Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

While incredibly gripping, this book literally gave me nightmares.  In fact, after the first rough night I considered quitting, but I was just too curious to see how it ended.

Grace is a single woman in her late 30s who has a good job (a fruit buyer for Harrod's) and has been involved in a couple of long time relationships.  But all of the relationships have come to an end because she is responsible for Millie, her 17 year old sister with Down's syndrome.  That is until she meets Jack.  He sweeps her off her feet with his good looks, charm and promises to buy her a perfect home and allow Millie to live with them once she turns 18 and is no longer eligible for the residential school where she currently resides.  He even wins over Grace's parents by jointly taking legal responsibility for Millie so they can fulfil a life long dream of moving to New Zealand.  Within 6 months Grace and Jack marry.

On her wedding night, Jack disappears, but promises to explain everything on their honeymoon in Bangkok.  There she learns he is actually a psychopath who feeds on the fear of others - he takes total control of her life; locking her in the house and never giving her an opportunity to be alone with anyone who could potentially help her escape.  What's worse is she discovers his true intentions toward Millie - it is really her that he wishes to imprison and terrorize.

The book flips back and forth between this start of the relationship and the present - where Grace is living a lie.  To her neighbours and friends she and Jack have a perfect relationship.  However, she is desperately working on a plan to escape.  I was really rooting for Grace and Millie - Jack was just so smug in his belief that he would always be able to outsmart them.  I don't really want to say anything more as it could take away from the suspense.

I did enjoy the book, but only take it on if you think you can cope with reading about extreme emotional abuse.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn Beer with Susan Dworkin

I'm not sure how I ended up with so many Holocaust books on my reading list right now, but hopefully this is the last for a while (it gets a bit too heavy).  This was a memoir of Edith Hahn who survived the war as a "U-Boat" - a Jewish woman hidden in plain sight in Berlin, living life as the housewife of a Nazi officer.

Edith was born to a well-to-do, very assimilated Jewish family in Vienna.  Her father was a shop owner and her mother was a very talented seamstress.  Before the Nazi invasion of Austria Edith studied law and was active in the Communist movement.  She saw the writing on the wall, but did not leave Austria as she was madly in love with Pepi, a half Jewish man who would not abandon his Christian mother.  Edith's father died before the war and her two sisters managed to escape, one to Palestine the other to Britain.

When the Nazis took over Edith was first forced into the ghetto with her mother then sent to a slave labour camp.  There she suffered immense hardship through starvation and overwork but did manage to survive and even make some friends.  However, shortly after her mother was deported to Poland (until after the war Edith strongly believed it was just for resettlement) Edith was also ordered back to Vienna to report for resettlement.  Instead she took off her yellow star while on the train and immediately became a fugitive.  The reception she received from Pepi and her remaining cousin was far less welcoming than she'd hoped and instead, with the help of kind non-Jewish friends she was given a new identity as Grete Denner and moved to Berlin to work as a nurse with the Red Cross (because they did not demand national identity papers).

While in Berlin at an art gallery she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi party member who fell in love with her and offered to marry her.  Despite her protests and eventual confession of her true identity he still married her and protected her throughout the war.  Werner was a bit of an enigma - he did seem to love her though he feared their baby as he believe the Nazi propaganda that "Jewish blood" would prevail.  He was also a pathological liar and may have somewhat enjoyed the "game" of hiding a Jew.  Due to blindness in one eye he spent most of the war supervising a Nazi paint factory, but at the end was sent to the front and injured and captured by the Russians.  Edith who survived the war and revealed her true identity afterward got a job as a judge in post-war East Berlin and worked tirelessly to obtain his freedom.  When Werner did return he abandoned her and their daughter for his first wife.

A couple of years after the war Edith was asked to spy for the East German government - not wanting to do so she escaped to Britain and lived the rest of her life there and in Israel.  She told her daughter very little about the war years until much later in life when she learned Pepi had kept all her letters which diarized life in the labour camps as well as living underground.  These papers were all donated to the Holocaust museum in Washington.  In addition, the Christian woman whose identity she assumed is recognized as a righteous gentile at Yad Vashem.  Edith did not stay in touch with Werner but did maintain contact with his daughter from his first marriage who had spent time with her as a child during the war.

In all this was an interesting story though I would not say the book was the best written - it was a bit disjointed in style and therefore it was sometimes hard to keep the character references straight.  But it does tell of life of a Jewish person during the war from an entirely different perspective.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Miscalling by Affinity Konar

This was an amazing, though very difficult, story to read.  Konar tells the fictional story of twin sisters who found themselves in Auschwitz and the victims of Mengele's cruel experiments.

Pearl and Stasha are12 years old when they are rounded up in the Lodz Ghetto together with their mother and paternal grandfather, a former respected biology professor.  Their father, a doctor, had disappeared in the ghetto's early days when he went off to treat a sick child and never returned.  The official story was he committed suicide.  After days of suffering in a box car, while their grandfather amused them with biology games, they arrive at Auschwitz.  Spying Mengele's interest in a set of triplets, the girls' mother asks a guard whether it is a good thing to be a multiple.  He affirms that it is and the girls are dragged from beneath their grandfather's coat and handed over to Mengele.

From here we see the horrors of Mengele's experiments from the eyes of his victims as he tortures not only twins, but albinos, little people, and even Jews who he felt looked strangely Aryan and he needed to figure out why.  While we see his cruelty and that of others such as "the Ox" who was in charge of the girls' barracks, Mengele's nurse, Elma and the guard, Taube, we also see those who try to offer small kindnesses in the face of horrors such as the Jewish Dr. Miri who was forced to engage in terrible acts of cruelty and "Twins' father" who was in charge of the boys' barracks and made a point of cataloguing every child that moved in and out of there in an effort to preserve their identities in some small way.  The girls were also able to make some alliances, with Bruna an albino petty criminal who taught them how to steal provisions, Peter, a Mengele favourite who was able to move freely about the camp in his capacity as messenger and "Patient", later known as Feliks who loses his twin early on and becomes both broken and bent on revenge.

When the camp is liberated Stasha and Feliks set out together to avenge the disappearance of their twins.  In their weakened states they believe they can track down and kill Mengele.  And so we follow them as they discover the destruction of Poland following the war and we see how the strength of their spirit allows them to survive even though they cannot achieve their impossible goal.

The book was well written - I loved how it alternated between the perspectives of Pearl and Stasha.  It painted a vivid, though horrific, picture of what happened in Mengele's world as well as the long lasting effects of his torture on his victims who were lucky enough to survive (and at many times I'm sure did not consider themselves the lucky ones).

I highly recommend this book, though be prepared for some lingering horrific pictures in your head.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

This is not the type of book I normally read, but it was recommended so I thought I would give it a try.  It was quite interesting except that I found the ending to be a disappointment (I will not reveal it here so as not to spoil the mystery).

A small private plane carrying 11 passengers and crew members takes off from Martha's Vineyard airport for the short flight to Teeterboro, New Jersey.  About 15 minutes after take off the plane mysteriously plunges into the ocean and there are only 2 survivors - Scott Burroughs, an unsuccessful painter who was invited on the plane at the last minute, and TJ, a four year old boy.  Having been a swimmer in high school, Scott carries the boy on his back and miraculously swims them to safety, landing on the coast of Long Island.

After reading about the harrowing rescue, the rest of the book focuses on piecing together why the crash happened.  The framework is the investigation by the authorities:  the NTSB, the FBI (fearing it may have been terrorism), and the Office of Foreign Asset Control (since one passenger was on the eve of being arrested for money laundering).  A more tabloid style investigation is being conducted by Bill Cunningham, the controversial anchor of the new channel operated by the executive whose plane went down (TJ's father).  Bill is trying to suggest Scott is no hero but was having an affair with his boss' wife (which is why he was invited on the plane) and is now after TJ's money.

The chapters all delve into the pasts of the passengers and crew of the plane, searching for causes and motives.  Eventually the black box is recovered and all is revealed, but the answer is somewhat anti-climactic for me.  I think perhaps the most interesting part of the book was how both journalists and law enforcement officials could twist what few facts they had available to suit their interests - and how that's the news that people want to watch.

Monday, November 7, 2016

We're All in this Together by Amy Jones

This novel by a a Canadian author who was unfamiliar to me was an extremely pleasant surprise.  I had a hard time putting the book down.

The story begins when the matriarch of the family, Kate, goes over a waterfall in the Thunder Bay area in a barrel.  She lives, but ends up in a coma and an internet sensation.  Subsequent chapters are written from the perspective of her many family members as they struggle to figure out why Kate did what she did and whether they should have been able to predict and then stop it.

First we meet Finn.  She is the "prodigal" daughter who escaped Thunder Bay to pursue her dreams in Toronto.  At least that's how it looks on the surface.  In fact she works from home, writing warning labels for a myriad of products and has little social life to speak of.  She has not had a relationship since she left Thunder Bay in a huff several years earlier in part because her twin sister Nicki had an affair with her long term boyfriend Dallas and ended up bearing him a son.

Nicki is a hairdresser living with her parents and working out of their garage.  She has four children by three different fathers including, sixteen year old London whose perspective is often shared in the book too.  Nicki is married to Hamish (who is not the father of any of the children), a bootlegger who unknowingly provided Kate's barrel for her trip over the falls.

Shawn was a homeless boy who Kate adopted when he was a teenager and ended up in her yard after riding the rails for several years.  At first he expected to spend a few weeks with the family, steal what he could and set out on his own.  But he came to love the family and they came to love him so he stayed and he is perhaps now the most devoted of Kate's children.  All is not well with him though as his marriage with his high school sweetheart, Katriina, is in disarray.  She keeps miscarrying (though they have two sons) and has started cutting herself to cope with the pressure of always being perfect in Shawn's eyes.  Several chapters are also seen from Katriina's perspective.

Walter, Kate's husband, has been in love with her since childhood when they lived on neighbouring farms.  Dubbed "waiting Walter" by Kate he seems to have spent his life enduring her mysterious disappearances and then being her rock when she resurfaces.  He has his flaws though - fiercely in love with Lake Superior, he spends months at a time giving tours or servicing ice fishing camps.  He has known for years that something is not quite right with Kate, but he has tried his best to ignore it and to keep it from the children.

London, Kate's granddaughter has become obsessed with sharks and enters into an internet relationship with a celebrity marine biologist - at least she thinks so.  She thus becomes focused on chasing him down when he is making an appearance in Duluth, not far from Thunder Bay.  Much of the climax of the book takes place when London finally convinces an unlikely family member to accompany her to Duluth.  She's devastated when her marine biologist has no idea who she is - and turns out to be a bit of a fraud.  However, the secrets she learns about her family and how much they all mean to each other are far more valuable.

Ultimately this is a story of the bonds of family, the secrets between family members and the harm they can cause and how, in moments of crisis, it is often only our crazy family members that we can turn to.  The book is well written, all of the characters are flawed but endearing and the story is well paced.  All in all it makes for a great read.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Carry Me by Peter Behrens

It's a bit hard for me to summarize my feelings about this book.  Overall I was really intrigued by the story, but at times it was hard slogging.

The novel is narrated by Billy Lange who is looking back on his life at some indeterminate time (probably about the 1970s).  Billy was born in 1909 on the Isle of Wight.  His father was the skipper of the racing yacht belonging to a wealthy German-Jewish baron, von Weinbrenner, who, with his wife and daughter, spend one month a year on the island.  The rest of the year Billy and his family live in the home and take care of it for the baron.

Billy is born one year after von Weinbrenner's daughter Karin and is instantly drawn to her - she seems so adventurous and sophisticated to the younger boy, who is after all the child of her family's employees.

Billy's father is German, though really only in name having been born to a German sailor and his Irish wife miles off the coast of Acapulco and registered as a German upon hitting land.  Had he been born days later he would have been a US citizen which would have changed the course of his life and that of his family.  Upon the outbreak of World War I Billy's father is arrested and accused of being a German spy (primarily because part of his job was tracking sailing boats with a pair of binoculars).  As the von Weinbrenners are no longer welcome in the UK, Billy and his mother struggle to survive, eventually returning to his mother's home in Ireland where Billy also makes his first friend (Mick who appears on and off later in his life) and meets his paternal grandmother.

When the war is over Billy's father is released, but deported back to Germany.  The von Weinbrenners take them in and give Billy's father a job running their newly formed horse racing operation.

From there we follow Billy and Karin's lives in the interwar years - watching the horror of the rise of Naziism.

The novel, though narrated from a later date, alternates between the early story and 1938 when Billy and Karin are planning to escape Germany.  Along the way he paints a terrible picture of the rise of anti-semitism and its impact on Karin's once powerful family.  He sort of off handedly tells us how the Jews he met along the way fared during the war; somewhat downplaying the horror of most of their experiences.

What Billy and Karin share from childhood is an interest in the American west - in particular, El Llano Estacado which they read about in German language children's novels.  Eventually they fulfil their wish to travel there but it is not the idyllic escape that Billy expects.

In the end, I think I recommend this book, but you have to be prepared to give it some time to warm up and some patience for the less engaging sections.