What’s Ashley Reading?: The Last Year of the War

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

First line: I’ve a thief to thank for finding the one person I need to see before I die.

Summary: Elise Sontag, a fourteen year old girl from Iowa, has her life turned upside down when her father is arrested on the suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. Her family is sent to an internment camp in Texas where she meets her best friend, a Japanese girl named Mariko. They spend several months together before Elise’s family is deported back to Germany. In the hopes of keeping their friendship alive the two exchange letters but it is difficult with the ongoing war. However, Elise keeps up hope that after the war ends she will be able to return to America and see her best friend again.

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed this story. The last several books have not been as good as Secrets of a Charmed Life which was my first book I read by Susan Meissner. It is a topic that has not been talked about much and it could be because it is embarrassing but it is our history and we need to acknowledge it. And learn from it too. I cannot imagine how shocking it would be to have everything taken from you and being forced to live in basically a prison. Then to be sent back to a land that they had left or never even lived before. Especially with a war on and cities are being heavily bombed. How do you rationalize that?

The time spent in camp was actually a very small part of the book. Most of it took place in Germany after Elise’s family is repatriated. I liked listening to her story as she navigates this foreign land in wartime. She did not speak German which put her in a tight spot since the Germans were at war with America. I highly recommend this to anyone who loves a story set during World War II.

FYI: Definitely check out Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait

The only surviving piece of Dusseldorf’s City Palace, the birthplace of Anna of Kleve.

On my most recent trip to Germany I had the privilege to visit Dusseldorf and Schloss Burg, the home of Anna of Kleve. Before I visited my brother in law told me about this castle. I knew I had to see it for myself. It was a long hike through the woods and up the hill to this fortress but it was worth every step. It overlooks the town of Solingen, a picturesque town in Western Germany. Even though very little is mentioned about Anna at the castle it is where she spent much of her childhood leading up to her marriage to King Henry VIII.

Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait by Alison Weir

First line: Anna peered through the window of the gatehouse, watching the chariot trundling through below, enjoying the rich sensuousness of the new silk gown she was wearing, and conscious of her parents’ expectations of her.

Summary: Anna of Kleve is the daughter of a German duke. She is raised to be the wife of a powerful man. When Henry VIII is unexpectedly widowed, he is in search of a fourth wife. His ministers look to Anna for this honor. As Anna embarks on the journey to England she worries about what her life will be like as the Queen of England. After her initial encounter with her future husband her worries mount. Does he like her? He does not appear to. However, as the first months of her marriage progress her worries begin to vanish. Then she receives news that the king has grave doubts about their union. What does this mean for Anna? Will he send her to her death like one of her predecessors?

Anna’s father and brother’s portraits from the entrance hall at Schloss Burg.
The entrance to Schloss Burg, the home of the Dukes of Kleve.

My Thoughts: Anna is probably one of the least talked about of Henry’s wives. I have read numerous books about the other five but she seems to be largely forgotten. This is rather sad because she was probably the luckiest of the six wives.

I really enjoyed learning more about her life before, during and after her marriage. She led such a sheltered life before coming to England. I cannot imagine the shock of life in Henry’s court compared to Kleve. And the fact that her husband is an obese man who had killed a previous wife. How terrifying! Her reign as queen was a very short lived one. However, she seemed to have made quite an impression on the people of England. I was very frustrated reading about the struggles she had to deal with after the death of the king. She was an important lady and was treated very badly by the men who ran the government of the new king, Edward VI.

A stunning view from the tower of Schloss Burg.

Weir took a lot of liberties with the history by adding in a romance that has no basis in fact. Even though it deviates from the record it was fun to read and imagine that Anna had some love in her life.

This is not a book that can be read quickly. There is tons of information, characters and time to cover. I spent several weeks slowly working my way through the narrative but I found it fascinating. Weir does a great job bringing life to the wives. I am highly anticipating her books on Katheryn Howard and Katherine Parr.

FYI: This is book four in the Six Tudor Queens series by Alison Weir.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Lisa and Lottie

I had never heard of Erich Kastner before my recent trip to Dresden, Germany.  I passed by the museum dedicated to him and his work several times.  My German sister, Elisabeth, told me that I needed to read some of his books.  I was lucky to find two on Hoopla. Luckily we have such an amazing database available for our patrons where they can find obscure books, music and movies. While I was searching I even stumbled across the fact that patrons can check out items in foreign languages as well. As I continue to work on my German I will keep this in mind to help with my study.

Lisa and Lottie is a story that is very well known but under a different name, The Parent Trap. Who knew?! Not me for sure.

*This is only available via Hoopla or interlibrary loan.*

Lisa and Lottie by Erich Kastner

First line: Do you happen to know Bohrlaken?

Summary: When Lisa from Vienna meets Lottie from Munich at summer camp, they realize that they are identical twins who have been separated at a very young age. During the weeks at camp they devise a plan to switch places without telling their parents.

Highlights: This was a fun little story that I know very well. I have watched both versions of The Parent Trap (Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan) and loved them. Kastner’s story is a little less detailed than the movie versions but still a fun novel for young kids. The illustrations were very simple and worked well within the story especially when we see the twins together. I am glad that I picked this up and I plan to read a few more of Kastner’s books as well.

FYI: This is only available in digital format on Hoopla or you can interlibrary loan it as well.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Only Woman in the Room

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

First line: My lids fluttered open, but the floodlights blinded me for a moment.

Summary: Hedy Kiesler was a young actress in Austria in 1933 when she meets Fritz Mandl, a munitions manufacturer. Her parents urge her to marry him in order to keep her safe with the threat of Nazi Germany looming over much of Europe. However, married life is not what she imagined. After fleeing her husband and the coming war, she travels to Hollywood and becomes the famously beautiful, Hedy Lamarr. As the path to war progresses, Hedy is determined to help save as many people as she can, even with very unconventional ways.

Highlights: Going into this novel I knew next to nothing about Hedy Lamarr. The one interaction with her was on the show, Timeless. I think this is one reason that I devoured this book. I did not know what to expect. Many authors have been taking readers back to the golden days of Hollywood but this is by far my favorite! Marie Benedict does a fantastic job of blending truth and fiction.

Hedy is not the normal Hollywood actress. She had other interests and was very intelligent. Her work on the guidance systems for torpedoes was leagues ahead of anyone else. It took months of work but she was not taken seriously by the men of the time. The technology is still used today in cell phones! Even though she has been called the most beautiful woman in the movies she wanted to be defined by more than that.

“Let me understand.  You are turning down our invention—which would have made your fleet unsurpassed in ocean warfare—because I’m a woman?  A famous one that you’d rather have shilling war bonds than helping build effective systems?  I can do both, you know—sell bonds and assist with your torpedoes, if that’s what it takes.”

After finishing her story I picked up the documentary, Bombshell, which goes past Benedict’s narrative but is a great companion to it. As with all the other Hollywood stories, I had to interlibrary loan several of Hedy’s movies. I cannot wait to watch them!

Lowlights: At first I was irritated that we spent such a long time in Austria and centering around her life with her husband as I read though the pacing made more sense. When Hedy arrives in the United States, she feels the guilt of leaving behind her loved ones. In addition, the knowledge she gains from her time with her husband help inform her for her inventions. I was sad that it ended so soon when there was still so much of her life to live but I think that now I have had time to reflect that the author made a good choice of ending it where she did.

FYI: If you enjoyed this than try books by Susan Meissner and Melanie Benjamin.

**Release date: January 8, 2019**

Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

First line: The Nazi officers are dressed in black.

Summary: Based on the true life events of Dita Kraus we see the courage and strength of the prisoners of Auschwitz. The story follows Dita, a fourteen-year-old girl, and her parents as they are transported to the death camp. Upon arriving, they are assigned to the family camp. Dita is made to work in the “school” where she meets Freddy Hirsch, the Jewish leader in charge of the children of Auschwitz. Hirsch gives Dita that responsibility of hiding and taking care of the contraband books, becoming the librarian of Auschwitz.

Highlights: I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I do. And this one is beautiful. I absolutely love it. The story is so rich and detailed but heartbreaking at the same time. I have read many accounts of the Holocaust. The strength of the people who lived and endured these hardships is hard to read but they need to be. No one should be allowed to forget these stories and atrocities have happened. I cannot imagine having the courage that Dita has. She was fourteen and risked her life for the love of books and reading. She kept her humanity in the worst possible situation. I loved how the author intermixed the stories that she read into the narrative. We, as the reader, get to experience what kept her going during the dark days.

Lowlights: Several other narratives of fellow prisoners at Auschwitz are woven into Dita’s story. I was confused at times when the story changed narrators.

FYI: Great as an audiobook!

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege, Nicola Sellmair, and Carolin Sommer (translator)

First line: It is the look on the woman’s face that seems familiar.

Summary: Jennifer Teege was shocked when she learned about her family history while browsing her local library. When she picked up a book and scanned the pictures inside, she was shocked to see her biological mother. As she continued to read, the book followed her mother’s struggle to love her father, Amon Goeth, who was the commandant of the concentration camp depicted in the movie Schindler’s List. Jennifer was adopted at a young age but she had had contact with her biological mother and grandmother as a child. She was never told her family’s past and now she has to come to terms with what they did and did not know.

Dachau (near Munich, Germany)

Highlights: Fascinating story! I have visited Dachau in Germany and felt the heaviness that still surrounds the place. I read this in two days because I had to know more about her and what she learned. The story is interspersed with information and interviews done by one of the coauthors. The pictures were a great addition so I could see what the people looked like.

Lowlights: Some places were a little repetitive. She kept reiterating several key points. I think that it was a strategy to remind the reader but since I read it very quickly they were redundant.

FYI: Originally written in German.

Looking at the rows that once were the barracks.

This book was something I came across when checking in returns and was immediately struck by the title.  I saw the movie Schindler’s List many years ago but I remembered the basics of the story.  I was extremely interested in anything to do with World War II and the Holocaust.  I have read The Diary of Anne Frank, Numbering the Stars by Lois Lowry, The Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene and so many more. I have been able to visit Germany four times and see historical sites but nothing can prepare you for visiting one of the concentration camps.

Crematorium

My first visit to Dachau, the first concentration camp in Germany, was when I was about 10 years old.  It was a scary and disturbing time.  I remember asking to go sit outside because I was getting physically sick. I was able to visit a second time when I was in college and could understand the significance of the place and its history.

I re-watched Schindler’s List recently and was once again shocked by the brutality.  Spielberg and his film convey the heaviness that these places still carry decades later.

It is important to remember these events and learn from them.  As the monument at Dachau says, “Never Again.”

Book Review: The Book Jumper

The Book Jumper by Mechthild Glaser

First Line: Will ran.

Summary: Amy and her mother, Alexis, decide to make a trip to Scotland to their family estate on an island called Stormsay.  When they arrive at the ancestral home and she finally meets her mother’s family she learns a secret that will take her love of reading to a whole new level.  The two families that live on the island are able to jump into books and interact with the characters and story. Their mission in life is to protect the stories and keep them running smoothly.  On her first day of lessons as a book jumper she enters the world of The Jungle Book but as the days pass things in the literary world start falling apart. It appears that someone is stealing ideas from stories!

Highlights: Once again the cover caught my attention. But the idea that someone could jump into a story and live along with the characters is a dream come true.  What story would I jump into?  The possibilities are endless. The little twists were fun and kept you wondering.  The other stories were chosen well with a variety of different themes.

Lowlights: Spoilers. Several of the books that are mentioned I have not read but the plot gives away the endings to many of them.  It made sense for the story and it isn’t a major problem but it was a little frustrating.

FYI: This story was originally published in German.