Wednesday, August 23, 2017

World War II Fiction: The Women of the Castle and The Lost Letter

Marianne von Lingenfels knew that the work that her husband and friends were doing was dangerous. While she may not have known all the details, she knew that they were planning to take down Hitler. When they failed, her safe life of wealth and glamour is over. But she is determined to make the best of things after the war. She returns to the family home and begins a quest to find the wives and families of the other conspirators. Marianne rescues Benita from the Russian army and finds her son and then brings Ania and her children from a refugee camp to join their home. She feels certain that she knows the right things to do now and that their shared history will bring the women together. But none of them are being entirely truthful about their experiences during the war and their secrets threaten to destroy the new family they have cautiously forged.

I read a lot of novels set during the era of WWII and I'm always grateful when an author introduces me to something new. In The Women of the Castle, Jessica Shattuck focuses on the plight of women during and after the war. We witness the impossible choices that civilians must make in the heart of battle and the ways that those choices continued to haunt them even when the war was over. It's easy to believe that things got easier when the war ended but, in many ways, things continued to be difficult for a long time. Things do not magically go back to the way they were before the war and Shattuck shows just how difficult it can be to trust people again when your entire world has been upended.

Note: My galley is called The Women of the Castle, but I see that most editions are The Women in the Castle. I don't know who changed the article or when, but they are the same book as far as I can tell!

The Women of the Castle
By Jessica Shattuck
Zaffre Publishing May 2017
357 pages
Read via Netgalley

Kristoff is an orphan who finally finds a semblance of family in the home of Frederick Faber, a famous Jewish stamp-maker. When his mentor disappears, Kristoff must work alongside Frederick's daughter Elena to engrave stamps for the Nazis while cautiously forging papers to get people out of Europe. Fifty years later, Katie is going through a divorce at the same time her father is slipping deeper into Alzheimer's disease. When she decides to get her father's stamp collection appraised, she discovers a unique Austrian stamp on an unopened letter. She is drawn into the mystery of where the stamp came from, who made it, and what connection it has to her beloved father.

Dual narratives can be the worst, right? Thankfully, Jillian Cantor achieves some sort of literary wizardry in The Lost Letter by writing well-rounded characters in the past and a protagonist that won't drive you crazy in the present. The ending is slightly predictable, but sometimes it's just nice to read about people (even fictional ones) who survived WWII and got a happy ending. I really enjoyed reading this book as well as Cantor's take on the Rosenburgs in The Hours Count and I'm glad I still have one more book of hers to read.

The Lost Letter
By Jillian Cantor
Riverhead Books June 2017
322 pages
From the library

Monday, August 21, 2017

It's Monday and life is moving right along!

Hi there, bookish ladies and gents!

I'm posting a little late because I spent Sunday night with my youngest sister and then changed my work schedule so I worked today. But I'm here now and ready to hear all about the best books you've been reading.

Warp: A Novel   Ahsoka (Star Wars)

I read Lev Grossman's Warp and Zinzi Clemmons' What We Lose this week. I'm still working through Show Them No Mercy, which features several takes on how we can reconcile the God who calls his people to war in the Old Testament and preaches love and mercy in the New Testament. I'm also reading E.K. Johnston's Ahsoka because I love Star Wars and E.K. Johnston.

What are you reading this week?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Reading and Understanding

If you have been around here for more than a hot second, you might have read that I majored in English Literature. I can talk to you about the development of the novel or Shakespeare's impact on the English language. I could point out all the different ways to look at a piece of writing (also called lenses by pretentious English major people).

But the truth is that I still occasionally read a book and find myself befuddled. The two culprits this year (so far) are One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and City of God by E.L. Doctorow. Both authors use stream of consciousness in their books. Marquez jumps all over the history of a family with some magical realism thrown in for good measure. Doctorow tells the story of a priest who is losing his faith in the midst of long passages about science, the universe, and belief.

While reading these books, I found myself stopping and re-reading to see if I really understood what was going on. Sometimes I could figure it out; in other instances, I couldn't gain any more clarity and just kept reading anyway. I finished both books feeling glad I had read them and like I had accomplished something by sticking with a challenging book. But I also felt like I had missed out by not understanding everything that was written.

So I'm wondering if it's a deal-breaker for you if you don't understand all of a book. Do you set it aside in favor of easier reads? Do you work thought it with the intention to try it again at a later point? Do you need to understand every bit of a book to enjoy it?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Names They Gave Us

Lucy Hansson has it all figured out--she's a confident high school student with a handsome boyfriend, who is ready to start a new school year as the captain of the swim team. But then it all falls apart, because her mother's cancer returns. Lucy finds that she doesn't know what to believe anymore about God, or life, or herself. When her mother asks her to work at a summer camp for kids in tough situations instead of spending the summer with her, Lucy reluctantly agrees. As she cares for the kids in her cabin and gets to know her fellow counselors, everything she thought she knew begins to shift. This summer will change Lucy forever.

I confessed on Twitter that I cried my way through the last hundred pages of this book. I realize your mileage may vary, but this book resonated for me in a lot of ways. Lucy and I share being the children of ministers. In many ways, this is a blessing: you grow up secure in the knowledge that you are loved by God, your family, and a whole church full of people. But there is always a breaking point when you have to put aside everything you learned as a child and decide if faith is something you will keep for yourself. I've been through that moment and this book is the story of Lucy's moment. She finds that having faith is so much bigger than sitting in a pew every Sunday and that God can be seen in new ways through a beautifully starry night or the story of a new friend.

Emery Lord does an incredible job of writing teenagers. She captures the dichotomy of being almost but not quite grown up, where you're confident and unsure all at the same time. The Names They Gave Us is also one of the best depictions of life at camp, and it will make you remember just how quickly bonds formed and how strong they could be. I also loved the importance of family; in this book, we don't just see how close Lucy is to her parents, we also see other characters who cherish and fight for their families and friends.

This is a beautiful book. I am heartened to know that teens who find themselves in crisis, and aren't sure they can believe anymore, will have Lucy's story to take with them through that moment.

The Names They Gave Us
By Emory Lord
Bloomsbury USA Children's May 2017
390 pages
From the library

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: The Bedlam Stacks

Merrick Tremayne is stuck. After an injury to his leg, he is confined to the crumbling familial estate where he is slowly going crazy of boredom (if his brother doesn't drive him there first). When the India Office asks him to take one last expedition, he knows that it will be a disaster. But his desperation to do something other than sit at home drives him to take the job, even though the men sent before him didn't come back. Merrick sets out into the Amazon to find the quinine that can cure malaria, but the locals or perhaps the local spirits aren't going to allow an easy expedition. Can Merrick trust the people he encounters? Will he make it out of Peru alive?

When I saw that Natasha Pulley had a new book coming out, there was no doubt that I would have to read it. I loved her quirky and charming debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and I was excited to see what magical and unexpected things she would do in her newest book.

As it turns out, the two books are somewhat connected. There is a minor inclusion of a character from the first novel, but it mostly feels as if the two books are two sides of one coin. Watchmaker was very centered in the possibilities of machines and gears within the city and Bedlam lives in the realm of forests and seas and ancient magic. But I found myself frustrated because I wanted more and less at the same time. This book can easily be described as sprawling; the author is in no hurry to reveal all of her secrets. It seemed to take forever to get to the heart of the story and when we finally do, it seems like Ms. Pulley left out things that would have made the story and the characters richer.

Although this story didn't work for me completely, I was enchanted by many parts of it and I find Natasha Pulley to be a wildly inventive and unique writer in a sea of similar stories. I will certainly be back for the fascinating stories and characters I can't help but adore.

The Bedlam Stacks
By Natasha Pulley
Bloomsbury USA August 2017
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, August 14, 2017

It's Monday and I'm back from Disney!

Hello ladies and gentlemen!

I am back from sunny (and humid) Florida, where my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary at Disney World. The kids very happily spent a week with two sets of grandparents, where they ate a lot of junk food, had too much screen time, and took trips to the museum and Chuck E. Cheese. Meanwhile, the husband and I enjoyed all of the rides, complete conversations, and eating an entire meal without taking someone to the bathroom!

The good news about going from Philly to Florida on a train is that you get lots of reading time. Over the past two weeks, I read The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor, The Lauras by Sara Taylor, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequist, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, My Glory Was I Had Such Friends by Amy Silverstein, and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

     The History of Bees      The Lost Letter

What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: The Sworn Virgin

Eleanora is happy with her life. Her adoring father takes her with him on his medical visits and will allow her to travel all the way to Italy to study the art that she loves. But then he is murdered on the street as a victim of an Albanian feud and Eleanora and her stepmother Mirlinda must find a way to survive. In desperation, Mirlinda sells her daughter in marriage to a wealthy and cruel neighbor. Eleanora refuses to be sold off and instead takes the vow of a sworn virgin. This gives her the right to live as a man: to run her family, carry a gun, and be afforded all of the respect of a man. It just might give her the tools she needs to discover who murdered her father and why. But it means she must remain a virgin for the rest of her life, which becomes much more difficult when she saves the life of a handsome stranger.

I chose to read this book because the setting of early 20th century Albania sounded fascinating and I wanted to know more about the idea of essentially declaring yourself a man and receiving all of the benefits of that position. It's clear that Kristopher Dukes has done her research and she takes the reader over mountain passes and treacherous rivers to the towns and villages that Eleanora visits. I would have liked a bit more information about the sworn virgins within the story; Eleanora does meet one other virgin, but she mostly makes a decision based off of things she has heard and makes it up as she goes along.

Eleanora herself is an interesting character. She has been pampered as much as possible in their culture, as her father allows her to do as she wishes and she has no responsibilities and leaves all the housework up to her stepmother. This makes her a rather selfish person. When her father dies, she has very little compassion for her stepmother and still focuses on what she wants above all else. Romance starts to bloom between Eleanora and a man named Cheremi, and she never stops to consider repercussions. In The Sworn Virgin, Kristopher Dukes has given us an interesting character and shown us a world we don't often encounter in historical fiction. I just wish that we had met a woman who could be both brave and kind, headstrong and considerate.

The Sworn Virgin
By Kristopher Dukes
William Morrow August 2017
352 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours