Reviews: Ordinary Heroes and Tamar

Having spent six of the last seven years in college full-time, I missed out on a lot of reading for fun.  This last year, I’ve been catching up on everything I missed.  With that in mind, I’ve grouped two recently read books for this review post.  The common links are that both deal with special operations in World War II and feature dual storylines.

Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow

Published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2005.  Hardcover is 371 pages.

Ordinary Heroes begins with the most unusual opening I have ever seen in a novel:  a letter.  However, this works to tie both parts of the dual story together by introducing both the World War II storyline and the modern-day mystery that surrounds it.  Throughout the rest of the book, many other letters are presented in both storylines to continue the pattern.

Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow

“Ordinary Heroes” by Scott Turow

The modern-day storyline is introduced first.  Stewart Dubinsky’s father, a World War II veteran and local judge, recently passed away.  As Stewart is going through his father’s belongings, he finds a box of old letters in the back of his father’s closet.  They were written in World War II to his father’s then fiancée, but returned after their distance break up.  In reading the letters, he learns his father was court-martialed just after the war ended.  This leads Stewart to begin a mission to learn exactly what his father did in the war as his father never discussed it.  He is helped in the endeavor by the lawyer who defended his father, Barrington Leach.

The World War II line follows Lieutenant David Dubin.  The story opens in the Fall of 1944.  David is serving as a Judge Advocate General lawyer trying cases for the 3rd Army; most dealt with insubordination and crimes against locals.  Then when he requested combat duty, David is given a mission to arrest Robert Martin, a wayward OSS officer working with the French resistance.  What should have been a routine mission turns out to be nothing but; we see how Martian claims to take orders from London and not the battlefield commander and goes off on multiple missions.  In his efforts to investigate the claims before arresting Martin, David finds himself on an unauthorized sabotage mission, a wild goose chase, and in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge with his trusty sergeant, Biddy, in tow throughout.  Further complicating things is Martin’s partner, Gita Lodz, a female Pole who fancies David but puts her loyalty to Martin first.  In the end, because of what is seen as Dubin’s failure to follow orders he is court-martialed.  However, not all is as it seems, as his son will soon discover.

Per the historical elements, we see accurate World War II depictions.  We discover the nitty-gritty details of life at the front lines in the section on the Battle of the Bulge (reminiscent of Band of Brothers); the fear of living through bombed (both by the Germans and inadvertently by their own troops); the furtive actions and betrayals of resistance members; and much more, including details on vehicles and weaponry.

Ordinary Heroes was a page-turner and puzzle I truly enjoyed.  My above review is overly simplified compared to the novel itself; I cannot reveal more without giving parts away.  It was masterfully written.  I will conclude by saying that I have not read any other titles by Scott Turow, but based on reviews I’ve read I know that Ordinary Heroes deviates from his usual works.  That said, I would be more than willing to give one of his usual legal thrillers a try.

Tamar:  A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal by Mal Peet

Published by Candlewick Press, 2007.  Hardcover is 424 pages.

"Tamar:  A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal" by Mal Peet

“Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal” by Mal Peet

Tamar is a fast-paced teen-lit novel with a twist at the end.  The World War II storyline follows the lives of two British Special Operations Executive agents in the Netherlands, codenamed Tamar and Dart, during the final year of the war (summer 1944-spring 1945).  Tamar is the commandant of his assigned area’s resistance operations.  In this role, he coordinates the units and is their contact with headquarters in London.  Dart serves as his wireless operator.  Both face danger on a daily basis as they crisscross the countryside from their respective living quarters (a farm for Tamar and an asylum for Dart whom pretends to be a doctor).  They have others who assist their cause, including Marijke whom operates the farm and Trixie whom serves as their courier.  Per the historical elements, readers gain a sense of the danger real agents must have felt; learn about the ways resistance organizations are formed and operated; are educated about the weaponry and radio equipment utilized; and discover the ways agents were constantly on the move to keep their whereabouts unknown to the Germans.

The modern storyline, set in 1995 with an epilogue in 2005, follows the story of the younger Tamar, granddaughter to the original Tamar, in England.  After her grandfather’s death and grandmother’s, Marijke’s, institutionalization for dementia, she undertakes a journey to discover why her grandfather left her a series of maps, money, and his old ID papers.  With her distant Dutch cousin, Johannes, whom is studying in England, they follow England’s Tamar River stopping at all the places her grandfather marked.  Towards the end of their journey, the two stories collide and a truth is discovered that alters the course of their family history.

When reading Tamar I found that while the subject matter drew me to the title, it was the relationships between the characters that were the heart of the story.


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