In a Foreign Land (review)

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In a Foreign Land (In Search of Freedom Book 2)In a Foreign Land by Janice L. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel and Luise Martens have built up a successful farm in northern China. The year is 1945 and fifteen years have passed since the Mennonite villagers from Slavgorod Colony of Western Siberia have escaped their Russian oppressors (story told in The Other Side of the River: Search for Freedom Book 1 – reviewed here).

Alarm bells ring from the opening pages when we discover Daniel’s Russian nemesis, Leonid Dubrowsky, is still alive and hot on Daniel’s heels for revenge.

The political unrest in Russia and China after WWII makes for a time of unrest in northern China. Daniel and other Russians who fled the Soviet Union are soon arrested and returned there as traitors. This leaves Luise and her 15-year-old bright but hot-tempered son Danny in charge of the farm.

The story takes us through the six years that follow. The fractured Martens family and their white neighbours, the Giesingers, become persona non grata in the now racially charged climate of Communist China. Danny’s temper gets him into trouble more than once. And then there’s the ever-looming shadow of Dubrowsky, who nurses the dream of wreaking vengeance on Daniel by destroying Danny and having his way with Luise.

The interesting historical plot is enhanced by the strong Christian faith of Luise and Rachel (Danny’s special childhood friend). It anchors the two families, while Danny’s questions and inability to believe that God even exists in all this turmoil adds realism to the faith aspect of the story.

I found this tale captivating from beginning to end. Dick tells the story through various viewpoints but chapters are titled with location and date so we’re always clear about when and where the incident takes place. Characters are realistic and complex. The plot is full of tension and suspense.

There is one more installment in the In Search of Freedom series. Book 3, Far Side of the Sea, is due to be released in the fall / winter of 2017.

This is a series not to be missed for historical fiction lovers, especially those with Mennonite roots.

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Anna Karenina (review)

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Anna KareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Anna Karenina—that 140-year-old tome by Leo Tolstoy. I read it on the recommendation of another old book—If You Want to Write (first published in 1938) by Barbara Ueland. (By the way, Ueland’s book is one of the most inspirational books on writing you’ll find anywhere.)

I did read Anna Karenina many years ago while trekking through Europe. But I must have absorbed very little because it felt like a brand new book to me.

What a read!

It’s a story set in Russia before the Communist Revolution (first published as a serial from 1873-1877, as a complete book in 1878). The characters belong to the nobility class. Anna Karenina of St. Petersburg is married to statesman Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. While visiting her brother Stepan Oblonsky in Moscow she meets the dashing Vronsky (an army man) at a party. Vronsky is immediately smitten by her beauty.

A parallel story is that of Levin, a friend of Stepan’s. Levin owns a rural estate and comes to Moscow only occasionally. But he is lonely and the story opens with him summoning his courage to ask Kitty, whom he has courted sporadically and shyly, to marry him. (Kitty is the younger sister of Stepan’s wife Dolly).

However, before he meets Anna, Vronsky has been paying a lot of attention to Kitty. Though she is fond of Levin, Vronsky—who Kitty and her family expect will pop the question any day now—is a better catch. So Levin’s proposal to Kitty comes at a bad time while Vronsky meeting and falling in love with Anna permanently dashes Kitty’s hopes of marrying him.  That’s the beginning…

Some of the things I loved about this book:

  • The psychological understanding and depth with which Tolstoy portrays his characters. He captures nuances of feeling and motivation that are quite remarkable. A passage late in the book where Anna descends into madness is one I thought particularly brilliant.
  • There are large chunks of prose I found poetic and beautiful, for example the peasant life seen through Levin’s eyes and Levin’s wedding.
  • The insights the book gives into the social life of the nobility in Russia at the time (I think of Tolstoy as Russia’s Jane Austen in that way). He addresses themes of religion, the position of peasants, and status women in society documenting particularly society’s double standard regarding acceptable morals of men and women.
  • The plot is, for the most part, captivating.

Some things that put me off:

  • All the Russian names, diminutives and variants. Confusing!
  • Long passages where Levin and his friends discuss the place of the peasants in society and religion. I got the feeling that Tolstoy was working out his own thoughts and positions on these things through Levin. (Others who comment on the book describe Levin as the most autobiographical of Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina.)

If you haven’t read what some describe as”the greatest book ever written,” you owe it to yourself to do so. Plus it is such a fat volume (paperback = 752 pages) you won’t be needing another book for a long time with this one. (I got mine as an e-book, though, so no hand strain with that edition!)

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Glimpses of Paradise (review)

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Glimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920sGlimpses of Paradise: A Novel of the 1920s by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We first meet the main characters in Glimpses of Paradise, 17 year-old Doyle Lawrence (athlete and poet) and 16 year-old Zenobia (Zee) Miller (want-to-be movie star), in the spring of 1916 in Zenith, Nebraska. Doyle, fascinated by the unpredictable and colorful Zee, tells his brother later that evening that he’ll marry Zee someday despite what their lawyer father will say. For her part, though Zee senses his attraction, she wants only to be in the movies.

Their ways soon part. Doyle enlists in the army and goes off to war. Zee runs away from her straight-laced preacher father to chase her dream.

This historical tale by James Scott Bell (first published in 2005) explores many aspects of the years from 1916 to 1925—the war itself, the fate of returning soldiers, the rise of Hollywood’s popularity, and its seamy underside. Concurrent with these secular movements is a spiritual stream personified by the historical preacher R. A. Torrey (a preacher and Bible teacher who helped found Biola University). His sermons and writings play not a little part in determining Doyle’s and Zee’s fates.

I thoroughly enjoyed this substantial novel. I’ve read many of James Scott Bell’s books on the writing craft and it is interesting to see how he puts his advice into practice. His characters are complex and believable. His facility in describing action contrasts, in this book, with quiet moments like the one war-damaged Doyle experiences on returning home after combat:

“He found himself fixated on one brown leaf cloning to a branch. It looked stubborn, alone, like a solitary prayer unheard” – Kindle Location 1553.

What I appreciate most about this book, though, is its unequivocal Christian message, not only as explained by Dr. Torrey but lived out in the choices and destinies of his characters.

If you like fat, informative, and interesting Christian historicals, try this tome of Americana. It won’t disappoint.

Glimpses of Paradise is part of my own Kindle collection.
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Threaten to Undo Us (review)

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Threaten to Undo UsThreaten to Undo Us by Rose Seiler Scott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin meet in Yalta in 1945 to carve up the WWII German-conquered lands, someone suggests that German-occupied Prussia and Pomerania should be part of the new Poland. While Churchill demurs, fearing that this will lead to more bloodshed, Stalin’s cavalier “Most have fled the region” wins the day. This scene in the Introduction sets the stage for what happens to the main character Liesel Hoffman and her five children in Rose Seilor Scott’s WW II historical, Threaten to Undo Us.

In the book, Scott tells the story of WWII through a German point of view. Liesel and her husband Ernst live peacefully alongside their Polish-speaking neighbors in a village near Lodz, Poland until Hitler begins flexing his muscles. Ernst’s brother Gunter is the first family member to be lured by the spell of Third Reich. He pressures Ernst to join the army, even though Ernst and Liesel are uncomfortable with the expulsion of their Jewish neighbors and the expropriation of Polish properties for the resettlement of German people.

As Scott takes us through the war, we experience the long separations of the family as Ernst goes to the front while Liesel is left to care for their young family of five and her aging parents. After the brutal Russian winter of the German siege when the German army is defeated and forced to retreat, the tide also turns in the village. Poles seeking revenge and retribution for what the Germans have done to them force Liesel and her little ones to flee the family farm. Brutalized by drunken Russian soldiers, Liesel is eventually separated from her children and forced into hard labor in a prison camp. After five years of not hearing from Ernst she fears he too has perished. Is her life even worth living any more?

The telling is not strictly chronological but jumps around in time. However the time shifts are mentioned in the chapter titles so one is never lost. I enjoyed the factual historical touches that head some chapters, like quoted excerpts from treaties, giving a sense of what is happening on the world scene that relates to this area of Europe.

This is a grueling story, realistically yet tastefully told. Though often dark and difficult, it illustrates the strength of the human spirit, the tenacity of a mother’s love, and how faith in God can be an anchor even in the worst situations.

I think this is the first WWII story told from a German point-of-view that I’ve read. Though after the war ended the world vilified Germany and the German people en masse, this tale points to a subtler reality. Thousands, perhaps millions of Germans were victims of Hitler too, conscripted into his army, brainwashed with lies about racial superiority, forced to go along with his treatment of the Jews, and pressured to enroll their children into his youth movement. When the war ended, the tables were turned when Germans outside of Germany were arrested, accused of being war criminals, spies etc., and tortured in the same way the Nazis had tortured them.

I found this a thoroughly engrossing and well-plotted read with my interest high until the last page. I’d recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction and especially those interested in the story of World War II.

I received Threaten to Undo Us as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Other Side of the River (review)

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other side of the riverOther Side of the River by Janice L. Dick.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luise Letkemann and Daniel Martens have been sweethearts for almost as long as they can remember. Luise expects they will marry soon. But the spring of 1926 is not a time life goes along according to expectation for the lovers or anyone else in the Mennonite village of Alexandrovka, part of the Slovgorod Colony in Western Siberia.

As the Soviet officials begin to interfere increasingly in the life of the enterprising farmers and craftspeople, demanding ever more tax and confiscating machinery and livestock, many villagers decide it’s time to leave. While some are allowed to emigrate to America, Luise’s chronically ill stepmother fails to pass her medical exam. So the family ends up planning to join others on a long train ride east. There is farmland and they have official permits to settle near the border of China on the banks of the Amur River.

Meanwhile a winter of hard work up north for Daniel separates the lovers. He returns shortly before her family is set to leave and Luise makes peace with the fact that she will be apart from her family when she and Daniel settle as newlyweds in the farmhouse Daniel has been building.

Of course, that doesn’t work out quite as planned either in Janice L. Dick’s Mennonite historical Other Side of the River. It’s a story through which we experience the day to day life of these God-fearing, peace-loving and industrious people during a time in Russian history when expressions of faith were not allowed, personal initiative was frowned on, and even speaking German could be cause for arrest.

Lovable and hated characters populate the pages with Luise’s great-aunt Tante Manya taking the prize as my favourite, Senior Major Leonard Dubrowsky and Ivan Mironenko tied for the ones I most disliked and feared. The way Dick portrays the everyday circumstances, struggles, and growth of main characters is realistic and kept me right there, experiencing their challenges with them.

The period and setting are depicted in satisfying detail. I loved all the homey touches—the roasted zwieback and other home baking, the Germanisms like “Nah jah,” and Luise’s and Daniel’s close-knit, intergenerational families.

The story, though lengthy, had enough twists and turns that it rarely sagged. The only time it felt a bit draggy was very near the end, but then it picked up again to the harrowing finish.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book—both the day-to-day life of its characters and the big story aspect of it—for I too am descended from them, a Mennonite, not from those that stayed in Russia, but from forbears that emigrated to North America before Communism and the era of the Soviet Union. Witnessing the faith of these people through testing was an inspiration. This book left me with a great appreciation of the fire-proved faith of my ancestors.

Apparently Dick is working on a sequel (according to this Blog Talk Radio interview). I hope so. I’ll definitely pick it up when it comes out!

Read Chapter One of Other Side of the River.

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Through the Deep Waters (review)

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Through the Deep Waters: A NovelThrough the Deep Waters: A Novel by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dinah Hubley is starting to attract unwanted attention and pressure from the after-dark visitors to her home, a Chicago bawdy house called the Yellow Parrot run by Miss Flo. That pressure ramps up a hundred-fold when, on her 17th birthday, Miss Flo tells her that her beautiful lady-of-the-night mother, Untamable Tori, is ill. Miss Flo threatens to throw both of them out unless Dinah can come up with $25 to pay for their keep—a huge sum in 1883.

Dinah is still too young to be a Harvey Girl, something she dreams about. She needs to be 18 to work as a server in one of the Harvey Eating Houses. So it seems there is only one way she can come up with the $25 and it is by giving in to Miss Flo’s suggestion. Author Kim Vogel Sawyer has Dinah pay a life-changing price to make her mother’s last days as comfortable as possible, in her novel Through the Deep Waters.

Dinah leaves Chicago after her mother dies to follow the Harvey Girl dream. But starting a new life isn’t as simple as moving away from Chicago. For though she finds a job in Kansas City, has a warm and caring roommate, even a young man whose kind ways give her hope for a secure future, everything is overshadowed by the dark secret she must keep.

The story is told through the viewpoints of Dinah, Ruthie her Kansas City roommate, and Amos Ackerman the idealistic and lonely chicken farmer who falls in love with Dinah’s innocent beauty and shy ways. Though I sometimes felt like shaking Dinah for her paranoid secrecy, the fallout when her past is revealed shows that her behavior is grounded in her savvy of the moral climate of her times. My favorite character was warm, bubbly Ruthie especially when Dinah’s unpredictable behavior tests what she professes to believe.

Dinah’s predicament drew me into the story from the start. The love triangle that develops is compelling. Though there were parts of the book where things go along too smoothly and I felt my interest lag, on the whole, strong characterization together with plot complications kept me engrossed.

Sawyer undergirds her themes of the possibility of a new beginning, the value of honesty, and the need for forgiveness with Scripture. This book is unabashedly Christian. Discussion questions at the end guide readers to work through the issues the book introduces.

Lovers of Americana and historical Christian romance will enjoy this book. I received Through the Deep Waters as a gift from the publisher WaterBrook Press via the Blogging for Books program for the purpose of writing a review.

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Prelude for a Lord (review)

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Prelude for a LordPrelude for a Lord by Camille Elliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lady Alethea Sutherton, main character in Camille Elliot’s regency romance Prelude for a Lord, is a social misfit, not only because of her suitorless old maid status, but because of her musical interest in the violin which is thought entirely unladylike.

For her part, Alethea has long since ceased to care, much to the chagrin of Aunt Ebena. Alethea has come to Bath to stay with her aunt after cousin Will kicked her out of the family home. Now she is living for the day she reaches her majority, gains her inheritance, and can flee England to the musically rich continent.

But the appearance in Bath of Baron Dommick, a musician she admired from her own disastrous season in London eleven years ago, and society’s demands soon have her attending balls and hobnobbing with members of a male string ensemble. Meanwhile she senses she is being watched, followed, and then is approached by a succession of sinister men who demand she sell her violin.

Main male character Baron Dommick’s reputation has been compromised by the effects of war. Despite that, he feels driven to ensure that his sister Clare’s upcoming season in London will be a success. This means making the right social moves in all departments. He is attracted to Alethea but could her strong personality impede his goal? And what if she should discover the real self he hides under that handsome exterior?

Elliot has combined compelling characters (including a list of who the various characters are, their many names and how they’re related to each other) with a circuitous plot that includes solving the mystery of Alethea’s violin.

As is characteristic of the genre, there is lots of wit and dialogue that sparkles. The writing is wonderful throughout:

“Then another crash, something heavy and wooden dropping to the floor accompanied by a tinkling descant of shattering pottery” – Kindle Location 2613.

“…the chapel lay empty and forgotten much of the time, an abandoned mother longing for her grown-up children” – Kindle location 5265.t:

Compelling themes include an exploration of how women in the regency era are treated and whether God cares for individuals—an issue especially for Alethea who feels as if God dislikes her, seeing as how He never came to her aid when her father, brother, and cousin abused her. Questions at the end of the book encourage readers to discuss, personalize, and apply what they’ve read.

Prelude for a Lord is a combination I found irresistible. It’s a tale I would hazard even Jane Austen would love.

I received Prelude for a Lord as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Miracle in a Dry Season (review)

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Miracle in a Dry Season (Appalachian Blessings, #1)Miracle in a Dry Season by Sarah Loudin Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Perla Long returns to Wise, West Virginia in 1954, the single 24-year-old has a five-year-old daughter Sadie in tow. Tongues are soon wagging and Perla wonders, will she ever find a place where questions about her past don’t run her out of town?

Casewell Phillips is charmed by Sadie and fascinated with Perla’s blue-eyed beauty. But at 35, he is not about to trade in his bachelor status for a relationship with a woman of questionable repute.

Sarah Loudin Thomas has combined the characters above with a church full of judgmental parishioners, egged on by hellfire and brimstone Pastor Longbourne, a rainless summer, and Perla’s wondrous way with food to craft Miracle in a Dry Season. It’s a story about passing judgment and extending forgiveness, recognizing and accepting grace, and how “a child shall lead them.”

I enjoyed Loudin’s often lyrical way with words in passages like:

“Casewell … lifted his hand and held it over the child’s head for a moment, hovering there like a hummingbird taking the measure of a flower” – Kindle Location 512.

and

“She bowed her head, and he felt peace radiating out from her. But like a kerosene lamp on an icy morning, it could not reach his core” – K.L. 626.

However, I did find Thomas’s style tentative with an abundance of adverb modifiers that sucked the life out of her prose:

“’We’re going home,’ she said, looking at her husband with a depth and rawness that somehow embarrassed Casewell…” K.L. 638.

“He could taste the air. It seemed cleaner, richer somehow” – K. L. 2091.

“The landscape was still desolate but it looked somehow hopeful this morning” – K.L. 2097.

“… in spite of the tears she somehow looked happy” – K.L. 2126.

All in all, though, I enjoyed this romantic and folksy tale with its elements of the miraculous and its message that all of us have secrets and sins in our pasts and none of us make fit judges.

A set of discussion questions at the end of the book completes the volume.

I received Miracle in a Dry Season from the publisher, Bethany House, as a gift for the purpose of writing a review (via NetGalley which, as usual, delivered a problematic Kindle file with illegible first lines of chapters and all “Th” units missing from the book).

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Daisies Are Forever (review)

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Daisies Are ForeverDaisies Are Forever by Liz Tolsma

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The approaching Russian army forces people to flee from Heiligenbeil East Prussia in February 1945. Hurriedly packing belongings in a cart and hitching it to her bicycle, Gisela Cramer takes her three- and five-year-old nieces and joins Herr Holtzman and his elderly and senile spinster sisters on the wintery roads out of town in Liz Tolsma’s novel Daisies Are Forever, set in Germany at the end of World War II.

Two escaped allied POWS (Xavier and Mitch) cross the path of the refugees on one of their first nights at a roadside farmhouse. In an impulsive move to protect the soldiers (dressed as they are in German uniforms and in danger of being found out as allied escapees or German deserters) Gisela calls them both by German names dubbing the British Mitch, Josep Cramer and claiming he’s her husband.

Their party eventually reaches the main road where they manage to catch a ride on a military truck headed for Danzig. On that leg of the trip they meet Audra, another girl from their village and a wounded German soldier Kurt. He is instantly attracted to Gisela and decides that someday she will be his.

A nightmarish train trip from Danzig eventually brings them to Berlin where the horrors continue. Gisela and her band of refugees make their way through the bombed out streets and see deserter German soldiers hanging from lamp posts on Unter den Linden boulevard. But, wonder of wonders, they find her mother still alive. The ruse of Gisela and Mitch’s marriage is soon uncovered, however, which makes Kurt all the more determined to possess Gisela.

Throughout the tale Gisela grapples with guilt over deserting her loved ones in an earlier encounter with Russians soldiers. Mitch keeps hearing the voice of his father whose expectations he has never met. Kurt is haunted by the loss of his arm and the fact that he’ll never be able to play the piano again. Gisela and Mitch find strength to live through their personal challenges and the nightmare of war through their faith in God.

The story takes us to April of 1945 and the arrival of British troops in Berlin

This bleak book forced me to look at the horrors of war full in the face and at the same time, admire the courage of the people who live through it. Tolsma’s vivid writing helps us see the devastation of the war-touched landscapes, feel the panic of bombs going off all around, live the claustrophobia of crowded trains, bomb shelters, and bunkers, and experience the boredom and hopelessness of war–will this never end?

Four stars because the romantic plot thread felt repetitive with the same relationship tensions and interactions between Kurt, Gisela, Josep (Mitch), and Audra occurring again and again. I also found the setting very heavy with little let-up in the everlasting bombing, rubble and despair, so that by the end, I was almost numb to it all.

I received Daisies Are Forever as a gift from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, for the purpose of writing a review.

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Life Behind the Wall (review)

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Life Behind the Wall - Robert ElmerLife Behind the Wall: Candy Bombers, Beetle Bunker, and Smuggler’s Treasure by Robert Elmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life Behind the Wall is a collection of three novella-length stories for the YA crowd. Each is set in part of Berlin in a different time period between 1948 and 1989.

Book One, Candy Bomber, begins in the summer of 1948. Erich Becker, a 13-year-old Berlin resident, hates the Americans whose bombs wrecked his city and killed his father. He regularly prowls Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, sneaking into U.S. cargo planes in search of food for his hungry mother and grandmother. He meets U.S. soldier DeWitt who is a journalist, befriends Erich, and writes a story about the hungry children of Berlin. He comes around to Erich’s house with bags of treats like canned peaches and takes Erich and his cousin Katarina up in his plane to do some candy drops over Berlin neighborhoods.

Soon it becomes clear that DeWitt’s interest is in more than Erich. He wants to marry Erich’s mother and move the family to the States. Will Erich be able to forgive the Americans for what he holds against them?

Book Two, Beetle Bunker, begins in 1961. Its main character, 13-year-old Sabine, is a polio survivor who hobbles around on crutches. She lives with her mother, grandmother (Oma Poldi Becker), older brother Erich (from book one), Onkel Heinz, and Tante Gertrud in Oma’s crowded flat in East Berlin.

In this book we see the Berlin wall erected and are part of a daring tunneling attempt to escape from the East to West sectors of the city.

Book Three, Smuggler’s Treasure, begins in 1989. Liesl, the 13-year-old daughter of Sabine and Willi (from book two), lives in West Berlin. She tries to act cool the day she and mother are stopped at the checkpoint and thoroughly questioned on their way to visit Uncle Erich who still lives in the Communist side of the city. Mother and Uncle Erich are most upset when they find she has stuffed her stockings and clothes with slim Bibles. She gets into more trouble when she digs into the family history while researching for a school project and still more when she joins some older kids in a protest at the wall.

This part of the story sees the Berlin Wall come down and also reveals the mysteries surrounding Sabine’s father (Liesl’s grandfather).

These stories offer a great experience of another time in history. They show firsthand the poverty, bravery, resilience, and resourcefulness of the people of East and West Berlin during the Cold War era. They are also an example of how the divided city affected families.

The setting seems realistic with its atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. Characters must be careful not to be seen with the wrong people or overheard saying the wrong things because they don’t know who to trust and who might be snitching on them to the authorities. Chapter numbers in German and lots of other German words and expressions sprinkled throughout also give a feeling of authenticity to these stories.

None of the main character kids in these books are content to sit around. The stories are fast-paced and filled with adventure and danger. The age of each of the heroes (13) tells us that these books will appeal to tweens and early teens.

The end of Book One has a “How It Really Happened” section that explains which events in that story actually happened. All the books conclude with a set of “Questions for Further Study” designed to deepen and broaden the reading experience for individuals or groups.

As well as giving YA readers three interesting and fun stories, this book would be excellent supplementary reading for home schoolers and Christian school classes doing a study of the Cold War period (all three books are written from a Christian point-of-view).

I received Life Behind The Wall as a gift from the publisher (Zondervan-Zonderkidz) for the purpose of writing a review.

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