Book Review: Lilac Girls and Lost Roses

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Martha Hall Kelly’s two novels, Lilac Girls and Lost Roses, are impeccably researched historical fiction stories based on real life women. Being a great fan of historical fiction, I was sure I would be enthralled by these very popular titles. Unfortunately, I was not.

Both novels have three narrators (points of view) where each narrator broadly represents a character in history during the wars. While the novels are are considered standalone, they are connected by Eliza and Caroline Ferriday, who were actual New York socialites in the early 20th century. She uses these women as the common thread between the two books; Eliza is featured in Lost Roses during WWI, while her daughter, Caroline, is featured in Lilac Girls during WWII. They represent the American women who weren’t in the middle of the action, but helped from afar. We also get a glimpse of America’s upper class during the wars and how little it affected them. Then there is a second point of view coming from someone in the role of the oppressed, such as Sofya, the cousin of the Romanovs in Russia whose family is captured and tortured by Bolshevist enemies; or Kasia, the Polish girl captured while being a courier for the underground resistance movement and sent to a concentration camp. The third point of view comes from someone caught in the middle who is forced to make decisions affecting the fate of the oppressed and their own lives. I thought this was an interesting way to show readers each angle of these dramatic stories. The first person point of view puts you in the minds of the character and you really feel the emotions they must have had while going through their experiences.

Lilac Girls is a WWII fictional novel focusing on the women’s prison, Ravensbruck, and the medical experiments conducted on healthy girls during the war. I wasn’t aware of this happening back then. Poland was not even considered a country by the Germans, and they treated the Polish like they weren’t even human. Polish women in Ravensbruck were selected to be unknowingly used in experiments to test the effects of severe injuries on the battlefield. If you aren’t aware of this, just Google the sulfa experiments and you will be horrified. Lilac Girls includes the narration of the only woman doctor involved in the experiments, Herta Oberhouser. I could barely stand to read these parts. She wasn’t aware this is what she’d ultimately take part in, but the fact is, she had to do it once she was there or she would have been killed for being a sympathizer. I still couldn’t feel sorry for her, though. The parts told in her voice were very hard to read. Caroline Ferriday is supposed to be the heroine in this novel. She has influence in America and fights for justice for the victims of the experiments after their escape. I think I was supposed to connect with Caroline and be enthralled by her good deeds, but I just wasn’t that impressed. The true heroes of this book is Kasia and fellow victims of the experiments. I think the title and the cover is misleading. This does not represent the story; as a matter of fact, lilacs weren’t even part of the story line. 😕

Kelly wrote Lost Roses after Lilac Girls and it takes us back to WWI and features Caroline’s mother, Eliza. I connected even less with Eliza. I found this story difficult to follow. The rhythm was choppy and lacked any drama. Eliza is again representing the American viewpoint and gives us a glimpse of the Russian revolution, while Sofya, her friend who is related to the Romanov aristocrat family, shows us how many upper class Russians denied any issues until they themselves were caught in the middle of the destruction. The third narrator, Varinka, was just an ordinary Russian who comes to work as a nanny for Sofya and ends up having a major part in the story. I never connected with any of these women, and since the story was so difficult to follow, I am sorry to say I did not enjoy reading the book.

It’s obvious Kelly’s novels were thoroughly researched, but the stories are missing the qualities that make them hard to put down. I found myself reading less because I wasn’t drawn into the stories. These are difficult subjects and hard to enjoy reading when the subject matter is so grim. I did learn a lot from reading these stories based on actual women in history. By the end of Lilac Girls, I was invested enough to genuinely want to find out what became of these brave women. It’s important that we honor the women who endured such atrocities and the women who fought for the innocent victims of these terrible tragedies. If you have an interest in women’s history and can stand seeing evil from the perspectives of the antagonists, you’ll want to read this.

Goodreads rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Book Review: The Girl He Used to Know

The Girl He Used to Know

Romance isn’t usually my thing but I’ve been trying to open myself up to a wider range of books. This was a perfect middle-of-the-road choice because it was a different kind of love story with a different kind of protagonist. It wasn’t apparent from the first page, but as we get to know Annika, it’s obvious she isn’t your typical single girl about town. She is awkward and uncomfortable in social situations, yet smart and beautiful and successful in her career. I have not had anyone close to me on the Autism spectrum so this was eye-opening for me to see what it’s like to be a high-functioning adult on the spectrum.

The story is told in multiple POVs in alternating timelines. It starts in 2001 with Annika running into her college boyfriend, the love of her life, in a grocery store after losing touch for 10 years. The author jumps back to 1991 and tells the story of how they met and fell in love. I absolutely love Jonathan. He is the kind of guy we all hope our daughters will meet in college! He has some issues in his past that has left him feeling vulnerable, but that led him to Annika and changed his life forever. I also loved her roommate, Janice. I think she was key to this story because she taught Annika how to navigate life and love. (I would have loved to have a girlfriend I could talk candidly with just like her in my college years.) I’m a bit embarrassed that I have honestly never thought of the developmentally disabled dating and marrying someone who is not like them. It’s not that I didn’t agree with it, it just never occurred to me. This story opened my eyes to the struggles and also the perseverance they have. It is possible to build a “normal” life with someone you love despite the odds. You just have to find the one who doesn’t consider it a burden. In most ways it’s not that different from everyone else. We all have our issues that we have to work through, theirs are just different. Graves pulls you into the minds of the characters with ease and gives you a greater sense of what they are feeling throughout the story. Few authors can do that so effortlessly. I am impressed and humbled; she has convinced me that romance novels can be smart and profound too!

I thoroughly enjoyed this remarkable, unique story. It captivated me from beginning to end. Read it. Then tell me I’m not wrong.

Book Review: Sometimes I Lie

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WHAT. THE. HELL. I don’t even know what to say. This book was so twisted. From the beginning, the narrator tells you that she lies so you know going into it that nothing is as it seems. The story unfolds gradually in alternating “now,” “then” and “later” snippets, making you second-guess your theories over and over again.

The story starts with a woman in a coma who can hear everything being said in her room. (That alone is a horrifying thought!) She has no memory of an accident but she keeps hearing pieces of the story and grows more and more frantic as the story develops. It jumps back to the days leading up to the accident, which foreshadow many possible explanations as to what might have happened. These snippets are the ones that really create confusion because we only get the third person narrative so we have to make our own conclusions. Then there are portions of a childhood diary of one of the main characters interspersed throughout the book, which provide some pretty disturbing details, and create a much more sinister vibe.

I love a book that can keep me guessing. (I don’t read thrillers to not get shook up a little bit!)  BUT. THE. END. What kind of mind f*@kery is this? I have re-read it three times and still don’t know what happened. I can’t get into the details because I don’t want to give it away but I promise you this is one of the BEST twists in a book that I’ve ever read.

Book Review: The Woman in the Window

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Somehow I never got around to reading The Woman in the Window last year when everyone else was singing its praises. It’s not that I didn’t want to read it, I just had other books keeping me busy. (Which, let’s be honest, I always have a list a mile long waiting TBR.) My spot on the library wait list came up last week and 36 hours after picking it up I had finished! It would be an understatement to say it is a page-turner. It was hard to put down, what with the short chapters (some less than 2 pages) packing suspense in every sentence. By the time I had finished, I was shocked; I couldn’t believe I had already reached the end in almost one sitting!

From the outside, the premise sounds like it’s going to be a copycat of the Girl on the Train but it is so much more edgy.  This is a story about an agoraphobic woman who, for reasons unbeknownst to us, is unable to leave the house. Instead, she drinks wine and watches old black and white movies in between playing online chess and talking to other agoraphobic people in an online community network. She has a penchant for watching her neighbors come and go through her windows. When a new family moves into the vacant house across the garden, she finds herself particularly drawn to them.  (yada yada yada…drama ensues) The fascinating part for me is in the way the story gradually builds tension. You know something is off but you can’t tell what it is or where it’s coming from. This is the best type of suspense! Remember watching The Sixth Sense? …The way you felt when the big shocker was revealed at the end? That’s exactly how I felt after reading this book.

A.J. Finn’s writing is bold and smart; I haven’t read something that caused me to get this excited since Gone Girl. I just remember reading Gone Girl and thinking, “this is going to be big.”  Big it was, and it started a whole new trend. Everyone for the next several years tried to duplicate the type of story that would shake up the market again. It hasn’t been done. Until now. Finn knocked it out of the park! I am going to be recommending this often, I’m sure. 5 stars!!

 

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter

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When it comes to Kate Morton there is no question; I will read her books no matter the subject. Her writing, so lush and magical, fulfills my need to escape to times and places I’ve only dreamed about.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter is brilliant.  As with her other novels, I found myself mesmerized by the powerful, descriptive writing. Morton has a way of transporting readers to another time, where the setting usually involves a haunting castle or residence. In this novel, Birchwood Manor is the primary character, linking multiple generations over the course of 150 years.  There is so much substance to the interwoven story lines within this novel – almost 500 pages of thought-provoking, complex, beautiful substance. I can’t fathom how someone could imagine such a perfectly layered story. She is a genius!

I’m not sure I can explain the premise but I’ll try. It begins in present day; Elodie, an archivist, discovers an old satchel of a once-famous artist, containing a sketch of a house and a photograph of a woman. The archivist senses that she’s seen the house before, so she begins to research the place. As I said, there are multiple time periods, and it jumps back in time as Elodie explores the past inhabitants of the house, primarily the Radcliffe family.  Edward Radcliffe, the artist whose satchel she finds, discovers Birchwood Manor as a child while out exploring the forest. He gets spooked and, in order to calm his fears, his parents tell him a fairy tale to explain the strange experience.  This fairy tale is told through many generations and that is how the plot begins – Elodie was told the fairy tale as a child and it has such an impact on her that she recognizes the house in the sketch as the one from her childhood story. There are lots and lots of characters throughout many generations – all with intriguing ties to Birchwood Manor. I loved discovering the secrets hidden in the manor throughout time and how they all intertwined. As complicated as it all sounds, the pieces all eventually come together to create a very satisfying conclusion.

I’ve read many reviews saying this book was a disappointment. I disagree. I think Kate Morton has just exceeded expectations. She may lose some followers but I think she will also gain more literary acclaim with each novel she writes. Her talent is unbelievable.  I challenge you to take the time to really immerse yourself into the mystery. Trust me, it is worth the effort.  I haven’t come across another author who can do the multi-period Gothic mystery as well as she can.

 

Book Review: Finding Dorothy

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Like many, I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz every year on broadcast television. We all looked forward to it like a holiday. For that hour and a half, we joined Dorothy on the yellow brick road, and dreamed that there really could be a land of Oz. I never thought much about the message behind the pictures back then – I just loved it for the magic that it brought into my life.

Elizabeth Letts produced a wonderful novel based on Oz author L. Frank Baum and his wife, Maud. It jumps back and forth between 1938, the year the screenplay was being filmed, and the 1800’s when Maud and Frank were just a young married couple. It gives us a glimpse into the past – how they met and all they experienced throughout their marriage, including many things that inspired the story of the Land of “Ahs.”

I think the construction of the novel was brilliant. Maud was a strong independent woman who loved and believed in her erratic but passionate husband. Her life was interesting in and of itself! Raised by one of the first women who fought for women’s rights to vote, she was one of the first women to attend an Ivy League school herself. By having her narrate the story, we are able to get a front row seat and see all the ways she supported his talents. Even after his death, she worked to maintain the story he intended to be told and not what Hollywood wanted. We also get to imagine how she might have guided Judy Garland to play Dorothy as Frank would have wanted in the movie. It is a fascinating interpretation of the story behind the story.

I highly recommend this to fans of the much-loved Wizard of Oz – It will make you love it even more.

Book Review: Beartown

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman, you beautiful, evil genius you.

I don’t think any other writer captures humanity quite the way Backman does. His books take the worst sides of human nature and explores how we react to them. Beartown is disguised as a book about ice hockey but is really a study of community behavior in times of crisis.

Being from a small town (though it’s not as small as Beartown), I can relate to some of the things happening to the one in the book. It is a close knit community that comes together over a mutual love of sport, in this case, ice hockey. Politics create a pack mentality – the rich are in control and the poor, working class lean on the wealthy, powerful leaders to survive. Beartown is struggling economically; unemployment is high, stores are closing, and people are moving to nearby cities for better conditions. The last hope is the town’s junior hockey league. Ran by former pro hockey players and sponsored by the remaining successful (rich) men, the hockey league is under pressure to bring a championship title and help to revive the dying town.

About a third of the book is spent developing the characters in this story. This is one of the trademarks of Backman’s writing; he spends time developing the characters so that when the “incident” occurs you are able to see it from their view. You might think the main character is the hockey team but there are actually many main characters, and even some minor characters, who make up this story. You have the players, of course, along with the coaches, the president of the league, the general manager and his family, the parents, the local bartender (ha!) and many others who help move the plot forward. I never felt burdened by the number of characters, because each character had a purpose. I needed their perspective in order to really grasp the overarching dilemma. That dillemma? What happens when someone you idolize commits a horrific crime against a teenage girl?

I found the subject matter (ice hockey) to be irrelevant. It could have been any situation where the characters are forced to make moral and ethical decisions; where the line between loyalty and betrayal is very faded. Creating this story around a much-loved sport where the star player is in a god-like position was appropriate for this day and age, with the #metoo movement and all of the corruption in our government offices. It gives us a realistic view of rape culture, victim shaming, and toxic masculinity within the world in which we live. I like that it is presented in a way in which young adults can relate. There are many lessons that can be gleaned from this story. The parents in this story learned that we can’t protect our children no matter how safe we think our environment is. It can happen anywhere and anytime. I encourage everyone to read this book and talk about it! We have to talk about it or it will never change.

Book Review: The Silent Patient

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient has been hyped as the debut novel of the season by Goodreads. My review after finishing it: It wasn’t bad. I thought it was a very interesting idea for a thriller, but the execution was a bit slow.

A woman is in an asylum after being convicted of killing her husband. She has not spoken a word since she was found standing by his dead body. A psychotherapist obsessed with her case purposely gets on at the asylum, hoping to get the chance to work with her and get her to talk. Ok, sounds intriguing, right? Well. The story takes forevvvvver to develop. It was like watching a tennis match – back and forth they went while I sat waiting for the grand slam (major twist). I will say that the build up to the grand finale was addicting. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough; I kept thinking, “This is it. It’s finally going to happen.” But the author stretched it out for a lot longer than I liked and I thought there wasn’t much substance. The upside: The chapters are short. You can breeze through this book in a day or two, depending how much time you have.

The ending is being hailed as one of the best plot twists in recent history. It is shocking but I figured it out about halfway through (if he hadn’t drug it out I probably wouldn’t have caught it.) I had too much time to think about it. Because of the slow execution I would probably call this a suspense novel rather than a thriller. I still gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. Michaelides definitely has what it takes to be the next breakout thriller author. This is his first novel, but he is already a successful screenwriter. I didn’t hate the book; I just wasn’t as blown away as everyone else. Please give it a try and see what you think. I am definitely in the minority on my reaction.

Book Review: Tiffany Blues by M.J. Rose

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Oh, how I wanted to love this book. It’s cover is gorgeous, the topic is something I know nothing about, and a comparison to Gatsby? Sounds like a perfect match for me; however, it lacked the substance needed to stand up against other historical fiction in this category.

The title, Tiffany Blues, was drawn from a necklace that Louis Comfort Tiffany created from a beautiful blue stone. This necklace plays a part in the story that I will keep to myself in order not to spoil anything! The setting is upstate New York in the early 1900’s at the artist colony started by Tiffany at his estate, Laurelton Hall. It is based on facts; the author did her homework. All of the pages of prose dedicated to the art, the artists, and New York in the 20’s was gorgeous. I especially loved the parts on Tiffany stained glass. I admit that this part of the book is fantastic, but the story itself was just ok. I did not care for Jenny, the main character. The main plot throughout was about her tumultuous past and how she found healing through studying art. I wasn’t able to connect with her, and when Tiffany’s grandson entered the story as a love interest I just found it to be forced and unbelievable. (Not to mention cheesy!)

Kudos to MJ Rose for her extensive research on this fairly unknown part of history, and for opening my eyes to the estate that many believe was used as inspiration for Jay Gatsby’s magnificent mansion in The Great Gatsby! Love that!

Goodreads rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Book Review: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

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I’m not sure when I became fascinated by Ernest Hemingway but I’d imagine it was around the time I read The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s first novel about Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. (What a great love story!) He seemed like the perfect romantic guy – and a writer! Swoon. I honestly don’t care for his writing but I love the many real (and fictional) accounts of his adventures. The drama that he created makes for great material. I believe many authors have chosen to focus on the people around Hemingway, his wives for instance, in order to study how his actions affected them.

This story features his third wife, Martha Gelhorn. She was also an author and met him later in his career. They both went to Spain as journalists to report on the war in ’37. I thought this was an interesting storyline. Gelhorn was a brave woman for that time. Women did not usually work, much less travel with soldiers and other men as journalists. She didn’t let the fact that she was among some pretty successful writers deter her from making a difference with her own talent. Even when they returned from the war, she continued writing and succeeding in what was considered a man’s world. I must say, McLain’s writing blew me away at times, and bored me at others. I should mention that this novel is meant to capture Gelhorn’s story.  I think she is a talented writer but I didn’t get swept away by the story like I did with The Paris Wife. Maybe it’s because I went in expecting the same effect, but Gelhorn just had a different personality and led a much different life, so it would be difficult to ellicit the same reaction. Even so, there were moments in the book when I would pause and reread a sentence because it was so powerful. That alone is reason enough to give this book a chance.

I’m going with 3 stars on this. It was good but not so good that I’d buy it or share with a friend. Check out The Paris Wife instead!