AKIN — Emma Donoghue

Absolutely marvelous!

Noah is about to celebrate his eightieth birthday in Nice — the city where he was born, the city he hasn’t seen since he was four years old – when his eleven year old great nephew is foisted on him by a desperate and persistent social worker.

Noah, determined to get to Nice and unravel the mystery of his mother’s photos, refuses to give up his trip and takes the boy along. The ensuing adventures of this unlikely pair take the reader on a wild ride through Nice and back to WWII as they search for the answers Noah needs. A story of adventure, bonding, and finding home.


Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor and widower living on the Upper West Side, but born in the South of France. He is days away from his first visit back to Nice since he was a child, bringing with him a handful of puzzling photos he’s discovered from his mother’s wartime years. But he receives a call from social services: Noah is the closest available relative of an eleven-year-old great-nephew he’s never met, who urgently needs someone to look after him. Out of a feeling of obligation, Noah agrees to take Michael along on his trip.
Much has changed in this famously charming seaside mecca, still haunted by memories of the Nazi occupation. The unlikely duo, suffering from jet lag and culture shock, bicker about everything from steak frites to screen time. But Noah gradually comes to appreciate the boy’s truculent wit, and Michael’s ease with tech and sharp eye help Noah unearth troubling details about their family’s past. Both come to grasp the risks people in all eras have run for their loved ones, and find they are more akin than they knew.
Written with all the tenderness and psychological intensity that made Room an international bestseller, Akin is a funny, heart-wrenching tale of an old man and a boy, born two generations apart, who unpick their painful story and start to write a new one together.

Under the Maidenhair – Billie Milholland

Absolutely Wonderful

In 1953, twelve-year-old Natalie spies on her neighbours recording their lives for future historians. Theoretically, not much should be going on. WWII is over, people have gone on with their boring daily lives in small town Alberta. Or have they?

Turns out the legacy of war lingers with sorrow for those killed, with unseen wounds in those who returned. The war may have changed lives, but prejudice and superiority remain.

As Natalie’s spy glass hones in on citizens’ lives — good deeds and bad — are exposed much to the readers’ delight.

Kudos to Milholland for this wonderful story which is much more than YA.



An engaging, coming-of-age story set in a small Alberta town struggling to come to grips with the aftermath of World War II. The people in Deep Creek are trying to get back to normal, but there is nothing normal about Nathalie Smythe’s life.

The youngest child in a family still torn apart by complications caused by war, Nathalie (Tally) talks to ghosts. When she discovers something that is “…not the kind of thing you can tell a granddad either, no matter how dead he is” she confides in her ‘Dearest Diary’, her only constant friend. But when her friend Mary is accused of a crime she didn’t commit and is in danger of being sent to the Red Deer Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives, Tally is forced into action.

As small secrets beget larger secrets how can two intrepid children bring to light enough proof to convince adults the truth about what they have discovered?



Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin


Even though the Ritz Hotel in Paris is swarming with Nazis, Claude and Blanche Auzello manage to keep it running throughout WWII, but not without grave personal consequences.

Little is known about Claude and Blanche, but as Benjamin brings them to life for us, we experience a different kind of war taking a toll on individuals that is just as damaging, in its own way, as being in battle.


Nothing bad can happen at the Ritz; inside its gilded walls every woman looks beautiful, every man appears witty. Favored guests like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor walk through its famous doors to be welcomed and pampered by Blanche Auzello and her husband, Claude, the hotel’s director. The Auzellos are the mistress and master of the Ritz, allowing the glamour and glitz to take their minds off their troubled marriage, and off the secrets that they keep from their guests—and each other.

Until June 1940, when the German army sweeps into Paris, setting up headquarters at the Ritz. Suddenly, with the likes of Hermann Goëring moving into suites once occupied by royalty, Blanche and Claude must navigate a terrifying new reality. One that entails even more secrets and lies. One that may destroy the tempestuous marriage between this beautiful, reckless American and her very proper Frenchman. For in order to survive—and strike a blow against their Nazi “guests”—Blanche and Claude must spin a web of deceit that ensnares everything and everyone they cherish.

But one secret is shared between Blanche and Claude alone—the secret that, in the end, threatens to imperil both of their lives, and to bring down the legendary Ritz itself.

Based on true events, Mistress of the Ritz is a taut tale of suspense wrapped up in a love story for the ages, the inspiring story of a woman and a man who discover the best in each other amid the turbulence of war.


The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

Inspired by a house, Simon Mawer has woven in intricate and intriguing story of a couple building just such a house and just such a room of light.

Their lives are idyllic until Hitler looms on the horizon.  The couple and their family are replaced by Nazis using the glass room to run genetic measurements of phenotype, then doctors and therapists using it to work with handicapped children. Mawer subtly weaves the original owners back into the story bringing it to a natural and satisfying conclusion.

Strong characters throughout and excellent writing make for a satisfying read.

If you’ve read The Only Woman in the Room, you will immediately recognize Hedy Lamar and her husband (Austrian arms dealer) who cross paths with the owners of the house.

Germans lived in Sudetenland which was part of the Austro-Hungarian territory for some 700 years. For more on the fate of many of the 3 million Germans living in Sudentenland at the end of WWII, read Julia’s Violinist.

Interview with the author.

Images of the house that inspired the novel, the original Villa Tugendhat.




The Only Woman in the Room – Marie Benedict

Hedy Lamarr–Hollywood bombshell–and so much more. Told in first person, her story takes us from prewar Austria and her dinners with Mussolini, to Hollywood and her inventions that gave us much of today’s technology. Each time you use your cell phone, thank Hedy!


Her beauty almost certainly saved her from the rising Nazi party and led to marriage with an Austrian arms dealer. Underestimated in everything else, she overheard the Third Reich’s plans while at her husband’s side, understanding more than anyone would guess. She devised a plan to flee in disguise from their castle, and the whirlwind escape landed her in Hollywood. She became Hedy Lamarr, screen star.
But she kept a secret more shocking than her heritage or her marriage: she was a scientist. And she knew a few secrets about the enemy. She had an idea that might help the country fight the Nazis…if anyone would listen to her.
A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.



The Travelling Wedding Dress


A while back I wrote about sorting through my photos. Of course I found wedding pictures and seeing them brought this to mind.

Mom: When do you want to go shopping for your wedding dress?

Me: I’m going to wear yours.

Mom: You’ve been saying that since you were a little girl, but are you sure you really want to?

We dig the dress out from the back of the closet. Ivory satin with a row of tiny buttons down that back that I love now as much as I did when I was a kid. I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that none of the buttons are missing. As the satin was never pure white, the slightly yellowed look is not a deterrent to wearing the dress.

I try it on. The hem needs to be straightened, but otherwise it feels fine. We shop for shoes and a veil to go with the dress and find both easily enough.

My wedding day is on what would have been my parents’ 25th anniversary if my father hadn’t died the year before. A tough day for us—especially for my mother; but we get through it and I hope that the hugs and good cheer can lighten, for a while at least, my mother’s load of grief.

The Travelling Wedding Dress


A number of years later I’m asked to model “our” wedding dress in a charity fashion show. As we gather backstage, I find a woman about my mother’s age wearing her dress which is identical to mine.

“My mother bought her dress in Yorkton, Saskatchewan,” I tell her, “just after the war. She said she had two choices and said that neither fit properly, but she liked this one best.”

The lady nods knowingly. “I bought mine in Calgary, Alberta in 1945 and this was the only choice. Luckily it fit me reasonably well.”

I feel a kinship to this stranger as we model on the catwalk together and marvel at circumstances that brought us together.

The dress still hangs in the back of my closet with all our memories firmly attached. My daughter didn’t wear it, but perhaps one day my granddaughter will and my and my mother’s spirits will walk down the aisle with her.


Finding a Good Book

haystackFinding something to read has become little more than hunting for that proverbial needle in the haystack.

In the “old days” we searched the shelves in the library for a title or cover that attracted our attention and then read the blurb. The hunt could take hours, followed by the trek home with an armload of books, only to cart several back unread as they just didn’t appeal.

Now, we face another haystack as we receive emails from publishers and Amazon, from book groups like The Fussy Librarian and bloggers we follow with a multitude of suggestions for our reading pleasure.

With each book that captures our interest, we first read the blurb, then download the sample. Many of these too, will be deleted when the first bit doesn’t hold up to its initial promise.

In all of this time consuming search, it is perhaps the suggestions of fellow readers that hold the most promise for a good or great read.

With that in mind, here are a few books that I feel are worth your time.

The Iron Wire by Garry Kilworth who learned to receive and send Morse code at the age of 15. Recommended by my aunt who lives in Australia, this recounting of the construction of the Adelaide to Darwin telegraph line is much more intriguing than it sounds. No dull list of facts here. Kilworth imbues the story with drama and a love of the harsh beauty of the land traversed in the stringing of the line.

The Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle. A modern murder mystery, set apart from most by the fact that it is entwined with characters from WWII. Set in Florence we are shown a different side of the ravages of war as a senior policeman agrees to supervise a murder investigation, after it emerges the victim was once a Partisan hero.

Because We Are: A novel of Haiti by Ted Oswald. Harsh, gritty, and heartbreaking, this look at Haiti today will bring tears, but you won’t be able to stop reading. When ten-year-old orphan Libète discovers the bodies of a murdered mother and child, we are taken into the depths of the slums of Haiti’s most infamous slum.

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. If you want to know what life is really like for the majority of Mexicans—that is the poor—read this. It is the most accurate account I have come across.