fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I’m absolutely trying to be better about reading books from my own shelves, but when I ran across a copy of Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic Inc., 2018), it leapt from the library shelf directly into my bag and there wasn’t anything I could do about it, sorry. I read Ms. Nielsen’s A Night Divided in 2018; it’s a novel about life behind the Berlin wall, something I knew very little about, and I was hooked. I was curious to see if her skill from that book transferred to this one (and my goodness, check out this powerful cover!).

Chaya Lindner is Jewish in Poland during the second World War, and she’s on the run, working with the resistance as a courier. She passes easily for Polish and is able to smuggle food, medicine, and papers into the ghettos where her people are struggling to survive and the death counts mount on a daily basis. It’s difficult and dangerous, made more so by the separation from her parents (who seem to have given up on life) and the likely death of her two siblings, but Chaya refuses to give in.

Being teamed up with Esther, an inexperienced courier who doesn’t pass as well as Chaya does and who fumbles often in ways that place their group in danger, doesn’t bode well for Chaya’s hopes of living through the war, but a terrifying new mission is assigned to the two girls: sneak into the Warsaw Ghetto to determine if there’s enough will to launch an uprising there. The risks are massive and their lives are on the line with every breath, but Chaya’s willing to risk it all for her people. Is Esther?

This is pretty close to edge-of-your-seat reading, so if you’re not ready for that right now, hold off. Chaya finds herself in a dicey situation in nearly every chapter; there’s an occasional moment of downtime, but it’s rare and doesn’t allow the reader many breaks, placing you right there beside her, on the run for your life and for the lives of the Jewish people. It’s cold, relentless hunger, murderous Nazis, and indifferent townspeople at every turn. On occasion, Chaya and Esther do run into someone who wants to help, but even that is fraught with fear: are these strangers really helpful, or are they trying to trick the girls into revealing their identities? No one can be trusted outright, and Ms. Nielsen illustrates the exhaustion inherent in living this way on every single page.

Being set where it is, during this time period, and among people fighting with everything they have just to exist, there’s a lot of death in this book: death by starvation, death by disease, murder, and all of it caused by outright cruelty or indifference. Chaya is sixteen but has been forced to abandon every vestige of childhood in her fight to live; I’d put the audience for this book at mature fifth grade on up due to its setting and themes of violence and suffering, but there’s a lot to learn and understand  for all mature readers.

No matter how much I read about this period of time, I don’t ever feel like I understand it, or that I ever will. I understand the townspeople who felt helpless and felt as though there was nothing they could do- I’m sure it’s a similar feeling to how I feel when I read about some of the atrocities our own government commits against both immigrants and citizens alike; I do what I can in terms of contacting legislators and supporting people who can protest (I don’t trust my bad back), but it’s not enough, it’s never enough when human suffering is on the line. I don’t understand not caring, I don’t understand ambivalence, I don’t understand the hatred some people feel for others simply for existing. I don’t know that it’s possible to fully understand something so terrible, but I’m thankful for Ms. Nielsen and other authors who continue to try to understand and who try to help us understand. We’re obviously in dire need of constant reminders these days.

Visit Jennifer A. Nielsen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I’ve had The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (Salaam Reads, 2019) on my TBR list for ages, both because the premise sounded intriguing and also because Hanna Alkaf is wonderful on Twitter (you really should follow her!). It was never in at the library when I checked…and then I finally realized it wasn’t shelved under Alkaf, Hanna, but under Hanna, Alkaf. Whoops. (I’ll ask the library worker about that when I return it, because this needs to be easier to find.) Once I realized the mistake, I located the book and slipped it into my bag.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. You’re probably also familiar with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, and maybe you’ve even learned about the Armenian genocide. But what do you know about what happened in Malaysia on May 13, 1969 and the days that followed? I knew nothing, had never even heard about it (have I ever even read a book set in Malaysia before this? I honestly don’t think so), and that’s one of the reasons I knew I had to read this book.

Melati has OCD in a time where there’s no word or phrase to describe her incessant need to count, usually in groups of threes, in order to protect the people she loves. She pictures the forces compelling her to count as a djinn, cackling at her distress to appease him. It started after her father died; her mother, already stressed over the loss of her husband, doesn’t know how to handle her daughter’s mysterious and shameful problems, and so Melati works hard to hide her compulsions from her.

So life is already tough for Melati, and then the world around her explodes in violence. Separated from her best friend by a group of men wielding knives and wearing sinister smiles, she has no knowledge of where her mother is, no ability to get home, and no idea if she’ll survive the bloodshed. As the bodies pile up in the streets, Melati will need to depend on the kindness of strangers and her own quick wit to not only defeat her own djinn but the evil and hatred that has suddenly pervaded her society.

Ms. Alkaf begins the book with a necessary content warning (told you she’s awesome); this is not an easy book to read for so many reasons, but I think it’s a necessary one if you have the mental space for it. There are a lot of parallels to things going on today, of the way far too many people view those different from them, and the events described in this book are devastating and worrying as a potential conclusion to those levels of hatred. Melati’s OCD is also tough to read, in that it causes her so much distress. I’ve dealt with some OCD tendencies (which were much worse when I was young), so reading her struggles made me want to scoop her up and hug her.

Her growth throughout the novel is admirable and inspiring; it’s hard-fought and incomplete, since OCD is a beast that must be continually tamed, but it’s real. And as in real-life crises, there are no full conclusions, just a sober understanding (as much as that can be possible) of what happened, along with the determination to carry on while never forgetting those who have been lost. It’s heartbreaking and should be eye-opening to any reader, imploring them to examine their biases, delve deeply into their prejudices, and pick apart the reasons why they believe the things they do. Because the outcome of hatred and prejudice is often devastation and death, and at this point in history, with far too many painful examples to illustrate the point for us, we should be better than that. Ms. Alkaf has penned a fictional account of real history that serves as a warning point; don’t let this happen to you, to your country, to anyone.

Excellent book; highly recommended. Just wait until you’re in a good mental space so you can fully process this story, because it’s heavy.

Visit Hanna Alkaf’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

I hesitated for a really long time before putting The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites (Henry Holt, 2017) on my TBR. Books about the Holocaust are increasingly difficult for me to read; reading isn’t exactly easy right now anyway; and reading a difficult subject right now? Oof. But this was on my list, it was in at the library, and I decided to finally take the plunge. This book is historical fiction based on a real-life story, and these stories deserve to be told and read.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is told by multiple narrators, but its main focus is Dita Kraus, a young teenager who survived the ghetto of Theresienstadt, only to be sent to Auschwitz and, later on, Bergen-Belsen. In Auschwitz, she worked to protect and distribute the eight illegal books prisoners had managed to smuggle in, handing them out to teachers in the family camp’s secret school, repairing them when necessary, getting lost in the pages of several of the books as an escape from the brutal conditions around her.

Surviving each day is a miracle in and of itself, and Dita and her fellow prisoners struggle against impossible odds, watching their friends, family, and neighbors disappear in clouds of ash that flutter down upon the survivors like a devastating snow. The books keep the children learning, they give Dita a sense of purpose and a reason to go on, as the world descends further and further into madness. Fear, hunger, and devastation rule, but Dita carries on, her courage and determination a stark reminder of what it takes to retain our humanity even as the forces of evil remain desperate to choke it out of us.

What a devastating, heartbreaking book. There’s triumph as well, but at such terrible cost. It pained me to read this, to read how casually human life was treated, how easily it was thrown away, especially in light of everything going on in the world today. We’re still ready to throw people away, just in different ways (…mostly…). There’s a scene where, after a selection, ash rains down on the survivors, who recognize that their friends and family who were murdered by the Nazi soldiers will remain forever in Auschwitz, and…It’s a hard read. This whole book is a hard read.

But it’s necessary, and this is a book I recommend picking up when you’re able to handle it. We’re losing Holocaust survivors every day, and soon there won’t be any first-generation survivors left to tell their stories. Even fictional stories that recount the manmade horrors and suffering are important.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a story of devastation and courage, and it will gut you if you let it- and you should. Only by reading these stories and understanding the devastation of hatred will we be able to recognize its presence in our own times and fight to end it.

fiction · historical fiction

Book review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

You ever start reading a book, then get distracted and put it down and don’t pick it up for another…oh, nine years or so? That was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2006) for me. I can’t remember if a friend gave me her copy or if I got it from the library, but I got to the parts about the process of foot binding and needed some time. I put the book down, got distracted by another book, and never returned, but I always wanted to. And with the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge having a prompt for a book set in a country beginning with ‘C’, my return trip to historical China through Lisa See’s eyes was booked.

Set in nineteenth-century China, seven year-old Lily is deemed special enough to be matched with a laotong, a lifelong best friend, after her foot binding. The connection between Lily and Snow Flower is immediate and lasting, though Snow Flower’s more refined behavior and education are obvious next to Lily’s poor country learning. But together, the girls forge not only a deeply emotional relationship, but a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge: Lily absorbs Snow Flower’s more elegant training, while Snow Flower learns the rougher chores of Lily’s daily life: water-hauling, cooking, cleaning. Lily’s unsure how this is in any way equal- when on earth will the more privileged Snow Flower need to know any of this?- but nevertheless, she basks in her friend’s love, the only person who seems to feel that way about her in a world where girls are viewed as ‘useless branches’ and even wives are looked on as little more than servants and a means to an end in the singular goal of everyone’s life- creating male heirs.

As the girls grow, get married, and leave their parents’ houses for the homes of husbands they don’t even know, Lily learns the hard truth about Snow Flower, what her life has been like all along, and the shame of what her life is like now. What Lily does with this information will affect both of their futures, and the futures and status of their families, a tale of deep love, betrayal, pain, and the true power of friendship.

Lisa See’s writing flows so beautifully that while Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes for an easy read, there are so many nuanced layers in this novel that it will leave the thoughtful reader with much to consider. The society that Lily and Snow Flower grew up in was so restrictive for women, binding their feet so that an adult woman’s foot was only three or four inches in length, crippling her and forcing her to remain indoors- mostly confined to one single room- for the vast majority of her life. Any kind of interest in the world at large was frowned upon, and women, illiterate in men’s writing, communicated in nu shu, secret women’s writing (dismissed by men as lesser; besides, what could women possibly have to think and thus write about?).

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship is complex, and Snow Flower is a deeply enigmatic character, something Lily never quite holds a focus on and finds reasons to dismiss until it’s too late to ignore. One of the questions in the reader’s guide at the end of the book asks if Lily is the hero or the villain in the story, and I think she’s neither, she’s just human. We see things through the lenses of our own experiences, we dismiss information and ideals that don’t fit in with what we expect from the world, we react emotionally when deeper consideration is needed. Could Lily have done better, tried harder? Possibly, but maybe not, and even though her mistakes had harsh consequences, I can’t find it in myself to demonize her for her behavior. She did the best with what she had at the time. Not every choice we make, even when it’s the best we can do, works out in the end.

This is a devastating novel of not only the strengths and difficulties of friendship, but of the weight everyone carried in nineteenth-century China. While its focus is on women in particular, the men’s lot- responsibility for the crops, for the family’s standing in society, for earning enough money to feed the multiple generations residing in their home and never showing emotions of any kind- wasn’t much better, something that is made obvious, though not necessarily in an outright manner, in the book. War and rebellion, disease and death, starvation, Lisa See flawlessly incorporates the tragedies of the wider world into the constricted women’s sphere occupied by Lily and Snow Flower, in a devastating emotional punch that will have you reaching for the phone to call your best friend in order to bolster your own connection.

The chapters that deal with the process of foot binding are difficult to read- I won’t sugar coat that; it’s what made me need to put the book down the first time I attempted to read it. Be warned if you get squeamish easily. I had an easier time this time around, probably because I knew what to expect.

Have you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is one of those books that’s layered like an onion and I have the feeling it’s going to be on my mind for a long, long time.

Visit Lisa See’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

The Lost Girls of Paris- Pam Jenoff

This month’s pick for the library book discussion group (which will be tacked on to whenever we meet next, whenever that is!). The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff (Park Row, 2019) isn’t something I would have picked up on my own. There’s something about it that just didn’t really appeal to me based on the premise, but I like the group and I’ll read anything they’re going to discuss. Plus you know how I feel about stretching and growing as a reader. 🙂

Told in multiple viewpoints, The Lost Girls of Paris is the action-packed story, based on a true story, of a group of women who worked as undercover radio transmitters in enemy territory during World War II, the woman who headed their unit, and the civilian widow trying to piece together the story of this group after the war has ended. After taking photographs from an abandoned suitcase she found in a train station, Grace is intrigued by them and sets out to find who these women in the photos are. To her shock, she learns the owner of the suitcase was the woman killed in an accident that waylaid her the day before, and suddenly she feels a certain responsibility to both that woman and the women in the photographs. Who were they? Why was the owner of the suitcase in New York City?

Eleanor Trigg has been placed in charge of a group of women she’s recruited to act as spies in dangerous enemy territory. Marie is one of her recruits, a single mother who’s accepted this job for financial reasons, along with a sense of duty. With the clock ticking and the Nazis closing in, terrible discoveries about the recruits’ expendability will be discovered. War truly is hell.

This was…pretty grim, to be honest. I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t exactly an uplifting read, so don’t go in expecting a ton of happy endings (there is one, but a lot of the stories are pretty dark). There’s bravery and pluck, and a whole lot of grit from women who never saw themselves in a role like that before the war, but there’s also a lot of dismissal that leads to death (of which there’s also a lot of), and a lot of, “You’re women, why would you think you could do that?” attitude coming from the top. Historically accurate, but perhaps not the lightest read at a time like this.

Short review today; I’ve had this half-written on my computer for about a week and a half when crap started to hit the fan. We’re well-prepared here in my family and our state is on shelter-in-place orders starting tomorrow, which is basically the way we’ve been living for a week, but my time is spent mostly homeschooling my kindergartner, cooking everything we eat, and cleaning so that we don’t feel too stir-crazy in a cluttered home (seriously, clutter and mess is the #1 way for me to feel anxious and terrible, so keep your spaces tidy and this will all be a little more bearable!). I don’t know blogging will look like for me these next few months; I’ve barely had any time to read since I’m so focused on maintaining my daughter’s education, but I’ll do my best to pop in as I can!

Be well, all of you!

Visit Pam Jenoff’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

The Only Woman in the Room- Marie Benedict

It’s a new year, so that means new ambitions, and I’ve resolved to go back to the library book discussion group! I got away from it last year after schedule conflicts and being sick, but with my daughter being in school, I can always hit the Wednesday afternoon group if I have a schedule conflict with the Thursday night group. This month’s selection was The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019), a fictionalized account of the life of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American actress and inventor of a radio frequency-hopping system for torpedoes. And because of her inventions, which were eventually used by the Navy and which formed the basis of today’s wi-fi, I’m counting this as PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or by a woman in STEM.

The novel covers Hedy’s life from about age nineteen, during the height of her Austrian stage career and just as she was beginning her courtship with Friedrich Mandl, an arms dealer and one of the richest and most powerful men in Austria, through the middle of the Second World War. Even before their marriage, red flags abound, and Mandl quickly turns out to be violent, abusive, and controlling, even going so far as to lock her in their ostentatious home. Hedy uses her intellect to gather intel from various visiting guests, occasionally earning Mandl’s favor, but it’s never enough to change him into the husband she’d hoped he would be. During her house arrest, she learns as much as she can about munitions and radio technology, feeding the insatiable curiosity she developed as a child listening to her father explain the world.

Her flight from the encroaching Germans and her marriage lead to her eventual move to the US, where her film career takes off. Desperate to help the Jews of Europe during this dark time, she works with a musician friend to invent a better torpedo system, but Hedy’s pretty face and the intense sexism of the time lead to nothing but rejection and dismissal.

Hedy Lamarr’s story is one of both triumph and tragedy, and both are shown in Ms. Benedict’s book, though her portrayal of Lamarr’s life ends during World War II. The chapters are fairly short, which makes this an easy read, but I really wish it had gone into more detail and shown more depth. There’s so much to fit in here that the story occasionally feels rushed and devoid of emotion, and there’s so much of Lamarr’s life that she didn’t cover. Her studies and thirst for knowledge are mentioned only incidentally and feel a bit glossed over. During her later life, a period not covered by the book, Lamarr had multiple marriages (only two are covered here; she had six total) and had an estranged relationship with her children (the parentage of one seems to be a controversy, which also isn’t mentioned here and which I was surprised to learn about in further research). A botched plastic surgery led to her becoming a recluse, and she never really gained the recognition for her intellect that she so badly craved.

What the book does cover, however, albeit it a little more blandly than I think deserves, was her shockingly abusive marriage to Friedrich Mandl (obvious content warnings exist for this, including several on-page rape scenes, though none of them are descriptive). Half the book is devoted to her imprisonment at his hands, and it’s a sad, depressing tale, though her resilience is admirable. Mandl is a whole sack of trash, however, switching loyalties based on who makes him the most money and being hideously controlling, jealous, and abusive to his wife. Her mother is no help either, averting her eyes and citing ‘wifely duties’ whenever Hedy shows up for a visit at home covered in bruises.

This book brought to mind a library book discussion group pick from last year, Circling the Sun by Paula Mcclain. Hedy Lamarr and Beryl Markham had a lot of similarities: multiple marriages, estrangement from their children, tense (or nonexistent) relationships with their parents, authorship controversies surrounding books each had written. I’m wondering if this selection was on purpose, in light of our group having read this last year, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this particular point.

While I enjoyed this book for giving me a glimpse into Hedy Lamarr’s life, I wish it had gone into greater detail and covered more of her life. What a fascinating, tragic woman.

Visit Marie Benedict’s website here.

historical fiction

The Solace of Water-Elizabeth Byler Younts

After finishing (and loving!) a novel about an older woman having a relationship with a mega-famous boy bander, I turned around and fell into a multiple narrative historical fiction about grief and an unlikely friendship between three hurting women, two black (one a teenager), one Amish, in the 1950’s.

Is literary whiplash a thing? It should be. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m a big fan of reading widely, reading weirdly, reading all sorts of stories, fiction and non, and there’s nothing I like more than reading stories by people who are different from me, or who live differently than I do. The world is such a fascinating place. The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson, 2018) ended up on my TBR list thanks to another blogger’s review, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a lovely read.

Dee Evans is grieving hard after the accidental drowning of her four year old son Carver. Her older daughter, Sparrow, was tasked with watching him that day and got distracted by a boy; now Carver’s gone, Dee is nearly paralyzed with grief and barely able to tolerate being near Sparrow, and the whole family is moving to Pennsylvania, where Dee’s husband will take over preaching at his childhood church. Things are different in Sinking Creek: not necessarily better, but different, and Dee isn’t sure how to relate to the white townsfolk when there are no signs telling her what she can and can’t do.

Her Amish neighbor Emma is another mystery. While Emma’s church’s stance is to not get involved in the racial tension amongst the English, Emma can’t help but find herself drawn first to Sparrow, then Dee. Emma carries multiple heavy burdens of her own and recognizes the pain that her new neighbors carry. Sparrow, however, is carrying more pain and stress than she lets on. While she strikes up an innocent but secret romance with Emma’s son Johnny, she also copes with other, more unhealthy measures, ones that will almost cost her everything when her pain, Dee’s grief, Emma’s desperation, and the town’s racial tension come to a head.

First off, major content warnings for this book. Child death via drowning, stillbirth, alcoholism, self harm, and racial tension and violence are all front and center in this book. If now is not a good time for you to read about these subjects, be gentle with yourself and choose something easier on your soul.

Dee’s grief is a terrible burden, and her anger at Sparrow is perhaps even worse. Because Carver’s death happened on Sparrow’s watch, Dee’s inability to forgive her daughter and Sparrow’s guilt combine to make an absolutely gut-wrenching maelstrom of emotion. At times, each woman’s anguish and desperation are tough to read, but Ms. Younts handles it with aplomb. Also carefully treated is the tension between blacks and whites that simmers in the town; it hadn’t occurred to me that black people who moved from the overtly racist, pre-civil-rights-era south, might be confused and apprehensive about the rules of the not-as-overtly-racist-but-still-very-racist north, and I appreciate the perspective on that that this gave me. I still have so, so much to learn.

Emma’s burden, while different, is no less. Her pain over the loss of her infant daughter, combined with so many years of keeping both her husband’s and her own secret, alienated her from her family, her community, and what she truly wanted in life, and it was easy to both sympathize with her pain and feel her joy at the connection she made with Sparrow and so desperately wanted to make with Dee. While I have no desire to be Amish, reading the descriptions of Emma’s simple ways resonated with me and ended up affecting my next book choice! I love when that happens.

With Emma being Amish and Dee being a preacher’s wife, The Solace of Water is heavy on Christianity and Christian themes like forgiveness, but without being heavy-handed. Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher, yet I didn’t find this to be overly preachy or even overly religious; the religion and beliefs of the characters are merely part of their lives and not something the author is trying to sell to her readers, which was something I very much appreciated.

The Solace of Water is a cathartic novel, full of pain, desolation, secrecy, and the capacity for suffering and loneliness, but ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship, forged connections, redemption, and forgiveness of self and others. I’m so happy that it ended up on my TBR list, because despite its heavy subject matter, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend read.

Visit Elizabeth Byler Younts’s website here.

historical fiction

Sold on a Monday- Kristina McMorris

You know that feeling when you’re about to return a library book and you realize you haven’t taken a picture of it yet, but it’s a really sunny day and you’re in the car and there’s a glare, but you still need that photo?

Behold the photographic evidence of that feeling.
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(My apologies for the terrible photo. I mean, my regular photos aren’t great either- all I have is my cell phone- but this one? Yikes.)

So, one of the tasks for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge is ‘a book you chose for the cover.’ I’ll be frank: I almost never notice book covers, at least not enough to be drawn in or turned away by them. Solves the problem of judging a book by a cover, doesn’t it? I’m far more likely to pick up a book because the title intrigues me, and fortunately, there’s no pithy saying that condemns me for judging titles. 😉

As my library lines new books up with the spine exposed and no cover showing, when I was there trying to find a book specifically for this task, I was forced to yank books out one by one, squinting at the covers and hoping something would pull me in. The little guy on the cover of Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2018) did, and into my pile this went. I’d heard about it on another blog; that blogger had had issues with the book, but the premise still interested me enough to give it a try.

Ellis Reed is barely what you could call a reporter. He works for a newspaper, anyway, desperate to move up the ranks, but so far, all his efforts have been for squat. He’s thankful to have any job since the Crash, but he knows he’s capable of so much more. One of the pictures he took recently, however, definitely has a story behind it: a sign in front of a ramshackle house, advertising two children- two boys– for sale. When Lillian Palmer, an overworked secretary with dreams and secrets of her own, shows the boss Ellis’s photo, he agrees that Ellis should write up the story behind it. When the photo is damaged beyond use, Ellis, frantic to prove himself, returns to the scene of the photo, and, unable to recreate it, uses two neighbor children, a brother-sister pair, as stand-ins. What Ellis isn’t expecting is for his story to go whatever the Depression-era version of ‘viral’ is. Suddenly, his photo and story are everywhere, and this has terrible consequences for those two neighbor children. Gutted by the news and plagued by a deep feeling of responsibility, Ellis enlists Lillian’s help, and together, they’ll risk everything in order to make things right again.

There is a LOT going on in this book. Ellis wants nothing more than to prove to his gruff, doubtful father that he can make it as a reporter, but he can barely make rent each month, let alone afford food. Lillian’s got a secret son stashed at home in another city with her parents; she lives in a boardinghouse during the week and travels home every weekend to visit him. She’s trying to save up enough money to be able to afford her own place, where she can live with her son full-time and maybe pretend she’s a widower to escape the shame of being a single mother in the 1930’s, but she also has dreams of doing some reporting of her own. There’s a tepid romance, then a better, more well-suited one, but wait, it’s actually a love triangle of sorts, kinda. Ellis wades into some involvement with various members of the mob in order to gain sources for his reporting. Everyone’s bosses act as though they have shorts full of angry tarantulas, there’s tuberculosis and an asylum, shame, guilt, trauma from the past, several cases of buying children, a temperamental car, abusive parents, an orphanage, child loss, potential career loss, time spent in jail, delusions that makes it okay to replace your dead child with another random one, breaking and entering, an enabling banker spouse, a mobster brother… Are you following all of that?

No?

Is your head spinning? Are you squinting at the words, unable to follow along?

That’s how I felt when I was reading this. I was about a hundred pages in when I started wondering if maybe it was me. Was I heading into a reading slump? Had I been spending too much time online lately and thus lost my ability to focus well? (That happens sometimes.) I’d read for a bit, but I kept getting pulled out of the story and couldn’t quite stick with it. I decided to push through, as the writing is good, so that helped. It wasn’t until I was probably about three-quarters of the way through the book where I was finally able to breeze through the rest of it to the end, and beginning my next book, I had no problems focusing.

Wasn’t me.

While I do enjoy characters having complex lives and backstories, this was maybe a little *too* much complexity, at least for me. Though Lillian is definitely a sympathetic character, Ellis veered a bit towards too calculating, too desperate for power for my tastes. It’s a compelling story, based on a real photograph, and while that should have made for a deeply emotional reading experience, this just didn’t pull me in in the way I had hoped it would.

Do you read books just because of the cover? I have to say, this didn’t quite help inspire me to do that again!

Visit Kristina McMorris’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

Circling the Sun- Paula McLain

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is this month’s library book discussion group (meeting will be next Thursday; it’s early this month thanks to Easter, so I felt like I was scrambling to get this read). I read the little blurb in my library’s quarterly newsletter and learned the basics before checking out an ebook from my library’s website: it’s historical fiction set in Kenya, about a woman who was unconventional for her time. Probably not something that I would have picked up on my own, but that’s one of the reasons I decided to join this group. Always good to keep testing yourself and expanding your boundaries.


Circling the Sun portrays the life and times of Beryl Markham, a successful female horse trainer in an era where women didn’t do that, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, and, later in life, an author. She grew up with only her father, her mother having left Kenya for England with Beryl’s younger brother in tow, and spent most of her childhood with Kipii, a boy from the Kipsigis tribe who lived nearby. Her years of running wild, barely receiving any education whatsoever, molded her into a headstrong woman who struggled against each and every convention of the day.

When Beryl’s father’s farm fails, her choices are either to leave the land she loves behind, or marry an older neighbor she barely knows (she’s only sixteen at the time). Beryl can’t imagine living anywhere else, and thus begins her disastrous marriage to Jock Purves. It’s not long before she leaves him behind and works as a horse trainer for her father’s friend and former neighbor. While Beryl does find success with her horses, colonial Kenyan society has a difficult time accepting a woman who doesn’t fit into the conventional mold of a society wife and Beryl finds herself starting over again and again.

Interspersed through Beryl’s ill-fated long-term relationship to Frank and second marriage to Mansfield Markham (during which she gives birth to a son; according to the book, the father basically steals him from her on the threat of ruining her reputation permanently, but from what I’m reading online, the actual history may differ) is her friendship with Karen Blixen, the woman who would later become the well-known author Isak Dinesen. Both Beryl and Karen maintain long-term romantic entanglements with Denys Finch-Hatton; although Ms. McLain notes afterwards that there’s no historical evidence that the two women ever engaged in a confrontation over this, she does takes some liberty and invents one.

I’m not sure what to think about this book. This is the second book I’ve read this year that features white people in Africa, and I kind of feel like I need a deep, long read of #ownvoices books in order to wash off the stain of colonialism. I know that it’s history, but there’s only so much I can take of reading about people coming into a land that isn’t theirs and turning the native inhabitants into second-class citizens (if that). That’s not the fault of this book or the author and in no way reflects on this book as literature, but…oof.

Beryl’s life is definitely intriguing, and I think in many ways she did the best with what she had. Both parents abandoned her at early ages, leaving her with few skills to support herself; poverty always loomed around the corner; the gossipy colonial society in which she lived was quick to turn on anyone who stepped even the slightest bit out of line. I found almost everything about the era and society in which she lived deeply unpleasant and suffocating, and it didn’t seem like any of the other women in the story fared much better than Beryl. Every woman had to make deep concessions and compromises in order to survive (maybe this is why 1920’s colonial Kenya looked disturbingly like a sex-obsessed 1970’s key party??? Seriously, I was NOT expected that and was…kind of weirded out, to be honest. Not in a sexual freedom kind of way- do your thing, man- but in a ‘DISEASES! DISEASES, PEOPLE!!!’ kind of way. If you read the wikipedia entry on Karen Blixen, it does talk about her contracting syphilis from her husband, which led to long-term problems), and seriously, the subtitle of this could be “Men Are Power-Hungry, Misogynistic Jerks.” The only decent male character in this story was, I think, Ruta (Beryl’s childhood friend Kipii, who took on a new name as he reached adulthood). Circling the Sun is well-written, but I think I’m just not a fan of reading about this particular era, and upper-crust colonials in general (even typing out that phrase, I’m wrinkling my nose. Ugh). In any case, this should make for some interesting discussions next week at the library.

How do you handle reading some of the more unsavory bits of history? I’ve got a stack of library books that will fulfill some of the Read Harder Challenge requirements, so I’m hoping those feel a little better than this.

Visit Paula McLain’s website here.