Wunderland

Wunderland

East Village, 1989 Things had never been easy between Ava Fisher and her estranged mother Ilse. Too many questions hovered between them: Who was Ava's father? Where had Ilse been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war's final months? But now Ilse's ashes have arrived from Germany, and with them, a trove of unsent letters addres...

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Title:Wunderland
Author:Jennifer Cody Epstein
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Edition Language:English

Wunderland Reviews

  • Chris

    “Wunderland is a beautiful and haunting and utterly magnificent novel: a wrenching tale of friendship and betrayal in Nazi Germany. It’s also a page-turner that kept me reading until two in the morning one night and three in the morning the next. It’s that good."

  • Crumb

    A friendship destroyed by the perils of WWII. A betrayal that will take your breath away.

    As a reader, there are times when I fall into that dreaded pattern of "reading just to read." Do you know what I mean? I find myself picking up the same types of stories and I feel like I'm in the movie Groundhog Day. However, there are also those precious gems that quicken your heart, put a bounce in your step, and make you fall in love with reading all over again.

    A friendship destroyed by the perils of WWII. A betrayal that will take your breath away.

    As a reader, there are times when I fall into that dreaded pattern of "reading just to read." Do you know what I mean? I find myself picking up the same types of stories and I feel like I'm in the movie Groundhog Day. However, there are also those precious gems that quicken your heart, put a bounce in your step, and make you fall in love with reading all over again.

    Classic historical fiction, shifting back and forth between 1939 and 1989, executed with fine precision. Most often in cases of shifting timelines, I enjoy one story line over the other, however, this was an exception to the rule.

    In 1939, Berlin is under attack. If you aren't bred according to "Nazi Gold Standard" than fleeing the country or going into hiding are your best chances to survive. Ilse and Renate, two teenage girls and the best of friends, cannot even begin to imagine what is in store for them. Renate never would have imagined that her best friend was capable of a betrayal so evil it will question her faith in humanity. It will question

    faith in humanity.

    Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. WWII is often written about in a number of historical fiction novels. Although many authors write about the war, not all of them do it with the same grace and deftness of Epstein. She clearly researched the area and it paid off tremendously. When I read a work of fiction, I want to

    as if it is real. I want to feel invested in the characters. In this case, I not only felt that it was real, I felt as if I was experiencing the events in real time. I will definitely be reading more from Epstein. She is extremely talented and I can't wait to see what she'll write next!

  • Bkwmlee

    It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to stay up late into the night in order to finish a book because I couldn’t bear to put the book down without finding out how it ends. Things get especially complicated when it is a book that had me emotionally invested in the story and in its characters for practically the entire time I was reading it. Having said that, I will be one of the first to admit that this book was not an easy one to read for several reasons.

    First, the subject matter — h

    It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to stay up late into the night in order to finish a book because I couldn’t bear to put the book down without finding out how it ends. Things get especially complicated when it is a book that had me emotionally invested in the story and in its characters for practically the entire time I was reading it. Having said that, I will be one of the first to admit that this book was not an easy one to read for several reasons.

    First, the subject matter — having read many books about World War II and the Holocaust over the years, I knew going into this one to expect a difficult read. Unlike some of the other books covering this subject however, the direction this one took was a bit different than what we typically see, as the central focus (for the storyline taking place in the 1930s) was on the lead-up to the war, starting in 1933 when Hitler first came to power in Germany, and the resulting environment under which toxic Nazi propaganda was able to fester unabated, leading to the gradual shift in attitude towards the Jewish population – the Nuremburg Laws, the boycott of Jewish businesses, the formation of groups such as the Hitler Youth movement, the horrible atrocity that was Kristallnacht, etc. – it was against this backdrop that the story of a friendship between two young girls played out. In the later timeline (1949 to 1989), the focus was on the aftermath — the devastating impact of the war, not just for the survivors, but also for those who participated, whether directly or indirectly, in the persecution of an entire race having to finally answer for their actions. In a sense, the war itself played a mostly periphery role in the story, with its impact on the story’s characters forming the crux of this narrative about friendship, betrayal, and family destroyed.

    Second, the way the story was structured was also different from the typical dual timeline narratives we often see. While this one also jumped back and forth in time, it was technically multiple timelines rather than just two — the narrative opens in 1989, with Ava Fisher, a young single mother living with her daughter Sophie in New York, receiving a box containing her mother Ilse von Fischer’s ashes along with a stack of letters addressed to a woman named Renate Bauer, who is discovered to be Ilse’s childhood friend back in Germany. From there, we are taken back to 1933 and the start of the narrative taking place in the past — after that, the timeline jumps to 1977 and later back and forth between each of the years leading up to and during WWII as well as each of the subsequent decades, going backward from the 1970s back to the 1940s, only skipping full circle back to 1989 at the very end. Not only that, each chapter was alternately narrated from the perspectives of each of the main characters: Ava, Renate, and Ilse. For me, the jumping back and forth between multiple time periods and characters made the story a bit difficult to follow, which required more time and focus on my part in order to keep track of everything. In the end though, the effort was worth it, as this one turned out to be a gem -- a beautifully told but emotionally heart-wrenching, tragic story that I know I won’t soon forget.

    As always when I read a well-written work of historical fiction, I learn about not just the history behind the events, but also the impact of those events on the lives of ordinary people. This personal application of historical events is something that history books don’t (or rather aren’t supposed to) cover, but yet, is absolutely crucial in helping us understand this history, its implications, and more importantly, prevent such atrocities from happening again (as much as we are able to). Through the poignant, heartbreaking story of a childhood friendship between two teenage girls who are eventually torn apart by war, author Jennifer Cody Epstein did a wonderful job bringing this period of history back into the spotlight. Of equal importance though, through the lives and actions of the fictional characters in the story, we are given insight into the complexities of human behavior and the impact of our actions on others. The character in the story who most reflected this for me was Ilse, whom I found hard to like for sure, but at the same time, it felt wrong to hate her – to me, she was one of the most tragic characters in the story given how much of her life and actions were shaped by her upbringing and the environment in which she grew up as well as the price she ended up paying in the end.

    This is a book I highly recommend, one that I hope many will read and learn from. It is also a rendering of history that, given the times we live in currently, needs to be understood and vigilantly prevented. As with many of the books I’ve read about the atrocities of WWII, this one is yet another poignant reminder of the frailty of human life and the importance of not taking the freedoms we have for granted. This is a story that needs to be read and experienced and hopefully one we can all learn from.

  • Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader

    ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

    I never tire of stories of friendship. Wunderland is a story of enduring friendship that will stand the test of time.

    Told in two timelines, the first is in New York in 1989. Ava and her mother, Ilse, haven’t gotten along. There’s this empty space between them filled with unanswered questions, important ones. Ava wants to know who her father is. She has no idea where Ilse was during World War II.

    Ilse has passed away, and her ash

    ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

    I never tire of stories of friendship. Wunderland is a story of enduring friendship that will stand the test of time.

    Told in two timelines, the first is in New York in 1989. Ava and her mother, Ilse, haven’t gotten along. There’s this empty space between them filled with unanswered questions, important ones. Ava wants to know who her father is. She has no idea where Ilse was during World War II.

    Ilse has passed away, and her ashes arrive from Germany. Along with her ashes are unsent letters to Renate Bauer, a childhood friend of Ilse’s, completely unknown to Ava.

    The letters hold the answers to many of Ava’s questions and then some. Ilse’s dark past is revealed to her daughter, and Ava realizes she never truly knew her mother.

    The second timeline is Berlin in 1933. The Nazi party is gaining power, and Ilse and Renate’s friendship is becoming questionable. Ilse is more involved in Hitler Youth, and Renate does not feel the same.

    When the Nuremberg Laws are enforced, something big about Renate’s family is unfurled, and a huge betrayal happens.

    I also never tire of these World War II stories. There are neverending perspectives and lessons to be learned. Here we learn about how a child might choose to “belong” by joining a movement with catastrophic consequences. The author deftly shows how a child can be brainwashed into believing a dogma and how hate could divide friendships and families.

    Wunderland is about how the small decisions we make can leave everlasting impressions. It’s about intergenerational trauma, friendship, being a woman during wartime, and ultimately, being fallible and human. It’s about how silence can speak louder than words and tear families and loved ones apart.

    This book is stunning and heart-wrenching and everything I want in a book I have relished.

    I received a complimentary copy. All opinions are my own.

    My reviews can also be found on my blog:

  • Liz

    This historical fiction is more of a family drama. We see Ava as an adult in New York, dealing with her memories and questions after the death of her mother Ilse. We also see Ilse, from a young teenager in 1930s Germany through the war and beyond. What has led to their estrangement? We are given glimpses - Ilse unwilling to answer Ava’s questions about her paternity, her abandonment at the end of the war.

    I can’t remember another book I’ve read that covers Germany in the lead up to WWII. How ord

    This historical fiction is more of a family drama. We see Ava as an adult in New York, dealing with her memories and questions after the death of her mother Ilse. We also see Ilse, from a young teenager in 1930s Germany through the war and beyond. What has led to their estrangement? We are given glimpses - Ilse unwilling to answer Ava’s questions about her paternity, her abandonment at the end of the war.

    I can’t remember another book I’ve read that covers Germany in the lead up to WWII. How ordinary Germans became caught up in the excitement of the Nazi propaganda. How people were so willing to believe the hype that they overlooked their prior friendships and alliances. Flip side, Epstein also shows the slowly encroaching hardship for the Jews. Which while better known, is wonderfully detailed.

    If I’m reading historical fiction, I want to learn something. Epstein achieves that. She effortlessly slips facts into the story without disrupting the flow.

    This book does bounce around, from time period to time period and from character to character. It demands attention. It’s not a quick or an easy read. But it’s engrossing. All of the multiple storylines work equally well. The characters are fully drawn. The word that most captures the feeling of this book is poignant, heartbreakingly so. Ilse is a difficult character to like. She’s not a rebel, not even someone standing on the sidelines. No, she’s an all-in, Nazi fanatic.

    My thanks to netgalley and Crown Publishing for an advance copy of this book.

  • Diane S ☔

    3.5 Ilse and Renata, young girls in Berlin, inseparable friends, they tell each other everything, do everything together. That is until Ilse joins the women's part of the Hitler's youth, Renata's family refusing to sign the papers. To once again be close to her friend, she forges the papers, but what happens next is totally unexpected, and will change things for both girls.

    In the present day, Ava, with a child of her own, wants to know the secrets her mother, Renata, is keeping from her. Estran

    3.5 Ilse and Renata, young girls in Berlin, inseparable friends, they tell each other everything, do everything together. That is until Ilse joins the women's part of the Hitler's youth, Renata's family refusing to sign the papers. To once again be close to her friend, she forges the papers, but what happens next is totally unexpected, and will change things for both girls.

    In the present day, Ava, with a child of her own, wants to know the secrets her mother, Renata, is keeping from her. Estranged for many years, it will take a death for the secrets to be revealed.

    No matter how many books, fiction or nonfiction I read, there is always something to learn, something new, of a different take. In this novel the author does a good job describing how the young came to embrace the Nazi ideology. Brainwashing, idealistic goals, and fear, are some of their methods. How so many families, friends were divided, how hate became pervasive.

    Also shows how the effects of trauma were passed down to the next generation. How silence separates, how difficult it is to absolve oneself of past behaviors, difficult to live with them as well.

    ARC from Edelweiss

  • Angela M

    There aren’t any horrific scenes of the death camps here, yet it is a story that is very much a story of the holocaust, a chilling depiction of Nazi Germany before WWII, evoking in me anger, fear, sadness. This was an emotional read about friendship and betrayal and the desire for redemption. We see how the Nazi ideology became so ingrained in Germans, in this case the focus on young people and the impact on the daily lives of Jews moving from being restricted to being taken from their homes and

    There aren’t any horrific scenes of the death camps here, yet it is a story that is very much a story of the holocaust, a chilling depiction of Nazi Germany before WWII, evoking in me anger, fear, sadness. This was an emotional read about friendship and betrayal and the desire for redemption. We see how the Nazi ideology became so ingrained in Germans, in this case the focus on young people and the impact on the daily lives of Jews moving from being restricted to being taken from their homes and sent, and as we know six million of them were to be annihilated in death camps. The impact of this inexplicable hatred on people’s lives to come is found here. The story unfolds with multiple narratives of two childhood friends and a daughter of one of them years later, different time frames, not sequential but it worked fine for me giving perspective on these three characters at various points in their lives. Ilse and Renate as young girls in Berlin in the 1930’s, best friends until a revelation destroys the friendship. In 1989 Ilse’s daughter Ava, receives a package with her mother’s ashes along with a packet of letters to Renate that she never sent. Secrets of her mother’s past are finally revealed to Ava, secrets that strained their relationship all of Ava’s life because Ilse could not open up to her, not even about who her father was. The secrets continue in Ava’s life as she keeps things from her daughter as well.

    I found the story painful to read with chilling verbiage of Nazi white supremacy and beliefs of superiority pitting Germans against German, non Jews against Jews, friends against friends . This novel takes place in the past, but eerily felt relevant to the present. As I read this I couldn’t help but think of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville carry torches and chanting, of the synagogue and church and Muslim mosque shootings. I was touched and not too surprised at the ending. Recommended to those who enjoy reading of WWII and its multiple facets.

    I received an advanced copy of this book from Crown through NetGalley.

  • Tammy

    The beginning of Wunderland is clunky but persevere as it improves greatly afterwards. It starts with fragmented scenes from the main characters lives beginning in 1989, switches to another character in 1933, back to the initial character in 1977 and onto yet another character in 1937. This would be fine if a discernible connection existed at this point but it didn’t. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it but as I continued to read the connections eventually became apparent.

    Essentially a story

    The beginning of Wunderland is clunky but persevere as it improves greatly afterwards. It starts with fragmented scenes from the main characters lives beginning in 1989, switches to another character in 1933, back to the initial character in 1977 and onto yet another character in 1937. This would be fine if a discernible connection existed at this point but it didn’t. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it but as I continued to read the connections eventually became apparent.

    Essentially a story about a friendship in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party, Isle throws herself into the movement while Renate is unable to follow suit. The narrative moves back and forth through time from Berlin to NYC; there is a question of paternity along with betrayal, lies and living with guilt. The complicity of ordinary Germans is chilling especially when one considers nationalism in today’s world.

  • Aga Durka

    Wunderland is a beautifully written story about two friends, Renate and Ilse, and their struggle to fit and survive during time in Germany, when Nazism was growing and spreading like wildfire. Both girls face impossible and horrifying situations. They have to make choices with which consequences they will have to live for the rest of their lives. This was a hard book to read for me. I have connected with both, Renate and Ilse, on a personal and emotional level and reading their stories was heart

    Wunderland is a beautifully written story about two friends, Renate and Ilse, and their struggle to fit and survive during time in Germany, when Nazism was growing and spreading like wildfire. Both girls face impossible and horrifying situations. They have to make choices with which consequences they will have to live for the rest of their lives. This was a hard book to read for me. I have connected with both, Renate and Ilse, on a personal and emotional level and reading their stories was heart wrenching at times. I loved Renate’s character and I rooted for her and her family, while I tried so hard to understand Ilse’s choices and actions. It is so easy to dislike Ilse and all she stands for. Her actions and her way of justifying them was making me sick and uncomfortable. There were times when I had to put the book down, and reflect on what I just read. The things we tell ourselves and the things we lie about to make our crimes bearable are astonishing. However, Ilse’s justification for her actions was always “sacrifices have to be made”, which is so unnerving and horrifying when those sacrifices affect other people’s lives and many times are death and life situations.

    I have read many historical fiction books and it gets to be a little challenging now to find a book that will introduce a new insight into the WWII time period. Wunderland surprised me with a new perspective and I was completely engrossed in the story. I highly recommend this book to all historical fiction genre readers.

    Thank you Netgalley, Crown Publishing, and the author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, for giving me an opportunity to read an ARC of this brilliant book in exchange for my honest opinion.

  • Maine Colonial

    I received a free publisher's digital advance reviewing copy, via Netgalley.

    The novel is told in the voices of three women—Ilse, Renate and Ava—and in different places and time periods, ranging from Germany in the 1930s to New York in 1977 and 1989. Ilse and Renate are young girls and friends in 1930s Berlin, and Ava is Ilse’s daughter who lives in New York in the 1970s and 1980s chapters. The book bounces around a lot between different time periods and characters. But each chapter identifies th

    I received a free publisher's digital advance reviewing copy, via Netgalley.

    The novel is told in the voices of three women—Ilse, Renate and Ava—and in different places and time periods, ranging from Germany in the 1930s to New York in 1977 and 1989. Ilse and Renate are young girls and friends in 1930s Berlin, and Ava is Ilse’s daughter who lives in New York in the 1970s and 1980s chapters. The book bounces around a lot between different time periods and characters. But each chapter identifies the character and the time, so as long as you pay attention to that, it’s not confusing.

    The strength of Epstein’s novel is that she takes us into the minds of her characters and makes us share their experiences and feelings as if we were there with them. Of course we know the horrors of Nazism, but Epstein manages to make us put our knowledge aside and see things as we might have if we had been there when the Nazis consolidated their power and Hitler’s vision for a glorious Germany galvanized much of a nation.

    There is one particularly gripping scene of Ilse and Renate going to a movie theater to see Leni Riefenstal’s

    , her documentary about Hitler and the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. If you’ve ever ever seen that film, you know how impressive an achievement it was in both film and propaganda. The girls watch it in a theater packed with people who have lived through their country’s defeat in the Great War, then the massive hyperinflation and economic depression. Now they are watching a stirring film that begins with the wonders of flight, the arrival of their leader in the ancient city of Nuremberg, torch-lit processions and then the leader’s spellbinding speech painting a vivid picture of a glorious future in which Germany vanquishes its enemies and becomes great again. The theater erupts in rapturous salutes, and Epstein makes us feel a part of it. The emotional appeal of extremist authoritarianism is all too horrifically clear.

    Through Ilse and Renate—and Renate’s family—Epstein shows us how this extremism supplants moral and societal norms with a new ideology in which there is only one correct race and outlook, and those who don’t or can’t fit that ideology are first marginalized and then victimized. The Nazi-minded people suddenly believe themselves to be superior, not because of anything they’ve done, but merely because they are “Aryans.” Almost as a pack of animals, they turn on their non-Aryan friends and neighbors. Their victims can’t understand how they are now suddenly worthy only of contempt and cruelty by people they thought were fellow Germans and part of their community. Though Epstein’s tone is never didactic, it’s impossible not to read this book and think about the many people today who have learned nothing from history and are caught up in the same extremist and hateful thinking that only leads to alienation and destruction, not greatness.

    The purpose of the Ilse/Ava element of the story, and the 1989 chapters is to relate what happened to Ilse, Renate and their families after 1939, and to reveal the pain that grew from Ilse’s and Germany’s Nazi past. These chapters (maybe 20% of the book’s total) are a little overwrought, but they give us an insight into the psyche of the disillusioned authoritarian believer: the bit where she expresses regret but can never really accept responsibility.

    While so many WW2 historical novels feel exploitative, this one is raw and authentic.

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