Trenton Reads

Our literary adventures …

Archive for “R” Authors

Review: A Thread of Grace

Reading A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell taught me about an aspect of World War II I previously knew very little, if anything, about … the Italian resistance to Nazi Germany and the assistance they offered to not only Italian Jews but also those fleeing from occupied Austria, Belgium, France, Poland.

Russell sets her historical novel in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding mountainous countryside. The novel spans from 1943 to 1945. The Allies are closing in, and the Germans are making a last push, knowing defeat is drawing near, to destroy as many Jewish lives as possible. Most Italians, at this point, are anti-fascist as well as opposing Hitler, some have embraced communism, and many are willing to put themselves at risk to hide Jewish refugees.

Russell introduces a cast of characters that I quickly grew to love. The star of the show is Renzo Leoni, a handsome, fearless Italian Jew who was injured in the Italo-Abyssinian colonial war and now works for the Italian resistance. Renzo, who drowns his guilt over atrocities committed in Abyssinia in alcoholic over-indulgence, has a gift for impersonation and winning people and is able to insinuate himself into the Nazi ranks under several different guises. His mother Lidia, as fearless and sharp of wit as her son, also aids the resistance effort.

Rabbi Iacopo Soncini and his wife Mirella are also primary characters, as is their young son Angelo. Iacopo is willing to risk his life to protect his flock, despite his wife’s pleas to flee with her and their children to the countryside. Instead, Iacopo remains in Porto Sant’Andrea while Mirella becomes a major player in the resistance effort while seeking safety in the mountains. Angelo, sent into hiding at a Catholic school; provides a child’s view of the atrocities of war and it is heartbreaking.

Claudette Blum and her father Alberto were separated from her mother and two young brothers in France, after fleeing Nazi occupied Belgium. Although the fate of mother and sons is never addressed directly, we can only assume that the train they boarded was headed, not to Nice as they assumed, but sadly, to a Nazi death camp. Seeking safety, father and daughter follow an Italian regiment over the Alps and end up in the same village as Renzo Leoni’s band of resistance militia and Mirella Soncini. Claudette falls in love with an Italian soldier who befriended her during her trek through the Alps, and she eventually joins the resistance movement.

Another memorable character is the deserter Nazi medical officer suffering from tuberculosis who estimates that his signature authorized the death of more than 90,000 people throughout the war. In the beginning of the novel, Werner Schramm is seeking forgiveness. Instead, he finds redemption, as he has the opportunity to use his medical training to save the lives of wounded resistance fighters. Also unforgettable are two Catholic priests and two nuns who defy German edicts and risk their own lives to help the Jewish people living and hiding in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding villages.

This was neither a quick nor easy novel to read, because of the difficulty of the subject matter, the large and varied cast of characters (the author wisely provides a glossary of characters which was extremely helpful – all those Italian names!) and the care with which Russell treated her historical subject matter. But it was well worth the time and effort. In the end it was rewarding, first of all, on an intellectual level, because I learned about a little discussed aspect of World War II. I held my breath throughout the story, fearing for the Jews and their Italian protectors, wondering who would be picked off by the hellish brutality of war, and hoping against hope that these beloved characters would somehow survive despite the odds.

Related Reviews:
Book Reporter
Jew Wishes
San Francisco Chronicle
Seattle Times

Reading Group Guide


Review: The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters

When Olivia Hunt was a child, she used to make up bedtime stories for her little sister Maddie; she called them the True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters. In Elisabeth Robinson’s debut novel, Olivia is now a thirty-something movie producer living in Los Angeles. Maddie is in her mid-twenties, married just over a year, and fighting leukemia. Olivia jets between California and Ohio to be with Maddie and finds herself spinning new tales of the Hunt sisters as she sits by Maddie’s bedside.

During this time Olivia is also struggling to accept demise of a long-term relationship with her artist boyfriend and producing a movie based on the novel Don Quixote. Her take on Hollywood and the movie business is hilarious and likely quite accurate since Robinson herself was a movie producer prior to becoming a novelist.

When I realized that this entire novel is told in letters – from Olivia to her sister, her best friend, her newly ex-boyfriend, her parents and colleagues – I wondered how the author could possibly give enough background and depth to her story. I was pleasantly surprised when she succeeded in doing just that.

Her letters were more detailed than any I have ever written or received, but given Olivia’s character and the tone of the book, they were believable. Through her candid, introspective communication, I came to know Olivia as conflicted and lovable, a mix of hopeful naivety and world-worn cynicism, dedicated to her family and reservedly so to her career, a writer at heart, who could bare her soul most easily with pen and paper.

Related Reviews:
Book Reporter
New York Times
USA Today

Reading Group Guide

Little Flower


Little Flower is a potbellied pig with a special trick: she can play dead. When her owner, a sweet elderly woman named Miss Pearl, falls and cannot get up, Little Flower uses her trick to attract the attention of a passerby and get help for Miss Pearl.

Little Flower misses her owner, but this sadness is offset by the fact that Miss Pearl’s friends and neighbors consider the lovable pig a hero.