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Early Review: THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS

Early Review:  THE LOST GIRLS OF PARISThe Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
five-stars
Published by Park Row on January 29, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
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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.

THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS REVIEW

Set during and immediately following WWII and inspired by real life people and historical events, Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris is centered around the stories of three women and a ring of British female spies.

The story begins in Manhattan in 1946.  It is here that we meet Grace Healey, who is trying to start over after losing her husband in an automobile accident.  One morning while cutting through Grand Central Station on her way to work, Grace happens across an abandoned suitcase tucked under a bench.  Only seeing the name Trigg on the case, she looks inside the case and finds a packet of twelve photographs, each photo a different woman.  Captivated by the photos, Grace impulsively takes the photos with her but leaves the suitcase behind.  When Grace thinks better of what she has done and returns to the station to put the photos back, the suitcase is gone.  When Grace hears a news report mention a woman named Eleanor Trigg, she realizes this is who the suitcase and the photos must belong to and becomes even more curious about the women in the photos and all the more determined to get the photos back to their rightful owner.  This is the start of quite an unexpected journey for Grace.

Eleanor Trigg is the second woman the story centers on. She worked for Britain’s Special Operations Executive during WWII. The SOE was a British spy ring that was operating in France to arm and help the French resistance against the Nazis. Since their male spies were being captured frequently, Eleanor proposes that they should start recruiting and training female spies to act as couriers and radio operators.  She is put in charge of the female spy ring and sets out to handpick her recruits.  Eleanor takes full responsibility for the girls she chooses and when twelve of the girls go missing, she makes it her personal mission to find out what has happened, no matter who tries to get in her way.

The third woman The Lost Girls of Paris centers on is Marie Roux, a young woman that Eleanor recruits to become a radio operator in her unit.  It is from Marie’s vantage point that we see the recruitment process, the extremely rigorous training that the girls are put through, as well as the dangers of being deployed into Nazi-occupied France.  We also get to see the spy operations up close and how adaptable agents have to be if they are going to survive.

Through the journeys of these three women, Jenoff paints an unforgettable story of courage, strength, resilience, friendship, and sisterhood.

My absolute favorite part about The Lost Girls of Paris are the well drawn characters, especially the girls who are recruited to work in the spy network.  I just found them all to be such inspiring women, and to know they’re loosely based on real people and a real ring of female spies, just blew me away.  These women are such brave warriors and I admired their determination to do their part to stop Hitler.  Marie, of course, was phenomenal, but I was also drawn to a young woman named Josie, who although she was only 17, was the fiercest among them as well as the one who was most supportive when other girls like Marie were struggling and questioning whether they were good enough to do the job required of them.  There just isn’t enough praise to do this group of women justice.

Eleanor was fantastic too.  She’s stern and rather standoffish and most of her recruits don’t especially like her, but they respect and admire her.  I liked her mother bear attitude when it came to both her girls and her mission.

A second element of the story that I enjoyed was the way the story was presented from multiple points of view.  The details of the story unfold through the eyes of Eleanor and Marie during WWII and then from Grace’s point of view after the war.  This three-pronged approach with its alternating chapters allows us to learn about all aspects of the spy ring, from recruitment and training up through deployment and the aftermath from Eleanor and Marie’s perspectives, while we backtrack from Grace’s point of view after the war to eventually learn what happened to the twelve women in those photographs.  Those different perspectives and the moving back and forth between the two timelines added so many layers to the overall story and to the journeys of all three women.

The writing style and the overall pacing of the story worked very well for me too.  Everything just flowed so smoothly and I loved the steady buildup to the girls’ deployment and then how the intensity picked up and the suspense built up once Marie and the other girls were on the ground in France.  It took me a day or so to read the first half of the book, but then I devoured the second half in just a few hours because I so desperately wanted to know how things would turn out for them all.

For me, this story was about as close to flawless as it gets. I did have a couple of minor quibbles, the first being that it didn’t make sense to me why Grace would take the photographs from the suitcase in the first place. The photos are clearly the catalyst that set the rest of the story into motion as far as figuring out who the girls are, but Grace taking the photos just seemed like such an odd thing to do.  It bothered me for a  few pages, but then I got so engrossed in the rest of the story that I let it go and as you can see by my rating, even with my questioning Grace’s action, I still thought this was a phenomenal read.

The Lost Girls of Paris is one of those books that is going to stay with me for a long time.  The writing is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the fact that the story is inspired by real people and events just makes it resonate all the more.  I’d recommend The Lost Girls of Paris to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but especially to those who are fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and/or Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

From the author of the runaway bestseller The Orphan’s Tale comes a remarkable story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female spies during World War II.

1946, Manhattan

Grace Healey is rebuilding her life after losing her husband during the war. One morning while passing through Grand Central Terminal on her way to work, she finds an abandoned suitcase tucked beneath a bench. Unable to resist her own curiosity, Grace opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman. In a moment of impulse, Grace takes the photographs and quickly leaves the station.

Grace soon learns that the suitcase belonged to a woman named Eleanor Trigg, leader of a ring of female secret agents who were deployed out of London during the war. Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery. Setting out to learn the truth behind the women in the photographs, Grace finds herself drawn to a young mother turned agent named Marie, whose daring mission overseas reveals a remarkable story of friendship, valor and betrayal.

Vividly rendered and inspired by true events, New York Times bestselling author Pam Jenoff shines a light on the incredible heroics of the brave women of the war, and weaves a mesmerizing tale of courage, sisterhood and the great strength of women to survive in the hardest of circumstances.

five-stars

About Pam Jenoff

Pam is the author of several novels, including her most recent The Orphan’s Tale, an instant New York Times bestseller. Pam was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.

Following her work at the Pentagon, Jenoff moved to the State Department. In 1996 she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Jenoff developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.

Having left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Jenoff is now employed as an attorney in Philadelphia.

Pam is the author of The Kommandant’s Girl, which was an international bestseller and nominated for a Quill award, as well as The Diplomat’s Wife and Almost Home.

Early Review: THE WARTIME SISTERS

Early Review:  THE WARTIME SISTERSThe Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 22, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
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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.

 

THE WARTIME SISTERS REVIEW

Set against the backdrop of World War II, Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Wartime Sisters is an emotionally charged story about two sisters who have a very complicated relationship filled with resentment and secrets.  Older sister Ruth is the smart one, brilliant even, but somehow ends up always taking a back seat to her younger sister, Millie, who with her auburn curls and bright blue eyes, is the apple of everyone’s eye.  Ruth loves her sister but can’t wait to move out and be on her own and out of the shadows.  She eventually marries a young man who is an officer in the Army and moves to Springfield, Massachusetts. Ruth is enjoying her new life immensely until she gets word that Millie’s own husband, a soldier, has been killed, and Millie has nowhere to go, especially since Millie and Ruth’s parents are since deceased. Reluctantly, Ruth extends the offer to Millie to come and live with her at the armory in Springfield.

Their first meeting after so many years is filled with tension and awkwardness, and it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before Ruth finds herself in Millie’s shadow all over again.  The tension continues to mount when it becomes clear that each sister is keeping something from the other.  Will their relationship be able to withstand the strain when someone from their past unexpectedly reemerges threatening to spill their secrets and shatter their lives?

The Wartime Sisters is very much a character driven story, and as such, I was glad that I found both sisters to be characters that I was sympathetic to.  It was easy to feel sympathetic towards Ruth because she spent so much of her life living in the shadow of her beautiful sister.  Nothing Ruth ever did could compete with how everyone was so obsessed with Millie’s extraordinary good looks.  Boys who came calling for Ruth found themselves attracted to Millie instead.  In many ways, the girls’ mother was responsible for much of the ensuing resentment between Ruth and Millie.  For example, when she was deciding who to give the good family heirloom jewelry to, in her mind, Millie, even though she was the youngest, was the obvious choice because of course she would marry into a rich family and have ample opportunities to wear and show off such jewelry.  How can you not feel bad for Ruth when her own mother acts like that?

On the flip side though, it’s equally easy to feel sympathetic toward Millie.  She’s a delightful girl and a devoted younger sister, and she can’t help how she looks or how people react to how she looks.  She’s in a lose-lose situation because she’s constantly incurring Ruth’s wrath over these things she can’t control.  And even though everyone around her treats her like she’s the golden child because of her looks, Millie feels that she can never measure up to Ruth because Ruth is just so smart and ambitious.  Millie feels inadequate compared to her sister.   I actually felt horrible for both sisters because they should have been there for each other, not driven apart by all of these unimportant things.

If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you know I love stories that feature dual timelines. The Wartime Sisters is split between two locations and two timelines.  One is set in the 1930’s in Brooklyn, New York where the two sisters grew up together, while the other is set in early 1940’s in Springfield, Massachusetts at the armory where both sisters end up living and working.

I really liked this use of the dual timelines to show the origins of the resentment between the sisters and how those origins have continued to shape their lives and their interactions with one another over the years.  When Millie first arrives at the armory in 1942, for example, Ruth realizes that because she has been avoiding her sister as much as possible over the years, she barely knows her own nephew, Millie’s young son, Michael.  The author also very effectively uses the dual timeline to gradually reveal to the readers the secrets that both Millie and Ruth are hiding from one another.

While the dual timelines are an effective way to shed light on the lives of both sisters and how they’ve gotten to where they are, the author also presents the story in alternating viewpoints from each sister so that we are constantly getting both sides of the story and are allowed to make up our minds about each sister.  I liked this presentation because I think if we had only gotten the perspective of one of the sisters, rather than both, it would have been easy to find one of them less sympathetic.  The way the author chooses to present the story makes it easy to understand where each sister is coming from.

A final aspect of The Wartime Sisters I enjoyed was having the story actually set in the United States.  I’ve read a lot of historical fiction in my day and I can count on one hand the number of WWII stories I’ve come across that focus on what WWII looked like from the U.S.  I liked seeing it from this perspective and focusing a bit on the key roles that American women played in the war effort.  Millie’s perspective offered so much insight into this as her job in the armory was to build trigger mechanisms as part of the rifle assembly line.  Through Millie and her colleagues, we got to see firsthand the long hours and hard work women put in to get rifles into the hands of our soldiers.

Most of the time it felt like the historical aspect of the book took a backseat to the two sisters and their estranged relationship.  I still thoroughly enjoyed the story but a little more balance between the history/war and the more personal drama would have made this a 5 star read for me.

If you’re looking for a poignant, emotionally engaging read about family and the complicated relationships they can have, and the dangers of keeping secrets, I would highly recommend The Wartime Sisters.  The storyline is compelling, the characters are well drawn, and the historical setting is well researched.  I think fans of historical fiction and/or domestic dramas would find this read to their liking.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

four-stars

About Lynda Cohen Loigman

Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. Lynda’s second novel, The Wartime Sisters, will be published on January 22, 2019.

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
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:

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: 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
Goodreads

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.

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.

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

* * * * *

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
Also by this author: Room
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.