fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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 · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin

Don’t we all go through book lists to make ourselves feel better? 30 New Books You Can’t Miss This Year! 10 YAs That Will Make You Cry! 23 Books That Will Murder You In Your Sleep If You Don’t Read Them Immediately!!!!! (Okay, maybe not that last one.) And I think a lot of us have been doing more adding to our TBRs than reading, whether that’s because we can’t focus as well right now (yes) or we just don’t have as much time to read at the moment (also yes). Browsing through one of those book lists was how I learned about Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019). The brief description said that the book was set during the Second World War and told a fictionalized tale of the Shanghai Jews, and my brain went, “…the what now???” This was something entirely new to me, and I had to know more.

Lilia and her family, circus performers, are set to flee the persecution of 1940 Warsaw when their plans go awry and Lilia’s mother gets separated from the rest of the family. Knowing that their lives are on the line, Lilia and her father and sister must continue their journey to China, hoping Mama will continue on behind them as they sail to Shanghai in search of a place they can live in safety. Shanghai is under Japanese occupation, but the Jewish community that has fled there is grateful for any place that will take them in. Existence there is bleak and difficult: jobs are almost non-existent, food is scarcer than that, hunger is a constant companion, and fears about the future and worry over whatever happened to Mama never end.

But there are small joys to be found amidst the heartbreak and fear. Lilia’s friendship with Wei, the Chinese boy employed to clean her school, is a bright spot in the darkness, and the connection she makes in a desperate search to make money for her family ends up resulting in an unexpected miracle. Lilia’s broken-up family is far from home, struggling to survive with every breath, but their story isn’t to be missed.

Y’all. This story is bleak. The poverty Lilia’s family suffers is enormous, to the point where you’ll feel something like survivor’s guilt if you eat while reading this. The conditions they live in are foul and oppressive, and they’re uncomfortable to read. It’s important to bear witness to this kind of historical pain, though, so don’t skip this one. Put it off for later if you need to, when reading may be easier, but put it on your TBR, because Lilia’s story is based on real Jews who fled to China during the brutality of Hitler’s regime. It’s a remarkable history I’d never known anything about, and I’m glad I know more now. It’s just not an easy read.

Lilia’s relationship with her little sister Naomi is sweet. Naomi is young but already highly delayed at the start of the story; the trauma the family endures doesn’t help, but Lilia’s care of her never wavers. And Lilia’s friendship and slight crush on Wei are adorable. There are plenty of tense moments in the story, however, including multiple deaths for a variety of reasons, and allusions to sexual assault. There’s also a deeply heavy scene near the end of the book that broke my heart as a mother, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. It’s a painful, complex story, but one that deserves to be heard.

I’m learning better to balance out my reading this year, so I had to follow this one up with a lighter romance novel, but it’s definitely worth the read, especially if you’re into historical fiction. It’s YA but don’t let that stop you if that’s a genre you don’t normally read- Lilia’s problems are very much adult in nature, and Ms. DeWoskin’s masterful writing makes this a powerful, emotional story for readers of any age.

Visit Rachel DeWoskin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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

Mrs. Everything- Jennifer Weiner

There’s been a huge amount of buzz about Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, 2019), and, having read six of her other books in the past, I knew I’d eventually get to this one! And as luck would have it, it came up as a suggestion for PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge for a book that passes the Bechdel test (wherein two women must have a conversation which is about something other than a man, and which was named after the cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, a fact I didn’t know about until just now!). This book passes that test in spades and is an all-around fabulous read.

Mrs. Everything covers the entire lives of sisters Jo and Bethie Kaufman, born in the baby boom of post-WWII America and coming of age in the turbulent 60’s as the world writhed and changed around them. Jo, the elder of the two, is athletic, always at odds with their mother, and understands early on that she’s different from other girls. Bethie, a people pleaser and their mother’s clear favorite, changes trajectory after the terrible aftermath of death of their father and struggles to find herself and her place in the world. The sisters’ relationship ebbs and flows, internal and external pressures playing a large part on how they relate to and support one another. This is an opus, a love letter to all the women out there who do their best and can only try, fail, and try again.

(Content warnings exist for molestation by a family member, rape, abortion, drug use, homophobia, disordered eating, difficult parent/child relationships, cancer, and death.)

There are a lot of themes running throughout this book, and one of them is the changing role of women in society over the years. Jo and Bethie’s mother had almost no choices in life; Jo and Bethie had more, but still nowhere near acceptable; Jo’s daughters have far more, but it’s still not enough, and the novel ends acknowledging that while women have come so far, it’s absolutely not enough, that men are given passes in parenting and the career world that women aren’t even thought of being granted. Jo makes an astute observation that both she and Bethie kind of fell into their lives, rather than making active choices to create the lives they wanted, and I have to wonder how true that statement is for women in general today. It certainly was for me.

There’s a lot of sadness in this book, as there is in everyone’s life. Jo, whose attraction to women can’t ever really be lived out in the open in her young adulthood, lives what feels like only a half-life, struggling to find a place for herself while taking care of her beloved children and the husband who, as time goes on, feels like less and less of a safe haven. Bethie’s entire self nearly disappears after being molested and raped, and she flits around the world, trying to both lose and discover herself and realizing she can’t run from her pain, nor can she force her sister to live more authentically. It’s all one step forward, two steps back for the Kaufman sisters, a tale as old as time and one that we’re still seeing today.

Despite the sadness, this is a view of two very different lives over a turbulent period of time, a time of growth and a time of difficult realizations. Jennifer Weiner writes with clarity and insight, and even when the subject manner is painful, her tone is light enough that Mrs. Everything is a comfort read, like hearing stories from your own beloved friends and sisters. This was the perfect book to follow up my last read, Dahlia Adler’s His Hideous Heart, an anthology of Poe retellings. I desperately needed something that made me feel hope again, and this fit the bill well.

Have you read this or any of Jennifer Weiner’s other novels? Are you a fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Jennifer Weiner’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.

fiction

As A Driven Leaf- Milton Steinberg

I’ve been aware of this book for years. I think I even picked it up and paged through it when we lived in Nashville (the main library there is seriously awesome; if you’re ever in the area, stop in and take a walk around. The collection is pretty good- some slightly dated material, but still pretty phenomenal, and the building is gorgeous. There’s even a large outside courtyard with a huge fountain, a large stage for performances and talks, and a children’s puppet theater. It’s been almost six years since I was last there, so who knows what other updates have been made since then!), but for whatever reason, I chose not to read it at the time. But during our first week in my Introduction to Judaism class, the rabbi recommended it and I figured it was finally time to pick up As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing, 1939). I’m always a little nervous reading older books, since I still have a little bit of holdover fear from being made to read things like The Scarlet Letter in high school (I still can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne), and I’ve had some not-so-great experiences with dry, dusty historical fiction, but that wasn’t at all what I found between the covers of this book.

Elisha ben Abuyah, the son of a lapsed Jew, is raised adhering more to Greek tradition in the years of Roman rule in Palestine, but when his father passes, his uncle insists he study the Law of his people. After becoming a rabbi and becoming part of the Sanhedrin, doubts about his faith begin to appear, and though he tries hard to hold on, his questions can’t be ignored. Willing to risk everything for solid answers, Elisha begins a journey of discovery, of finding irrefutable evidence of what the truth really is, but this search will have devastating effects on him, on history, and on the lives of everyone he knows and loves.

This is an incredible book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Elisha ben Abuyah (an actual historical person, though this is a fictionalized account of his life, with much conjecture and imagining) is an engaging, thoughtful character, and the era in which he lives is vividly alive in Steinberg’s elaborate, yet not overdone, description. Elisha’s arc is tragic; his unhappy arranged marriage and his search to view faith solely through a lens of logic ends disastrously for nearly everyone, even those not immediately involved, and there are some seriously gruesome scenes in here (torture, Roman murder, and a lion-versus-gladiator fight scene that turned my stomach and had me wide-eyed while reading in public). Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of life under Roman rule, nor does he tone down the more hedonistic aspects of the society Elisha found himself in after his excommunication and abandoning Palestine for Antioch.

It’s difficult to elaborate how fascinating I found reading fiction set in this time period (I believe the only other book I’ve read set during Roman rule is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare George, also a fantastic read). I haven’t ventured too much into the world of historical fiction; it’s not that I dislike it, but I’ve encountered some that have been dry, and so much of it seems to be centered around World War II that As A Driven Leaf seems absolutely…modern…by comparison. A breath of fresh air in that genre, if you will, despite the book being eighty-one years old. It’s an era I haven’t literarily-traveled to that often, so I really enjoyed my journey back in time to admire Elisha’s intelligence and dedication while still wincing at his bullheaded perseverance despite the consequences. (And because of the book being set during this time, I’m counting it as my pick for the BookRiot 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt to read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. Finally, I’m on the scoreboard with this one!)

This isn’t an easy book to review, as there’s so much going on and Steinberg’s messages are so profound, but it’s a deeply enjoyable read, one that can be read on multiple levels. It’s a glimpse into the past, an inspiration, a warning, an encouragement to search and an injunction to be prepared for the consequences. It’s thought-provoking in a multitude of ways, no matter if you agree or not with Elisha’s final conclusions. As a Driven Leaf is beautifully written and will leave you intrigued and wanting more from this thoughtful author, or at least for the book to never end.

Milton Steinberg passed away in 1950. You can see his other books here on Goodreads.