Tuesday, April 26, 2016

LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly ✮✮✮✮✮

First of all, let me say that I was one of the few reviewers who took the less traveled road when it came to The Nightingale—I found very little of merit with that novel. When I saw in pre-publication literature that this debut was being touted as the next Nightingale, I almost didn’t read it. However, I had already requested and was granted a copy, so in deference to the kindness of the publisher, I felt honor bound to give it a go. What a wonderful surprise!
I devoured this book in less than two days, with a migraine, no less (a state which sometimes causes me to dislike books rather unjustly). Whenever I am a bit late on reviews for publishers, as I am with this one, I read reviews already posted and try to respond to the biggest criticisms of those reviews. I was very surprised to see that a couple of reviewers said that they found the pace of the book slow. I couldn’t disagree more; I found the novel impossible to put down and was completely drawn in by all three narrators: Caroline, the American working to help orphans and women in war-torn France; Kasia, a teenage Polish girl struggling to survive and stand for what she believed in, even while interned in a concentration camp; and Herta, a German woman fighting for a place as a doctor in a society not inclined to accept women in that role.

Another criticism of the book dealt with characterization, saying the the main women were cardboard. Again, I couldn’t disagree more! One of my biggest complaints about The Nightingale was that the characters all felt like they were drawn from a pool of stock personalities with very little to differentiate them. Lilac Girls was a completely different story. Some critics dislike the trend towards using multiple narrators, but in this case, I felt it was the perfect device. We entered the lives of three very different women and having the benefit of their innermost thoughts was pivotal to the emotional connection the author built with her readers.

Readers are often not fond of characters that are portrayed as evil, with very few redeeming qualities, but the character of Herta, a German doctor who takes a position at the all women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück—and perpetrates some heinous acts—was a necessary foil in this novel. Her character, who clearly had as her number one aim to succeed in a man’s world, shows just enough hesitation to make her believable and human.

Some reviewers said that they just didn’t care about Caroline and all her society whirl and love woes. Again, I found her a perfect foil to Herta’s selfish drive and Kasia’s dire circumstances working for the resistance and then as an inmate at Ravensbrück. While she definitely had it far easier than the other two living in war ravaged Europe, the very decadence of her life illustrated the huge dichotomy that existed between the lives of the three women.

One of my biggest surprises came in the form of a criticism leveled by one reviewer who said she would have given the novel a strong four stars but dropped her rating to two based on the author’s note at the end of the book. Really? The author’s note was one of the finest I have read in a work of historical fiction. Ms. Kelly laid out exactly how she set about her research, detailed which characters were of her own imagining and which were pulled from history, and offered for her reader which aspects of the story (including dialogue) were pulled from primary source documents. What the other reviewer disliked was the fact that the author gave her strong and sympathetic lead, Caroline, a romance which did not exist in real life. Ms. Kelly explains that she built the relationship as a vehicle to build more of an emotional connection, as opposed to just the philanthropic one, between Caroline and the people of Europe. I felt that her aim was brilliantly achieved and appreciated her forthright explanation. The book is, after all, historical fiction and not a biography of the real Caroline Ferriday.

In addition to making great use of her research in building her characters, Ms. Kelly also wove through her tale, using a wonderfully light hand, countless details that vividly brought to life what it was like to live in that time and place. I have read a lot of historical fiction from the era and grew up in Germany, but I learned a great deal from her building of time and place. While Ms. Kelly’s writing is simple in style and is not very heavy on adjectives and adverbs (Stephen King would approve), she uses strong verbs and nouns to convey a world of meaning. I tend to be a lover of the ponderous and profound, but her clean style really worked for her subject matter.

Overall, there was nothing about this book that I wished were different. Not something I can say about very many books. Even though the book clocks in at just under 500 pages, I wouldn’t edit out a thing. My only caution might be to those who have a strong emotional connection to the events which occurred in concentration camps. The portrayal is very frank and very difficult to read at times. My thanks to Random House for the opportunity to read this gem of a debut which I recommend without reservation to all readers of historical fiction and World War II aficionados.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


I spent a number of days trying to decide if I could write a fair, impartial review of this book. The answer is, “No.” However, I decided to put down my thoughts in the hopes that they might help other readers decide if this is a book for them or not.

In short, this book is the telling, through multiple first person narrators, of a 1976 attempt on the life of reggae singer Bob Marley. The novel takes readers into the sordid underbelly of Jamaica during this and to a lesser extent the ensuing two decades, using as narrators such diverse characters as gang members, drug dealers, CIA operatives, reporters, and occasionally even a ghost. Central to the plot is the political climate of Jamaica at the time and its position, similar to Cuba, in a tug of war between Communist and Democratic ideologues. The final quarter of the book moves some of the plot beyond Jamaica to New York.

The print version of the book, for those parts narrated by Jamaican characters (the majority of the novel), is written in very dense dialect and a lot of patois. I chose to listen to the audio version, which I highly recommend for its assistance in easing the reader into what is, for most of us, a very foreign mode of speech. Normally, I listen to audios faster than normal—either 1.25 or 1.5. This one needed to go at normal speed in order for me to clearly comprehend what was being said. My one complaint with the audio is that the book has a huge cast of characters—a four page list in the print version—and not every narrator said who they were at the beginning of their chapter. Not all the voices where easily distinguishable from each other, so it wasn’t always clear. Every one of the narrators was, to me, outstanding, and it is very likely that this narration will rank as my number one audio book of 2016. That said, I have read complaints from native Jamaican reviewers that the accents were not at all authentic and to them, ridiculous.

Instead of my usual wordy paragraph review format, I am going to use bullet points to offset various elements of the novel to aid readers in deciding if this is a book that is right for you:
—multiple first person narrators, alternating chapters
—variety of styles, including stream of conscious
—very original in content, style, and sheer fearlessness
—graphically violent (murder, rape, you name it—it’s probably in there)
—very profane language throughout
—multiple plot threads, doled out to the reader bit by bit, gradually taking shape into a coherent story; requires patience on the part of the reader
—does not require prior knowledge of the time or place to follow the novel (other than realizing that “the singer” is Bob Marley; I don’t think he is ever mentioned by name)
—a bit lengthy (687 pages in print or 26 hours on audio)

So why, if I so clearly enjoyed the audio did I not rate the book higher? It was a purely personal thing. If I were rating the book on originality and craftsmanship, it would get, hands-down, five stars. However, five stars for me means I loved the book and would recommend it for everyone. Four stars means that I really enjoyed it but it had a few issues and might not be for everyone. Three stars means it was an interesting experimental read or it was a fluffy but well-written book. This book falls squarely into the “interesting experimental read” category. I greatly admired the overall structure of the book, and even more importantly for me, Marlon James brilliantly captured his characters—they vibrate with life, bringing me from my peaceful Alaska into their turbulent world. Unfortunately, FOR ME, the book contained far too graphic violence and far, far, far too much obscene language for me to give it the four or five stars that would lead my readers to believe that I give it a blanket endorsement for all readers. This is a very individual, subjective opinion. Many readers are not bothered by violence and profanity. If that is the case for you, and you enjoy a very original and well-crafted novel, this might very well be a five star read for you. Certainly the Man Booker Prize judges felt that way. They awarded it their prize for 2015.

Friday, January 1, 2016


To say that 2015 was an odd reading year for me would be an understatement of mammoth proportions. That is, in some ways, very good but in other ways nothing to blog about. But that is why I keep the stats and the lists—it is fun and enlightening to look back at the end of the year and ponder how my leisure time was spent. It also gives me a chance to list for all of you my annual Top Ten.

#1 in Nonfiction (2015)
Unfortunately, as with 2014, 2015 stats are not accurate, as I went through a very extended time in the middle of the year where I didn’t accurately keep track of my reads. That being what it is, here are 2015’s numbers to the best of my record keeping.

Using the number of books I actually annotated, I read 94 titles this year, 72 fiction and 22 nonfiction. Most years, somewhere between a third and half of my reads are nonfiction, so I read less in the realm of reality this year. My guess is I read about 30 books that did not get added to my list, so this year’s total of somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 books is pretty insane. Why so many? I have a theory. In December of 2014, my sixteen-year-old daughter passed away, and I went into a bit of a reading slump. Instead of my usual fare of literary fiction and pretty solid nonfiction, I read a ton of chick lit, and it is far easier to knock out one of those books in a day or two than it is for my usual reading material.

#1 in Fiction (2015)
2015 was also unusual in its very low number of pages read—9,086 in 27 print books—and very high number of hours—764 in 67 audiobooks. Since my patterns of when I read and listened remained the same, I really have no theories as to why. Challenges are another area in which 2015 was abnormal. While it is not unusual for me not to complete challenges, most years I come close; not so in 2015. I set very ambitious challenges hoping that it would give me something to focus on as I grieved the loss of my girl. The reality was that because I both read outside my usual genre and did not maintain my record keeping, my performance in my challenges was pretty abysmal.

Despite a lot of three star reads, I did manage to put together a pretty strong group of books for my annual Top Ten. Remember, these are books I read in 2015, not books published in that year. If a review was done for the book, you can click on the title to be linked to it.:


Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
Doc: A Novel by Maria Doria Russell
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins


In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Wide-Open World by John Marshall
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
Poisons by Peter MacInnis

In as few words as possible, here is why they made the cut:

Fiction (five stars):

Bohemian Gospel: Strongest novel I have read in forever; originality; deep characters; great setting; tight plotting

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat: Dead people, live people, all kinds of crazy people living life in small town America; what more could you ask for?

Doc: A Novel: great package of plot and setting, but it was absolutely the characters that brought this one to life; cannot believe it took me so long to read it!

The Bonfire of the Vanities: Wonderful look at human nature and how society acts upon people and people upon it; no, it won’t be your easiest read of the year, but it will be one of the ones that will stick with you the longest

Fiction (four and 1/2 stars):

All the Light We Cannot See: This book just sings. Wonderful writing spinning an unforgettable tale of merging plot lines

The Girl on the Train: I don’t read very many suspense novels, but so glad I grabbed this one, as the plot kept surprising me right to the end (most don’t).

Nonfiction (five stars):

In the Kingdom of Ice: My favorite narrative nonfiction writer. Not as good as Ghost Soldiers, but still has characters you tuck away in your heart and a fascinating tale.

Nonfiction (four and 1/2 stars):

Wide-Open World: Great nonfiction escapism! The author’s openness and honesty make this far more than a travel memoir.

The Hot Zone: Yipes! Love Preston! If you want a true-life thriller, this is it!

Poisons: This book is an editorial mess, jumping from topic to topic from one paragraph to the next, but the content is so unfailingly fascinating that you happily roll with it! Even when it delves into chemistry, it is perfectly lucid.

And the sad disappointment:

A common question among readers is always what book was your biggest disappointment, the book that just didn’t live up to the hype. For me that book was Kristin Hannah’s much lauded The Nightingale. The book did squeeze three stars out of me, despite my inclination to give it two, because I liked the two main characters and the premise was good. Unfortunately, the book was a hot mess in two critical ways: the writing mechanics were awful and nobody should be writing historical fiction if they are so utterly incompetent with regards to historical research. What problem did I have with the mechanics? This novel was literally a textbook case of telling not showing. I actually used passages from it in our homeschool—as examples of what not to do—and my kids did her rewrites for her. As far as historical accuracy? Let’s just say it got to be a bit of a hobby picking out all the anachronisms that Ms. Hannah (or her editor) ought to have caught. I know many people loved the novel, but it was a massive miss for me.

I wish all of you happy reading in 2016. Perhaps we will experience a few of the same books and exchange a thought or two in the year to come. As an avid reader, nothing beats thinking through the upcoming months and wondering what bits of knowledge and enjoyment will leap from the pages into my memory and my heart. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

BOHEMIAN GOSPEL by Dana Chamblee Carpenter (✮✮✮✮✮)

This has not been a year of strong novels for me, so I was thrilled to unearth this gem of a debut by American writer Dana Chamblee Carpenter in, of all places, a BBC Books email. My initial response to the promotional materials was lukewarm, and the jacket copy does very little to give the reader a true sense of the writing (in all honesty, it gives off vibes of an overwrought YA novel). I highly recommend readers base their decision as to whether or not to read this novel off from reviews.

It is difficult to classify this book: is it historical fiction? Fantasy? Magical Realism? In that lack of secure genre identity, readers finds themselves immersed in a book that suspends them somewhere between them all. The position was, for me, a rather uncomfortable one. At first flush, the plot is definitely a work of historical fiction, set during the High Middle Ages in Bohemia (roughly Czechoslovakia today). However, the more the main character, a teen-age girl with the rather unassuming name of Mouse, is revealed, the more the reader comes to recognize that there is far more to her—and the world she lives in—than meets the eye.

Mouse is a person of indeterminate ancestry, which is pivotal to the plot, and the secret of which is unfolded in a wonderfully skillful manner as the novel progresses. On the surface, she is a convent orphan who catches the eye of a king through her gift of the knowledge of healing, leading to a foray into another lifestyle entirely. You can see from that seemingly unoriginal plot line where the cringe-worthy YA comparison might come from, but what sets Ms. Carpenter’s novel on a higher plain—this is most definitely not YA material—is where she takes her character, how events change Mouse, and in the end, the shattering truths that are revealed and how Mouse reacts to the knowledge. From there the reader careens through to the stunning conclusion, crafted with one twist after another.

Perhaps what amazed me the most about the novel was that despite how fantastical the novel was at times, I never once felt like it went beyond the boundaries of belief. And believe me, it gets right out there. In general, I am not a fan of magical realism, but Mouse was so confidently rendered that her powers and her path felt completely authentic, wholly believable. I came to this book as a reader of historical fiction and emerged having been steeped in so much more.

Even if you are not a fan of fantasy or magical realism, I would recommend this one to readers who love well-researched historical fiction. Readers are completely immersed in the time period, and as an example of the genre, it is excellent. If you are a lover of magical realism, you will find in the novel a wonderfully original setting and unique usage of magical realism to propel the plot forward. Lovers of fantasy, especially those who love fantasy with a Middle Ages feel, will feel right at home in this novel. The novel can be dark at times, with themes that are definitely for adult readers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

SUMMER OF FIRE by Kitty Pilgrim (✮✮✮)

I was a bit surprised by how highly this book was reviewed, as I just couldn’t get on board with everyone’s excitement. Part of my issue could be that the book is part of a series of books featuring as characters the oceanographer Cordelia Stapleton and the archaeologist John Sinclair. While the novel is self-contained, with the plot not being at all dependent upon that of earlier books in the series, I did feel as if I were stepping into a number of relationships that might have felt better fleshed out had I begun with the first book, The Explorer’s Code.

That admission made, I still didn’t enjoy the characters themselves as much as I thought I should. Often, they felt very cliched: brainiac couple (check), misguided teen (check), adventurous photographer (check), glamour girl (check). It almost felt like the author was trying to cover too many character traits; you would just be so unlikely to find within one close-knit group of people the kinds of disparate characters and relationships that she draws.

Plot lines were another place where credibility was stretched to the snapping point for me. Too many things just tiptoed along the ridge of tumbling over. On the positive side, I did feel that all strands of the plot were resolved by the novel’s end.

What salvaged the book for me was the obvious knowledge that the author has regarding the science of her subject, in this case volcanoes. Not only does she possess the knowledge, but she weaves it deftly through the story, giving a large amount of information without ever making the reader feel as if they are being lectured by one of the novel’s characters.

There is a bit of everything in this novel, which, while it seemed a bit over the top for me, is probably why a variety readers enjoy it—everyone is likely to find at least one aspect of the book they can get on board with—there is romance, some suspense, volcanoes, and convoluted relationships. I would recommend this novel for readers interested in a light, fun, beach-type read.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE by Sonja Yoerg (✮✮✮✮)

Publication date: 1 September, 2015
My thanks to Penguin-Signet for a review galley

Initially, I was very leery of this novel, which centers around a woman with emotional issues embarking upon a major hike, hoping that the journey will give her the physical space from her life and the headspace to contemplate where her life has gone awry. If you have followed my reviews, you know that I absolutely hated Cheryl Strayed’s similar nonfiction memoir, Wild (link to my review HERE). Because of my experience with that book, I thought more than twice about picking this one up.

I am so glad that I wasn’t swayed and agreed to review a galley of this one for Penguin-Signet. While the bones of the story are similar to Strayed’s, that is where the similarities end. Since a good portion of the people who read Ms. Yoerg’s novel will likely have read Ms. Strayed’s memoir, I will use it as a comparison so you can decide if this one is for you based on how I felt about the memoir.

First off, Cheryl Strayed was a complete novice hiker who had absolutely no business heading out alone on a through hike. Her ineptitude caused her to put others in danger, and that is just irresponsible ignorance. Since she felt no connection to nature, the trail as a stunning setting was absent in her book. By contrast, Ms. Yoerg’s main character, Liz, knew what she was getting into and there is a good deal of hiking info and parlance to which even the most casual hiker will be able to relate. As a foil, her boyfriend, Dante, a novice hiker, tags along for the ride, allowing the reader to watch him develop along the trail and see Liz’s strengths shine. Liz clearly loves the natural world (for the most part) and the trail itself is as alive as any of the characters.

By giving Liz one aversion to a natural element, Ms. Yoerg is able to create a woman-versus-nature tension that she successfully plays off from the other major source of tension in the novel, that of a mysterious and ominous pair of brothers who are dogging Liz and Dante’s journey. Wild completely lacked any kind of worthwhile tension, and it significantly weakened the story line. As the novel progresses, so does the level of suspense, pulling the reader through the tightly edited conclusion of their trek.

Both Liz and Cheryl have emotional issues that they are trying to work through. I could never connect to Cheryl as a reader because I disliked her so intensely. Many of her problems were brought on herself through her own choices and she never seemed to learn from them. I found her whiney and immoral. Liz’s issues were no less opposed to my own moral standards, yet I felt sympathy for both her and Dante given that two very different sides of the issue were expressed with equal sensitivity.

This novel is a satisfying blend of hiking tale, emotional journey, and thriller. The only reason that I did not give it five stars is because I felt that the author came right out and told the reader at the very beginning of the novel what Liz’s issues were. This robbed the novel of a lot of emotional tension, an element that I think would have woven nicely with the tension lent to the story by the trail itself, Liz’s one fear of the outdoors, and the sinister brothers.

I do not at all think that you need to be a hiker to enjoy this novel. The world of the trail is well detailed and gives the reader everything they need to know to follow the plot and feel engaged. If you like thrillers with a straightforward story arc, literary fiction, and travel writing, you will likely find this an enjoyable read.

REBEL QUEEN by Michelle Moran (✮✮✮✮)

The hunt for the Moran book that tops Madame Tussaud is still on, but I definitely enjoyed this one way more than her last effort, Second Empress.

Those who follow my reviews know that as far as I am concerned you can write your historical fiction as far out on the historical accuracy plain as you please.  Just give a solid author’s note at the end letting we the readers know where you deviated from fact.  This novel, which occurs in the court of Queen Lakshmi during India’s British colonial era of the mid-nineteenth century, does not cover a person or time period that I am at all familiar with, so as I read, I was reading purely for entertainment.  However, as is my usual MO, after reading I did some research and found that the bones of this novel are far more based in fact than those of Second Empress, which I panned for a number of reasons, among them the inaccuracies that were presented as fact.

This is a novel full of powerful women, women strong in spirit, body and determination.  However, similar to The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, a novel marketed as being about Catherine the Great, Rebel Queen is somewhat falsely advertised.  Like Stachniak, Moran chooses to center her novel around a member of the more famous character’s retinue, and the queen becomes very much a background character.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is through the background of Sita, a girl driven to become a member of Lakshmi’s famed all female guard, that the reader truly gains an appreciation of what attaining the position could mean.  My irritation is that I am tired of reading, and reading, and reading, waiting for the genuine historical figure, about whom the story is purported to be written, to step up into the spotlight.  Since very few people have ever heard of Lakshmi, I felt the artifice on the part of the marketing department was unnecessary.  The story of her guard is equally compelling, and I felt the book could have been marketed on Sita’s merits, notwithstanding those of Lakshmi.

Once you accept the fact that Lakshmi is not going to take over as the central character and you begin to embrace Sita as your leading lady, the novel becomes a wonderfully engaging story.  It has been awhile since I read a story that sucked me in from the outset and had me flipping pages to see where the plot was leading.  Although you know from the beginning that Sita will win a rare and coveted spot in Lakshmi’s guard, Moran keeps the journey from village girl to court pebbled with enough deviations to keep the reader interested. Her characterizations are colorful and diverse, and she gives the reader a satisfying sense of place.

The only thing that kept this from being a four and a half, or maybe even a five, star read was the fact that the marketing had me seeking a plot arc that did not exist and left me feeling a bit frustrated.  Go into this one knowing who the central heroine is, and you should have a great reading experience.