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Waiting on Wednesday: Spotlight on Once, In Lourdes

New WoW“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, which encourages fellow bloggers to spotlight upcoming releases that we’re excited about.

My “Waiting On” Wednesday selection for this week is Once, In Lourdes by Sharon Solwitz.  I just unexpectedly received an ARC of this book from the publisher yesterday, along with a message saying that if I enjoyed Emma Cline’s The Girls, then I should enjoy this book as well. That piqued my curiosity because even though The Girls has had very mixed reviews, I loved it. It was one of my favorite reads from last year.  Reading the synopsis and the advance praise for Once, In Lourdes makes me think that I could easily love this book as well.

Once, In Lourdes by Sharon Solwitz

Publication Date:  May 30, 2017

From Amazon.com:

In the turbulent summer of 1968, four high school friends make a pact that will change their lives forever.

As the Vietnam War rages overseas, four friends make a vow. For the next two weeks, they will live for each other and for each day. Then, at the end of the two weeks, they will sacrifice themselves on the altar of their friendship.

Loyal Kay, our narrator, dreams of being an artist and escaping her stifling family—the stepmother and stepsister she gained after her mother’s early death, and the father she no longer feels she knows. As she struggles with her weight, her schoolwork, and her longing for her mother, she feels loyalty only to her three friends, determined to keep their group together at any cost. Brilliant, charismatic CJ appears to have everything—though even those closest to him can’t see him as he really is. Steady, quiet Saint wants to do right by everyone, trying not to let his emotions destroy himself and those around him. And beautiful Vera’s family secrets are too dark to share, even with her closest friends; caught in a web of family dysfunction, she can only hope the others won’t get tangled up in the danger she senses around her.

In the two-week span in which the novel takes place, during the summer before their senior year of high school, the lives of Kay, CJ, Saint, and Vera will change beyond their expectations, and what they gain and lose will determine the novel’s outcome. Once, in Lourdes is a gripping, haunting novel about the power of teenage bonds, the story of four young people who will win your heart and transport you back to your own high school years. As the heady 1960s shift the ground beneath their feet, all of them must face who they are—and who they want to be.

* * * * *

Praise for Once, In Lourdes 

“After writing a spate of short stories, [Sharon Solwitz] returns to the longer form with a ravishing sense of place . . . and a heightened, almost surreal, feel for how intense emotions alter our perception of the world, especially in youth. Solwitz’s surging, many-threaded, complexly insightful tale dramatizes not only personal crises, but also the violence of the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Timely and timeless.”—Booklist (starred review)

“What makes Once, in Lourdes such a moving read is how deeply and finely Sharon Solwitz has observed and portrayed her characters. They are recognizable teenagers with recognizable desires and miseries and hardships, but they are so well rendered in their particulars that we follow them less and less as familiar types and more and more as the actual friends with whom we attempt to struggle through this part of life, making promises and pacts, breaking and keeping them, living and dying by them.”—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers and Enon

“This is a story that reads achingly true to young angst, then, now, and always. It’s an achievement of remarkable empathy—and gorgeous prose.”—Janet Burroway, author of Raw Silk and Writing Fiction

“Sharon Solwitz has an ear so attuned to teen speech, teen humor, and, finally and most convincingly, teen angst that her novel crackles with urgency. She follows the rise and fall of adolescent moods, patient with their extremes and sympathetic to the neediness her characters struggle to hide. Once, in Lourdes will make you think you’re eavesdropping on what you’re not supposed to hear.”—Rosellen Brown, New York Times bestselling author of Before and After

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I’d love to hear what upcoming book releases you’re waiting on this Wednesday? Leave me your link in the comments below and I’ll stop by and check out your WoW selection for this week. 🙂

Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Book Review:  Homegoing by Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on June 7th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

MY REVIEW:

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read and it’s also probably one of the most ambitious.  Homegoing begins by introducing the stories of two half-sisters who are destined to never meet each other due to forces beyond their control.  One sister, Effia, is married off by her family to an Englishman and whisked away to live in a castle in Cape Coast.  Unbeknownst to Effia, her new home is actually a “slave castle” and thousands of her fellow countrymen and women are imprisoned in dungeons right beneath her feet, where they will soon be sold into slavery and transported across the Atlantic.  Included among those prisoners, the half-sister Effia has never met and never will, Esi. The rest of the story then traces the family lines of both Effia and Esi from the 1700s up to present day, demonstrating just how deep the scars of slavery run even today.  While the story is beautifully written – Gyasi is a brilliant storyteller – the journey itself is raw, honest, and often painful.  Gyasi powerfully captures the brutality of the slave traders, the dehumanizing aspects of slavery, as well as the pervasive racism that has continued long after abolition.

STRENGTHS  OF HOMEGOING:

I was completely impressed that Gyasi was able to cover so much ground historically in just 300 pages, but not only does she do it, but she does it beautifully and intimately.  She accomplishes this by using alternating chapters to trace each family line forward in history.  She starts with a chapter on Effia, then follows with one on Esi, and then continues this alternating pattern with each new chapter giving us the perspective of one of Effia’s or Esi’s descendants.  Each chapter is a standalone story, a vignette basically, that serves to provide both an intimate portrait of a descendent and show us how that descendent connects back to either Effia or Esi, and then goes on to provide a vivid snapshot of the racial history at that particular period in time.   In this manner, we are taken through the 300 years of racial history from 18th century tribal wars in Africa, colonialism, and slavery, to the Fugitive Slave Act, abolition, Jim Crow law, Harlem in the 20th century, continued racism, and so much more.

What truly blew me away was how Gyasi was able to craft such vivid characters in so few pages.  Only about 20 pages, sometimes even less, are devoted to each descendent, but in each 20 page segment, Gyasi paints such a rich and vivid portrait of the descendent  that I easily became invested in all 14 characters whose stories we are presented with – their hopes, their fears, their pain, everything.  I actually found myself becoming sad at the end of each chapter because I wanted to follow the characters further, but knew I probably wouldn’t encounter them again because of the way the novel was structured.  But seriously, 20 pages to make me that attached to a character?  Wow. That’s powerful writing!

WEAKNESSES:

Aside from me wanting to keep following each character beyond his or her allotted chapter, I can’t think of anything I would consider to be a weakness.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I honestly think Homegoing is destined to become a classic and I’d love to see it make its way into high school and college classrooms.   It’s an important book because of the history that it covers, and it’s also a beautifully written book, that I think everyone should read.

I very much look forward to reading more from Gyasi because she is truly a gifted writer with a bright future.

RATING:  5 STARS

About Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in African American Review and Callaloo. Her debut novel, is the Homegoing (Knopf, June 2016).

ARC Review: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

ARC Review:  The Wonder by Emma DonoghueThe Wonder by Emma Donoghue
four-half-stars
on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  In Emma Donoghue’s latest masterpiece, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.  Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

* * * * *

My Review:

Emma Donoghue is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors.  She is such a master of weaving together compelling stories that ask tough questions and that you won’t be able to stop thinking about for days, even weeks,  after you’ve finished reading them.  I first fell in love with Donoghue’s writing style and storytelling abilities when I read her immensely popular novel, Room.  Even though it has been nearly six months since I read and reviewed Room, Donoghue’s writing is so powerful that I still think about that story all the time and it’s probably one of the books that I most often suggest to anyone who asks me to recommend a good book.

Needless to say, when I heard she had a new book coming out this fall, The Wonder, I immediately rushed over to Netgalley to request a review copy.  Thanks so much to Netgalley, Little, Brown and Company, and of course Emma Donoghue for granting my request and allowing me to preview The Wonder for my blog.  I’m thrilled to say that upon reading The Wonder, my love for Emma Donoghue and her gorgeous writing has only continued to grow.

* * * * *

So, what did I love about The Wonder?

First of all, I loved that it features a strong female protagonist. I was immediately drawn to Donoghue’s protagonist, Englishwoman Lib Wright.  Widowed at the age of 25, Lib decides to become a Nightingale Nurse.  We learn that she actually trained with the famous Florence Nightingale and worked alongside her caring for soldiers during the Crimean War.  When she returns home after the Crimean campaign, Lib expects that her career as a nurse will take off but instead finds herself relegated to doing little more than menial work at the local hospital.  Dissatisfied, Lib jumps at what sounds like an exciting opportunity to travel to Ireland to provide care at a private residence for two weeks.  I felt sympathetic towards Lib right from the start, both for the loss of her husband at such a young age and for the frustration she was experiencing in her career.  At the same time, however, I greatly admired Lib’s sense of independence and her determination to find more fulfilling work even if it meant packing up and traveling to another country to do so.

When Lib arrives in Ireland, she learns that she and another nurse, Sister Michael, have been hired to watch eleven year old Anna O’Donnell around the clock for two weeks. Anna is said to not have taken a bite of food for four months, but yet appears to be remarkably healthy.  While there are many in her devout Roman Catholic town who believe she is a miracle child, there are some who believe it is a hoax. So Lib and Sister Michael are to observe Anna and document whether or not Anna actually eats any food. Because of her background in science and medicine, Lib is very skeptical of Anna and makes it her mission, so that this trip is not a complete waste of her time, to find proof Anna and her family are frauds.  I particularly loved the fierceness Lib displays as she basically dismantles Anna’s room looking for any place where food could possibly be hidden.

Mystery and Suspense.  You wouldn’t think a book that is primarily about sitting and watching a young girl to see if she is eating would be such an exciting read, but by having Lib so determined to get to the bottom of what is actually going on, Donoghue successfully weaves a sense of mystery and suspense into her tale.  We follow Lib each shift as she attends to Anna and as she continues to search for any clues that Anna and her family are perpetuating a grand hoax.  With each passing day that no evidence is found, however, more and more questions arise, both for Lib and for the reader by extension. Is Anna eating or is she not? If she is eating, why can’t any proof be found?  If she’s not, how is that even possible and how long can it possibly go on?  Is she really a miracle or are these seemingly simple people really somehow managing to outsmart everyone around them?

Conflicts and Tension.  Even though the bulk of the story takes place in Anna’s tiny bedroom, Donoghue infuses the story with several major conflicts – that of England vs. Ireland, Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism, and Science and Medicine vs. Religion and Local Superstition.  These conflicts not only add weight to the overall story, but they also create momentum by effectively ratcheting up both the tension and the drama as we move further into the two-week observation of Anna.  Because Lib is English and a Protestant, she is perceived as an outsider and the O’Donnells and the townspeople do little more than tolerate her presence in their lives. When she then expresses skepticism of their religious convictions and of the strange superstitions that many in the village seem to embrace (a belief in fairies, for example), their opinion of her only goes downhill from there and thus any scientific arguments Lib uses to express her concern that Anna is harming herself by not eating are immediately rejected as ‘You just don’t understand the way we live here.’

It’s especially frustrating, not just for Lib, but for the reader as well, that not even Anna’s parents seem to have their daughter’s best interest at heart, which leads to what is perhaps the primary conflict of the novel:  the moral and ethical dilemma that faces Lib  — how can she just sit back and simply observe Anna starve herself as she has been hired to do when every fiber of her being is screaming at her to take care of this child and get her the nourishment she needs, even if she has to resort to force to do so? Donoghue does a phenomenal job of portraying the frustration that Lib feels as this decision weighs on her mind every time she looks at Anna.

The Bond between Lib and Anna.  In a novel that is oftentimes disturbing because of the way everyone just sits back and lets Anna refuse food, there is a lovely and moving element to the story as well and that is the bond of friendship that forms between Lib and Anna.  At first Lib is filled with dislike and distrust for Anna because she’s so convinced the girl is a fraud, but Anna quickly wins her over with her kind spirit, her piety, and her quick wit.  As we move through the novel, Lib grows more and more fond of Anna, and often comes across as more of a parent to Anna than Anna’s own mother and father do. There’s what I would call a healing or restorative quality to their relationship and both Anna and Lib benefit from their interactions.

* * * * *

Anything I Didn’t Like?

I liked the overall pacing of the novel and the slow buildup of tension and suspense, but I have to say there were a few moments just over the halfway point where my interest started to wane a bit.  Thankfully after a few more pages, the action really started to pick up and I sailed right through to the end.  Other than that minor lull in the story, I thought everything else about it was beautifully done.

* * * * *

Who Would I Recommend The Wonder to?

If you’re looking for a light and fluffy read, this is definitely not the book for you. However, if you like a compelling read that will make you think and that poses tough questions when it comes to ethics and morality , then The Wonder might be a good fit for you.

Rating:  4.5 stars

Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is due out on September 20, 2016.

four-half-stars

About Emma Donoghue

emma donoghue

Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.

ARC Review: The Girl from Venice

ARC Review:  The Girl from VeniceThe Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
four-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 18th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The highly anticipated new standalone novel from Martin Cruz Smith, whom The Washington Post has declared “that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction,” The Girl from Venice is a suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied Venice.

Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story.

My Review: 

I had no idea of what to expect when I first started reading Martin Cruz Smith’s The Girl from Venice.  That gorgeous blue cover with the silhouette of a girl standing on the bow of a boat caught my eye as I was scanning the Netgalley site for upcoming releases.  When I read the title and saw that the book was set in Venice during World War II, I was immediately intrigued, being a big fan of historical fiction and having also just visited this beautiful Italian city last summer.

Highlights for me:

I became engrossed in the story right away because Smith does a fantastic job of transporting his readers back to Italy during the final days of WWII. He perfectly captures the dangerous and tense atmosphere of a Venice that is still occupied by the Nazis and where no one feels they can trust anyone else.  There’s also a sense in the air that the end of the war is approaching and with it a Nazi loss, and yet there are still pockets of Nazis desperately fighting on and rounding up all Italian Jews.

Into this treacherous environment, Smith introduces two characters that I fell in love with right away. The first, Cenzo Vianello, is a fisherman born and raised in Venice.  He is a good man with a simple plan – to just keep his head down and survive until this awful war is over.  The second character, Giulia Silber, is an Italian teenager who, up until the time of the war, had lived a privileged life. The war has changed all of that though because Giulia is Jewish and thus a target for the desperate Nazis that are still stationed in Venice.  Cenzo and Giulia cross paths when the Nazis round up the rest of Giulia’s family from their hiding place.  Giulia’s father shoves her in a laundry chute and she is able to escape and is swimming to find help in the lagoon where Cenzo fishes when he comes across her.   Cenzo is immediately taken with Giulia and so vows to protect her from the Nazis and get her to safety, and thus his simple plan for surviving the war takes an unexpected turn into dangerous waters (pardon the nautical pun).  I love a story where I have an underdog I can cheer on and how can you not cheer on a fisherman trying to protect a young Jewish woman from the Nazis?

I especially loved Cenzo in the sense that he’s like an onion, many layered. The more we get to know him, the more layers are peeled away and the more complex his life becomes.  As Giulia gets him to open up about himself, we learn that he is not just a fisherman, but also a painter, and then we also learn that he has been betrayed by his older brother, a movie star who had an affair with Cenzo’s wife.  On top of that, Cenzo’s mother now expects Cenzo to marry the widow of his younger brother, who was killed in the war, but Cenzo does not love the widow and so is doing everything he can to put off this undesirable marriage.  After learning all of the misfortune in Cenzo’s life and that his brother has basically made him a laughingstock, I felt all the more sympathetic toward Cenzo.

What I loved about Giulia is her resourcefulness.  She has a bit of an attitude with Cenzo at the beginning, until she determines she can trust him, but once she realizes he is worthy of her trust, she is game to do whatever she needs to do in order to escape from the Nazis – even if it means hacking off her hair, dressing like a boy, and learning to be a fisherman’s apprentice.  She’s feisty and spirited, and again, like Cenzo, just a completely sympathetic character. Because both characters are so sympathetic, one of my favorite aspects of the novel was watching their friendship grow as they worked to secure Giulia safe passage away from the Nazis.

As much as I loved their growing friendship, I do have to say that I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of Cenzo and Giulia as a romantic couple.  The shift from friendship to romantic partners happened rather abruptly and I guess I just missed it, but I was a little ‘Wait, what?! Where did that come from?’ when it happened.

Characters aside, I also loved the fast pace of the story and all of its many twists and turns.  When Cenzo decides he’s going to help Giulia but then the plan somehow gets betrayed and Giulia disappears, Cenzo is determined to find her no matter what.  This quest takes him out of his league and deep into the political underbelly of the war.  We are transported away from the almost romantic lagoons of Venice to the treacherous Salo, which houses Mussolini, Communist partisans, Nazis, collaborators, resistance – basically a who’s who of everyone you could possibly want to stay away from if you’re a fisherman whose goal is to keep your head down and survive the war.

This section of the novel is just filled with suspense. People are constantly approaching Cenzo, trying to make deals with him, telling him they can help him find Giulia, and he just has no idea who he can trust, if anyone.  No one is who they seem to be, and loyalties are so divided that even if someone seems to be on your side one day, the next they may not be if they think they can get a better deal from the other side.  Even though this is technically historical fiction, The Girl from Venice really takes on the tone of a thriller as Cenzo maneuvers his way through all of the political landmines that surround him while he’s searching for clues about Giulia in Salo. These chapters were very exciting, and I blew through the last half of the book in just a few hours.

Anything I didn’t like?

Aside from not being completely sold on the romantic chemistry between Cenzo and Giulia, I did have a moment’s pause early on as we were learning about Cenzo’s life as a fisherman.  When the narration turned to descriptions of fishing, I had a few painful Moby Dick flashbacks to whole chapters devoted to boring and superfluous descriptions of whaling. Thankfully, however, Martin Cruz Smith smoothly weaves in his descriptions of life as a fisherman so that they flowed organically with the rest of the story.  I felt like I learned a little something about fishing in Venice without being deluged with dry, unnecessary facts so major hat’s off to Smith there.

Who would I recommend this book to?

I think I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction, especially from the WWII era.  I know there are some who complain that it has been too trendy a subject for books, but I think this books’ focus on Italy and Mussolini give it a unique and fresh perspective.

I would probably also recommend it to anyone who loves a good thriller so this one has so much suspense and so many mysterious and deceptive characters.  It’s a story that will keep you guessing until the end as to who is trustworthy and who isn’t.

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Simon and Schuster, and Martin Cruz Smith for the opportunity to read and review The Girl from Venice.

 

Rating:  4 stars

four-stars

About Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith (born Martin William Smith), American novelist, received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. He worked as a journalist from 1965 to 1969 before turning his hand to fiction. His first mystery (Gypsy in Amber – 1971) features NY gypsy art dealer Roman Grey and was nominated for an Edgar Award. Nightwing was his breakthrough novel and was made into a movie.

Smith is best known for his series of novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko. Gorky Park, published in 1981, was the first of these and was called “thriller of the ’80s” by Time Magazine. It became a bestseller and won the Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association. Renko has also appeared in Polar Star, Red Square,Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin’s Ghost, and Three Stations.

In the 1970s, Smith wrote The Inquisitor Series under the pseudonym Simon Quinnand penned two Slocum adult action westerns as Jake Logan. He also wrote theNick Carter: Killmaster series under the alias Nick Carter with Mike Avallone and others.

Martin Cruz Smith now lives in San Rafael, California with his wife and three children.

Book Review – The Light of Paris

Book Review – The Light of ParisThe Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown
four-stars
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 308
Source: Library
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

The miraculous new novel from New York Times–bestselling author Eleanor Brown, whose debut, The Weird Sisters, was a sensation beloved by critics and readers alike.
 
Madeleine is trapped—by her family’s expectations, by her controlling husband, and by her own fears—in an unhappy marriage and a life she never wanted. From the outside, it looks like she has everything, but on the inside, she fears she has nothing that matters.  In Madeleine’s memories, her grandmother Margie is the kind of woman she should have been—elegant, reserved, perfect. But when Madeleine finds a diary detailing Margie’s bold, romantic trip to Jazz Age Paris, she meets the grandmother she never knew: a dreamer who defied her strict, staid family and spent an exhilarating summer writing in cafés, living on her own, and falling for a charismatic artist.  Despite her unhappiness, when Madeleine’s marriage is threatened, she panics, escaping to her hometown and staying with her critical, disapproving mother. In that unlikely place, shaken by the revelation of a long-hidden family secret and inspired by her grandmother’s bravery, Madeleine creates her own Parisian summer—reconnecting to her love of painting, cultivating a vibrant circle of creative friends, and finding a kindred spirit in a down-to-earth chef who reminds her to feed both her body and her heart.

Margie and Madeleine’s stories intertwine to explore the joys and risks of living life on our own terms, of defying the rules that hold us back from our dreams, and of becoming the people we are meant to be.

My Review: 

I was unfamiliar with Eleanor Brown prior to reading The Light of Paris and have to confess the main reasons I picked it up were 1) I had just visited Paris last summer and wanted to recreate the magic I experienced during my time there, and 2) that gorgeous purple cover kept catching my eye every time I saw it displayed at the bookstore and in the library.

I’m so glad that I picked up The Light of Paris though because it introduced me to a wonderful writer in Eleanor Brown and it most definitely made me fall in love with Paris all over again.

 

View of Paris from the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral - photo taken by me.

View of Paris from the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral – photo taken by me.

 

So what did I love about The Light of Paris?

Dual Narrative Point of View and Time Jumps:

I’ve always enjoyed novels where a historical tale is framed within a contemporary one and The Light of Paris fits that bill for me.  Eleanor Brown has beautifully woven together the stories of Madeleine in 1999 and her grandmother Margie in 1924.  Aside from their biological relationship, their stories, although being told 75 years apart, are tied together by another common thread as both women are dealing with the same basic struggle – how to live their own lives and pursue their passions when societal and family expectations dictate they should do otherwise.

Brown begins with Madeleine’s journey.  Madeleine is dealing with an overly controlling husband and, consequently, an unhappy marriage.  When she learns that her mother is selling her home, Madeleine uses this as an excuse to get away from her husband for a while.  It is while she is at her mother’s home that Madeleine discovers some old journals in storage and first learns about Margie and her trip to Paris.  The rest of the novel alternates between Madeleine in 1999 and Margie in 1924 as they each try to find their own way and live life on their own terms.  I have read books where the time jumps and switch in point of view can be confusing and doesn’t work well, but Brown does a lovely job and the story flows smoothly and naturally between Madeleine to Margie from start to finish.

Setting:

I also love the way Brown captures the sights, sounds, and spirit of Paris as she describes Margie’s time there.  If you’ve never been to Paris before, by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll have a first class case of wanderlust and will want to pack your suitcase and head there for a romantic adventure of your own.  And if you’ve been to Paris before, Brown will make you fall in love with the City of Lights all over again.  Brown also paints a truly vivid portrait of 1920’s Jazz Age Paris — so much so, in fact, that as I was reading, I half expected Ernest Hemingway to come strolling through the doors of one of the cafes that Margie frequented.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo taken by me.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo taken by me.

Main Characters You Can Root For:

Margie’s story was, by far, the more interesting of the two narratives for me.  Margie’s dilemma is that while her parents expect to her marry and settle down with a suitable husband as soon as she is finished with her education, what she really wants to do is follow her passion, which is writing, and become an author.  It was spectacular watching her go from being this little cotillion-attending, debutante girl doing everything that was expected of her to suddenly rejecting the suitor her parents have chosen for her, then further rebelling against them by refusing to return home from a trip to Paris and instead living there on her own for months.  She was really a woman ahead of her time in that sense and I cheered her on every step of the way.  Watching her blossom into her own person as she sat in cafes indulging in her writing habit and then finding love on her own terms was so inspirational.  I loved Margie’s story so much that if that had been the sole focus of the novel, this probably would have been a 5 star read for me.

Where Margie’s story was inspiring, however, Madeleine’s story was often frustrating for me.  Similar to Margie and her passion for writing, Madeleine has a passion for art and actually wanted to go to school to study to become an artist.  Instead of following her heart though, Madeleine instead lets her family convince her that being an artist isn’t a viable career and that she should study something more practical like Marketing, and then find herself a good husband.  I loved Madeleine and wanted her to be happy, but it blew my mind how much she let her mother, in particular, dictate how she lived her life.  As I watched her mope and lament this miserable marriage she’s supposedly trapped in, all I kept thinking was ‘Why did you marry Phillip in the first place? He’s a controlling ass. Why would you let anyone — your husband or your mother — convince you that you shouldn’t pursue your love of art? It’s 1999 and you are a modern woman so start acting like one!’  It made no sense to me that Madeleine needed to read about her grandmother’s rebellious and romantic time in Paris to come to the conclusion that perhaps it was time to kick Phillip to the curb and try something different.  I actually think if Margie had still been alive in 1999, she probably would have wanted to give Madeleine a kick in the pants and tell her life is too short not to do what makes you happy.

Likeable Secondary Characters:

I guess it’s a quirk with me but I have to have a likeable secondary cast of characters in order to thoroughly enjoy a story and Brown has given me exactly what I need with the characters of Sebastian and Henry.  Sebastian is an artist that Margie meets while in Paris, and Henry is a restaurant owner that Madeleine meets while visiting her mother.  Both Henry and Sebastian are charming, down to earth, and just delightful characters.  I liked the touch of romance that each of the characters brought to the story, and I especially liked the pivotal role each of them plays in helping Margie and Madeleine discover who they are meant to be.  In addition to showing her all that Paris has to offer on a social and artistic level, Sebastian is actually the one who convinces Margie she should stay in Paris when the trip with her cousin doesn’t go as planned. He takes her to a place where she can find suitable, affordable housing and that also helps with job placement for Americans.  Henry plays a similar role in Madeleine’s journey,  first and foremost, by being her friend and being supportive about things that are of interest to her, namely her artistic abilities, which is something her husband never bothered with.  Henry also serves as an inspiration to Madeleine because the whole reason he has this restaurant next door to Madeleine’s mother’s house is because he left his job as a chef at a restaurant to follow his dream – that of owning his own restaurant.  If he hadn’t followed his own heart, he and Madeleine never would have met. His journey, especially when considered alongside Margie’s brave and adventurous sojourn in Paris, really give Madeleine the push she needs to start re-evaluating the direction her life has taken and to forge a new and more fulfilling path for herself.

Anything I didn’t care for?

Aside from my frustration with Madeleine, I can’t think of anything else that I didn’t enjoy.  Margies’s cousin, Evelyn, was a nasty little girl, but that said, I like to have characters that I can actively dislike as well and she definitely falls into that category.

Who would I recommend this book to?

The Light of Paris was a delightful read on many levels so I’d recommend it, first of all, to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a hint of romance. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants a taste of the City of Lights and to anyone who likes a story about people finding themselves.

 

Rating:  A strong 4 stars

 

 

 

four-stars

About Eleanor Brown

Eleanor Brown is the New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of The Weird Sisters, hailed by People magazine as “a delightful debut” and “creative and original” by Library Journal.

Her second novel, The Light of Paris, will be published by Putnam Books in the summer of 2016.

Eleanor teaches writing workshops at The Writers’ Table in Highlands Ranch, CO, and at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, CO, as well as writing conferences and centers nationwide.

An avid CrossFit participant, Eleanor is the author of WOD Motivation and a contributor to CrossFit Journal.

Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Eleanor lives in Colorado with her partner, writer J.C. Hutchins.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

New WoW“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, which encourages fellow bloggers to spotlight upcoming releases that we’re excited about.

My “Waiting On” Wednesday selection for this week:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

underground railroad th

Publication Date: September 13, 2016

From Amazon:

From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

* * * * *

I’ve always been a big fan of historical fiction and all of the advanced reviews I’ve read about The Underground Railroad have me very excited to get my hands on this book. Just give them a read yourself and see how incredible this book sounds!

Posted on Amazon:

“Nothing, not one thing or activity, can replace the experience of a good read—being transported to a different land, a different realm, through words and language. I just finished an advance copy of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad. Every now and then a book comes along that reaches the marrow of your bones, settles in, and stays forever. This is one. It’s a tour de force, and I don’t say that lightly.”
— Oprah Winfrey, O Magazine

“Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels playing fast and loose with ‘real life,’ both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet. . . . Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is. Whitehead continues the African-American artists’ inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.”
–Kirkus (starred review)

“[S]pellbinding and ferocious…. The story is literature at its finest and history at its most barbaric. Would that this novel were required reading for every American citizen.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)

I’d love to hear what upcoming book releases you’re waiting on this Wednesday?

Book Review: Glory over Everything

Book Review:  Glory over EverythingGlory over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
four-half-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on April 5th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Synopsis from Goodreads: A novel of family and long-buried secrets along the treacherous Underground Railroad. The author of the New York Times bestseller and beloved book club favorite The Kitchen House continues the story of Jamie Pyke, son of both a slave and master of Tall Oaks, whose deadly secret compels him to take a treacherous journey through the Underground Railroad.
Published in 2010, The Kitchen House became a grassroots bestseller. Fans connected so deeply to the book’s characters that the author, Kathleen Grissom, found herself being asked over and over “what happens next?” The wait is finally over.
This new, stand-alone novel opens in 1830, and Jamie, who fled from the Virginian plantation he once called home, is passing in Philadelphia society as a wealthy white silversmith. After many years of striving, Jamie has achieved acclaim and security, only to discover that his aristocratic lover Caroline is pregnant. Before he can reveal his real identity to her, he learns that his beloved servant Pan has been captured and sold into slavery in the South. Pan’s father, to whom Jamie owes a great debt, pleads for Jamie’s help, and Jamie agrees, knowing the journey will take him perilously close to Tall Oaks and the ruthless slave hunter who is still searching for him. Meanwhile, Caroline’s father learns and exposes Jamie’s secret, and Jamie loses his home, his business, and finally Caroline. Heartbroken and with nothing to lose, Jamie embarks on a trip to a North Carolina plantation where Pan is being held with a former Tall Oaks slave named Sukey, who is intent on getting Pan to the Underground Railroad. Soon the three of them are running through the Great Dismal Swamp, the notoriously deadly hiding place for escaped slaves. Though they have help from those in the Underground Railroad, not all of them will make it out alive.

My Review:

With its heartbreaking and brutally honest depiction of how slaves were treated in the American South, Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House stands out as one of the most memorable novels I’ve read in recent years. Because it had such a profound effect on me, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, Glory over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House. Thanks so much to Netgalley, Simon & Schuster, and of course, Kathleen Grissom, for making it possible for me to obtain a copy prior to the novel’s April 5th release date.

So, how best to describe Glory over Everything? Think Nella Larsen’s Passing and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, with a smattering of Gone with the Wind thrown in for good measure. While The Kitchen House explores the horrors of slavery by showing how hard it is to live as a slave in the South, Glory over Everything tackles the same theme but from a different point of view, that of the free black or mixed race individual who has managed to escape from the South. Grissom exposes the ugly truth that until slavery was finally abolished in this country, freedom was merely an illusion if you had any ‘color’ in your blood. It could be stolen from you anywhere at any time, and so you lived life constantly looking over your shoulder.

The offspring of a white slave master and a slave, our protagonist James Pyke learns this lesson the hard way. When the novel opens, James has already escaped from slavery once, traveling via the Underground Railroad to freedom. He is now living in Philadelphia as “James Burton”. Because of his pale complexion, he has been able to ‘pass’ as a white man for a number of years now and is a respected businessman and artist in his community. Using a series of flashbacks, the first half of the novel returns us to when Jamie first arrives in Philadelphia and retraces the path he takes to become James Burton.

Two events transpire, however, that threaten to destroy this new life he has worked so hard for: 1) his lover Caroline becomes pregnant and 2) James’ servant, a young boy named Pan that James loves like a son, is kidnapped and shipped south to be sold into slavery. Although he is frightened to return to the South because of his own past, James promises Pan’s father, Henry, that he will find and return Pan home. Initially James is conflicted between his duty to Caroline and their unborn child and his oath to Henry. However, ultimately James is forced to flee Philadelphia when he is betrayed by someone who knows of his past and uses it against him. With nothing else left to lose at this point, James swallows his own fears and heads south to find Pan. The second half of the novel focuses on this potentially dangerous rescue mission.

Highlights:

I loved nearly everything about this novel, but here are some aspects of it that really stood out for me.

The suspense – While the first half of the novel moves along at a slow and steady pace as it traces James’ backstory and focuses on character development, the rest of the novel becomes very Mission Impossible. It’s so intense that I stayed up nearly all night long to finish it because I was so desperate to know how it ended. Every chapter is suspenseful and filled with potential dangers as James, first of all, must lie to everyone he encounters on his journey to create a plausible cover story that allows him to search for Pan. Then, once he locates him, he must come up with a feasible plan to free Pan and bring him home, all the while without revealing his own true identity, especially once he hears that his former slave master is not only still alive, but is still actively looking for him.

Pan – I know James is the protagonist in this novel and a wonderful character in his own right, but I guarantee that you will fall in love with Pan. Just as Mama Mae was the heart and soul of The Kitchen House, Pan is the heart and soul of this novel. He’s a precocious young boy with a heart as big as Texas, who instantly enchants everyone he meets. After Pan was taken, I waited anxiously to hear more of him and wished I could give James a kick in the pants to hurry him along on his journey to rescue him.

Underground Railroad – The chapters that deal with the Underground Railroad stand out as the novel’s most memorable moments. On the one hand, what an absolutely terrifying experience to have an escape route that passes through a swamp containing bears, wild cats, poisonous snakes, and who knows what other dangers. But on the other hand, it was heartwarming to see so many people along the way who were helping as many as they could escape to freedom.
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four-half-stars