I managed to get through several novels over the winter break - one of them was excellent, the rest were fine. I'll start with the best.
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
I really liked this book - it followed the life of Cyril Avery from his birth in 1945 to his old age. As his adoptive parents told him at every opportunity, he was not a real Avery. Rather he was born to an unwed teenaged mother and placed for adoption by a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun. The story of Cyril's life really encapsulates the history of Ireland - in particular the significant influence of the Catholic church.
First, Cyril's mother is publicly humiliated by her local parish priest and banished from their town when her parents become aware of her pregnancy. Of course, the father, who does give her a few pounds for her trouble, remains anonymous and suffers no consequences. She hops a bus for Dublin where she befriends a young man and goes to live with him and his "roommate". She is totally oblivious to the fact that they are lovers until this is brought to her attention in a startling and tragic way. She manages to find a job serving tea at the House of Commons by pretending to be married (and with some luck as she is hired by a woman who had suffered similar circumstances). As she planned to give the baby up for adoption, she returns to work after his birth and holds this job until retirement.
Cyril meanwhile grows up with very odd parents. His adoptive mother is a novelist who abhors any commercial success; his adoptive father is a banker who goes to prison more than once for tax evasion. While not cruel, they are rather neglectful and Cyril's childhood is lonely. As a young boy he meets another young boy (the son of his father's lawyer) and develops a life-long crush on him. At this point he realizes he is gay.
I don't want to give up too much but the novel follows Cyril's life from Dublin, to Amsterdam to New York and back to Dublin. We see his relationship with his adoptive parents, his friend and her sister who he eventually marries (under societal pressure and without much success), the man with whom he has a healthy relationship and his birth mother who keeps popping up in his life without his knowledge of who she really is. We also see the slowly changing norms in Ireland with respect to religion, unwed mothers and homosexuality. My only criticism was the number of times people kept crossing each other's paths coincidentally - it made it seem like only about a dozen people lived in Ireland. But, that didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
This was also a very interesting book. In alternating chapters it tells the story of three women caught up in World War II in very different ways. Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite who works at the French consulate. When the war breaks out she struggles to continue to help the poor orphans in France and to integrate the influx of refugees into New York. She has also fallen in love with a married French man and tries desperately to get him to stay in New York. When he does not she constantly worries about him as his wife is Jewish and they get taken to camps.
Kasia Kuzmerick is a Polish teenager who gets deeply involved in the resistance movement and eventually ends up in Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women. She is riddled with guilt as she feels it is her fault that her sister, mother and boyfriend's sister have been arrested with her.
Herta Oberheuser is a struggling German doctor who desperately wants to be a surgeon but is stopped at every turn as the Nazis feel real German women belong at home. That is until she applies to work at Ravensbruck and gets caught up in the horrific experiments being conducted on inmates there - including Kasia. It is a testament to the writing that you are never sure how much Herta believes in what she is doing and how much she just needs to work to survive and support her mother.
The book follows the war time experiences of the women and ultimately how each of them fared during the war and dealt with the consequences of it.
A Nantucket Christmas by Nancy Thayer
I read this one in the span of one airplane ride. It was typical Thayer Nantucket writing except that it took place in winter. Nicole is an island newcomer and a second wife who must welcome her pregnant, adult step daughter, son-in-law and grandson to the family's Christmas celebration. Her step daughter is adamantly opposed to her father's remarriage and unrealistically dreams of a reconciliation between her parents. Angst and hilarity ensues when the family, including eventually the ex-wife, spend Christmas together. The weirdest part of the book were certain chapters written from the perspective of a dog abandoned on the island by a summer family and discovered by Nicole's grandson. Of course there is the expected happy ending.
Home Again by Kristin Hannah
Madelaine Hillyard is a very successful heart surgeon but has struggled more in her personal life. She is the single mother of a teenager, Lina, who is going through a rebellious stage. While Madelaine has the steadfast assistance of her priest friend, Francis DeMarco, his brother Angel (and Lina's father) rode out of town shortly after he found out Madelaine was pregnant. Lina has not been told who her father is and desperately wishes to know. Madelaine is able to keep it a secret until Angel, now a famous movie star, ends up back in town in need of a heart transplant. The book deals with the bittersweet reunion between Angel, Madelaine and Francis as well as the introduction of Lina to her father. While the ending is hopeful, there are some sad parts to get through first.
Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty
An easy read Australian book about triplets Lyn, Cat and Gemma. It starts with a scene in a restaurant on their birthday which ends with Cat stabbing pregnant Gemma with a fork. The book then goes back in time by several months to explain why that happened - with occasional forays even further back in time to the girls' childhood, teenage and earlier adult years. While we learn about their parents' marriage and divorce, their grandparents and their own marriages, what the book is ultimately about is the relationship amongst the girls and how their personalities are shaped by this relationship.
I won't go into the story as it's not a deep novel or anything, but it is an entertaining enough read, especially on vacation. There are certainly several humorous scenes.
The Things We Cherished and The Diplomat's Wife by Pam Jenoff
I have recently discovered Jenoff (actually, rediscovered as I had read The Kommandant's Girl some time ago) and when I was looking for something to read on vacation that didn't have a waiting list at the library I picked up these two. They were both grabbed me enough that I read each of them in a day.
The Things we Cherished starts with two human rights lawyers, Charlotte and Jack, who are called upon to defend an accused Nazi war criminal. Their client refuses to defend himself claiming only that proof of his innocence can be found in an old clock. So Charlotte and Jack travel through Europe trying to get their hands on the clock. Alternating chapters tell the history of the clock so we slowly piece together where it's been and why it's so important. My only criticism of the book is the story of the clock was so complex that at times I was left confused - and because I was reading an e-book it was hard to look back for clarification. But that was not enough to ruin the book for me.
The Diplomat's Wife is actually a sequel to The Kommandant's Girl, told from a different perspective. This book starts with Marta who is a prisoner in a concentration camp being kept alive so she can be tortured to obtain information about the resistance movement. We learn later that she worked in the resistance with Emma who was the main character in the other book. Marta is liberated by an American soldier and sent to recuperate at a DP camp in Salzburg. There she runs into the soldier again and they slowly fall in love. However on the night that he must leave the camp Marta's good friend dies and a friendly nurse gives her the friend's visa to England. She encourages Marta to use it both to escape and to personally bring the news of her friend's death to her beloved aunt who had sponsored her visa.
Before she makes it to England she gets waylaid in Paris where she again runs into the American soldier and they get engaged. As the war has ended by then they make plans to meet up in a few weeks time in London. So Marta travels to London where she stays with her friend's aunt and when her fiancé dies in a plane crash on the way to meet her she takes a job with and eventually marries a British diplomat.
The British foreign office discovers they have a double agent working for them and feeding confidential information to Russia and enlist Marta (who was working as a secretary) to help find the culprit as she has the necessary contacts from her days in the Polish underground. She travels to Czechoslovakia to find the answers - with extremely surprising results.