Book review: ‘As Always, Jack’ by Emma Sweeney

Decades after her father’s plane goes down in the Atlantic, Emma Sweeney “meets” the pilot father she never knew through letters saved by her mother from the early days of their courtship. After her mother’s death, these letters — hidden since Emma’s childhood — give her a glimpse at the funny, charismatic and devoted man with whom Beebe had her sons and daughter: Emma herself, born after Jack’s death during the Cold War.

Jack met Beebe Mathewson in Coronado, Calif., just weeks before he was sent overseas with the Navy. Stationed in Hawaii and Tsingtao, China, Jack and Beebe’s nascent relationship begins with his acknowledgment that he’s utterly smitten with her — and their love only strengthens in the following months apart. In Emma Sweeney’s As Always, Jack, a collection of her father’s letters from 1946, we read only his missives to the beauty he left in California — but the affection between them is clear. It would have been wonderful to read Beebe’s letters, too, but they’re nowhere to be found; Emma notes that her heartbroken mother likely destroyed them after her husband’s death.

For me, the highlight of this short-but-sweet collection — published with a prologue and epilogue explaining family history and the letters’ significance — was learning how Emma felt about the father she never knew. Growing up, Emma’s questions about her family’s origins went unanswered. After her mom remarried when Emma was small, she was told to refer to her stepfather as “Dad” and her biological father as “Jack.” It made sense, I guess . . . considering her dad was gone. But it left Emma with a hole in her heart.

It’s hard to imagine Beebe’s heartache at having lost the love of her life — especially when no one could explain what became of him. Originally written off as “lost in the Bermuda Triangle,” the case was considered closed after the ’50s plane crash. It’s only in adulthood that Emma discovers what really became of Jack. When she finds her father’s letters, tucked away in a drawer, she knows intuitively that her mother left them for her alone to discover. It’s not hard to imagine they’d been hidden away for quite some time — a relic from a simpler time in Beebe’s life, before everything in her world went dark.

Though Jack’s letters to Beebe make up most of the book (and I enjoyed them), I found myself more interested in Emma’s childhood and the mystery of Jack’s plane crash. Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure most of us have a stack of letters just like Jack’s somewhere in a family attic. I grew up hearing stories of my great grandfather, a World War II veteran, and all the letters he wrote from China when my grandmother was young. I’ve held quite a few in my hands, actually, and talked about my great grandfather’s adventures abroad. Those letters? They’re treasures. My great grandfather’s descriptions of life in the service, the Kodak camera he purchased on the black market in China, the obvious love and devotion he had for his wife and daughter at home . . . they bring tears to my eyes. And Jack’s seem much the same.

Though the missives are likely reminiscent of many written in the 1940s, maybe that doesn’t matter. As Always, Jack is a pleasant read, one I devoured quickly; I chuckled a few times, shed a tear once or twice. I can’t imagine being Emma in that time following her mother’s passing, saying goodbye to one parent while just “meeting” another for the first time. Jack’s letters are a treasure for the Sweeney family — absolutely — and if you’re a World War II buff (though these were technically written after the war) who enjoys epistolary love stories, Sweeney’s collection is a heartwarming way to spend an afternoon.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316758582 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazon
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

GIVEAWAY update on 7/12: Congrats to Erin, lucky No. 5 in my entrants list. I’ve emailed you!

Book review: ‘Bridge of Scarlet Leaves’ by Kristina McMorris

Drama, romance, heartache — such themes are not uncommon in fiction set during World War II, but it’s been a while since a novel detailing many of war’s atrocities affected me so deeply. Though heavy (physically and metaphorically), Kristina McMorris’ Bridge of Scarlet Leaves was an engrossing, beautiful story that swept me away.

Deeply but secretly in love, Maddie Kern and Lane Moritomo are struggling to keep their romance a secret from TJ, Maddie’s older brother — though not because he’ll disapprove of their pairing on racial grounds, as others might. Lifelong best friends, TJ and Lane have been inseparable since childhood; their physical differences — the Kerns are white, the Moritomos Japanese-American — mean nothing. After Lane and Maddie elope, they spend a few blissful days together before reality returns — and hard. Just as they come back to their families in Los Angeles, the world changes forever: Pearl Harbor has been bombed.

Suddenly under suspicion by the friends and neighbors who once respected them, the Moritomos are divided and sent to Manzanar, a relocation camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Bolstered by the patriotism sweeping the U.S., TJ joins the military to fight for their country — both his and Lane’s. And the Moritomos? They just hope to survive, willing an end to prejudice and a war that has changed their lives forever.

Heavily researched without being academic, Bridget of Scarlet Leaves blends entertainment, heartbreak and history into one beautiful package. I was so invested in the characters and story that I read more than 300 pages in an evening — a personal best. By the novel’s close, I didn’t want to say goodbye. They’re the sort of families you root for and think about, forgetting for a moment they didn’t actually exist.

McMorris’ skills shine in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, which weaves real events, places and people into its cleverly-written, lovely story. As with Vivienne Schiffer’s Camp Nine, the first novel I read pertaining to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, readers can’t help but feel anger and shock over the treatment of men, women and children here on American soil. As I said then, it was necessary to remind myself this was a different time. Tensions were high. Life was tumultuous and uncertain. I would like to believe the decisions made then would not be the ones made now — and I’ll repeat that to myself, anyway.

A book of more than 400 pages might have been a slog without McMorris’ compassionate, multi-layered characters. I felt for Maddie and her plight, knowing the pull of love and the painful duties it demands of us. A talented violist, Maddie’s sacrifices went toe-to-toe with the losses felt by her Japanese husband and in-laws, and I couldn’t help but love this strong, resilient young woman. With her own family in tatters, Maddie wouldn’t let cultural differences divide her from the Moritomos — even with Lane’s mother, the indefagitable Kumiko, acting initially unfriendly and skeptical of her. I loved Lane’s little sister, Emma, and got teary-eyed when she deferred to Maddie as “older sister.” Their relationship was so sweet.

I was so caught up in the women’s stories — and their growing bond — that I occasionally forgot about TJ, Maddie’s brother, as he wound his way through the Pacific during Japanese attacks. His own relationship with Lane, now his brother-in-law, was heartbreaking. As close as brothers, TJ and Lane struggle with unfinished business and hurtful words when they’re both thrown into war. And though Lane is absolutely American, his skin color places him across a chasm during war. As I was reading, I craved resolution for the pair; even more than Lane reuniting with Maddie, I desperately wished he could set things right with TJ. Their friendship and care for one another are handled so well; it’s rare to see male bonds explored in such a tender, sincere way.

Familial duty, loyalty, pride, romance, suffering and loss — all themes explored in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, which provided many tearful and breathless moments for me. There’s so much to discuss, especially about Kumiko’s own past and pain, that my review could go on forever — but I’m sure you’re ready for a bathroom break. I’ll wrap it up: fans of historical fiction and family dynamics will find a heartbreaking, smart and fast-paced story in McMorris’ wonderful novel. Her author’s note at the conclusion — detailing her research, writing process and personal connections to the narrative — were fascinating, too. Go on and read it.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0758246854 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘We All Wore Stars’ by Theo Coster

More than 60 years after World War II, Theo Coster, a Dutch toymaker, sets about finding the students with whom he attended the Amsterdam Jewish Lyceum in 1941. One of them was Anne Frank.

Today Anne Frank’s Diary Of A Young Girl stands as one of the most important and heartbreaking documents to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust. To escape Nazi persecution, the Frank family famously went into hiding in a “Secret Annex” in Amsterdam, where they lived for two years until they were betrayed to the German Gestapo. Anne used her diary to detail her isolation and loneliness, her hopes and dreams, the boredom of living in confinement — and, of course, the constant fear of discovery.

But We All Wore Stars isn’t just Anne’s story. Author Theo Coster was a young classmate of Anne’s, a fellow 13-year-old without any ability to predict the horrors that were to come. Having survived the war in hiding, Coster fled to Israel and went on to create the popular board game “Guess Who?” Now in his 80s, Coster has been slowly sifting through his memories of the Holocaust and attempting to reconcile his survival against the millions who perished. Tracking down his former schoolmates, including Jacqueline van Maarsen, was part of a process of healing — and creating a voice with which to argue with dissenters who claim the Holocaust’s atrocities never happened.

The Holocaust is a tragedy I’ve spent many years studying. As a history minor in college, I took countless classes on American and World History — for fun. Among them was a Jewish Studies class focusing exclusively on the where, when, how and why of the Holocaust. Students openly cried during lectures, myself included, and our professor actually had to leave the room once to regain her composure. Some of the images we saw and stories we read will be sealed in my heart forever. It’s impossible to discuss the horrible scale of the Holocaust — or to even begin to comprehend the logistics required to execute the genocide of six million people.

And Coster doesn’t try. This isn’t a history lesson — in fact, considering how slim the memoir is, Coster assumes you understand the basics of the war and are familiar with Anne herself. We All Wore Stars is an exploration of how five of Anne’s former classmates survived, all going “underground” to avoid being shipped off to concentration or extermination camps, and Coster meets up with them again to discuss Anne and her short — but extraordinary — life.

No major revelations about Anne are revealed, but it’s fascinating to hear others’ take on her personality during their school years. Of the five featured, Jacqueline was probably closest to Anne. She survived the war believing, as many did, that the Frank family had successfully escaped to Switzerland. Anne’s father, the sole survivor of their family of four, had the heartbreaking task of delivering news of Anne’s death to Jacque. And Jacque was one of the first people to actually see The Diary after the war.

We All Wore Stars really humanizes Anne, smoothing away her fame to create a portrait of a girl who was just that: a girl. A 13-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood, ruined and robbed of her childhood as so many were. Described as clever and silly, confident and outspoken, none of Anne’s classmates had an inkling she was destined to become a writer. No one could have known that her singular voice would rise from the Holocaust as bright and clear as any — or that Diary Of A Young Girl would go on to be published in more than 60 languages, and remains the second most-read non-fiction book ever. Behind, you know, The Bible.

Coster describes his own feelings regarding how he is portrayed in Anne’s diary, noting with some bemusement that Anne calls him “a rather boring kid.” Called Maurice at birth, Coster adopted the name “Theo” as a less “Jewish-sounding” alternative as he tried to pass as a non-Jewish friend’s nephew during his time in hiding. The name stuck and has been legally changed, and Coster seems to view this as a way of shedding his pre-Holocaust identity. I can’t say I blame him.

We All Wore Stars works best as another glimpse at innocent people torn apart by Adolf Hitler’s regime. Though Anne Frank is the one to bring the classmates together again, the book is as much about their personal journeys as Anne’s life and death. Both a tribute to their famous classmate and everyone murdered by the Nazi Germany, We All Wore Stars is a moving look at life, humanity and friendship. Readers fascinated by Anne and interested in the personal voices of Holocaust survivors will find plenty to ponder here.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 023011444X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Bungalow’ by Sarah Jio

When her best friend announces she’s leaving to volunteer as a nurse in the heart of World War II, Anne Calloway doesn’t hesitate to join her. No matter that Anne is young and nearing her own wedding to a caring if bland sort of man. Seattle will always be home, Anne knows, but the opportunity to join Kitty in Bora-Bora is too exciting to forgo. Plus, everyone is joining up to serve our country — and shouldn’t she try to help the boys out there on the frontlines?

Postponing her nuptials, Anne journeys to Bora-Bora and begins the tiring, emotionally exhaustive work of caring for the men injured in the Pacific Rim. Always the rebellious one, Kitty wastes no time cavorting with the female-starved soldiers on the island. And Anne meets Westry Green, a charismatic and sensitive military man who shows her a seaside bungalow on a secluded strip of beach. With time, Anne’s connection to Westry only deepens — as does the mystery of who has committed a shocking murder nearby. And how Anne is to live with all that transpires.

Sarah Jio’s The Bungalow is a captivating, exciting read set in a tumultuous time in history. As a narrator, Anne is looking back on the events of 1942 through the patina of time. Now an elderly woman, Anne receives a letter from the past that reawakens many dormant thoughts about that sweltering year. At the encouragement of her granddaughter, Anne tells the story of Westry and Bora-Bora — and it’s startling how much of that time still haunts her. As more details are divulged, the past and present collide in some unexpected ways.

So here’s the thing: The Bungalow didn’t hold too many surprises for me. The plot hinges on some rather unbelievable coincidences and very heavy foreshadowing, and I didn’t feel an ounce of the shock I think I was supposed to experience. This typically irks me as a reader — all the obviousness — but you know what? I really liked his book. I read half of it sitting in a cafe, oblivious to all the noise and coffee-mug-clinking around me, then stayed up late to polish it off that same night.

Isn’t it funny how that happens?

As in her first book, The Violets of March, Jio masterfully transports us to a vulnerable point in American history. I was absolutely transfixed by Anne’s story, wondering endlessly how she was going to weigh her passionate love for Westry against the sturdy, dependable affection of Gerard (ack, even his name is so stuffy). Maybe because I was once in love with a Marine (or perhaps because I’m a sucker for first love in general), I definitely gobbled up the lovers’ saga.

Books set during World War II have such a beautiful, nostalgic feel to them, don’t they? Which is so funny, considering it was a war and all. I know my own grandparents wouldn’t necessarily reflect upon that specific time with longing, but I find myself fascinated with that era here in the twenty-first century. Despite the hardships and turmoil, life seemed simpler then. I envied Anne and Westry and the purity of their love — even if their journey was a difficult one.

Historical fiction fans and those with a penchant for romance — me! — will find The Bungalow charming and memorable. I also appreciated that by the end, loose ends were tied together; I’m getting tired of all these open-ended conclusions. I like answers, people. I don’t need to be smacked over the head with the obvious, mind you, but I don’t always enjoy being left to my own devices.

The Bungalow will release in paperback on Dec. 27. Check out the lovely book trailer, too.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452297672 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Camp Nine’ by Vivienne Schiffer

In tiny Rook, Arkansas, Chess Morton lives with her beautiful and bold mother on a strip of land owned and run by the powerful Morton family. With Chess’ father dead and her mother struggling to maintain a foothold on reality, Chess grows up a lonely but imaginative child without any idea of how her life will soon be changed.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, Japanese Americans — primarily those living on the West Coast — were taken from their homes and interned in camps across the U.S. While the government cited their relocation was for “their own protection” considering the anti-Japanese sentiment spreading across the country, the reality was approximately 110,000 people — innocent people, innocent citizens — were sequestered away from society. In America.

Rook is home to Camp Nine, one such holding center, and it’s there that Chess cannot escape the extremes of life within its walls. When her mother, a brave and caring woman, reaches out to those in the camp and begins to teach classes, Chess meets the Matsui family and their teenage son, David. Racial tensions run hot in Arkansas, and the wars aren’t being waged just on foreign soil. Fires of war are being stoked at home, too.

Vivienne Schiffer’s Camp Nine is a quiet, moving coming-of-age story detailing life at fictionalized Camp Nine, a place teeming with life and culture in the 1940s. In modern times, it’s difficult to believe that places like this actually existed on American soil — but while reading, I had to remember the mayhem that followed the dark days after Sept. 11, 2001. The rampant fear and uncertainty. The chaos and confusion. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American people struggled to make sense of the attack and questioned the loyalties of anyone of Japanese descent — the new enemy. Sound familiar?

This is not at all to justify what happened — that would be impossible. I suppose I just had to repeat to myself that it was a different time, a different time.

And this time, indeed, was scary. If Chess wasn’t playing witness to the despair within Camp Nine, she was dealing with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Rook. Growing up with black servants she also considered friends, Chess can’t make sense of the hatred spreading through Rook like a sickness. The military installation of thousands of Japanese Americans nearby was like throwing a match into a powder keg.

What I liked best about Camp Nine, aside from the lovely writing, was the way Schiffer chose to tell us Chess’ story from her adult perspective. Though we don’t know exactly how the story ends, we know that Chess is reflecting upon her early experiences as a married mother herself. We know she remembers these hazy days in Rook clearly, but that doesn’t mean her memories haven’t taken on a soft patina with time. Narrator Chess is wise, thoughtful, intelligent. She recalls moments at Camp Nine with a clarity her young self could not understand. Her narration was very moving.

If you’re looking for a book ripe with action and plot, Camp Nine might not quench your literary thirst. The novel is definitely a character exploration examining family dynamics, race relations, this particular moment in history — and what came after. Though I love historical fiction, this is the first book I’ve read detailing the experiences of Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II. The situation was deplorable, and I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective.

Schiffer has crafted a fine-tuned, lyrical and affecting work and doesn’t waste a single word in her narrative. Dropped immediately into Arkansas, readers experience a great progression — a sincere, unexpected journey — with Schiffer’s well-drawn, sympathetic characters. If you like historical fiction and character studies, add it to your wishlist.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1557289727 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss

A giant writing desk with an illustrious history unites many narrators in this stunning work of literature, a book that left me breathless. Nominated for the Indie Lit Awards, Great House was my first read as a literary fiction panelist. And if it’s any sign of the caliber of the other four nominated novels, I’m in for a treat.

To say author Nicole Krauss has a way with words would be akin to stating the sky is big, or the sun is hot. If I sat down to quote every memorable passage of this unique, intricate story, I’d never finish writing.

Along the same vein, I don’t quite know how to describe the plot . . . except to say that, amazingly, everything (and everyone) is connected — although in most cases, it’s not immediately clear how. Told in alternating viewpoints, we’re introduced to characters from around the world — New York, London, Israel — who all have something in common: their connection to a desk, by turns a piece to be revered or reviled. Writers populate Krauss’ rich landscape, taking turns figuring out why they write — and what. And those who love them — or misunderstand them, or injure them — are left to make sense of the giant caverns swallowing their loved ones’ lives.

I could introduce you to some characters, share a bit of their back stories. I could give examples of Krauss’ stunning prose and share the meanings I think I found within the text. But I think Great House is best discovered on your own. It’s not a pleasant saga — more than once, the grief was crushing — but it felt important. Once I closed the final page, still teeming with unanswered questions, the first thing I wanted to do was find someone with whom to discuss it. It’s a book you’ll want a friend to read, too, so you can bounce ideas and challenges off each other, nudging the puzzle pieces of the story around until you think you sense a pattern. But then again, maybe you don’t.

It’s also a book you could read twice . . . or maybe should read twice. Inside the somber prose is a sense of mystery, of finding something hidden for you and you alone. Like the last Easter egg buried in a cubby hole until fall, I feel like I could open Great House to any number of pages for the rest of my life and still not find everything Krauss hid there. At the end, knowing what I know about the characters and the desk prompted me to flip right back to the beginning.

It’s about family, loss and what is taken from us — and how we get it back. It’s about secrets and grief and love — who can give it, who can take it away. It’s about mystery, and whether we can truly know another person. It’s about the inevitability of death and our slow climb toward the end of it all . . . and what’s on the other side.

It was often confusing, yes. The separate narratives didn’t seem to fit together at all, and I often felt annoyed that just when I thought I’d really gotten to know one narrator, I was introduced to another — but those are minor issues compared to the overall beauty of the writing. Rarely uplifting but more than worthwhile, Great House isn’t a book I’ll forget.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0393079988 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘On Folly Beach’ by Karen White

Emmy Hamilton arrives in Folly Beach, South Carolina with a heavy heart. Her beloved husband, Ben, has been killed while fighting in Afghanistan; her mother, though compassionate, can barely stand for the grief of it all. Devastated at having to watch her own daughter lose someone so dear to her, Emmy’s mother encourages her to travel to the East Coast and purchase an old bookstore — Folly’s Finds — after purchasing boxes of old books on eBay.

Sifting through the novels, Emmy begins to feel a kinship to whomever owned the books before — especially after she begins finding handwritten notes in the margins, many of them with a loving or longing quality to the words. Since her mother has such fond memories of Folly’s Finds and Emmy is almost completely adrift, lost and without purpose, the idea of getting away — to another place, another time, a world about which Ben knows nothing — becomes . . . if not appealing, then not unappealing.

Life on Folly is a different animal. Emmy rents a cottage from Abigail Reynolds’ (no relation to the author!) son, Heath, a contractor with a past of his own. As Emmy adjusts to island time, meets the locals and is introduced to Lulu, Heath’s great-aunt, a tapestry of a story begins to unfurl.

Karen White’s On Folly Beach is, in fact, two stories skillfully told at once: Emmy, living in the present day and nursing her grief like a child; and Lulu, a woman who grew up during World War II and became quite adept at keeping secrets. Intertwined with Emmy’s portions of the novel in 2009 are stories from 1942, when Lulu was a child living with Maggie, her older sister, and Cat, their wild and recently widowed cousin. At 19, Cat was beautiful, seductive — and living dangerously, much to the anger of her cousins. All orphaned, the three girls lived on Folly Beach decades before Emmy arrived — but there may be more linking them than Emmy first realizes.

At this point in the game, White has proven to me that she’s a top-notch storyteller. I loved The House On Tradd Street and its sequel, The Girl On Legare Street, so to say I went into On Folly Beach with high expectations is accurate. And were they met? Absolutely.

Take several love stories, plenty of intrigue, a giant mystery, some supernatural qualities — then shake it all up, pour it out and take a long drink. White’s novel, set in the South, has a small-town charm with plenty of questions lurking just beneath the surface of the text — and that’s what I loved most about it. Like Tradd Street and Legare Street, Emmy possess an almost metaphysical ability to “know” things before they happen — or while they’re happening, as the case may be. The fact that White doesn’t make A Big Deal about this reminds me of Sarah Addison Allen’s novels, which I love, in that characters are just . . . sort of magical. I love the unexpected touches so much that I don’t question them.

And Maggie’s romance. I loved it. I was absolutely, totally swept up in it — which is how I felt through the majority of the novel. Caught up in an age where ordinary Americans blacked out their windows, fearing German attacks, and young women were trained to spot enemy aircraft approaching the shores. When rationing kept silk stockings and sugar off store shelves, and thousands of young men left home and never came back. A lover of history and historical fiction, it’s hard for me to imagine what life was like in 1942 — and that’s why I read books. So I can feel like, even in a tiny way, I might begin to understand.

The interplay between sisters and family reminded me of Elizabeth Berg’s Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, another novel I adored. Lovers of historical and contemporary fiction will be taken in by the secrets, mysteries and questions in this atmospheric drama. And having closed the final page, I can still hear the siren song of the Atlantic Ocean calling me.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451227999 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

tlc_logo copy

Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours