Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Miss Austen

Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s sister

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

Miss Austen

“Miss Austen” by Gill Hornby is a historical fiction novel about Cassandra Austen, writer Jane Austen’s older sister. In her 60s, Cassandra drops in all but unannounced to the vicarage in Kintbury to visit Miss Isabella, also a spinster, following the death of her father Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle. Close family friends, Cassandra was once engaged to Fulwar’s brother Tom and her sister Jane was a keen correspondent with Fulwar’s wife Eliza. After Jane’s death and continuing success as a novelist, Cassandra appoints herself the keeper of Jane’s reputation and is determined to make sure that nothing compromising remains.

This is an interesting novel that tackles a great mystery in the history of Jane Austen: why did Cassandra burn so many of her letters after her death? Hornby has chosen a good subject for her novel, and has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen family and the places they visited and lived. I felt that Hornby captured the linguistic style of the time well, particularly in the letters, and the idyll of coastal towns and country villages. I actually visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton last year, and it was a lovely experience visiting some of the other haunts of the Austen family including the range of wealth among the siblings. I think Dinah the maid was one of my favourite characters and her sneakiness and loyalty to Miss Isabella were very enjoyable to read.

Jane Austen’s writing desk at Chawton

I think there were two things that I wasn’t fully on board with. One was the reason why Cassandra seeks out Jane’s letters to scrub them from the official record. Hornby wrote the letters really beautifully, but I think I would have liked a little more artistic license. The contents of the letters is the one unknowable thing, and I felt Hornby could have added a bit more spice, intrigue and controversy and drawn some modern themes into a classic period. The other thing was the rationale behind Cassandra’s spinsterhood, and I would have liked a bit more commitment either to her one true love or her chosen path as dutiful sister.

A relaxing and easy read that tells a little-known story, but that could have used a touch more drama.

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The Brave

Family drama about love, loss and courage

Content warning: domestic violence, bullying, war, mental health 

“The Horse Whisperer” was, I think, the first book I read as a kid that was specifically geared for adults. I quite innocently read it because I was extremely into horses and thought it had something to do with this guy Monty Roberts, an actual horse whisperer, who I had read about. Although the book starts out with a girl not too much older than I was and her problems following a horse-riding accident, it quickly turned into another kind of story. While it hadn’t been the kind of book I was expecting, I enjoyed it a lot and even went to go see the Robert Redford and young Scarlet Johansson film adaptation with my best friend (also horse-mad). His debut novel, the author wrote two more that I really enjoyed and then a fourth that I wasn’t so crash hot on. I actually hadn’t even realised he had written a fifth until I came across it at the Lifeline Book Fair. This is another book that has gathered dust on my shelf for a long time, and during these times of isolation, I’m trying to do something about my ridiculous to-read piles. Yes, that plural is correct.

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“The Brave” by Nicholas Evans is a novel about an eight year old boy called Tommy whose parents send him to boarding school. A sensitive kid who still struggles with wetting the bed, Tommy is passionate about playing cowboys and Indians and watching his heroes in Westerns on TV. However, at the boarding school, he soon finds himself the target of merciless bullying and the few allies he makes are tenuous at best. After writing to his sister Diane about the horrible experience, the truth is revealed to Tommy about his identity, and soon he finds himself moving to Hollywood and meeting the actors who are his idols. Nearly fifty years later, Tom is a writer living in the USA struggling not to compare himself to his more successful peers. When his son, estranged after deciding to enlist in the armed forces, is charged with murder during an overseas deployment, Tom must try to repair their broken relationship by facing what happened in Hollywood.

Evans is an incredibly readable writer and with smooth prose that is engaging without being too challenging. He tackles a lot of different issues in this book including bullying, domestic violence, identity, war, state-sanctioned violence, mental health and family. I thought that the scenes early in the book where young Tommy is experiencing the brutality of British boarding school were particularly effective and reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s autobiographical book “Boy“. Although Evans is an English writer, the way he writes about America is always very compelling. This is true of this book especially, which at heart is about a man who comes to the USA as a young boy and makes it his home.

Although a relatively easy read, this isn’t my favourite of Evans’ books. Evans usually constructs his novels around an interesting job: horse whisperer, firefighter, even wolf biologist. He also has a keen interest in the physical environment and natural beauty of the USA. While I get that this book is comparing the fantasy of Western film and TV with the reality of Hollywood, particularly the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry, I just didn’t find the book as effective as his previous efforts. The twists I felt you could sense a mile away. The parallels between Tom’s experiences and his son’s experiences didn’t feel as strong as they could have been. Finally, the ending felt just a little too tidy.

An easy read that addresses some important social issues, but ultimately not as hard-hitting as some of his other novels.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Life After Life

Historical fiction novel about the chance to relive a life

Content warning: stillbirth

This is one of those books that you buy because based on the little you’ve heard about it and the pretty cover, you’re certain you’re going to enjoy it. Sometimes books like this are cursed with waiting on the bookshelf for a long time because you’re never quite sure when the right time to read it is going to be. I guess I was in need of a good book, because I finally picked this one up. I read it a little earlier in the year, and there are quite a number of chapters that deal with the Spanish Flu, which, given circumstances at the moment, seemed like quite the coincidence.

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“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is a historical fiction novel about Ursula, born into a well-to-do English family during a blizzard on 11 February 1910. Despite her family’s relative privilege, Ursula does not survive the birth. However, Ursula is reborn again during a blizzard on 11 February 1910 and this time she does survive. However, surviving life is no easy feat. Gradually, Ursula begins to vaguely remember things from her past lives and atrocities to come, and starts to wonder if she could prevent them altogether.

This is a beautifully written book that gently explores the impact that small decisions made in the moment can have on the rest of our lives. Atkinson also closely examines identity, family and what it means to be British. There is so much in this book, and it extremely well-executed. I adored the scenes with Ursula’s family, particularly her brothers Teddy and to a lesser extent Jimmy. I also loved how the family collectively disliked her older brother Maurice but included him in everything anyway. Her parents are fascinating characters, and at the end of the book, you find yourself wondering if perhaps there was even more to them than met the eye.

Fox Corner is a beautifully idyllic home that is a respite from the atrocities later experienced in the UK during the first half of the century. However, I also enjoyed how Atkinson shows that Ursula, in many of her lives, outgrows Fox Corner and her mother’s values that, while once progressive, are now conservative.

However, there were definitely parts of this book that I enjoyed more than others. While I certainly felt that each chapter had something to say, there were some chapters that were a little more slow and abstract than others without Atkinson’s knack for interpersonal relationships to drive them as they had the others.

Nevertheless, I was not disappointed at all in this book and I am very tempted to go and buy the second.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Bring Up the Bodies

Historical fiction about the Tudors

Some time back I read “Wolf Hall“. If you haven’t yet read that book, you might want to skip this review and go to the beginning. Anyway, I found out that there is quite an excellent miniseries adaptation of the first two books of the Thomas Cromwell series done by BBC. I didn’t want to watch it before I finished the second book, and with the recent release of the third book in the series, I very was motivated to read it. I borrowed this lovely copy from my friend, and the gold cover is really spectacular.

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“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her historical fiction series about the court of King Henry VIII of England, but in particular about Thomas Cromwell. The book picks up almost immediately after the first left off. Cromwell has been promoted to the position of Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council after securing the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. However, the marriage is not going well and while he and the King are guests at the Seymour family’s estate Wolf Hall, the King begins to develop an interest in young Jane Seymour. However, despite setting a precedent with his former wife Catherine, Anne will not go quietly and Cromwell is tasked with finding the solution.

It’s hard to follow any novel with a sequel, and Mantel had the additional pressure of following up a Booker Prize winning novel with a sequel. However, after reading this book, it is hardly a surprise that Mantel won the Booker Prize again becoming the first woman in history to win twice. She doesn’t break her stride at all, and Cromwell is as complex and compelling as he was in the first novel. The writing is just as exquisite and the motivations she finds for such a singular person as Cromwell and his actions speak universally.

Something that this book made me realise was how critical to the nation’s security it was at the time for Henry to have a male heir. There is an incredible scene not too far in the book where all the characters realise that if Henry were to die, there is no backup plan. Without Henry and without a prince, the country would be thrown into chaos. I also really enjoyed how Mantel unpacks Cromwell’s efforts at eroding the power of the Church. With the Catholic Church under considerable scrutiny these days, it is fascinating to read about how the state took on the church nearly 500 years ago.

The only difficulty I had with the first book really was that it was very dense politically. This book is political, certainly, but the politics now are far more personal. Cromwell assumes the role of an investigator, and necessarily must interview peoples and revisit events and rumours multiple times before he can confidently present the evidence that will remove Anne. This means there are parts of the book that feel a little repetitive, though Mantel does a stellar job of bringing new perspectives to previously understood information.

An excellent piece of historical fiction which has made me very much look forward to the final book in the trilogy.

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The Harp of Kings

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence

After somewhat of a writing hiatus, one of my favourite authors has come back with force, and I was thrilled to find out she was releasing a new trilogy of novels. Taking advantage of Christmas sales, I picked up a copy from Harry Hartog and couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve also been inspired to make a Spotify playlist that you might like to listen to while reading this review.

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My partner and I both have Irish heritage, and he received this beautiful bodhrán from his parents, and I the exquisite silver bookmark, after they visited Ireland a couple of years ago

“The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier is the first book in her new “Warrior Bards” historical fantasy series. Set some 20 years after the events of “Blackthorn and Grim“, with connections to elements of the “Sevenwaters Series“, the story is about singer and musician Liobhan who is training with her brother Brocc to be an elite warrior on Swan Island. Liobhan has a rivalry with another young recruit called Dau and all three trainees are surprised when they are asked to go on an undercover mission on the mainland to recover a lost harp. Given new names, backstories and personalities, Liobhan, Brocc and Dau must not falter. With court intrigue, secluded druids and the possibility of otherworldly interference, any wrong step could put the mission, and the kingdom, into jeopardy.

It will surprise nobody that I adored this book. This is Marillier at her finest, and this book blends new characters and themes with familiar places. In particular, Marillier explores the lifelong impact of growing up as a child subjected to family violence, and in particular violence from siblings. Liobhan is a great leading character who has the moxie of Liadan in “The Son of Shadows” but exceptional strength, fighting ability and musical talent. However, Liadan is headstrong and must balance her ambitions, prejudices and integrity to make the right decision. I also loved Dau’s story arc, and how Marillier introduces him as seemingly a one-dimensional character whose courage and depth is explored in depth as he must allow himself to become vulnerable.

Although I loved this book, I have to say that of the three point of view characters, I was probably invested in Brocc’s story the least. I think this is possibly due to him being the most passive character in the book. While this does make sense given the plot, I did find myself looking forward to Liobhan and Dau’s chapters much more.

A fantastic beginning to the series, I can’t wait for the second. Knowing Marillier, there is undoubtedly a lot still in store!

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The Blue Rose

Historical fiction about botany and the French Revolution

Quite some time ago, when I was doing the ACT Literary Bloggers of the Future program (now renamed New Territory), I went along to see Kate Forsyth speak at the National Library of Australia. Afterwards, as I wrote in my blog post, Forsyth kindly did some book signings and when I showed her my name on a scrap of paper, she liked it enough that she wrote it down. She said that she was working on a book about a Welsh gardner, who perhaps might have a sister. She asked me what I liked, and I hurriedly said books and bunnies, and I left fervently hoping that this time I might have a character named after me. She did not disappoint.

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“The Blue Rose” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel about Viviane, the daughter of a Marquis who lives in a chateau in Brittany, France. Viviane grows up isolated, with no friends but the servants she is told not to socialise with, while her father lives at the court of Louis XVI. That is, until her father hires a gardener from Wales called David to rebuild the chateau’s gardens. David and Viviane immediately connect, but when Viviane’s father returns, David is chased away and Viviane believes he is gone forever. She is soon married off and sent to be a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, but with unrest increasing in Paris, Viviane’s survival is far from guaranteed.

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I saw Forsyth speak again at Harry Hartog last year, and it was fascinating to listen to her discuss how research into her family’s history and a lifelong love of roses led her to research the first scarlet rose imported into France at the beginning of the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, this line of inquiry led to a well-researched novel that covers a very well documented time in French history, but from a lesser-known perspective. Although Viviane is part of the French nobility, instead of great loss the Revolution ultimately brings freedom from the absolute patriarchy she lives under. For all her naiveté, she is sweet, resourceful and believable. Meanwhile David, a self-made man from a humble background, must learn temperance and patience if he is going to find success.

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Pulling back the curtain for a second, these are the conditions in Canberra right now

Although a medium size novel, it is one of significant geographic scale. Forsyth takes the reader from rural to urban France, and then from France to China – the home of the ancestor to most of today’s roses. Forsyth is also well-known for her fairy tales and fantasy, and draws upon a story about an impossible rose as a loose framework as well as a parable told within the novel. While David’s time in China is brief, Forsyth’s own travels and studies into the ill-fated British trading trip give fascinating insight into how diplomatic encounters unfolded in the 1700s.

This is a very ambitious book that covers a lot of ground during a tumultuous period of history, and at times I felt that the romance aspect of the novel got a little lost.  Viviane and David are in fact separated for the majority of the book. While it does feel like it is mostly Viviane’s story anyway, and I understand the narrative significance of David going off to seek his fortune while Viviane’s is all but taken from her, there wasn’t a lot of space left for relationship development. It is a complex and sophisticated book that I felt needed a tiny bit more of a central theme to tie everything together.

An important piece of historical fiction that brings together two key pieces of history. Having a character named after me was just a bonus.

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The Underground Railroad

Audiobook alternative history about the Underground Railroad

Content warning: slavery, violence, sexual violence

As I said in a previous review, I’m currently trying to motivate myself to go to the gym by listening to audiobooks only when I am at the gym. I was scrolling through the available books, and this one jumped out at me. I had heard that it had won lots of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and they were more than enough credentials for me to try it out.

The Underground Railroad cover art

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and narrated by Bahni Turpin is an alternative history novel about slavery in the USA. The story is mostly about Cora, a young slave who lives on a plantation in the state of Georgia. When she was very young, Cora’s mother Mabel escaped without her. Left to fend for herself against attempts to steal her tiny plot of land, gang rape and beatings, when Cora is asked by another slave called Caesar to escape with him, she eventually agrees. The Underground Railroad, which Whitehead imagines as a literal railroad underground, takes Cora and Caesar to South Carolina. Given a job and a new life in a new city, Cora must decide which is greater: the cost to stay, or the risk to keep running.

This is a heavy, intense book that reimagines this period of American history and distills it to its essence. Whitehead’s depiction of the underground railroad as an actual railroad was so convincing, that I was most of the way through the book before I asked myself, hang on… This is an incredibly challenging book, and the seemingly never-ending variety of horrors enslaved people were subjected to is very difficult to hear. Cora’s characterisation as a resilient young woman living in her mother’s shadow, and with her mother’s abandonment, was engaging, and I thought that the last few chapters of the book were the best.

The ending really elevated this book for me, and I have to admit that there were parts of the book that did stretch on – especially when Cora was hiding in an in North Carolina, completely dependent with her health slowly ebbing away.  I think that while she was a clear narrator, Turpin had a sardonic, languid style that I felt was sometimes at odds with Cora’s inherent gumption and opportunism. However, it certainly aligned with the parts of the book where Cora was required to stay very still like on the railway, working in the museum and later in the attic.

A well-written, fraught and necessary book with a superb ending.

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Relative Fortunes

New York flapper suffragette murder mystery

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

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“Relative Fortunes” by Marlowe Benn is a murder mystery novel set in 1920s New York. The book follows Julia Kidd, a young woman in her mid-20s who has arrived in the city to sort out her father’s will and pursue her dreams of being a boutique publisher. In between dealing with her maddening half-brother, she spends her time socialising with her friend Glennis. However, when Glennis’ suffragette sister is found dead, Julia finds herself in the middle of a life-changing wager: prove Naomi’s death was a murder, or forfeit her inheritance.

There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book. I really liked Benn’s research into some of the things an unmarried woman in her mid-20s would get up to in the Roaring Twenties and some of the barriers she would encounter. I felt that the tension between Julia and her brother Philip was very well done, and the repartee between them was particularly scintillating. I also liked how Julia’s own attitude to the suffragette movement changed throughout the course of the book as she found that her own independence was not something that could be taken for granted.

I think that probably the part about this book I enjoyed the least was the murder mystery. No spoilers of course, but I felt like some of the twists in the story, while exploring some real life issues, felt a little melodramatic. I wasn’t quite sure that the motive fitted the act.

Nevertheless, I understand that this is to be the first of a series, and I would be interested in reading another Julia Kidd novel – if only to find out what happens next.

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The Twins

Historical fiction about twins on either side of a war

Content warning: child abuse

This book is one of the rare occasions where I saw the movie (or at least part of it) before I read the book. When I saw a copy in the translated literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would see how it compared.

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“The Twins” by Tessa de Loo and translated by Ruth Levitt is a Dutch novel about twin sisters Anna and Lotte who, upon their father’s death, are separated from one another. Lotte, recovering from tuberculosis, is sent to live with progressive and educated family in the better climate of the Netherlands. However Anna, naturally more robust, is kept in Germany with much poorer relatives to help them with their farm. Living through either side of the war and apart almost 70 years, the sisters meet by chance as old women at a health resort in Spa. With so much between them to catch up on, both wonder if they can ever bridge the divide.

I think that the premise of this story is an interesting one, and the sisters are a clever way to explore the nuance and different perspectives of the war. Although Anna grows up among Nazis, she is at a significant disadvantage in other ways to Lotte including suffering physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her aunt and uncle. Lotte’s ability to influence politics is, accordingly, extremely limited and de Loo uses her perspective to explore the idea that it is the collective, rather than individuals, who are responsible for travesties such as World War II.

While this is an interesting and stimulating premise, unfortunately this book suffered when it came to readability. The rigid structure of the two sisters taking turns to recount parts of their lives felt artificial, and the stories dragged. As it is translated from Dutch, it is hard to say whether it is a better read in its original language. I found Anna’s story more compelling than Lotte’s, but both were a bit of a slog. I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that this book is sympathetic to the Nazis. Rather, it sheds a light on some of the economic drivers behind fascist ideology. However, I did feel like it was written in a way to be more sympathetic towards Anna’s German perspective.

A challenging read with a unique concept, but ultimately I think the film was better.

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