Review: Once More Unto the Breach by Meghan Holloway

Another one. Another NetGalley book that I have been skipping over and really, really shouldn’t have. I might have read too many WWII novels a few years ago and burnt myself out a bit, but this one. This one is fantastic.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads blurb:

Rhys Gravenor, Great War veteran and Welsh sheep farmer, arrives in Paris in the midst of the city’s liberation with a worn letter in his pocket that may have arrived years too late. As he follows the footsteps of his missing son across an unfamiliar, war-torn country, he struggles to come to terms with the incident that drove a wedge between the two of them.

Joined by Charlotte Dubois, an American ambulance driver with secrets of her own, Rhys discovers that even as liberation sweeps across France, the war is far from over. And his personal war has only begun as he is haunted by memories of previous battles and hampered at every turn by danger and betrayal. In a race against time and the war, Rhys follows his son’s trail from Paris to the perilous streets of Vichy to the starving mobs in Lyon to the treacherous Alps. But Rhys is not the only one searching for his son. In a race of his own, a relentless enemy stalks him across the country and will stop at nothing to find the young man first.

The country is in tatters, no one is trustworthy, and Rhys must unravel the mystery of his son’s wartime actions in the desperate hope of finding him before it’s too late. Too late to mend the frayed bond between them. Too late to beg his forgiveness. Too late to bring him home alive.

There is a lot going on with this book: secrets and flashbacks and multiple missions.

My thoughts:

This book is so perfectly written, I found myself rereading passages just so that I could do that stare-off-into-space dreamy thing and then read it again. It’s not flowery and sweet… this is a war story, and it’s full of all the dark, gritty horrors that you expect. It’s just so well told that even the horrible is somehow beautiful. The descriptions of wartime Paris, the French countryside, the Alps, and the Welsh hills are so vivid and lovely.

The novel is obviously well researched and the story, which is most definitely a fast-paced thriller, feels very much like it could have happened. Patton even makes a brief appearance as the Americans have arrived to help liberate France. Side plots of priceless artworks being smuggled from Paris to keep them from the Germans, as well as a network to save Jewish children from Nazis, all while our main character races to find his son… there is so much going on here, and it all just perfectly entwines into a cohesive, engaging story.

Rhys is probably the most attractive white male lead in a book I’ve read for a long time. We aren’t talking Jamie Fraser level here, but it’s a near thing. He’s tough, flawed, and tortured, but he’s got such an incredible sense of what’s right and important. The flashbacks to his time in WWI and the losses of his family at home are heartbreaking and endeared him to me. The burdens that he quite literally carries throughout his life, and his relationship with his son, as well as the new relationships he forges with the people he meets in his search for that son, make for an amazing read.

I highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially WWII era. It may not be a bright, happy story from start to finish, but there is enough hope and love to make it worth the time and emotional investment.


Review: The Bright Unknown by Elizabeth Byler Younts

This is a book that sat in my NetGalley tbr for far too long. I have no idea why I kept skipping it for others, and it’s now one of the best books I’ve read this year.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads description:

The only kind of life Brighton Turner understands is the one she has endured within the dreary walls of a rural Pennsylvania asylum. A nurse has thoughtfully educated and raised Brighton, but she has also kept vital information from her in order to keep her close. Brighton befriends a boy whom she calls Angel—he doesn’t know his name—and as the two of them learn more about what lies beyond the walls they call home, they fight for their release and eventually escape. However, the world outside the only place they’ve ever known is not what they expect. They have no real names, no money, and no help—and they must rely upon the kindness of strangers as they walk and hitchhike from Pennsylvania to Michigan to find their last hope of a home.

Although the blurb doesn’t mention it, this book is actually presented in dual timelines: Brighton’s life growing up in the asylum reads as memories while grown-up Brighton, now called Nell, tries to deal with her past 50 years later.

My thoughts:

First, The Bright Unknown is beautifully written. It’s descriptive (painfully so at times) and well-paced, with a fully realized character in Brighton. I truly felt like I grew up with her, and felt her feelings right along with her. The characters of Nursey, Angel, and Grace are also well-drawn and authentic. The story feels researched and very much within its time historically. I’ve not read any other books by this author, but I will most definitely be looking for more of her work.

I really appreciated the way the author dealt with the harsh reality of how people with mental illnesses and people on the fringes of society were treated in our institutions in the not-so-distant past. The book is gritty and heartbreaking, and even though poor Brighton has never known anything but Riverside, and the patients and staff there are her friends and family, the reader truly feels the horror, neglect, and sadness of the poor souls trapped within its walls. I think this quote near the end, from grown-up Nell, perfectly summarizes my feelings having finished the book:

“Don’t forget that thousand of souls lived and died there and were ostracized by society. Many are buried in the back corner because no one claimed their bodies. Don’t forget the history of what has happened at Riverside and other facilities like it, and don’t let history repeat itself. And when you meet someone who might struggle with mental illness, see the person behind the frightened eyes. Not just the diagnosis.”

Even when Brighton and Angel are able to escape, they have a long way to go both physically and emotionally on their own in the world for the first time. There are times that things outside seem even less hopeful and bleak than things were in the asylum. Thankfully, the endings of both timelines were uplifting and positive… I needed that in my life right now!

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, coming-of-age stories that don’t shy away from the darker side of society. If you’re anything like me, you will need to have some tissues handy, though. It’s a powerful story that will take your heart apart and still leave you hopeful.