“Delayed Rays of A Star” by Amanda Lee Koe

Genre:  Historical FictionDelayed Rays
Publisher:  Doubleday Books
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Spanning the 1920s to 2003, this sprawling novel is expertly woven with characters who are powerfully alive.  Koe’s novel was inspired by a 1928 photograph taken in Berlin of then up and coming real-life actresses, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, at a party in Berlin.marleneFor those who don’t know these film icons, Marlene Dietrich was a gender-bending.  German actress who was one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars in her day.  Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actress to achieve international acclaim.   Leni Riefenstahl was an actress turned director of Nazi propaganda films as well as nonpolitical films.

There are two moving secondary characters in the novel.  There is a Chinese maid who was a onetime sex-trafficked prostitute.  She now takes care of an old and difficult reclusive woman who happens to be Marlene Dietrich.  And there is a gay German soldier who had worked in films before the war.  He was recruited off the battlefield to be a film crew member with Riefenstahl.  He is mourning the lover he watched die in battle. Through his character, one gets glimpses of the average young German soldier’s thoughts during the war.  Not at all different than from those they were fighting.  “Please God let me live through this war…Why am I crawling in the mud when the bigwigs that started the war are safely sitting at home?”  Both characters are written in a way that will break your heart without being saccharine.

The ambiguous novel takes on many subjects:

There is sexuality.   Marlene Dietrich’s public image included openly defying sexual norms.  She was known for her androgynous dressing fashion sense.  Dietrich was the Hollywood legend who made being queer acceptable, even downright sexy.  Men and women both drooled over her and she famously bedded both.  How she got away with this in that period of time is quite a feat.   Perhaps it was her narcissist personality traits that helped her pull it off.   Still, while America adored her, Germany was angry and disowned her.  Marlene remained Marlene until the end of her life.   The author writes a scene of her maid holding her nose while cleaning an antique Limoges pitcher the 88-year-old uses as a bedpan.  In her famous throaty voice, she hollers at the maid, “Everyone should be glad I can still pee.”  For her funeral, she requested that red and white carnations be distributed to those who attended.  A red carnation would be handed to those who slept with Dietrich and a white one to those who didn’t.  She fantasized fistfights over ‘You slept with her and I didn’t!’ These laugh out loud moments are written to perfection.  (This reviewer googled an interview with Marlene’s daughter and learned that this was indeed her mother’s funeral wish.  Her mom would have been very disappointed if she knew it wasn’t carried out).

There is racism.  Despite being born in California, and the daughter of parents who were themselves born here, Wong was only offered bad/evil woman Chinese character roles.  She was never a lead character.  The Chinese were as furious with her as the Germans were of Dietrich.  A moving scene in the book happens when she is in China for a publicity tour.   Wong is criticized by a film critic for taking stereotypical roles.  She tries to explain that as a non-white in America life can be hard.  She fiercely fought for different roles.  She desperately wanted the lead role in the film “The Good Earth.”  The movie takes place in turn-of-the-century China.  She thought she had it.  She was deep into preparation, giving ideas and costume suggestions when she received a phone call informing her that the role went to a white actress.  The reason: She was too Chinese.

There is sexism.  Leni Riefenstahl was an accomplished filmmaker, one of the first of female filmmakers of her generation.  Still, she is easy not to like.  She received financial support from Hitler but, after the fall of the Nazi regime, claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust.  Koe paints her as willfully unknowing.  Leni is written in a way that one can ‘almost’ understand where she is coming from.  Since she was a woman, no one was willing to take her seriously as a director and back her films.  She took money where she could and concentrated on her art.  Like Anna May, she was forced to take whatever she got in order to perform.  In 1993 there was a documentary made about her, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.”  Maybe, this is why she is the only one of the three who gets an entire section in her own voice.

Koe’s debut novel shows that she is a master storyteller.  Clearly, her talent comes from being a fellow of the International Writing Program of Iowa and a fiction editor of Esquire Singapore as well as the editor of the National Museum of Singapore’s film journal.  “Delayed” will appeal to a wide variety of readers:  Fans of historical fiction centering on women, film buffs, gossipy stories, and those who enjoy WWII political novels that feel like nonfiction–in other words, for fans of all genres.

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“Wunderland” by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Genre:         Historical FictionWonderland
Publisher:    Crown Publishing
Pub. Date:   April 23, 2019

Though I found “Wunderland” to be a letdown, this may be my own fault. The author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, has written for BCHBO, and The Wall Street Journal, among other prestigious journals.   Because of her credentials, maybe I was expecting something unusually good and/or different.  Or, possibly my disappointment may be because historical fiction is my favorite genre.  I may have simply read one too many WWII stories revolving around the Hitler Youth movement. Nevertheless, surprisingly, I did not feel the empathy and rage that I should have when the persecution of the German Jews began in this novel.

The story goes back and forth in time from 1933 to 1989.  In 1933, we are in Berlin and meet two preteen and then teenage female best friends.  In 1986, we are in the East Village and we meet the grown daughter of one of the Berlin friends who is estranged from her mother. The daughter has no idea who her father is and her mother is still mum on the subject.  There is some suspense as to her paternal parentage.  Could she be the daughter of a nameless Nazi?  Was her mom part of the breeding program wherein German women were impregnated to produce children of alleged Aryan purity?   Unfortunately, the writing is underwhelming, making the reader not invested in the question.  I do believe that Cody Epstein does a good job in catching the dynamics of female teenage friendships (competition for a boy’s interest) as well as mother/daughter relationships (always knowing how to push each other’s buttons).  But, this insight into relations is not enough to hold the reader’s interest long enough to care about the characters.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man” by Lynn Vincent, Sara Vladic

Genre:         Historical Non-FictionIndy
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster Canada
Pub. Date:  July 10, 2018

If you did not see the movie “Jaws” (1975) you missed the actor Robert Shaw’s iconic scene describing the experiences the boys/men endured during WWII when their ship the USS Indianapolis was sunk by enemy fire. They spent four horrific days in shark-infested waters watching each other being eaten alive.  The late actor will put more goose bumps on you than my words ever could: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=204&v=u9S41Kplsbs.

In this book, you will find that there is so much more than just sharks to this historical non-fiction that reads like a fictional page-turner.  If you are unfamiliar with the worst sea disaster in U.S. naval history, you may not be aware that the ship was on a secret mission to deliver some of the components for the atomic weapons that were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   Albert Einstein makes an early appearance since he signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging that the bomb be built.  However, he also repeatedly warned the world about the dangers of nuclear weapons and its impact on the human race.  In 1954 he wrote another letter “I made one great mistake in my life…recommending that the atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them first.”  Einstein’s conflicted feelings pave the way for the rest of the roller coaster ride the reader will be on before the book’s ending.

The beginning chapters alternate between the Japanese Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, who torpedoed and sunk the ship, and the “Indy’s” Captain Charles B. McVay III.  This writing style gives the reader a ringside seat into their surprising similar thoughts and emotions, making one feel as if they knew them both personally.  The same is true (on the American side) of the ship’s crew.
men on IndyOne of this reviewer’s favorites is Adolfo “Harpo” Celaya.  A Mexican American who lied about his age and enlisted in the navy at 17.   It is heartbreaking to read just how many teenagers and young men in their early twenties served on the USS Indianapolis.  And that out of the 1,196 men aboard only 317 survived.  In 2016 the U.S. post office in Florence, Arizona, Harpo’s hometown, was renamed in his honor.  How could I not mention this fact when in 2018 there is much anti-Mexican rhetoric coming from the White House?

When McVay and his men were finally rescued from the waters, McVay’s nightmare was just beginning.  He went on trial with the charge of failing to zigzag, which caused the ship to sink when it was hit.  Many ships were lost in combat during World War II but McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship.  The pressure for his trial came from the deceased’s families.  To add salt to the families’ wounds, the men died immediately before the end of the war.  Many received the dreaded telegram while watching other Americans celebrate in the streets.  The families, as well as the press, were out for the captain’s blood as if they were great white sharks themselves.  If not a naval person, the trial scenes could get dull from the technical and naval jargon.  However, the authors manage to have most of the dialogue reading like a suspenseful courtroom drama, complete with a jaw-dropping witness who happened to be the Japanese commander Hashimoto.

The surviving members of the crew claimed that their captain did nothing wrong and was innocent.  In the 1990s they still hadn’t stopped trying to clear his name.  In 1998, they received help from a very usual source—a sixth-grade male student who researched the sinking of the Indy for his history fair project.  Once the men learned of this kid they jumped onboard to help him.   This led to a United States Congressional investigation that ended with the captain’s exoneration.   Interestingly enough, one of the co-authors of this book, Sara Vladic, was just a 13-year-old schoolgirl when she learned of the USS Indianapolis and was captivated by all of the ship’s history.  She wanted to see the story made into a movie.  She figured some grown-up eventually would.  In 2015, Vladic made the documentary, “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy.”

In this meticulously researched book, 25% of its pages are in the endnotes.  It is extensively based on interviews with the survivors.   Here I felt was a potential trial problem.  The men themselves say that after days in the shark-infested waters there were widespread hallucinations.  One could argue that their memories of the actual sinking were no longer intact.  Furthermore, many of them had such severe post traumatic stress that they, like their Captain, committed suicide.  But, after reading this book, how can anyone ever again wonder about McVay’s innocence?  You will cheer that the “50-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man” is finally over.   Still, it is a bittersweet vindication.  This is a gut-wrenchingly hard story to read.  Expect to feel a strong personal connection to the men from the re-telling of the tragedy.   Once finished, it might be hard to process your own roller coaster emotions.   Still, this is a book that should be read.  An epic tale in American history.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Wartime Sisters” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

Genre:         Historical FictionWartime Sisters
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   Jan. 22, 2019

I didn’t become a history buff until I became a book reviewer.  Actually, although I am a baby boomer, I did not know much about WWII, other than the basics that one learns in school and from the movies.  Now I am hooked on the genre.  However, I was not the targeted audience for this novel.  That is probably, because “The Wartime Sisters” is really a women’s fiction tale that is marketed as a historical fiction.  I find that often women’s fiction can be a bit sappy, usually sad, and often with unrealistic happy endings.   I am not always critical of the genre.  If it is well blended with other genres, I can enjoy good women’s fiction read.  For example, I very much enjoyed “The Light Between Oceans,” which is historical women’s fiction.  “Oceans” author manages to write a believable heart-breaking drama about fate, love, and moral dilemmas.   However, I do not feel that this book accomplishes such a blending, even if it does have moral dilemmas.  Also, there is no history in this historical fiction other than the location simply takes place at the famous Springfield, Massachusetts, Armory during WWII.

What you will read about in “Wartime” is the lives of the four main female protagonists.  Two estranged Jewish sisters, one busy on the assembly line that produces guns and the other with office duties.   The armory’s Italian Catholic cook is really a singer, and the Captain’s privileged wife (guessing her character is White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), who is unofficially in charge of the female workers.  All these women are hurting due to their own painful secrets.  Then there is another character, a villainous officer’s wife who despises all four and tries to bring them down.  In the end, the four band-up together to unselfishly save each other (told you, women’s fiction.)  Expect one-sided characters.  There is no wondering who is the good guy or gal in this case.   To be fair, the reader will get a decent representation of the women who chipped in and sacrificed to help the war efforts.  Still, one picture of Rosie the Riveter does it better.   I do not think the book is marketed correctly for its own best interest in regard to sales.   There may be a larger audience for traditional women’s fiction than historical (just look at the success of the Lifetime TV Channel.)  Though this book is not for me, I can think of many friends that would gobble it right up.

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“Mr. Campion’s War” by Mike Ripley

Genre:         Historical MysteryMr. Campion
Publisher:    Severn House
Pub. Date:   December 1, 2018

“Pop has never talked about what he did in the war.”  But at his 70th birthday party, the Englishman Albert Campion (Pop) entertains his guests with his account of his wartime experiences in Vichy France during WWII.  The story is also very much a mystery since, besides family members, the guest list includes a scar-faced German (spoiler: who during the war attempted to kill his host at least twice), and other unknown guests.  The English author, Mike Ripley, is known for writing comedy thrillers and can indeed write in a playful manner.  But let me start off by admitting that I was grateful to be reading this tale on a Kindle where I only needed to tap on a word to learn its meaning.  For example, in one paragraph you will read about the German military intelligence units such as Abwehr, Sicherheitsdients/SD, and Himmler’s SS.  On the English side, there are the military agencies M15 & M16.  Okay, I am obviously familiar with the last two.  We all have heard of the notoriously evil SS, and who hasn’t seen a Bond movie to not know what “M” stands for.

Let me also say, that in researching this novel, I learned that the author Margery Allingham (1904-1966) wrote a mystery series (24 novels) revolving around Mr. Albert Campion.  Nor is this the first time Ripley has picked up where Allingham left off.   So for me, the protagonist is read with fresh eyes.  However, it might explain why there is so much alphabet soup (military acronyms) without any previous explanations on their existence in the story.  In alternating chapters, the story goes back and forth in time.  In the present day (at the party) it is told in the third person.  During the war, the tale is told in the first person with Albert Campion’s voice— a clever way to write the story as both a mystery and a historical fiction.  All chapters have a propensity for humor.  As a spy in the war, our protagonist is assaulted by two men in an alley.  He is just about to lose consciousness when he is rescued by a policeman.  But do policemen usually have silencers on their weapons?   He thanks his savior and says, he was just about to teach them a lesson, “Once I got my breath back.”  In the present, the whole party is like a game of “Clue.”   I found the humor to be especially funny in those chapters.  Campion’s wife is every bit as witty as her husband.   “It’s amazing we wartime mothers survived at all, what with absentee husbands, the air raids and rationing, not to mention the ingratitude of one’s offspring.”  This fun novel is stuffed with historical facts.  The story could drag for those of us who were never much of a “Clue fan.”   And, if I didn’t really find all the characters believable, that did not interfere with the tale.  “Campion” is written as a tongue and cheek read.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Madonna of the Mountains” by Elise Valmorbida

Genre:           Historical FictionMaddonna of the Mountains
Publisher:     Random House
Pub. Date:     June 12, 2018

Whenever I give a book a five-star review, that means, for me, it is an incredible read.  I admit that when a book is on a subject I enjoy or something that I can relate to, I usually add in an extra star.  After all, this reviewer is only human.   In this book, I strongly identify with the characters’ culture.  Still, this does not take away from the vivid imagery in the superior writing.  You will feel as though you are inside the pages and everything is personally touching you.  The novel is filled with the feel of Italy, its food, its way of life and its picturesque wonders.   As well as the ugly underbelly of peasant living; the author, Elise Valmorbida, explores the moral questions on the uneven balance of power between the sexes in Italian life.

The novel derives much of its weight from its setting: War in Italy during the 1920s to the 1950s.  The main female protagonist is the epitome of an unsentimental woman doing whatever it takes to keep her family alive during hardship in unstable times.  She and her husband have lived through and survived WWI.  Now they must do it again, with four children, during WWII.  As the reader knows, at the beginning of the war, Benito Mussolini chose to ally Italy’s forces with those of Adolf Hitler.  Soon German and Italian armies were battling Allied troops on several fronts.  Italian civilians suffered on many levels. Their homes were bombed, their food sources cut off.  Then, one month after Italy surrendered to Allied forces; it declared war on Nazi Germany.   And, the Italian people were further bombed and starved and still suffering. “War is hell.” ― General William T. Sherman.

“Madonna” focuses on the female character’s role.  Women seemed the most burnt out by life because they were the most abused.  The enemy, whoever they might be at the moment, was beating and raping the females.  Their own husbands were often no better, especially in peasant life where it is the norm for men to beat their wives and children, and have affairs.  Think the movie “Zorba The Greek,” not an Italian film but so similar in the scene where the village peasants stone to death a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.   If you think this casual acceptance of violence against women can be attributed to the period, think again.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”   I actually found myself comparing our Italian mother to Tina Turner and her husband Ike.  Ike once told the newspapers in 1985. “Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.”  I have read much fiction and nonfiction on violence against women, this novel explains it so well.  The reader will observe how mothers taught their daughters that they must be subservient to men.  And if they are not, they will be physically punished.  Here is another movie for you, “Divorce Italian Style.”  The film is a comedy that still screams of a patriarchal society where it is expected that husbands and fathers hit.

All in all, as a reviewer, I appreciate that the author did not portray the mother in a romantic sense.  What she did was show wartime horrors and the abuse the women endured in an epic novel.   The author’s characters are so real and so gut-wrenching that I was not surprised to learn about the possibility that this is autobiographical.  I applaud Valmorbida for such an honest description of Italy’s wonders and shames.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Speakeasy” by Alisa Smith

Genre:          Historical FictionSpeakeasy
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   April, 10, 2018

So why did I like this book so much?   Maybe I am just a sucker for a bygone era.  I still love the old black and white 1930s and 1940s gangster movies.  I am filled with nostalgia for the Prohibition Era, with its handsome celebrities playing the main roles.  Think “Key Largo” with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and the great beauty, Lauren Bacall.  Or, “The Glass Key” with the handsome actor, Alan Ladd, and his gorgeous costar, known for her peek-a-boo hairstyle, Veronica Lake.

the glass key

Do not expect a “We had it all just like Bogey and Bacall” type of read.   There are many smart twists in this novel.  Don’t be fooled by the title; this not a story about bootlegging.   This reviewer is impressed with the author’s choice for the book’s title, very clever.  I will not spoil it for you with an explanation.   The entire story is not what it appears.   I suspect some will be disappointed in “Speakeasy.”   Between the book’s title and blurb, it is fair to expect a novel that leans heavily into women’s fiction.   However, that is simply not this book.   You will soon discover that it’s written more literary than contemporary in how it begs the question: Which life would you choose?   Would you prefer stable but boring or dangerous but exhilarating?

Here is what is hard to buy about this book.   It is two novels in one.  The female protagonist is an outlaw in a gang during the depression robbing banks with her boyfriend, the gang leader.  Ten years later, she is a naval code breaker during World War II, intercepting Japanese messages.  Both subject matters would be enjoyable to me.  But together it becomes a hard sell.  It took me a while to accept the disjointedness of these two stories, but the author pulls it off.   She manages to successfully merge a gangster noir with a spy thriller.

There are two first-person narrators that alternate between paragraphs —tricky to follow, but worth the effort.  Our gal’s voice and a male voice from the past, who is another gang member though, not her man.  These two characters have something in common.   He is a law-abiding citizen until the likable bandit comes and shakes up his dull and friendless life.  She is a beautiful law-abiding bank teller, who happens to be bored out of her young mind.  When the bank is robbed, she can see that the unmasked leader is Clark Gable handsome, with the sort of killer smile women melt over.  During the robbery, she asks the charming but violent man to take her with them.  This is the beginning of her Bonnie and Clyde years.

There are certainly flaws in the story.  In order to become a high ranking naval code breaker, our heroine must be a very bright woman.  Yet, she has no way of assessing the character of the people in her life.   Plus, she repeats past errors, which is incongruent with a sharp mind.  At age twenty, she has to get beat up by her boyfriend to realize her honey is a creep.  In typical noir style, he slaps some sense into her.  That incident prompts her to run away from him and return to a lawful life.   At age thirty, she fears that her past is catching up with her, but has no clue who in the naval unit is digging into her youth.   And, even though she is now a grown woman, she once again falls for a guy who does not have her best interest at heart.  I wanted to jump into the pages and yell, “Enough already with the bad boys.”

In ways, Alisa Smith reminds me of the wonderful Joyce Carol Oates.  In Oates’ novel, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” she writes an historical fiction about a woman who falls for a charismatic, abusive, hard-drinking man sounding similar to our bank robbing code breaker.  Like in all of Oates’ work, this book too is a well written powerful drug—one page and you are addicted.  Such talent cannot be found in a cheesy plot-driven tale about domestic violence.  I highly recommend “Speakeasy,” that reads partly as an historical espionage, and partly as an intellectual version of Mickey Spillane.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“We Were the Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter

Publisher:   Penguin Group Viking

Pub. Date:  Feb. 14, 2017 we-were-the-lucky-ones

The author, Georgia Hunter, conducted extensive research after learning (at age fifteen) that her grandfather (the character Addy Kurc in the book) survived the Holocaust.   Her historical novel tracks the experiences of her real-life Polish family members during WWII.  Her grandparents and their five adult children were scattered among several continents to survive.  Her grandparents, their two daughters, and two sons went into the ghettos.  Two sisters escaped the labor camps.  The eldest brother ended up in Siberia, the youngest brother ran away from the ghetto and went into hiding, and the middle brother made his way into Brazil from Paris, where he had been living before the war.  The entire family survived, which I thought was unbelievable until I read Hunter’s endnotes.

The book begins in the spring of 1939.  The Kurc family tried to go about their lives as usual, although the war was growing nearer, and the threats against Jews grew more intense by the day in their hometown of Radom, Poland.  The reader learns of the early days of the invasion of Poland right up until the end of the war.  Each family member had a different story with a different aspect to tell.  I especially liked that chapters that began with dates of what was happening (as if reading a newspaper of the times), showing us that the author’s research was precise.  Hunter has shared a rich and vivid history of her family through years of research.  She reports that out of 30,000 Jews in her grandparents hometown of Radom, fewer then 300 survived.  Mind boggling.  I found this to be a sweeping novel of a family’s remarkable determination, smarts, and love for one another that pushed them to stay alive, even in the most brutal of concentrations camps.  I don’t think I learned anything new about the horrors of the Holocaust, but Hunter gave the survivors a face.  At times I felt the writing was too sentimental for none of the family members had a dis-likable quality.  Yet still, this was an extraordinary moving tale that should never be forgotten.  And, hopefully never will be during present times as well as the future.

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“A Bridge Across the Ocean” by Susan Meissner

Pub. Date:   March 7, 2017ocean

Publishers:  Berkley Publishing Group

I enjoyed the author’s previous novel Secrets of a Charmed Life which is also a historical novel focusing on World War II, so I was surprised, and disappointed that I didn’t care for Susan Meissner’s latest novel, A Bridge Across the Ocean, which is another novel about World War II.  But, for me, this book seems more of a ghost story than historical fiction.

In Ocean, WWII has just ended. The story is not linear, told in the past as well as the present.  In the past, European war brides are to be reunited with their American husbands via the illustrious ocean liner the RMS Queen Mary.  In the present, a reluctant psychic is trying to solve a ghost mystery surrounding the ship.

Once I finished this book I “googled” to learn that the Queen Mary has a history of being considered haunted, but I didn’t read anything about war brides.  I wish Meissner would have concentrated more on the history part of her story.  I enjoyed reading about the French Resistance, and Germans hiding Germans from the Nazis as well as the difficulties the war brides had in entering America.  If she didn’t mix the genres, I would have found her tale a much more interesting read.

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