A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia brings about sweeping changes, especially for the aristocracy. Count Rostov finds himself sentenced to house arrest in The Metropol, a grande dame of a hotel not far from the Kremlin. Rostov isn’t permitted his usual accommodations but must make do with a tiny room in the attic. How he adjusts to his confinement and reduced circumstances provides the crux of the novel. Instead of crumbling, the Count uses his charm and wit to carve out a life for himself as year after year slips by while tumultuous events occur outside the hotel’s doors. Even in his small world, Rostov manages to make friends, fall in love, experience fatherhood and find purpose in life. The pacing of this book is slow and it took me awhile to get into it. However, the writing is eloquent and the Count such a gentleman I soon found myself worrying about and rooting for him. An epic story well worth the time and effort.

 

 

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Unbelievable – Katy Tur

Katy Tur was an NBC television reporter with an enviable posting in London when asked to report on Donald tRump’s presidential campaign. She was given the assignment over more seasoned reporters with the expectation the run would be short-lived. But seeing the reaction of fans, Tur began to believe the impossible might actually happen. For a year and a half, she lived out of a suitcase, following him to forty states, living on junk food and struggling to keep up her appearance in more than 3,800 TV reports. Along the way, she endured taunts from tRump for calling him on his lies, at one point needing Secret Service protection from rabid fans. In some ways this is a difficult book to read because we know tRump wins. It’s painful reliving the experience. But Tur doesn’t shy away from revealing his pettiness; the difficulty of life on the road; the character of his followers; and the obsequiousness of staff. All in all, a fascinating look at a political reporter on the road during an election year covering the circus that is Donald tRump.

So Far From the Bamboo Grove – Yoko Kawashima Watkins

A story about a young Japanese girl fleeing Korea at the end of WWII, this is a children’s novel recommended by members of my book club. Published in 1986, the book has lost none of its relevance or punch. Eleven-year-old Yoko is living a happy secure life as the daughter of a Japanese official stationed in North Korea. Everything changes when the U.S. drops nuclear bombs and Japan surrenders. Yoko, her mother and her older sister, Ko, must abruptly flee Communists looking for revenge without her father or older brother.  Having lived the experience, the author is able to bring Yoko to life as a spoiled little girl forced to get tough to survive. The writing is spare, scenes of death, rape and other atrocities delivered without sensationalism yet all the more compelling for the restraint. Will the family get back to Japan and be reunited in this riveting tale of escape and survival? Highly recommended for all ages.

The Lost City of the Monkey God – Douglas Preston

Preston is one of my favorite science-based thriller writers. When I saw this book I snatched it up not realizing it’s non-fiction. It made no difference. The book-based on his adventures in Honduras-is every bit as fascinating as one of his thrillers. There have long been rumors about a lost city in the Honduran interior. In 2012, Preston joined a team of scientists on a quest to find it. Going off findings from lidar (an amazing new mapping technology), Preston ventured into the densest kind of rainforest; terrain which hasn’t seen human habitation in hundreds of years. Battling impenetrable foliage, torrential rains, disease-carrying insects and deadly snakes, the group makes one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century. Preston covers every inch of the battle from challenges posed by an ever-changing Honduran government to unchecked drug lords to environmental hostility. Intriguing glimpses are granted into a culture which predated the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors but vanished shortly after. Why? Preston’s answer presents a chilling reality for societies which all coalesce, peak and ultimately disappear.

The Women in the Castle – Jessica Shattuck

I got immediately sucked into this historical drama as three women struggle to survive in post WWII Germany. Smart bold Marianne’s husband is killed after a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. She vows to help the families of his fellow conspirators. To that end, she rescues beautiful but broken Benita, being taken advantage of by Russian soldiers, as well as Benita’s son. She finds strong practical Ania and her two boys languishing in a refugee camp for displaced persons. With Marianne’s three children, the makeshift family lives in a rundown castle where they must forage for food and fend off marauding predators. But their struggle is more than physical as they cope with jealousy, dangerous secrets, class differences, children left scarred by war and hatred for the Nazis. The book is very well written and emotionally gripping as the author explores themes of love, friendship, survival, judgment and ultimately forgiveness in the face of unimaginable horror. WWII is not my favorite time period to read about, but I didn’t want this one to end.

A Piece of the World – Christina Baker Kline

From the author of Orphan Train, I literally couldn’t put this book down even though I had a hard time picking it up. The topic sounds boring: Christina Olson, whose whole life is a small remote farm in coastal Maine becomes the unlikely inspiration for one of artist Andrew Wyeth’s best known paintings, Christina’s World, despite an increasingly incapacitating illness. But I knew after reading a few pages I’d be up all night with this one, and I was. The author weaves fact with fiction bringing into focus the little known woman behind the portrait, her complicated family relationships and an unexpected romance. Christina’s life is small, but the everydayness is its charm, along with the lyrical writing reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. I’m not going to lie, for some this book will be unbearably depressing. I’m not a fan of needlessly sad novels or unhappy endings myself. But the writing and Christina’s stubborn pride, intelligence and hope throughout a life of hardship and tragedy almost make the subject disappear. I’m giving this one my highest recommendation.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Every blue moon a book comes along that makes you incredibly sad when it’s over. This is one of them. Beautifully written, the book begins with two sisters born into 18th century Ghana. One becomes the consort of a white soldier and lives in relative comfort; the other is sold as a slave and makes the harrowing journey from Africa to America. Each succeeding generation must deal with historical forces such as tribal warfare, slavery, British colonization, inhumane imprisonment, drug addiction and racism. A man called H, for example, is freed from slavery only to find himself jailed for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to hard labor in the coal mines of Alabama. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away. There are stories of horror, but also ones of hope and redemption. No matter which, the author writes in lyrical fashion impossible to put down. You know a book is great when you can’t wait to get back to it, and you’re still thinking about it well after it’s done.

How I Became A North Korean – Krys Lee

This book isn’t perfect but excellent writing and fascinating insights make it well worth the read. Three narrators spin tales which eventually converge. Yongiu is a privileged élite in North Korea until the Dear Leader executes his father. Danny, an American Korean, runs away while visiting his mother in China. Jangmi, a poor North Korean, smuggles herself across the border to marry, but gets kicked out when her husband finds her already pregnant. It begins strongly at a party in Pyongyang where government officials toast with Chivas while watching girls in hot pants dance to forbidden pop. They’re protected from famine and deprivation, yet live in terror of their mercurial, all-powerful dictator. Of the three, Jangmi’s story is most compelling, adeptly exposing Chinese discrimination against North Korean exiles.  With Yongiu, we never see a struggle between privilege and life on the edge. Danny’s story is unbelievable. Would an American adapt so easily to homelessness and hunger and not seek help? There are scenes in this book not for the faint of heart, yet insights into North Korean life and culture make it an important piece of work.

 

Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

Trains carrying orphans ran routinely from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929 carrying abandoned children needing homes. Fate determined whether these kids got good families or were taken for more pragmatic, brutal reasons such as hard labor. In this marvelously written book of fiction, Irish immigrant Vivian is one such child. In chapters which move from the past to the present, we learn what happened to her; the good, the bad and the ugly. At the end of her life, Vivian is living peacefully and well in Maine when 17-year-old Molly shows up with community-service hours to fill. As Molly helps Vivian clean out her attic, she discovers she and the wealthy widow have much more in common than it seems. Molly has spent her childhood in and out of foster homes, and is currently living with another set of indifferent strangers. This well-crafted, emotional journey through loss and upheaval, still manages an ultimate message of resilience, hope and finding friendship when and where we least expect it.