What’s Ashley Reading?: Mistress of the Ritz

Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

First line: Blanche is dead.

Summary: Blanche Auzello, the wife of the Ritz hotel director, is living a beautiful life in Paris until June 1940 when the Nazis invade. They take over the grand hotel and life changes drastically. Life under the occupation becomes strained especially for Blanche who is hiding a secret that could potentially harm her and those she loves. However, she and her husband are determined to do what they can for France and the staff of the Ritz, even if it means their lives are forfeit.

My Thoughts: I am a big fan of Melanie Benjamin. Her novels are always very interesting and filled with fascinating women. I had never heard of Blanche or her husband before picking up this novel. It sounds like life in Paris was very tense during the occupation but not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be. It seems as if people continued to live life as normal as possible during those years.

Melanie Benjamin at Watermark books on May 28, 2019.

One of the issues I had with the story was that it seemed to almost center on her husband, Claude, rather than her. He references her often and thinks about her during his chapters but he almost takes over the narrative. And strangely I enjoyed his storyline more than hers. He could be a jerk but his story was more interesting except for when Blanche was with her friend, Lily.

FYI: Perfect for fans of Kate Quinn’s book, The Alice Network.

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?: American Duchess

American Duchess by Karen Harper

First line: Everyone was calling it the wedding of the century.

Summary: Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American heiress to the railroad empire, is marrying the future Duke of Marlborough. However, she is in love with someone else and is being forced into the marriage by her strong willed mother, Alva Smith Vanderbilt. The marriage is an unhappy one but Consuelo hopes to use her influence as the Duchess of Marlborough to help the lower classes living around Blenheim Palace.

My Thoughts: I have been a reader of Karen Harper for many years. I really enjoy her historical fiction even though she seems to elaborate her narratives a bit. Her most recent novel was a fast read about one of the American heiresses whose money helped sustain the British aristocracy. Having recently read, A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler, I was familiar with the Vanderbilt family at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Alva was a force to be dealt with but it sounds like her daughter learned a lot from her mother. I loved hearing about Consuelo’s life and the way she tried to improve her circumstances and those of the poor. I cannot imagine living her life though. She was forced into a marriage, had unimaginable wealth and was very unhappy for many years. Harper does a great job of breathing life into her characters. I loved “meeting” Winston Churchill. As with most historical novels, I googled many of the locations and people to see what they really looked like. This was a fun romp through the Gilded Age and into the time of the world wars.

FYI: This is perfect for fans of Downton Abbey!

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Huntress

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

First line: She was not used to being hunted.

Summary: Nina dreamed of becoming a pilot. When the German army attacks her native Russia, she enlists to help her country fight its invaders. As one of the all-female bomber regiment called the Night Witches, she gets her wish. Until one day when she goes down behind enemy lines and encounters the evil villainous known as the Huntress.

Ian Graham spent the war years as a war correspondent. He everything from the invasion of Omaha Beach to the Nuremburg Trials but he is determined to find and bring to justice one person, the Huntress. With a personal vendetta against the war criminal he joins an organization tasked with finding members of the Nazi party that escaped punishment.

Jordan McBride is a young girl and aspiring photographer in 1946. Her father recently married a mysterious Austrian widow but her story makes Jordan suspicious. The more she learns the less she trusts her. She is determined to find out who this woman is in order to protect her father.

Told in three narratives we piece together the story of the Huntress.

My Thoughts: From the very first chapter I was hooked. I have been a longtime fan of Kate Quinn and her newest novel does not disappoint. I think I can even say with confidence that it is her best book to date. I loved the different timelines and how each intertwine. This would be perfect for fans of historical fiction and mysteries.

Nina was by far my favorite character. She is strong woman but also has a deep seeded fear. I enjoyed seeing her change and grow throughout the story. She starts as a poor girl from eastern Russia who dreams of becoming a pilot. As the war progresses she discovers more about herself and the country she serves. I learned so much while reading her chapters. I had never heard of female bomber teams during World War II. Even though Russia has a history of being behind the times, this is a very progressive stance. And for them to be highly decorated after the war for their courage.

Read the author’s notes at the end for more background on the story. You can tell that Quinn did a lot of research to build her narrative.

FYI: This reminded me a lot of the new release movie, Operation Finale, starring Oscar Isaac. It follows the search and capture of Adolph Eichmann, the mastermind behind the Holocaust.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Kennedy Debutante

Learning about the lives of important figures in history is just fascinating.  Over the years I have started picking up more biographies because of my love of historical fiction.  Nonfiction has a bad reputation as boring.  This is not always the case.  Many nonfiction books now are reading almost like fiction.  They flow well and tell a great story.  I laughed out loud while listening to Tina Fey read her biography, Bossypants!  I was shocked while reading, A Stolen Life, by Jaycee Dugard.  I cannot wait to listen to the upcoming autobiography, Becoming, by former first lady, Michelle Obama.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Browse through our biographies (92s and 920s) and see what catches your eye.

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

First line: Presentation day.

Summary: In her debut novel, author Kerri Maher introduces us to Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy. She is the second oldest daughter of Ambassador Joe Kennedy Sr. While living in London Kick does everything a good debutante is supposed to do. She attends balls, is presented to the King and socializes with the aristocracy. However, she wants something more. When she meets Billy Hartington, the heir to the dukedom of Cavendish, she finds what she has been looking for. Their dreams are derailed when Hitler invades Poland and Kick is sent back to the United States. She becomes even more determined to return to England and the man she loves even if it means defying her family and her religion.

Highlights: A fantastic example of biographical fiction! Everyone in the U.S. has grown up hearing about John F. Kennedy and his family. However, I had never heard of his sister, Kathleen. I was fascinated by her story. She was a young debutante who was practically American royalty. She lived in England and fell in love with the heir to a dukedom. Her life though was not perfect. She had many struggles in her life.

My heart broke for her when her family and society were against her relationship because she was Catholic and he was Protestant. The author does a great job of bringing her confusion and inner battles to the reader. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for her to make a choice between the man she loved and her family. I liked this look into the life of the Kennedys. Her parents were very strong willed and wanted their children to achieve great success, which several of them reached. Kick became the rebellious one who followed her heart.

“At the end, she said, ‘I just don’t know what to do.  It’s all mixed up in my head–my mother, my father, his mother, his father, my religion, his religion, my heart.  I don’t know what to listen to.  None of them agree.'”

I was nearly in tears (which rarely happens) while finishing this book. The family became so real on the pages and their heartbreaks became mine as well. This was wonderfully researched and written. I cannot wait to see what Kerri Maher writes next!

Lowlights: While I appreciated the insight into Kick’s years of separation from Billy and the personal struggle to come to terms with what life with him would entail, I felt that it stretched out a little too much. For several chapters we watch as she continues to debate and think about her choices. I felt that this made us understand how important it was but at the same time, it slowed the plot down.

FYI: If you love the Kennedys or World War II historical fiction than I would highly recommend this!

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.”