Review: THE ROOM ON RUE AMELIE

Review:  THE ROOM ON RUE AMELIEThe Room on Rue Amélie by Kristin Harmel
three-half-stars
Published by Gallery Books on March 27th 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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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.

MY REVIEW:

Kristin Harmel’s The Room on Rue Amelie takes place in Nazi-occupied Paris in WWII and follows the lives of three people whose lives unexpectedly cross paths during the course of the war:  Ruby Benoit, an American woman living in Paris, Charlotte Dacher, a Jewish teen who lives next door to Ruby, and Thomas Clark, a British RAF pilot who is flying missions over France.

As the novel opens, Ruby meets and marries the man of her dreams, Marcel, a handsome Frenchman.  She and Marcel move to Paris and Ruby dreams of walking hand in hand in the most romantic city in the world.  Her dreams are soon shattered, however, as the Nazis invade France and everything changes, including Marcel, who becomes secretive and who also disappears for days at a time, only to come back and refuse to tell Ruby where he has been or what he is up to.  The tension and the secrecy begin to take a toll on their marriage.  When Marcel is unexpectedly killed, Ruby discovers what he has been so secretive about.  Her discovery is life-changing…

Next door to Ruby and Marcel live Charlotte Dacher and her family, who are Jewish.  They have been hearing rumors about what the Nazis are doing to Jews throughout Eastern Europe.  Sure enough, as soon as the Nazis enter Paris, they begin imposing restrictions on the Jewish people, forcing them out of work and also requiring them to sew yellow stars on all of their clothing.  Soon after, Charlotte and her family realize that all of the rumors they’ve been hearing about Hitler and the Nazis are true, as mass deportations begin and their lives are torn apart.

Thomas Clark is a British Royal Air Force Pilot.  He has joined the RAF because he wants to protect England from Hitler and the Nazis but when his mother is killed in the Blitz, Thomas begins to doubt that anything he is doing is making a difference and questions whether it’s worth it to keep fighting.  That is, until he meets Ruby and Charlotte.  The unexpected connection he makes with them reignites his will to fight and he’s more motivated than ever to defeat the Nazis.

The Room on Rue Amelie is a riveting story about resistance, courage, and defiance in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and it’s also a moving story about love, fate, family, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make for those we love.

I was drawn to The Room on Rue Amelie primarily because the synopsis indicates it would be a great read for fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls and in many respects, I was not disappointed with the comparison.

My favorite part of The Room on Rue Amelie was its focus on all of the regular citizens of Paris and surrounding areas and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they defied Hitler and the Nazis.  The spirit of those people were what really made the book for me, especially those who worked on the “Escape Line” that is featured prominently throughout the novel.  The purpose of the Escape Line was to locate downed Allied pilots before the Nazis could get them and then provide them safe passage over the mountains and into Spain where they could then be sent back to rejoin their units and continue the fight against Hitler.  In many ways the Escape Line reminded me of the Underground Railroad with its many stops at different safe houses along the way and I just found it so inspiring that so many citizens were willing to risk their lives to work as part of the Resistance.

In addition to that, I also really loved the characters of Ruby and Charlotte.  They are fiercely, independent women who want to do their part to fight Hitler in any way they can, even though all of the men they encounter want to push them aside and tell them it’s too dangerous and that it’s man’s work.  I was especially drawn to Charlotte since, as a Jew, she was taking even more of a risk than Ruby was by putting herself out there.  I also loved how close Ruby and Charlotte became as the novel progressed.  They go from being mere neighbors to practically being like sisters, and their bond is wonderful to watch, especially since it contrasted so much with all of the tumult and danger that surrounded them.

The way Harmel structured the novel also appealed to me.  It’s told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Ruby, Charlotte, and Thomas so it allows us to watch the war progress from three very different perspectives, which I thought really gave the story a lot of depth.

As much I enjoyed the story overall, I still had a few issues with it. The first is that it was more focused on romance than I expected it to be based on the comparisons in the synopsis to The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls, which don’t really rely on romance at all.  There were a few times while I was reading when it felt like the events of WWII served merely as a backdrop to Ruby and Thomas’s thoughts about each other.  Along similar lines, I was disappointed in the character development of Thomas.  At first I enjoyed following the story from his perspective as he joined the British Royal Air Force, hoping to do his part to defeat the Nazis.  It was interesting following along through his training and as he began to fly missions in the war.  I thought Harmel did a wonderful job of showing all the conflicting emotions Thomas was feeling while in the sky shooting down other men, and then especially after his mother is killed during the Blitz, when he begins to doubt that his efforts are even making a difference in the war.

 But then he just fell sort of flat for me.  Once he meets Ruby, it seems like she’s all he ever thinks about.  He only thinks about the events of the war in terms of how they can get him back to her.  If he gets shot down again, it’s a way back to her.  If he doesn’t go back and fight this time, he can stay with her, etc.  It was a little disappointing how one-track minded he became, especially since it was insta-love between he and Ruby in the first place, which was my final issue with the story.  I guess I just don’t believe in love at first sight because I was not at all sold on the idea that such an all-consuming romance could convincingly take place between two people who interacted for only a few days before parting company.

Even though I had a few issues with The Room on Rue Amelie, I’m still glad I read it because I very much enjoyed reading about the pockets of resistance throughout France and how big of an impact that they had on the war.  Based on its focus on the relationship between Thomas and Ruby, however, I’m not sure I was really the ideal audience for this book. I think fans of romance would easily find this a 4 or 5 star book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

For fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, this powerful novel of fate, resistance, and family—by the international bestselling author of The Sweetness of Forgetting and When We Meet Again—tells the tale of an American woman, a British RAF pilot, and a young Jewish teenager whose lives intersect in occupied Paris during the tumultuous days of World War II.

When newlywed Ruby Henderson Benoit arrives in Paris in 1939 with her French husband Marcel, she imagines strolling arm in arm along the grand boulevards, awash in the golden afternoon light. But war is looming on the horizon, and as France falls to the Nazis, her marriage begins to splinter, too.

Charlotte Dacher is eleven when the Germans roll into the French capital, their sinister swastika flags snapping in the breeze. After the Jewish restrictions take effect and Jews are ordered to wear the yellow star, Charlotte can’t imagine things getting much worse. But then the mass deportations begin, and her life is ripped forever apart.

Thomas Clarke joins the British Royal Air Force to protect his country, but when his beloved mother dies in a German bombing during the waning days of the Blitz, he wonders if he’s really making a difference. Then he finds himself in Paris, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and he discovers a new reason to keep fighting—and an unexpected road home.

When fate brings them together, Ruby, Charlotte, and Thomas must summon the courage to defy the Nazis—and to open their own broken hearts—as they fight to survive. Rich with historical drama and emotional depth, this is an unforgettable story that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

 

three-half-stars

About Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel is an international bestselling novelist whose books have been translated into numerous languages and are sold all over the world. A former reporter for People magazine, Kristin has also freelanced for many other publications, including American Baby, Men’s Health, Glamour, Woman’s Day, Travel + Leisure, and more.

Her latest novels — The Sweetness of Forgetting, The Life Intended, How to Save a Life, and When We Meet Again — are out now from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster. Her latest, The Room on Rue Amélie, a tale of three lives that collide in Paris during World War II, is due out in March 2018 from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster.

Kristin grew up in Peabody, Mass.; Worthington, Ohio; and St. Petersburg, Fla., and she graduated with a degree in journalism (with a minor in Spanish) from the University of Florida. After spending time living in Paris, she now lives in Orlando, Fla., with her husband and young son.

Review: I WAS ANASTASIA by Ariel Lawhon

Review:  I WAS ANASTASIA by Ariel LawhonI Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon
four-stars
Published by Doubleday Books on March 27th 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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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.

MY REVIEW:

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the subject matter of Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia.  One half of the novel chronicles the imprisonment and subsequent assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire royal family following the Bolshevik Revolution.  Even if you don’t know all of the details, you’ve probably at least heard the name Anastasia Romanov, who was one of Tsar Nicholas’s daughters and who was rumored to have survived the assassination attempt.  Whether or not Anastasia survived is the focus of the other half of I Was Anastasia, as we follow a woman named Anna Anderson who claimed to be Anastasia for 50 years until her death in 1970.

Is it possible that Anastasia survived?  If Anna isn’t really Anastasia, what would lead her to so desperately claim that she is for so many years?

Even though those of us who are familiar with the Anna/Anastasia story know how it ends, it’s still quite compelling to see how it all unfolds in this incredibly well researched retelling.

 

What fascinated me most about this novel is the way Lawhon captured both Anna and Anastasia.  Whether they are one in the same or two different people, I was completely invested in both journeys I was reading about.  Anastasia’s story of course immediately had me sympathetic, just knowing the history of how her family suffered at the hands of first, Alexander Kerensky after he forced her father to abdicate, then later the Bolsheviks after they overthrew Kerenksy’s provisional government.   Lawhon chronicles these painful events in great detail, making the reader want, all the more, for someone from the Romanov family to have survived the brutal massacre.

Anna’s story, however, was equally compelling as Lawhon shows how she spent much of those 50 years trying to prove her identity — being shuffled from place to place, having no real home or financial security of her own.  Some are sympathetic to her cause and believe she truly is Anastasia and want to help her prove her case in a court of law, while others don’t care who she is but just want a piece of the spotlight that is bound to come from being associated with possible royalty.  And still others pursue her relentlessly, trying to do everything they can to prove that there’s no way she can be Anastasia.

Even though I was already familiar enough with the story to know how it all ends, what I loved about I Was Anastasia is that the author focuses more on showing us how the story began and she does this using a unique dual timeline structure where she alternates the chapters between Anna’s story and Anastasia’s, presenting Anastasia’s timeline in chronological order, while presenting Anna’s timeline in reverse chronological order.  It was fascinating to watch these two timelines on a collision course and I couldn’t wait to see how the author would have them crash into one another to give us the truth about whether Anna Anderson and Anastasia Romanov are one in the same.

 

Even though it was fascinating watching each of the timelines unfold and waiting to see how the author would merge them in the end, I have to admit that I found Anna’s timeline much more difficult to follow than Anastasia’s.  Where Anastasia’s is a straight forward chronological rendering of events in the months leading up to the Romanov family facing a firing squad in 1918, Anna’s journey is actually presented in reverse chronological order, working backwards from 1970 to 1918.  That wouldn’t have been an issue in itself, but the way her story unfolded it meant that sometimes she would be referring to someone in earlier chapters but who that person is and how they came to be connected to Anna and her cause isn’t really revealed until later chapters as we continue to travel back in time.  It took me a few chapters to get used to this structure and slowed me down a few times throughout my reading as I tried to remember what I had read about a certain character in later years now that I was meeting him for the first time as I continued to journey back in time.

 

 

If you’re not at all familiar with Anastasia Romanov and Anna Anderson, I’d definitely recommend reading I Was Anastasia.  Lawhon has crafted together a suspenseful mystery that will keep you guessing as to whether or not Anna is Anastasia, and at the same time, will have you hoping against hope that she really is.  And even if you do know the story, as I did, I’d still recommend it because it is a powerful and emotional retelling and because the journey to 1918 and the “birth” of Anna Anderson makes for an engaging read.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Countless others have rendered their verdict. Now it is your turn.

Russia, July 17, 1918 Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.

Germany, February 17, 1920 A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal in Berlin. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.

As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened.

four-stars

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is the critically acclaimed author of THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, FLIGHT OF DREAMS, and I WAS ANASTASIA. Her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, and Book of the Month Club selections. She is the co-founder of SheReads.org and lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, four sons, and black Lab—who is, thankfully, a girl.

Review: THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah

Review:  THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin HannahThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
five-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 6th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 440
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
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MY REVIEW:

I didn’t think there was any way Kristin Hannah could top The Nightingale, which left me sobbing by the end and is one of my all-time favorite reads, but if she didn’t top it, she came awfully darn close with her latest novel.  The Great Alone is an absolutely exquisite piece of writing.  It’s filled with realistically drawn characters, a compelling storyline that will reach out and grab all of your emotions, all in an awe-inspiring landscape.  It can be a harsh and devastating story at times as it explores dark subjects such as domestic violence and the effects of PTSD, but ultimately The Great Alone paints a beautiful portrait of hope and resiliency in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

Set in the 1970s, The Great Alone follows Ernt Allbright, his wife Cora, and their 13-year-old daughter Leni as they set out to relocate from Seattle, Washington to a remote part of Alaska.  Ernt was a POW in the Vietnam War who has struggled with day-to-day life ever since he returned home.  His behavior is erratic and volatile at times and he is often plagued by nightmares (flashbacks from his captivity) and bouts of paranoia.  Ernt has also been struggling to find and keep a job so he and his family just keep moving from place to place, hoping their luck will change.  When one of Ernt’s fallen comrades leaves him some property in Alaska, Ernt is convinced this is a sign and convinces his family that a move to Alaska is exactly what they need.  Leni and Cora are hesitant, but what we learn right away is that Cora would follow her husband to the end of the world and back if he asked. It’s just the nature of their relationship.

When they arrive in remote Kaneq, Alaska, the local residents reach out immediately and let them know that no matter how prepared they think they are to survive in Alaska, they’re dead wrong and have a lot of work to do.  Thankfully, the sense of community is so strong that the regulars don’t just dole out the advice and go about their own business.  No, they dole out the advice and then jump in and help make that advice a reality.  They get Ernt and his family about as ready for an Alaska winter as they possibly can and embrace them as new members of their pioneer community.

At first, Ernt thrives in Alaska. There’s so much to do and he loves the idea of living off the land.  But then as winter approaches and he is faced with 18 hours of darkness a day, he starts to struggle again, this time turning to violence and alcohol.  As much danger as they face outside, with the threat of the frigid temperatures and deadly wild animals, Cora and Leni soon realize that they’re in danger inside their home as well.  It becomes more and more clear that they can’t rely on Ernt to help them survive in Alaska and that this “fresh start” could end up costing them their lives.

 

This is one of those books where I could go on and on about everything I loved, but I’m just going to stick with a few highlights so that I don’t write a novel about the novel. I hope it’s not too spoilery but maybe turn back now and just know I LOVED this book if you haven’t read it yet.

Sense of Community.  I was just so touched by the way the community of Kaneq makes it their mission to make sure everyone who comes to their remote area has the tools they need to survive.  The community is filled with strong, independent, resilient people and they treat each other like family, sharing their resources and looking out for one another.  And in many cases, it’s the women of the community who are the most formidable.   Large Marge, in particular, as her name suggests, is a force to be reckoned with and one of my favorite characters in the book.  She is strong, fiercely independent, will put someone in their place in a minute if they deserve it, and she’s also hilarious.  She might just be a secondary character, but take it from me, she is fabulous!

Mother-Daughter Bond.  I thought the relationship between Cora and Leni was just beautifully written.  They share such a deep bond, first from having lived together by themselves for so long while Ernt was a POW, but then they were basically on their own once Ernt succumbed to his dark nature in Alaska.  Cora and Leni are so protective of each other – each would sacrifice themselves in order to save the other from Ernt’s violent side.  Cora wants Leni to get away so that she knows Leni is safe, but Leni won’t leave because she knows her mother will never leave her father and therefore Leni feels that she must stay to try to protect her.  In so many ways it had me screaming at the book because I wanted them both to get away before he completely lost control and killed them, but at the same time, that strong mother-daughter bond moved me to tears.

Realistically Drawn, Flawed Characters.  Hannah has such a gift for creating characters that just feel so real.  All of her characters, especially Ernt, Cora, and Leni, are messy and flawed, and even the secondary characters feel three dimensional.  There’s just so much depth to all of their personalities.  I became invested not just in Ernt’s family but in the entire Kaneq community.

The Great Alone.  I want to talk about the atmospheric quality of Hannah’s writing here.  Her descriptions of Alaska are so detailed and vivid that I was left awestruck, not just by the physical beauty of the Alaskan landscape but also by how deadly that beautiful landscape can be.  I felt the bone-chilling cold, the darkness closing in as winter approached, and the lurking bears and wolves that could attack without warning.  I truly felt like I had been transported there and like I was planning my own survival and living the pioneer life.  The Great Alone is, by far, one of the most atmospheric reads I’ve ever experienced.

 

I can’t really say that I had any issues with this book, although the scenes of domestic violence were definitely hard to take, so be forewarned.  The scenes were jarring and horrific and the portrait of a toxic relationship is frighteningly realistic.  It’s a testament to how vivid and powerful Hannah’s writing is, but man, is it disturbing!

 

It’s a brutal read at times, but The Great Alone is still one of the most beautiful books I’ve read so far this year.  It both captivated and horrified me, gutted me yet filled me with hope, and it kept me reading until the wee hours of the night because I just had to know the fate of Ernt and his family.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS: 

Alaska, 1974.  Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.  For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if it means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

five-stars

About Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than 20 novels including the international blockbuster, The Nightingale, Winter Garden, Night Road, and Firefly Lane.

Her novel, The Nightingale, has been published in 43 languages and is currently in movie production at TriStar Pictures, which also optioned her novel, The Great Alone. Her novel, Home Front has been optioned for film by 1492 Films (produced the Oscar-nominated The Help) with Chris Columbus attached to direct.

Kristin is a former-lawyer-turned writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. Her novel, Firefly Lane, became a runaway bestseller in 2009, a touchstone novel that brought women together, and The Nightingale, in 2015 was voted a best book of the year by Amazon, Buzzfeed, iTunes, Library Journal, Paste, The Wall Street Journal and The Week. Additionally, the novel won the coveted Goodreads and People’s Choice Awards. The audiobook of The Nightingale won the Audiobook of the Year Award in the fiction category.

Review: THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine Arden

Review:  THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine ArdenThe Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Also by this author: The Bear and the Nightingale
five-stars
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #2
Published by Del Rey on December 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Also in this series: The Bear and the Nightingale
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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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.

MY REVIEW:

Katherine Arden’s The Winternight Trilogy is one of the most captivating series I’ve ever read.  I fell in love with the series last winter when I read the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale.  Filled with lush worldbuilding, a feisty heroine, fascinating Russian folklore, and a touch of the supernatural, The Bear and the Nightingale entranced me from the first pages and I just fell in love with everything about the story.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the second book, The Girl in the Tower, and was thrilled to be approved for an advanced copy to review on my blog.

I didn’t think it was possible to top the gorgeous storytelling in the first book, but Arden proved me wrong.  As much as I adored The Bear and the Nightingale, I thought The Girl in the Tower was even more amazing!  It has all of the same wonderful elements as the first book – the magic, the Russian folklore, beloved characters like Vasya, her horse Solovey, and the Frost Demon.  But then, there’s just also so much more to love.

In The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has really come into her own in terms of character growth.  She is still a free spirit who refuses to bow down and do what society expects young women to do, but now she is also more mature and a bit wiser because of what she went through in the first book.

The Girl in the Tower picks up right where The Bear and the Nightingale left off. Because of what happened to Vasya in the first book, there are rumors swirling around her village that she is a witch.  Faced with the choices before her – either marrying someone she doesn’t love or being sent to live in a convent —  Vasya decides to create her own destiny and runs away from home.  When the story opens, we meet Vasya traveling, disguised as a boy, with only her horse, Solovey, by her side.

The roads she travels on are rugged and unsafe, but Vasya’s journey ultimately takes her to Moscow where she is reunited with her monk brother, Sasha; her sister, Olga, who is now a princess; and her cousin Dmitrii, who is the Crown Prince of Moscow.  Desperately trying to conceal her true identity, Vasya gets caught up in a web of deception, lies, and political unrest and finds herself faced with extremely dangerous choices everywhere she turns.

How will she get out of her predicament and what will happen to her if her true identity is revealed?

As with the first book, the atmospheric quality of The Girl in the Tower was one of my favorite parts of the novel.  As soon as I began reading, I felt as though I had been transported to Vasya’s world.  Arden masterfully paints a medieval Russian landscape and skillfully dots this landscape with a fascinating mix of supernatural elements and Russian folklore.  Her descriptions are so vivid that I could practically hear the snow crunching under Solovey’s hooves as he and Vasya traversed the snowy landscape, just as I could easily envision the tiny magical spirit guardians hidden in each building Vasya entered.

Vasya is of course still a major favorite of mine.  I admire her bravery and her feistiness and the fact that she doesn’t want to be forced into marriage or into a convent.  She has no interest in society’s expectations for women and, instead, wants to be an adventurer and travel the world.  Vasya has a spirit that cannot be tamed, and I couldn’t help but cheer her on, even though I know it’s likely to be dangerous for her.

In addition to Vasya, another favorite character of mine is her stallion, Solovey.  Solovey and Vasya can communicate with each other, and some of their exchanges are truly hilarious.  I love Solovey for his loyalty, his sassiness, and for his fierceness.  You’ll want a Solovey of your very own after reading this story.  He’s the perfect companion for Vasya.

And, of course, I can’t leave out an unexpected favorite character, Morozko, the Frost Demon.  Arden adds layers and layers of complexity to Morozko in this second book and I just fell in love with him even more than I did in the first book.   The details of his history, along with his connection to Vasya, are what truly take this story to the next level, and even though I probably shouldn’t ship Vasya and Morozko, I totally do.  I just can’t get enough of the two of them together!

I also loved that this story seemed a little darker and a little more grounded in reality than the first story because of the focus on political unrest in Moscow. It added a layer of danger and intrigue that really made for an exciting and fast-paced read.

The only issue I had while reading this book was that it started out a little slow for me.  It may have been because it took a few pages to actually get to Vasya’s story, but I’m actually going to chalk it up as a personal issue because I was trying to start the book while riding on a train and was constantly distracted.  Once I got home and continued reading where there were less distractions, I devoured the rest of the book in less than 24 hours.

The Girl in the Tower is a tale that is beautiful yet dark, enchanting yet also horrifying. With its gorgeous prose, memorable characters, and intricate storytelling, it has also secured itself a spot on my Top Reads of 2017 list.  Katherine Arden has truly captivated me with this series and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final installment.  I highly recommend this series to anyone who loves a strong, feisty, independent heroine and good solid storytelling, as well as to anyone who is interested in Russian folklore.  You won’t be disappointed!

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

five-stars

About Katherine Arden

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

Review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

Review:  Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha SilvaMr. Dickens and His Carol: A Novel of Christmas Past by Samantha Silva
four-half-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on October 31st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 288
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.

MY REVIEW:

Samantha Silva’s Mr. Dickens and His Carol is a charming, heartwarming tale that follows Charles Dickens at a difficult time in his life.  Dickens has been a hugely successful writer for years, with each book selling better than the last.  That is, until Martin Chuzzlewit, whose sales have unexpectedly flopped.  Three weeks before Christmas, Dickens’ publishers pay him a visit to tell him the bad news about his book sales and to issue him an ultimatum:  write a heartwarming, best-selling Christmas book in the next three weeks or else face financial ruin.

Needless to say, this does not put Dickens into the Christmas spirit, especially when on top of his bad news, he also has to contend with his family who is expecting the same lavish Christmas that they are used to.  Additionally, one of Dickens’ cousins is lurking about because he wants money for an investment, and Dickens’ deadbeat father is also milling around town racking up debts and expecting Charles to take care of them.

Dickens begins to feel backed into a corner and starts to lash out at those around him, eventually driving his wife and children away from their home.  At first, Dickens flat out refuses to write a novel on demand because it’s not his style, but ultimately realizes he has no choice and sits down to write.  There’s just one problem – he has no inspiration whatsoever and a huge case of writer’s block.  Growing increasingly frustrated, Dickens begins to wander aimlessly around the city of London and eventually finds himself on an Ebenezer Scrooge-like journey that ultimately becomes the inspiration for what ends up being his most beloved novel, A Christmas Carol.

There were so many things I loved about this book, but I think the Dickensian atmosphere was what I loved the most.  I truly felt like I had been transported back to Victorian London while I was reading.  Silva does a marvelous job of capturing all of the sights, sounds, and smells (both the good and the bad!) of the time period and the overall effect was just magical! It was instantly clear that Silva had done her homework, both with respect to Dickens himself and to the time period.

I also loved the way Silva brought Charles Dickens to life for her readers.  She portrays him as likable and charming, and yet so flawed and human at the same time.  His family means everything to him and he’s worried that he may not be able to take care of them because of his lagging book sales.   I really sympathized with what he was going through –everyone wanting something from him because of his success,  his wife telling him that he has changed and that she and the children are leaving until he gets himself sorted out, and then having to write a Christmas story on demand in order to keep from falling into financial ruin.  It’s a lot for anyone to have to deal with and Dickens also feels the tremendous pressure of up-and-coming writers such as Thackeray and begins to doubt that he can compete with them.  Dickens’ frustrations were palpable and so very understandable, as were his feelings of self-doubt.  The writer’s block that follows is something that all of us who write can relate to, and I thought it was brilliant that Silva uses all of these pressures she has piled onto Dickens’ shoulders to take him on a Scrooge-like journey of his own, which is what ultimately inspires his writing of A Christmas Carol.

I’m a huge fan of both Dickens and A Christmas Carol, so every time I was reading and happened across a shout out to either A Christmas Carol or one of Dickens’ other works, it made me smile.  I thought it was especially fun when he came across names he thought would make good character names and jotted them down, or on other occasions when he met someone he didn’t like and vowed to use them in his book to exact his revenge on them on paper.  I also chuckled to myself that Dickens would grumble “Humbug, bah!” when he was in a particularly foul humor and then ended up incorporating the now famous words into his tale, since he obviously modeled Ebenezer Scrooge after himself.  In this sense, I would think the book would be a lot of fun for Dickens fans.

Overall, this was such an enjoyable read for me, but I will mention that there were a few spots that were heavy in description, which slowed the pacing a bit.  Thankfully though, the lulls were brief and the action picked back up pretty quickly.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol is a charming, heartwarming tale that is perfect for fans of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, or even just Christmas itself.  I personally think it would make a lovely Christmas gift for the Dickens fan in your life.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Shakespeare in Love meets A Christmas Carol in this transporting debut novel set during the whirlwind period in which Dickens wrote his beloved classic, as he embarks on a Scrooge-like journey of his own.

For Charles Dickens, each Christmas has been better than the last. His novels are literary blockbusters, and he is famous on the streets of London, where avid fans sneak up on him to snip off pieces of his hair. He and his wife have five happy children, a sixth on the way, and a home filled with every comfort they could imagine. But when Dickens’ newest book is a flop, the glorious life he has built for himself threatens to collapse around him. His publishers offer an ultimatum: either he writes a Christmas book in a month, or they will call in his debts, and he could lose everything. Grudgingly, he accepts, but with relatives hounding him for loans, his wife and children planning an excessively lavish holiday party, and jealous critics going in for the kill, he is hardly feeling the Christmas spirit.

Increasingly frazzled and filled with self-doubt, Dickens seeks solace and inspiration in London itself, his great palace of thinking. And on one of his long walks, in a once-beloved square, he meets a young woman in a purple cloak, who might be just the muse he needs. Eleanor Lovejoy and her young son, Timothy, propel Dickens on a Scrooge-like journey through his Christmases past and present—but with time running out, will he find the perfect new story to save him?

In prose laced with humor, sumptuous Victorian detail, and charming winks to A Christmas Carol, Samantha Silva breathes new life into an adored classic. Perfect for fans of Dickens, for readers of immersive historical fiction, and for anyone looking for a dose of Christmas cheer, Mr. Dickens and His Carol is destined to become a perennial holiday favorite.

 

four-half-stars

About Samantha Silva

Samantha Silva is an author and screenwriter based in Idaho. Mr. Dickens and His Carol is her debut novel. Over her career she’s sold film projects to Paramount, Universal, New Line Cinema and TNT. A film adaptation of her short story, The Big Burn, won the 1 Potato Short Screenplay Competition at the Sun Valley Film Festival in 2017. Silva will direct, her first time at the helm.

Silva graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where she studied in Bologna, Italy and Washington, D.C. She’s lived in London three times, briefly in Rome, is an avid Italophile, and a forever Dickens devotee.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Book Review:  The Alice Network by Kate QuinnThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn
four-half-stars
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 6th 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 503
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

I love historical fiction that is set during WWI and WWII, so Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network was the best of both worlds for me as it has a dual time line, one of which takes place during WWI while the second takes place a couple of years after WWII.  What an incredible read this was! And the fact that the story is based on an actual real life women’s spy network that was active in France during WWI?  Amazing!  How did I not even know there was such a thing?

The Alice Network follows the story of two women, Charlie St. Clair and Eve Gardiner, and what happens when their lives unexpectedly cross paths.

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair is pregnant and unmarried.  The year is 1947, so as you can imagine, Charlie’s parents have deemed her situation a “problem” and so are shipping her off to a clinic in Switzerland so that it can be taken care of low-key so as not to ruin Charlie’s reputation at home.  Charlie makes the trip with her mom, and when they have a layover in England, Charlie runs away because she is on a mission of her own:  to find out what happened to her cousin Rose who had been living in Nazi-occupied France and disappeared during WWII.  Her family has presumed she is dead, but Charlie is convinced that she is still out there somewhere.  She only has one lead at this point, an address in London and a name, Evelyn Gardiner.  She has no idea who Evelyn Gardiner is or how she can possibly help her find Rose, but she is determined to follow this lead wherever it takes her.

Enter Evelyn, or Eve as she is known, Gardiner.  I’m not sure what Charlie expected when she first knocks on Eve’s door, but a snarky, stuttering, gun-toting drunk with horribly disfigured hands was probably not it.  At first Eve barely even listens to Charlie’s story about her cousin Rose and has no interest at all in helping her. That is, until Charlie mentions Le Lethe, which was the name of the restaurant where Rose was working at just prior to her disappearance, and Monsieur Rene, the owner of the restaurant.  As soon as Eve hears those names, her whole attitude abruptly shifts and she decides to help Charlie.

As Eve sets out to help Charlie, we are also taken on a second journey, this time back to 1915, where we follow Eve and see how she has ended up the way she is when Charlie meets her in 1947.  In 1915, Eve is working as an administrative assistant at a law firm in England, but she desperately wants to do something more important. Specifically, she wants to join the action in WWI fighting against the Germans.  She unexpectedly gets her chance when a visitor to the law firm, notes that Eve has qualities that would ideally suit her to working as a spy.  Namely, she appears to remain calm, cool, and collected no matter what is going on around her, and she is able to lie with a straight face.  Those qualities, coupled with a horrible stutter that make others assume she’s a bit dim-witted and therefore underestimate her.  Because of these qualities, the visitor recruits her to become a part of The Alice Network, an all-female spy network that was operating in France, right under the German’s noses.  Eve is eager to join and so we follow her through her spy training, to her primary assignment in enemy-occupied France during the war and all of the dangers it ensues, all the way through to why the names Le Leche and Monsieur Rene struck such a chord with her so many years later when Charlie St. Clair mentions them.   Eve’s journey is equal parts riveting and horrifying, and 100% life-changing.

I love when a dual timeline narrative is handled well and author Kate Quinn does a marvelous job presenting both Charlie and Eve’s stories in The Alice Network.  The chapters alternate between the 1915 and the 1947 timelines so Eve’s backstory is presented a little at a time as is Charlie’s mission to find out what happened to her beloved cousin.  Both stories are so compelling that I found myself easily pulled along, particularly because I really wanted to know what happened to turn Eve from spy extraordinaire to a bitter, disfigured woman with a major drinking problem.   I also wanted to see how exactly Eve was supposed to be the key to helping Charlie find Rose, not to mention I really wanted to know if Rose was still alive, and if so, why has she gone two years without trying to contact her family.

I also think that part of the reason the dual timeline works so well in this story is the active presence of Eve in both timelines.  She is such a fascinating and complex character, both in her younger days where she so desperately wanted to fight against the Germans and as we see her in 1947, where she is ready to take her Luger and blow the head off of anyone who so much as looks at her funny.  I adored Eve’s bigger-than-life personality and the way it just fills the pages of this story.  She made me laugh, she made me cry, and she had me scared to death for her at so many points throughout the story.

Charlie is very likeble as well, but in a different way, since we only see her at age 19.  What I liked about Charlie was her spunk and her determination, as well as her absolute devotion to her cousin, who was more like a sister to her.  Charlie’s youthful enthusiasm, combined with Eve’s fierce snark, makes them a pretty formidable team as they journey together to find Rose.

Kate Quinn also does a brilliant job of depicting the settings, both in 1915 with enemy-occupied France and then 1947, with both the French countryside and with London.  The sights and sounds felt authentic, and Quinn’s attention to detail is spot on.  As I read and followed these women, I felt myself transported to each time period and location.

I wouldn’t really call it a dislike, but I do have to admit that I found Eve’s storyline to be a lot more compelling than Charlie’s.  I loved both characters and was invested in both storylines, but Eve’s journey and the life-threatening danger she faced every moment while working as a spy was just absolutely riveting. Charlie’s story just fell a bit short in comparison.

If you’re looking for a well written, riveting read, I’d highly recommend checking out The Alice Network.  It’s sure to be a favorite for fans of historical fiction, but I think anyone who enjoys reading about strong and complex female characters would love this read as well.  Since this was a fictionalized account of the actual Alice Network, I find myself now wanting to go out and learn more about it since I had never heard of it during any of my history courses in school.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1915.  In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1948. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth …no matter where it leads.

four-half-stars

About Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network.” All have been translated into multiple languages.

Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

Book Review:  The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and VirtueThe Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
five-stars
Series: Guide #1
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on June 27th 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 513
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

Who knew historical fiction could be laugh out loud funny?  I had no idea what I was expecting when I picked up Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, but I was certainly not expecting to devour 500+ pages of historical fiction in just over 24 hours, chuckling to myself the entire time.  But that’s exactly what happened.  What an absolutely brilliant read this is!

Set in 18th century Europe, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue follows Henry Montague, or “Monty” as his friends call him.  Monty, for lack of a better description, is a hot mess.  As the son of an English lord, Monty has been raised with every imaginable privilege – money, education, endless connections.  His path to a successful future shouldn’t even be in doubt, except that Monty is unfortunately his own worst enemy.  In spite of being educated in the best boarding schools and raised by the strictest of fathers, Monty is a free spirit who cannot be tamed.  He lives the life of a rogue, his days and nights filled with endless partying and drinking, gambling, and even seducing both men and women.  When Monty gets kicked out of Eton, one of the most prestigious schools in England, his father has had it.  He sends Monty on a Grand Tour of Europe with the expectation that Monty returns to England a mature young man ready to assume the responsibilities of taking over the family’s estate.  Knowing his son’s ways all too well, Monty’s father adds in the stipulation that if he does one more thing to embarrass the family name, particularly if it involves jumping into bed with one more young man, Monty will be disinherited and will henceforth have to fend for himself in the world.

Monty sees the Grand Tour as his last hurrah.  He has resigned himself to the fact that he is stuck taking over the family estate, even though it’s not what he really wants.  But he has been beaten down enough by his father’s chronic disappointment over the years to assume that he’s pretty well useless when it comes to anything else.  He plans to go on this tour, engage in as much pleasure and vice as he can, and then come home and take his place by his father’s side.

There are just a few hitches in this plan, however.  First, he’ll have his younger and obnoxious sister, Felicity, in tow for much of the tour, who is sure to put a damper on his plans for “entertainment.”  Second, he will be accompanied on this tour by his best friend, Percy.  While that shouldn’t be an issue in itself, the problem lies in that Monty has a mad unrequited crush on Percy and has felt this way for years.  This tour sounds like the perfect time to try to find out if there’s any chance of Percy feeling the same way, but to pursue his attraction to Percy, means Monty is also flirting with the idea of being disinherited.  And finally, third, a Mr. Lockwood will be traveling with Monty as well, serving as a guide and of course as a witness to any and all of Monty’s antics.

Will Monty change his ways and finally conform to what his father and what proper 18th century English society expects of him, or will Monty choose another path for himself?

This is just one of those stories where there’s so much to like, I could go on forever so I’m just going to pick a few highlights, most of which revolves around the wonderfully, unforgettable characters Mackenzi Lee has created.

Let’s start with Monty.  Monty is the one who tells the story and I have to say he is one of the most entertaining narrators I’ve read in a long time. I mean, seriously, laugh out loud funny.  And I loved everything about him.  Even when he was behaving like a complete train wreck or an insensitive brat, there was still somehow just this lovable quality about Monty.  One of Monty’s best (and worst) qualities is his big mouth.  He spends much of his time running his mouth and getting himself and his friends into scrapes they probably wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise.  By the same token, however, he is also a smooth talker and his big mouth has often gotten them all out of scrapes that they’ve managed to get themselves into.  So even when you want to throttle him, you still find yourself cheering him on and chuckling at his antics.

It’s also not just all fun and games with Monty though, which is another reason why I adored this character.  Even though he’s this privileged young nobleman, somehow Monty still manages to have this underdog side to him that makes you root for him in spite of himself.  I thought his crush on Percy was just so adorable and was really cheering for him to do something about that.  I also had tremendous sympathy for Monty because his father was so awful to him and was really hoping that he would stand up to his father and realize his own self-worth.

Monty’s sister, Felicity, was another of my favorite characters in the story.  At first she comes off as this obnoxious girl who just wants to have an attitude and annoy her brother at every turn.  But then the more we get to see and learn of Felicity, the more likeable she becomes.  It turns out she’s a brilliant girl who is ahead of her time and wants to be a doctor.  She has been studying medicine on the sly and those skills come in more handy on the Grand Tour than any of them could have possibly anticipated. Felicity’s attitude and general sassiness stems from her general frustration with being prevented by society’s expectations from doing what she wants to do.  Once I saw that, all I could think was ‘Girl, you be as sassy as you want to be.”

And then of course, we have Percy. Percy is just one of those people who have a beautiful soul and that you can’t help but be attracted to.  Unlike Monty, Percy does not live a life of privilege. Percy is biracial at a time in society where it is not widely accepted and so he has to constantly deal with the ugliness of racism.  He also has the added difficulty of suffering from epilepsy at a time when few understood what it was and assumed that it was some kind of mental deficiency.  His father has sent him on this Grand Tour with Monty as his own kind of last hurrah before he is locked away in an asylum because of the epilepsy.  Even though he has all of this going on in his own life, he still manages to be there for Monty every step of the way, the best possible friend.  He’s just the sweetest person and it’s so easy to see why Monty has been in love with him forever.

Okay, let’s talk about that romance.  Those who regularly read my reviews know that romance is generally not my thing. Usually I find it just unrealistic, in the way, etc.  Well, not this time!  I cannot even express how hard I was shipping Monty and Percy together.  Their chemistry was just off the charts sweet and sexy, and the constant tension of “Will they or won’t they move past the friend zone?” just kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire story.

The Grand Tour itself.  While the Grand Tour itself probably should have been a fairly standard affair, since many young adults made similar trips after university, there was absolutely nothing standard about Monty and Co’s tour.  They left England and traveled to Paris, Barcelona, and Venice along the way, and what was meant to be a trip to give Monty some much needed culture and refinement to help him change his ways, instead becomes a dangerous and fast-paced rollicking adventure that includes highway robbers, pirates, and much, much more.  Some might say that their adventures were a bit over the top, but I didn’t care because it was all just so thoroughly entertaining!

I really can’t think of anything I disliked.  The ending perhaps felt a bit rushed, but I was so happy with the ending overall that I won’t complain about that.

Equal parts adventure story and coming of age story, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a book I think pretty much anyone would enjoy.  It’s an entertaining read with such delightfully memorable characters that even if you don’t typically enjoy historical fiction, I think Monty and the gang could change your mind.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores. 

five-stars

About Mackenzi Lee

Mackenzi Lee holds a BA in history and an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults, and her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Crixeo, The Friend, and The Newport Review, among others. Her debut novel, This Monstrous Thing, won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award. Her second book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, a queer spin on the classic adventure novel, was a New York Times bestseller (what is life?), and ABA bestseller, earned five starred reviews, a #1 Indie Next Pick, and won the New England Book Award.

She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home, where she works as an independent bookstore manager.

ARC Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

ARC Review:  The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine LockeThe Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
five-stars
Series: The Balloonmakers #1
Published by Albert Whitman Company on September 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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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.

MY REVIEW:

Katherine Locke’s The Girl with the Red Balloon is such a gorgeous and moving book that I’m nearly at a loss for words to convey just how good it really is.  I finished reading it a few days ago and just can’t stop thinking about it.   The Girl with the Red Balloon is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination – it deals with weighty subjects like the Holocaust, racism, homophobia, and what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall fell. For the most part, it’s a dark and gritty dual time period read that shows how horrific it was for Jews during World War II as well as how difficult it was to live under the eye of a totalitarian regime in 1980’s East Germany. It’s not all darkness and horror though. Katherine Locke uses a hint of magic and a bit of romance to offset all of that darkness.  You see, not only is this novel historical fiction that deals with more than one time period.  It’s also a time travel novel.

The Girl with the Red Balloon begins in present day Germany where we meet one of our main characters, sixteen year old Ellie Baum, who has traveled there on a class field trip.  She sees a red balloon floating nearby while hanging out with her classmates and asks her best friend to take a photo of her with it for her grandfather.  It reminds her of a story her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, always tells her, about how a girl in a purple dress handed him a red balloon when he arrived at a concentration camp during the war, and the balloon floated him out of the camp and to safety.

When Ellie grabs the balloon, however, the unexpected and unbelievable happens.  She travels back in time to 1988 and finds herself in East Berlin and in imminent danger!  There she is found and led to a safe house by Kai and Mitzi, a Romani gypsy and a German lesbian, who are part of a magical resistance group who uses red balloons to float people over the Berlin Wall and into West Germany.  The catch?  These balloons, while magical, are not supposed to travel through time.  The balloon makers are stumped as to what has happened to bring Ellie to them and are therefore unsure of how to get her back to her own time period.  The resistance group vows to keep Ellie safe from the East German police and to do everything they can to find a way to get her home, but when dead time travelers start turning up with red balloons, it becomes clear that someone is experimenting with forbidden dark magic and time travel.  Why is someone trying to travel back in time and why are they so willing to do it, even at the expense of innocent lives?  If others are dying when they grab these balloons, how was Ellie able to safely travel back in time? It becomes a race against time to stop who is behind this before the bodies start piling up, even if it means Ellie loses out on perhaps her only way back to the future.

LIKES

This is another one of those books where I could just write pages and pages about what I liked.  I don’t want to give anything away though so I’m just going to list a few highlights.

The friendship between Ellie and her two protectors, Kai and Mitzi, was one of my favorite parts of the book.  These three become fast friends while living in the safe house together, and their chemistry is fantastic.  They’re immediately like The Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.  I also loved the diversity that these characters represented – Ellie is Jewish, Kai is Romani, and Mitzi is a lesbian. This diversity further forges a bond between them since all three are considered undesirable in East Berlin during this time frame.  The police would love nothing more than to find a reason to arrest them, so they always have each other’s backs.

As I mentioned, there is also a romance in this book and even though on the surface it might sound like somewhat out of place since we already have time traveling, the Holocaust, magical balloons, etc., the romance actually worked well for me.  First, it’s not instalove, so yay.  No, instead, the relationship develops quite naturally as Kai and Ellie get to know each other better.  Kai is kind of dark and brooding at times and he sees Ellie as this softness and light that he needs in his life.  Ellie becomes attracted to Kai, not just because he is handsome, but because of how he puts himself on the line trying to help as many people as he can get over into West Germany.  Ellie is also touched when she sees how devoted Kai is to his younger sister, Sabina.  He would literally do anything to keep Sabina safe and it’s heartwarming to see.

I was incredibly invested in this relationship not just because I liked that it developed naturally and that their two personalities really complimented each other, but also because it just tugged at my heart strings.  What happens to their relationship if the balloon makers are able to figure out how to send Ellie back to her own time period?  Would she go or would she stay with the man she is falling in love with?

Other highlights for me were the completely unique premise and the major themes of the novel.  Seriously, it doesn’t get much more creative than the idea of using magical red balloons to save people.  In addition to the unique premise, there were also so many themes that resonated me with as I was reading.  With respect to those balloons, I loved the beautiful message that there were heroes everywhere, both during World War II and during the time of the Iron Curtain – people who risked their own safety trying to save as many people as they could.  Another darker message that resonated with me as I got further into the story was more of a question of ethics – if a person’s overall intention is good, does that excuse any unethical behavior he or she may engage along the way accomplishing that goal?  This was definitely food for thought for me as I was reading.

A final highlight for me was the way the story was presented.  It’s presented in alternating chapters from the perspective of Kai and Ellie in 1988 East Berlin and from Ellie’s grandfather, Benno, as a young boy during World War II.  I loved how presenting the story this way effectively moves Ellie’s time traveling story forward as well as her relationship with Kai, while at the same time, circling back and showing the origin of the red balloons.  Seeing Benno’s horrific experiences in the Jewish ghettos, surrounded by disease and death, served as a poignant reminder that without that red balloon, neither Ellie nor any of her other family members would exist in present day.  Ellie literally owes her life to that magical balloon.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

The only real issue I had with this book was that it took me a few chapters to acclimate to the three alternating points of view.  I’m not going to call that a dislike because once I got used to it and remembered, I thought it was a beautiful way to tie together what happened with Benno and a red balloon during the war and what happened to his granddaughter when she touches a red balloon over 40 years later.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, magic, time travel, romance, and even mysteries.  Not only does it have a little something for everyone, but it’s also just a beautifully written story that will be on your mind long after you read the final pages.

RATING:  5 STARS

Thanks so much to Katherine Locke, Netgalley, and the Albert Whitman Company for allowing me the opportunity to preview an advanced copy of this book. It in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

five-stars

About Katherine Locke

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a small town outside Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, magic, and time travel. She secretly believes all stories are fairytales in disguise. Her YA debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 2017 from Albert Whitman & Comapny.

Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper

Book Review:  Stalking Jack the RipperStalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1) by Kerri Maniscalco
four-stars
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Published by Jimmy Patterson on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 326
Source: Library
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Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

 

MY REVIEW

Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper is, as its title implies, a retelling of the murderous rampage of infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of it as a cross between the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then on a more modern note, a little Forensic Files with a touch of Rizzoli and Isles thrown in.  The end result is a novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat and thoroughly engaged.

LIKES

Maniscalco does a wonderful job of fleshing out her main character, Audrey Rose Wadsworth and making her seem so realistic.  She’s fiercely independent, headstrong, and sassy as all get out, which makes her such a fun character to follow.  Even with the overriding creepy serial killer plot, Audrey Rose still managed to make me chuckle quite a few times throughout the novel.   You just never know what she is going to say at any given moment, but you can pretty much guarantee that it will be completely inappropriate based on society’s expectations.  Speaking of society’s expectations, Audrey Rose truly doesn’t give a flip about those and instead is way ahead of her time and wants to pursue a career in forensic medicine.   When the novel opens, she is, much to her father’s chagrin, working as an apprentice to her Uncle, who is an expert in the field. I kept thinking to myself “She’s like a Victorian Era Maura Isles” (from the popular series Rizzoli and Isles).

Maniscalco also adds a character flaw or two, which serve to further humanize Audrey Rose.  Recklessness, in particular, seems to be a hallmark trait of hers.  While it’s easy to admire how passionate Audrey Rose is about catching this serial killer who is on the loose, at the same time, I wanted to scream at her at times for lurking around in shady areas of the city and putting herself in harm’s way trying to catch him in the act.  It was downright infuriating actually. For someone who is clearly supposed to be quite intelligent, Audrey Rose definitely doesn’t always make the smartest choices.

Speaking of infuriating, let me talk about another main character, Thomas Cresswell.  Cresswell is another student of Audrey Rose’s uncle and may actually be the most arrogant and annoying person on the planet.  However, he is as brilliant as he is arrogant and annoying and somehow the combination actually works to make him incredibly charming. Weird, right?  As they study the Ripper’s victims, Cresswell’s powers of deductive reasoning are so astute that every time he spoke, he reminded me of a young Sherlock Holmes.  From the moment they meet, he gets under Audrey Rose’s skin and their chemistry is off the charts.  I don’t know if I would ever buy into them as a couple, but they are quite the dynamic duo as they work together to solve these murders.

Aside from these two entertaining main characters, Maniscalco also does a brilliant job of making the reader feel as if they are truly in 19th century London and that there really is a killer on the loose.  It was clear Maniscalco did her research on every aspect of the story.  The descriptions of the city feel authentic and the atmosphere at night is utterly creepy.  You can practically sense the danger lurking around every corner, which makes for a real page turner.

 

DISLIKES

I think my only real dislike was that even though this was a retelling and so the author had creative license to make Jack the Ripper whoever she wanted him to be, I still had the murderer figured out way too soon. In that sense, I was a little disappointed.  The murderer’s reasoning for the killings was quite another matter though. Totally did not see that coming and liked the unexpected Dr. Frankenstein-ish twist.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I very much enjoyed Stalking Jack the Ripper and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in historical fiction, anything to do with the crimes of Jack the Ripper, or even an interest in forensic medicine or 19th century society’s expectations for its young women.  I would issue a word of caution to anyone who doesn’t like to read about blood and gore, however. As is probably expected since we’re dealing with the Ripper and his victims and we’re examining the victims from the vantage point of forensic scientists, the descriptions of the victims are quite graphic and stomach-turning.  It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  If that doesn’t bother you though, it’s a fascinating read.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Kerri Maniscalco

Kerri Maniscalco grew up in a semi-haunted house outside NYC where her fascination with gothic settings began. In her spare time she reads everything she can get her hands on, cooks all kinds of food with her family and friends, and drinks entirely too much tea while discussing life’s finer points with her cats.

Her first novel in this series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It incorporates her love of forensic science and unsolved history.

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
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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).