII espionage and politics.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon is courtesy of the publisher Atria (Simon and Schuster) and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A Lookery at: “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” by Heinz Kohler

7684584

 

My Name Was Five:  A Novel of World War II

Heinz Kohler

Mill City Press, 1979, 2004, 2009

$17.95

I am a big fan of World War II literature, both fiction and non-fiction. “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” by Heinz Kohler is an excellent example of the blending of fact and fiction about the Second World War as viewed from the perspective of a young boy (Hans) who was born at the time that Hitler came into power.

Hans, his mother and his younger brother Helmut spend most of the war living in Berlin. His father is in a concentration camp for being a political enemy of the Nazi regime, but is released when it becomes apparent that more men are needed to keep the German war machine in action. An exceptionally bright boy, Hans is intellectually encouraged from a very young age by his mother, father and Aunt Martel. Naturally curious, he asks dangerous questions about Nazi policies and eavesdrops on conversations that are not meant for little boys. However, it is obvious that his parents, their friends and some of their family do not buy the Nazi rhetoric. They listen to illegal broadcasts from the BBC as often as possible. Hans collects handbills, posters, newspaper articles and propaganda about the war and Nazi policies. Throughout the book, much of this type of material is reproduced.

When Hans first attends school, he and his classmates are assigned seats according to their academic abilities. Hans sits in seat five, near the top of his class, and is thereafter called “Five” and not Hans, until his classroom status moves up or down. Even at school, which is run along party lines, Hans asks intelligent, controversial questions and writes thoughtful essays that often perplex and infuriate his teachers. His best friend, Dieter does not excel academically, but the boys are nearly inseparable. When disaster strikes Dieter, Hans’ life changes, and the episode haunts him for the rest of his life.

Eventually Hans, Helmut and their mother leave Berlin to live in a village that is relatively safe from Allied attacks. However, in the village, as in Berlin, aunts and uncles who support the Nazis make life difficult for Hans’ family. When the Russians liberate his village, the town becomes part of East Germany and is under Communist control. These same family members jump ship and become supportive of the new government, while Hans and his parents continue to doubt and question the new regime. Under the Stalinist rule, Hans is one of the very few students selected to attend high school away from his home in the village, thanks to the pull of an uncle who has become mayor of the little town.

Once Hans graduates from high school, his family makes a daring decision that saves them from a life of repression. But the wartime experience continues to cause trouble Hans for decades to come.

Written from an unusual point of view, “My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War” is fascinating in its details and insight into the life of Germans that were not supportive of Hitler’s policies, trying to survive first in a war-torn city that is the seat of power for the Nazi government, and later, in a village absorbed into a new country with a different, and equally repressive form of government. As the population of the WWII generation ages and passes on, it seems that more information is being revealed, shedding light on how average citizens were affected by this horrific time in history. Heinz Kohler writes an amazing account of a child’s exposure to war that should not be missed.

Five eyes from thebooklookery.

A Lookery at: Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone”

The Chaperone

Laura Moriarty

Penguin Books (2012)

$26.95

The Chaperone, written by Laura Moriarty, is billed by many sources as one of this summer’s “must-reads”. This title was high on my reading list, so when it was featured as a Kindle Daily Deal at a fraction of the price of a hardback, I snatched it up and downloaded it immediately.

Setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, Cora Carlisle agrees to chaperone teenager Louise Brooks on a six week visit to New York City, where Louise intends to study dance with the famed Denishawn Dance Company. Thirty-six-year-old Cora is a well-regarded woman in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. She is married, the mother of twin boys bound for college in the fall.

Louise Brooks is fifteen, beautiful, arrogant and sexually precocious, and is anxious to leave the cultural confines of the Midwest. Louise sees no need for a chaperone, and defies convention from the moment she and Cora step foot in the Wichita train station. Her seductive nature and actions become even more pronounced as the women travel further east.

Cora has her own secrets and motives for visiting New York in the summer of 1922, known only to her husband. She explores both the vibrant city and her past – hidden from the conservative citizens of Kansas – while Louise practices with the dance company. But while Cora tries to keep Louise’s wild and artistic personality in check fearing that the young girl might sully her reputation, Cora’s eyes are opened to new possibilities for leading a more liberating life when she returns home.

After training for several weeks, Louise earns a spot in the Denishawn Dance Company before eventually heading to Hollywood. There she becomes a film star known for her beauty, her modern bobbed hair and her sex appeal.

Although it is Louise who moves on to great fame as a screen actress, it is Cora’s life that the reader explores in greater depth. Firm beliefs about hemlines, hairstyles, birth control (believe it or not, a well-known household disinfectant advertised itself as a prophylactic in the twenties), and racism are all tested while in NYC. Before returning to the Midwest, Cora makes a life-changing decision. She alters her outlook on the myriad of cultural possibilities taking place in American society. Louise is a flash-in-the-pan success in the film industry, while Cora seizes new opportunities. A respected woman in Wichita, Cora works to influence her community to embrace the progressive transformations emerging in more metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Laura Moriarty has meticulously researched the material used in her novel The Chaperone. A bibliography illustrates how the author incorporates the tiniest of details into the fictional life of Cora, while staying true to the story of real-life film actress Louise Brooks. But rather than create a biography of Louise and her crash and burn career, Professor Moriarty shows how an average woman in the guise of Cora Carlisle – a mere chaperone – can change her life and that of others by an experience which exposes her to a life she might have never known as a privileged homemaker in America’s breadbasket.

An interesting look at the changes in society during the 20th century (particularly those concerning women), The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty has earned four eyes from thebooklookery. The bohemian life led by Louise seems more believable than the duplicitous life that Cora creates after her visit to the Big Apple, however; the overview of women’s history during the 20th century is excellent.