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European-Historical

REVIEW:  Simple Faith by Anna Schmidt

REVIEW: Simple Faith by Anna Schmidt

Simple-Faith

After losing her beloved husband and daughter and surviving Hitler’s Sobibor death camp, Quaker widow Anja Steinberg dedicates her life to helping others and keeping her son safe. As a member of the resistance, she helps displaced Allied airmen get back to their units in England. The journey is rigorous and filled with danger and there is no time for romance. Then American Peter Trent parachutes into her life. She must face facts—her heart did not die with her late husband and true love could be hers again. But will a romance hurt Peter’s chance of escape from the Nazis—and endanger her life as well?

Dear Ms. Schmidt,

I keep an eye out for your books ever since I discovered you through your Harlequin Historical Love Inspired novels. Quite by chance I happened to have watched a documentary a few months ago that detailed the story of a former American fighter pilot who was shot down during WWII and who by chance and luck was kept from capture for several months while he was sent along the Comet line in Belgium – one of the escape routes used to send Allied airmen through Belgium, France and Spain to return to Britain. When I saw the blurb, I knew I had to read this book.

The action gets going immediately as Peter Trent bails out of his crippled plane then watches as it slams into the ground and explodes. He’s concerned about which other crewmen might have got out in time but also with the fact that he’s been shot in the leg and the fireball of the crash will lead the Germans straight to the site. Desperately trying to remember his escape and evasion tactics while waiting to pull the ripcord of his chute, he calculates his odds and they don’t look good.

Luck is with him and the farm family first hides then takes him in. Anja arrives while the Germans are still searching the grounds of her grandparents farm and joins in the deception that must be flawless for them all to avoid imprisonment, interrogation and death as the network tries to help Peter heal, keeps him concealed and then transports him south.

Anja’s instructions to Peter as she teaches him the ways the Germans will try and trip up people they suspect, the pass offs, couriers, safe houses and, at times, brazen methods the people of the Comet line use all tally with what I’ve seen and read about resistance groups. The constant fear under which they all live is palpable. The danger is everywhere and anyone but as they tell Peter when he asks, it is what they can do to try and win the war.

I was surprised but enthusiastic that the book went far beyond what I was expecting. The group starts in Brussels, escapes detection with an elaborate ruse in Paris, splits up to Bordeaux, winds up near Limoges where fate stretches the escape to the breaking point. And then, the mountains! And details of how the route worked beyond the Pyrenees that I didn’t know the specifics about wind up the third section of the book. It was informative, it was immediate and again capture and death lurked at every turn.

The plot unfolded in a way that makes sense that Anja and her son needed to travel along with and at some times parallel with Peter towards Spain. There is time for these two to get to know each other before the “I love you’s” and the marriage proposal was timely and actually necessary to the final escape. I also like the ending which hints at the work needed after the war and fits in with Anja’s Quaker determination to help with that.

The religious aspects of the book are shown to be central to Anja’s life and part and parcel of the work she does. She shows her beliefs to Peter by her actions and the way she lives rather than any preaching at him and by extension, at me. Another nice thing is that even some of the Germans are shown as people too with their own dreams, fears and hopes. No group of people is ever just black or white. American Peter also comes to realize how arrogant he initially appears and learns some lessons about following instead of always trying to lead.

Anja is a strong heroine as well as an intelligent one. Peter gets to see and appreciate the bravery of those who would risk their lives to save total strangers. He and Anja help others escape and find love as they form a new family and a spotlight is shown on the role of the Belgians during the war. It’s a win for me. B

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona

REVIEW: The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona

The-Mapmakers-Daughter

A sweeping story of 1492 Spain, exploring how what we know about the world shapes our map of life

1492. During the waning decades of Spain’s golden age, Christian religious fervor culminated in the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. THE MAPMAKER’S DAUGHTER tells the story of these final years through the eyes of Amalia Cresques, the daughter of a mapmaker who has been living as a converso, hiding her Jewish faith.

As Amalia witnesses history in the making–the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the court of Henry the Navigator in Portugal, the fall of Muslim Granada, and the Jewish expulsion from Spain–she must decide whether to relinquish what’s left of her true self or risk her life preserving it. A mesmerizing saga about faith, family and Jewish identity.

Dear Ms. Corona,

The blurb of any historical book with a little used setting will generally catch my eye and make me stop for a second look. I know I mentioned in a recent review that sagas aren’t my “thing” and in that one I had hoped the interesting setting would overcome my reservations about it but here, it works for me. When needed, there were leaps in the narrative to branch periods when nothing of note would have happened. And since the narrator begins the book looking back over her life while at other times the present is superimposed on her memories, I was okay with her editing.

From the first page, I felt immersed in this far away world. The details of daily life in 15th century Spain, Portugal and Granada are interesting, pertinent and best of all seamlessly interwoven in the story. I didn’t get the feeling that facts were being shoehorned in just because you found them too cool not to mention. Instead they add to the “feel” and authenticity without seeming intrusive.

The central theme of the book is identity and what will we endure in order to preserve it. Amalia’s father and sisters were determined to live as conversos – former Jews who had converted to Christianity – in Sevilla while her mother was equally, if not more, determined to secretly be true to her Jewish faith in a world where anger against them could be sparked and lead to pogroms at any moment. As mentioned in the above paragraph, it’s the wealth of details about daily life in a Jewish household that centers the book and illuminates Amalia’s identity.

Amalia does go to palaces, witness certain events and is present to see firsthand many important people of her day, but I like that the strength of the story is in the women and how they make their homes and live their lives. Jewish identity is passed through the mother and the focus of the women centers on the household. The women of this family are boss and a source of rock solid steadiness for their men and children to depend on.

Obviously it’s impossible to read this book in 2014 and not think back to the events within living memory from the 1930s. As the restrictions on Jews began, I got nervous for Amalia and her extended family. When the hammer blows struck, one after another, I wanted to stand outside their households and yell, “Can’t you see what’s happening? Don’t you understand? You have to get out now.” Yet, I know from first hand sources that even as your rights are being stripped away and laws are being passed against you, people will still try and cling to what and where they know. They will believe beyond safety that things will get better.

Honestly I didn’t expect the Christians to come off looking good here. We are talking the start of the Spanish Inquisition. But I do have to admit that I was hoping for a more even handed portrayal of, at the very least, Amalia’s Christian family members. Instead her two sisters devolve into hard eyed harridans, the one sister’s children are grasping, rude little parasites while Amalia’s husband becomes a slaver and is revealed to be a homosexual. To me this takes the easy way out by making everyone evil rather than having anyone on the Christian side face a difficult decision of whether to show any love or loyalty to Amalia. The fact that all but one of the Muslim characters are shown positively made this even more glaring.

Amalia’s final decision about her grandfather’s atlas, which has been a central part of her entire life and which she’s sacrificed so much in order to keep, took me by surprise. But as I thought more about it, her choice made sense to me. Her family and her people are being thrown out of the country in which they’ve lived, and which they’ve culturally enriched, for centuries. What she does is her way of saying to them “we were here, remember us, this is what you’re losing.” B

~Jayne

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