Latest review: The Prisoner’s Wife by Maggie Brookes

By Ekta R. Garg

May 27, 2020

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: May 26, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A young couple take the biggest risk imaginable for love and end up in a series of Nazi POW camps. With a terrible secret that could subject them to the worst of Nazi oppression, the two find a group of friends to help them survive. Author Maggie Brookes puts her documentary expertise to work at the slow-to-start but ultimately gripping novel The Prisoner’s Wife.

In Czechoslovakia in 1944, Izabela is restless on her family’s farm. The previous year, during their work for the resistance, her father and older brother went missing. Everyone suspects Nazi involvement, but no one can prove it. All Izabela knows is that she wishes she could have joined the resistance with them. The Nazis have torn their country apart, and she wants to do more than hoe vegetables and tend to pigs.

It surprises her more than anyone, then, that it is the same Nazi army that changes her life forever. Through a work program set up by the Nazi government, prisoners are brought to the farm to help her family with the hard labor. On the day the prisoners arrive, Izabela notices Bill right away. A British soldier, Bill and his best friend Harry are now consigned to the ill treatment of the POW camp. Wherever the commanding officer points with his gun, they go.

A friendship and then love blossom between Bill and Izabela. He teaches her English; she teaches him how to work a farm. Before long they become inseparable, and Harry conspires with them to help them get married. Once she has Bill at her side, Izabela thinks, they can follow the resistance to the north. Maybe they’ll find her brother and father and join the cause.

The two get married and run away. Izabela dresses like a boy to avoid suspicion while they travel. They manage to spend 10 days on the road before they’re captured by the Nazis and sent to a POW camp. In those first terror-filled moments, Bill and Izabela are sure the Nazi guards will discover that Izabela is a woman. They manage to prevent that from happening and only share the secret with other prisoners once they’re in the all-male camp.

To their astonishment, the other prisoners help them hide the truth. Any small thing they can do to defy the Nazis feels like a victory, especially in a war that seems to have no end. As Izabela, Bill, and the others try to survive, they will find bonds and challenges unlike any they’ve ever known before. With the weight of their secret and the heavy responsibility just to survive, they draw on one another’s strength to carry them through it all.

British author Maggie Brookes, well-known for her documentaries, uses her attention to detail to craft a touching novel. In the author’s note, she shares the research she did to depict the times. Her research shines as every page and chapter of Izabela and Bill’s time in the camps ring true. Their horror, their uncertainty, the sheer will to survive for one another will leave readers in tears by the end.

If the novel can be faulted anywhere, it’s in the slow buildup. It takes almost a third of the book for Bill and Izabela to meet, fall in love, get married, and run away. Impatient readers might give up on the book by then, which is a shame because the best parts come when the young couple are captured and sent to the POW camp. Then Brookes shines as an author.

The early portions during the love story, by contrast, don’t grip the attention as much. They venture a little too much into romance novel territory, and readers wanting a historical fiction experience might be tempted to put the book down. A firmer hand on editing these portions would have tightened the narrative.

Also, while marketing materials tout this as based on a true story, Brookes shares in the end notes that it was a story told to her. No one knows the name of the young couple who endured this hardship or where they might have gone after the war ended, and she entreats anyone with information on them to come forward so she can connect with the real-life Izabela and Bill. Given the stories of courage and sheer force of will from World War II, it’s easy to imagine this to be a true story, but the fact that Brookes is uncertain of the identity of the couple who endured it takes away something.

Readers who enjoy World War II fiction and would like another lens through which to view the last year of the war will definitely want to read this book. I recommend they Bookmark The Prisoner’s Wife.

Newest review: The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith

By Ekta R. Garg

May 20, 2020

Genre: Speculative fiction

Release date: April 14, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

In the near future, a nurse who helps people die discovers the truth about her birth mother. When she embarks on a mission to find the woman, she learns why she was given up for adoption in the first place. Debut author Eve Smith’s novel feels exceptionally prescient in our current times while balancing compassionate opinions in The Waiting Rooms.

In England Kate Connelly works in the Waiting Rooms—hospitals reserved for people over the age of 70. Decades into a worldwide outbreak of tuberculosis that is resistant to all antibiotics, and other health issues that leave the public at risk, senior citizens no longer receive medicines when they get ill. They’re simply taken to the Waiting Rooms where they wait to die.

Kate works to make the entire experience humane, but she still struggles with the emotional and psychological ramifications of what she does. Years earlier, before the TB pandemic, she took an oath to save lives. Now she does everything she can to help them end with as much dignity as possible.

These days her thoughts are turning more to her own situation: her adoptive mother, Pen, has recently died, leaving Kate, her husband, Mark, and her daughter, Sasha, in a wake of grief. While Kate has known for years that she was adopted, she never had an interest in finding out who her birth parents were. Until Pen leaves her a letter urging her to do just that. Curiosity overcomes her reluctance, and Kate begins the investigation process. It leaves her with more questions than answers, however.

In a home for the elderly, Lily Taylor is fearing her upcoming birthday: her 70th. She wonders if she’ll live as long as the home’s oldest resident who has managed to escape the Waiting Rooms by staying in relatively good health more than a decade past the milestone. She also wants to know who is sending her cryptic messages and why. Yes, Lily has made terrible mistakes, but most of that was long ago.

Clearly someone has other plans. Unsigned notes begin to appear, and they drive straight to those mistakes. Lily has paid her debt to society, and now she’s an old woman. She wants to stay healthy and live out her life in peace, a tricky prospect when even a simple cut can turn into a deadly infection. What could the mystery person possibly want from her?

As Kate and Lily try to unravel their respective mysteries, the world fights with the reality of illness everywhere. People remain in a state of constant vigilance: masks everywhere and disinfectant at every turn. The streets still teem with the sick, and protests outside the hospital remind people that the situation is both out of hand and could have been avoided.

Debut author Eve Smith describes a world that feels even more possible than ever before. In the novel, tuberculosis has advanced to the point of total drug resistance and other illnesses are on the same track. The fear, the paranoia, and, yes, the complacency of some will make some readers want to stay away. Others might find this exactly the kind of book they’d like to read during our strange current times.

Smith builds a likable, sympathetic main character in Kate. She grapples with her role as healer-turned-killer; even if she’s using medicines to help ease the suffering of the elderly, Kate has no compunctions about what she’s actually doing and how it could all have been different. Smith makes Kate a proactive protagonist, and readers will find themselves rooting for her and worrying about her all the way to the end.

Lily’s involvement in the plot is slightly more problematic, both from a story standpoint as well as a writing one. Readers might get the feeling they’re coming to Lily’s story too late in the day. All of the sins she’s committed have happened long ago, and while they had far-reaching effects she’s too old to change anything now. She’s been swept away by events and doesn’t have the means or the strength to fight the tide. The complications are fascinating and frustrating by turns.

The book overall possesses a more literary feel—the events described are supposed to have global implications, but readers only really get to see how they change Kate and Lily’s lives as well as the people around them. It would have been helpful if the narrative pulled back once or twice to show a broader worldview, but perhaps such a view would have compromised the emotional connection readers will feel.

Anyone brave enough to read a book about pandemics while enduring one will enjoy this. I recommend readers Bookmark The Waiting Rooms.

Newest review: My Kind of People by Lisa Duffy

May 13, 2020

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: May 12, 2020

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A child must deal with the loss of her parents and the uneasy guardianship of a family friend on her island home. Neighbors and friends become an integral part of her life as they band together—or not—in an effort to take care of her, all while finding new ways to navigate relationships. Author Lisa Duffy entertains readers and offers them a well-executed twist in her mostly likeable novel My Kind of People.

On Ichabod Island off the New York coast, ten-year-old Sky is relearning what family means. Her birth parents left her at the Ichabod fire station when she was a baby, so she was adopted by island natives Brian and Ann. Two months ago, Brian and Ann died in a horrible car crash. In their will, they’d named their best friend, Leo, as Sky’s guardian.

While Leo is, admittedly, relieved to be back home on the island, he’s still trying to process the reality that his friends are gone. The situation becomes more complicated by his husband, Xavier, who is a New Yorker through and through. Xavier has little time and even less patience for slow island life. He wants Leo to find a new home for Sky so he and Leo can return to the city.

It isn’t quite that simple for Leo, though. One of the things he and Xavier had agreed on when getting married was that they didn’t want kids, but he can’t abandon Sky or dishonor Brian and Ann’s last wishes. Having Sky’s fourth-grade teacher, Maggie, just across the street and former contractor, Joe, next door makes him feel a little less alone. He just wishes Xavier could see that even though their circumstances have changed, this could still be a good thing.

Maggie is grateful for the distraction of helping with Sky. Lately she’s felt increasingly disconnected from her husband, Pete. Warning signs of infidelity keep popping up, and Maggie keeps ignoring them. After all, Pete’s the chief of police on Ichabod. It’s a given that he comes in contact with a lot of people.

If there’s one person who won’t let Maggie forget that the signs are there, it’s Agnes, Maggie’s best friend and the neighborhood busybody. Agnes has no trouble passing judgment on everyone and everything. She doesn’t approve of Pete’s behavior and tells Maggie point blank that Pete isn’t worth it anymore.

Maggie doesn’t appreciate the meddling, and when Agnes invites Sky’s estranged grandmother to town, without anyone’s consent or knowledge, Maggie feels like her friend has gone too far. As relationships change and new ones pop up, the residents of Ichabod Island will learn more about themselves and one another than they’ve known in a long time. Through it all, Sky tries to remind herself that the people in her life mean well, even if they don’t always know how to express it.

Author Lisa Duffy builds quite the list of characters to varying degrees of success. Sky, Leo, and Maggie get the most attention and the most development. The other characters, at times, seem to be filling a role.

Agnes’s interference can be distracting. At times it’s hard to understand how Maggie maintained their friendship for so long. Pete’s erratic behavior will raise a red flag for readers, if not Maggie, in the first few encounters with him. Duffy handles Maggie’s portion with grace and realism, though. Maggie agonizes over the decision to believe him or not when he claims his innocence, but once she makes a decision she sticks with it all the way to the end.

Sky definitely comes out the winner in this cast. Sweet and smart, she’s easy to root for. Leo, too, will charm readers from the outset, so much so that they might wonder what attracted him to Xavier in the first place. Xavier’s exasperation with the situation is justifiable, but the length of time he spends complaining about seems less an adult response and more a teenager throwing a tantrum.

Some characters do an about-face in the novel, which might seem a little forced, but the book redeems itself with the reveal Duffy plants. It may just take a while to get there. I recommend readers Borrow My Kind of People.