The Fourth Kingdom (review)

Leave a comment

I decided to spend some time this summer reading just for fun. The “Fiction” folder on my Kindle has been a great source of books for this.

I download Kindle editions throughout the year when they catch my eye for whatever reason. When I get around to reading them, I often don’t remember when I got them or why. The Fourth Kingdom by Alexandra and Joyce Swann is one such.
The Fourth KingdomThe Fourth Kingdom by Joyce Swann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Fourth Kingdom the Swanns combine a world of genetic engineering and cloning with a couple of brilliant professors, some Nazi Germany diehards, and a Christian home-school family to craft a dystopian world that pits evil against good—the New Mexican Doppelganger Center versus Missouri’s Cornucopia; Dr. Karl Helmick versus Dr. Alexander Sinclair; Helmick’s son Josef versus the Sinclairs’ twins Joshua and Jarrod. As unnamed but palpable evil advances on the Sinclairs we sense this will be a fight to the death.

The plot is a combination of science fiction and biblical prophecy. It drew me in to a world that I found both fascinating (for its scientific possibilities) and repulsive (for its potential for ruthless badness).

Though the writing was clumsy in some places (heavy-handed description, dialogue laced with backstory that sometimes devolved into outright lecture), I quite enjoyed this book’s black-and-white characters, speculative setting, and surprising story line.

The Fourth Kingdom ends with several loose ends yet to tie up. The Force, Book 2 in the two-book The Kingdom Chronicles series, beckons.

View all my reviews

Threaten to Undo Us (review)

Leave a comment

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.

View all my reviews

Consider the Sunflowers (review)

3 Comments

Consider the Sunflowers - Elma SchemenauerTina Janz feels torn between her parents’ wishes that she marry an upstanding (but boring) Mennonite boy and her desire for the man she loves—Frank Warkentin, the son of a Mennonite father and Gypsy mother. But the tug-of-war in Elma Schemenauer’s novel Consider the Sunflowers is more than between just Tina and her parents. For handsome, dashing, funny Frank doesn’t share Tina’s Mennonite faith. She soon discovers he has a violent temper. And his farm is far from town—something that doesn’t suit Tina well at all.

Schemenauer takes us on a literary journey that spans the years from 1940-1947 in the lives of Tina and Frank. The place is Coyote, Saskatchewan—a fictional town near Outlook, populated by a Mennonite and non-Mennonite mix. Frank is attracted to other Mennonite outcasts like Dorrie Harms and hangs out with Scandinavian friends Thor and Leif while Tina feels torn between both worlds.

Schemenauer’s familiarity with the Mennonite lifestyle, ways of thinking, and speech mannerisms is evident throughout the book (she is of Mennonite extraction). Thus from the opening words I felt I was in an authentic world. All the Na yo’s (p. 28), sentences ending in yet (“In Saskatoon yet” – p. 128), already, and nicht (“We should have your wedding on Saturday nicht?” p. 153) rang true for me, as someone who grew up in the same people group.

The story, told through Tina and Frank’s points of view, follows the ups and downs of their relationship all the while exploring many themes: how we’re molded by early experiences, what comprises love, aspects of marriage including the importance of honesty and transparency, how choices we make have consequences, what it’s like to be a Mennonite, what it’s like to be a Mennonite on the fringes, how religion and faith differ, and the overarching importance of forgiveness and trust in God no matter what the fine points of one’s creed might be.

Tina’s realization of this comes after a long crisis of faith. Told in Schemenauer’s understated yet picturesque style, it is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

A coyote howled in the pasture. A gust of wind ruffled Slim’s coat. As it lifted Tina’s hair off her forehead, Jesus seemed to speak to her. Not in words. More like flowers opening in her heart. I love you, he said. Do you believe that?

Her reaction after she senses her brief conversation with Jesus is over is similarly subtle but full of wisdom that resonates with truth:

“…she expected to feel something like holy fireworks in her heart. Instead she felt only a new orderliness, like her thoughts were sorting themselves into new file folders. She crossed the silent kitchen, climbed the stairs, and eased herself into bed” – p. 157.

“Consider the lilies…” Jesus said, as He pointed out the necessity of a simple day-to-day faith in God to counter the fears and anxieties of life. In Consider the Sunflowers Schemenauer draws our attention, through Tina and Frank, to the God who still longs to be trusted with the minutiae of ordinary existence.

The story is supplemented by a Mennonite timeline explaining the origin and migrations of this ethnic and religious minority. Study questions at the end of the book will be helpful for reading clubs and home school study.

Author Elma Schemenauer

Author Elma Schemenauer

Title: Consider the Sunflowers
Author: Elma Schemenauer
Publisher: Borealis Press, November 10, 2014, Paperback 299 pages
ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4,

 

AVAILABLE FROM THE PUBLISHER, Borealis Press – $19.95

Also available online at Chapters Indigo  by about November 15.

E-book coming in 2015.

For more information, please visit http://elmams.wix.com/sflwrs

Daisies Are Forever (review)

4 Comments

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.

View all my reviews

The Auschwitz Escape (review)

Leave a comment

The Auschwitz EscapeThe Auschwitz Escape by Joel C. Rosenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jacob Weisz is an unexceptional Jewish boy who lives in Siegen, Germany in the 1940s. He likes his quiet life with his parents, loves going to violin lessons because he might catch a glimpse—even a shy smile—from Naomi Silver, and is embarrassed by his inability to hit the target when Uncle Avi tries to teach him how to shoot a gun.

But as Hitler consolidates power over Germany and then starts annexing the nations around, life changes dramatically. Soon, under Uncle Avi’s influence, Jacob finds himself part of the Jewish Resistance movement. And then the unthinkable happens.

The Auschwitz Escape by Joel C. Rosenberg takes place in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Rosenberg not only paints scenes of these places in shades of hopeless black and grey, but we taste the slop soup and mouldy bread, feel the cold through thin clothes, the pain of bruised and blistered feet, and smell of smoke from those hellish ovens. That last is a constant reminder of what’s really happening here.

Rosenberg digs deep into Jacob, making us feel his disbelief, abhorrence, fear, despair and hope that surely help will come once the world knows what’s going on here.

The Auschwitz Escape is a compelling, sobering story that takes us back to World War II and then asks us to examine current world events in the light of what we can and should do despite how inconvenient and unpopular it might be.

The Auschwitz Escape is part of my own Kindle collection.

View all my reviews