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.

Advertisements

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 √©lite 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.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

If you enjoy character studies, this book by Italian writer Elena Ferrante is for you. Two girls from working class families, Lenu and Lila, are growing up in Post WW11 Italy. Everyone knows everyone’s business and poverty ensures violence is always a possibility. Lenu becomes obsessed with Lila early on because of her intelligence and fearlessness. Soon they’re best friends, although intense competition makes for a tumultuous relationship. Lila is more intelligent, but when her parents won’t allow her to go on to middle school, it’s hard-working Lenu who shines academically much to Lila’s dismay. Lenu is prettier, but as they mature, it’s obvious Lila is a rare beauty. In fact, Lila marries at 16, a seemingly glittering match which quickly turns sour. Lenu continues to study even though it may never pay off in a society where women have few options. Ferrante manages to capture the details of day-to-day life in Naples perfectly. This is the first book in a series which follows Lenu and Lila throughout their lives.

Born A Crime – Trevor Noah

Comedy Central Daily Show Host, Trevor Noah, 33, details his childhood in South Africa, first under the despotism of apartheid and then after. The son of a white father and a black mother, Noah was born a crime since race mixing was, at the time, illegal. Light-skinned, he never fit comfortably into any racial mold. This book is more a paean to his mother than anything else. Fiercely religious and a strict disciplinarian, she refused to accept the status quo and made sure he had books and an education. Though admirable, his mother had problems which culminated in her being shot by an angry ex-husband. She survived, but the ex-husband walked with three years probation since police in South Africa routinely make light of domestic abuse. Equally chilling are the racial incidents Noah describes like being stopped by cops who took him and his friends to jail for no reason other than to extort a bribe. Noah does not delve deeply into his adult success, but his mother did something right because he’s a good writer with the comedian’s ability to see irony and humor in even the most horrific situations.

A Taste For Monsters – Matthew J. Kirby

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-9-27-16-pmThe premise of this well researched, Young Adult historical novel sounds bizarre, but the unique elements of magical realism provide for a very interesting read. Evelyn, a young woman disfigured by factory work, manages to avoid life on the streets when hired to care for England’s infamous Elephant Man in London Hospital. Like Joseph Merrick, Evelyn wants to hide from the world and seeks sanctuary from the dangers lurking outside. Merrick is a gentle soul who does not recoil from her, or she from him. But danger, it seems, exists within the walls of the hospital, too. It’s 1888 and Jack the Ripper is terrorizing the city. When the ghosts of the women the Ripper has killed begin to haunt Merrick and Evelyn, she must go beyond the gates to save the Elephant Man’s life, and to bring closure to the Ripper’s victims. Outside, Evelyn is once again confronted with the hatred directed at anyone different, which hampers her struggle for self acceptance. A timely read which fosters compassion and understanding in the current political climate.

I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl – Gretchen McNeil

manic-pixieBea and her best buds, Spencer and Gabe, are at the bottom of the high school food chain, but Bea plans to change all that. An academic whiz kid, she uses her math skills to concoct a popularity formula so the guys will stop being bullied. Soon, Gabe is best friends with the “It” girls, and Spencer’s flair for art is getting him noticed. When Bea’s boyfriend dumps for her a quirky new girl, she decides to use the formula on herself-morphing into a manic pixie dream girl in the best tradition of Audrey Hepburn, Reese Witherspoon and Alicia Silverstone. But being popular brings with it new problems, especially for her friends. Can Bea fix things and reclaim her true identity, or will she succumb to the lure of the popular crowd? Based on a novel idea, this well-written YA book held my interest from beginning to end. Kudos to the author for originality and for making Bea good at math! #weneedmoregirlsinstem