Fiction, Historical

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

UPDATED WITH SARAH’S REVIEW!

Laura: I found this book on my mom’s shelves and when she noticed that I had picked it up she told me I should absolutely read it. It is one of the few non-mystery type fiction books she has read in the past 10 years, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. Knowing my love of all WWII related stories, she knew how much I would enjoy the book as well. And she was right, because I’ve told people I know well and people I’ve just met that they should read this book.

Sarah: Laura had been telling me to read this book since she finished it and became obsessed with all things Guernsey. As she has read just about every book I’ve told her to, I figured it only fair to return the favor.

Synopsis

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends–and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society–born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island–boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Laura’s Review

I loved this book. It was a relatively quick and easy read, partly due to the structure of the novel. It is an epistolary novel, and is split into two distinct parts. For the first half, Juliet is living in London having successfully accomplished a book tour for her collection of wartime stories, Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War. The second half finds her on the island of Guernsey after searching for a new story to write and becoming pen pals with several of the island’s inhabitants.

I knew very little about the inhabitants or experience of the Channel Islanders during the Second World War. The islands are briefly mentioned in The Montmaray Journals’ final book with the comment that they have been under the “Nazi jackboot” since 1940. In this novel, Juliet begins corresponding with Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey resident, after the end of the war. Dawsey was in possession of one of Juliet’s old books that she had donated and was hoping she might be able to help him locate several other books. Thus begins Juliet’s introduction to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the traumas that the Channel Islanders suffered under Nazi occupation.

This is a story about resilience, acceptance, and finding a place for oneself in an ever-changing world. It is not until Juliet travels to Guernsey and meets the literary society that she truly feels like she has a place where she belongs. Through Juliet, the reader learns about the horrors committed by the Nazis against the Islanders, their sufferings, and their ability to find solace in books during the time. Juliet meets members of the literary society who had previously shown no interest in reading until becoming a member of the society allowed them to forget about their island’s invaders for a few hours each week. After reading this book I decided I absolutely needed to visit Guernsey. As I am now in London, this will be easier than from the USA, so my wonderful sister and I have decided that when she visits, going to Guernsey is a top priority.

Laura’s Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Sarah’s Review

Continuing with my current audiobook obsession, I listened to the audiobook of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and it is definitely one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in quite awhile. Laura calls it an epistolary book, which means that it is written in letters. As an audiobook, this means that each letter is read by a different reader, based on who it is written by – the reader for Dawsey’s letters reads all of his, Juliet’s hers, etc.

While this is a wonderful change to the typical structure of novel writing, it can at times be frustrating because it is all clearly in the past tense (not uncommon for novels) but I found myself often wanting to get the big moments firsthand, as they were happening, not in letters. The second challenge, is that there are so many points of view with all of the letters that the plot gets a bit muddled, or the plot goes in a different direction for awhile as we “catch up” with certain characters.

All in all, I think Mary Ann and Annie pull off their unique format magnificently, and, like our protagonist/primary letter writer Juliet, I found myself fully immersed in the story of the one member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society who is not still on the island in 1946, the year the letters are all exchanged. It is definitely worth a read, or a listen, and takes the tried and true WWII novel and gives it an interesting spin.

Sarah’s Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385341004 • 290 pages • first published July 2008, this edition published May 2009 by Dial Press • average Goodreads rating 4.12 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Annie Barrows’ Website

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Guernsey 2

Fiction, Historical

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

I love any book set in Europe during World War II, it is by far one of my favorite time periods to read about. I requested the audiobook from the library to listen to while driving to and from work and I wound up enjoying it so much, I bought the actual book as well.

Synopsis

After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war. With his best friend, Hank, Ellis decides that they only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel once very publicly failed – by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster. Maddie reluctantly follows them across the Atlantic, leaving her sheltered world behind.

The trio find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. Maddie is left on her own at the isolated inn, where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and a knock from the postman can bring tragic news. Yet she finds herself falling in love with the stark beauty and subtle magic of the Scottish countryside. Gradually she comes to know the villagers, and the friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected. As she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, Maddie becomes aware not only of the dark forces around her but of life’s beauty and surprising possibilities.

Review

While I had never read any of Sara Gruen’s books, well, still have never read as I listened to this one, I have seen the film adaptation of Water for Elephants and enjoyed her story-telling technique. Typically, when I choose a book to listen to in the car while driving back and forth from work, I pick one that is sitting on my shelf, but that I just haven’t had the chance to read yet. With At the Water’s Edge I decided to go for a new book, in keeping with my love of women’s World War II stories. Plus, it starts in the high society quarter of Philadelphia (Rittenhouse Square), near where my grandmother lived as a young girl during World War II.

Maddie, main character of At the Water’s Edge, starts off as the agreeable, and mostly clueless wife of a charismatic young man, Ellis, born into great wealth. Her family is tainted by scandal via her mother and his through his perceived inability to serve in the war. Together, with Ellis’ friend Frank, they set off in search of the Loch Ness monster to reclaim their rightful place in society. They find themselves sheltered in a rundown inn quite near the loch where the manager is surly and the young women who work there don’t think much of the trio’s high society ways. Over the course of a few weeks, Ellis and Frank habitually leave Maddie to her own devices as they search out the monster and Maddie befriends the two women who work in the inn, Anna and Meg (who are by far the best characters in the book).

At the Water’s Edge is what I have come to discover is stereotypical woman’s fiction. Shortly into their adventure, Maddie realizes that her husband is a world class asshole and she attempts to assert her independence in any way she can. In this sense, Maddie goes from being the docile little sheep being led around blindly by Ellis and Frank (she crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the war because they suggested it) to standing on her own two feet and defending those she has come to care about. She eschews her high society background and falls in love with the Scottish Highlands, and the grouchy inn manager to boot. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it was bound to happen or there would be no story – Nessie only exists in our imaginations.

​Sara Gruen’s work reminds me of that of Sarah Addison Allen (are we noticing a pattern of Sarah’s here?) in the sense that it was a breezy read/listen, the characters were intriguing, and the plot was predictable, but not to the point of boredom or irritation. The best scenes are the unexpected ones, particularly those involving the Canadian lumberjacks. Maddie, Anna, and Meg are all real, emotional characters that waver occasionally on being two-dimensional, but their friendship is believable and that is the most impressive part of the book. Writing female relationships is more challenging than writing romantic ones and Gruen does so here with an expert hand.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780385523240 • 416 pages • first published March 2015, this edition published November 2015 by Spiegel & Grau • average Goodreads rating 3.65 out of 5 • read in May 2015

Sara Gruen’s Website

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122-At the Water's Edge

Fiction, Historical, Mystery, Pastiche

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

I’m not the biggest Sherlock Holmes fangirl, but when Anthony Horowitz came to the bookstore I work at, I figured I should pick out one of his books to read, and to break out of my reading comfort zone!

Synopsis

Internationally bestselling author Anthony Horowitz’s nail-biting new novel plunges us back into the dark and complex world of Detective Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty in the aftermath of their fateful struggle at the Reichenbach Falls.

Days after Holmes and Moriarty disappear into the waterfall’s churning depths, Frederick Chase, a senior investigator at New York’s infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, arrives in Switzerland. Chase brings with him a dire warning: Moriarty’s death has left a convenient vacancy in London’s criminal underworld. There is not shortage of candidates to take his place – including one particularly fiendish criminal mastermind.

Chase is assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones, a Scotland Yard detective and devoted student of Holmes’s methods of deduction, whom Conan Doyle introduced in The Sign of Four. The two men join forces and fighter their way through the sinuous streets of Victorian London in pursuit of this sinister figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, who is determined to stake his claim as Moriarty’s successor.

Review

Technically, this is the second in Horowitz’s Sherlock-revival novels, but it can certainly be read by itself. Certain events in Conan Doyle’s established Sherlock catalog are referenced, but prior knowledge or reading in regards to said titles are not necessary for full enjoyment of Moriarty.

In starting the narrative in Switzerland, immediately after the Reichenbach Falls incident, Horowitz leaves the plot of Moriarty completely open. I always have wondered how authors who pick up already established stories/characters/settings go about deciding how they are going to make their works unique and Horowitz answers that question brilliant – fill in the gaps!

Our narrator, Chase, and companion, Jones, are after an American criminal mastermind who breaks all the rules of Moriarty’s gentleman criminal code of conduct. Determined to squash the new threat to London, they crisscross London in an effort to eradicate not only the leader, but the entire gang.

Close to the end, there is, of course, a major twist and it is challenging now to go back and review the book without giving away my newfound knowledge upon finishing the book. It took awhile to really get into the narrative, but once I did, it was indeed a page-turner!

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062377197 • 384 pages • first published in the UK in December 2014, this edition published in the US in October 2015 by Harper Perennial • average Goodreads rating 3.75 out of 5 • read in January 2018

Anthony Horowitz’s Website

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114-Moriarty

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Infernal Devices trilogy by Cassandra Clare

While an undergrad at Pitt, I was book browsing before seeing a movie with a friend, I saw Clockwork Angel sitting on the shelf at the Waterfront Barnes & Noble. Not knowing anything about the vast popularity of the Mortal Instruments series, I picked it up as I was intrigued. Eventually I attempted to start the MI series, but found Tessa to be a must stronger heroine.

Clockwork Angel Synopsis

When sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray crosses the ocean to find her brother, her destination is England, the time is the reign of Queen Victoria, and something terrifying is waiting for her in London’s Downworld, where vampires, warlocks, and other supernatural folk stalk the gaslit streets. Only the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons, keep order amidst the chaos.

Kidnapped by the mysterious Dark Sisters, who are members of a secret organization called the Pandemonium Club, Tessa soon learns that she herself is a Downworlder with a rare ability: the power to transform, at will, into another person. What’s more, the Magister, the shadowy figure who runs the club, will stop at nothing to claim Tessa’s power for his own.

Friendless and hunted, Tessa takes refuge with the Shadowhunters of the London Institute, who swear to find her brother if she will use her power to help them. She soon finds herself fascinated by – and torn between – two best friends: James, whose fragile beauty hides a deadly secret, and blue-eyed Will, whose caustic wit and volatile moods keep everyone in his life at arm’s length… everyone, that is, but Tessa. As their search draws them deep into the heart of an arcane plot that threatens to destroy the Shadowhunters, Tessa realizes that she may need to choose between saving her brother and helping her new friends save the world… and that love may be the most dangerous magic of all.

Series Review

The Infernal Devices Trilogy is the prequel to the much more popular Mortal Instruments double trilogy. However, I find it to be the more intriguing story (from what I’ve heard about the Mortal Instruments). Tessa, our confused protagonist, receives a letter from her brother in London, beckoning her to cross the pond from NYC and join him. Her love for her brother is overwhelming and blinding as, even when she is abducted by the evil Black sisters, she cannot believe that her brother would have anything to do with something so bad and terrible. She is taken in by the Shadowhunters of London and slowly learns about what is really going on in London and what her trickster brother has been up to. At the institute, her new home, she meets two friends, Will and Jem, who both fall for her (of course), as well as an exciting cast of supporting characters. And what could have been a stereotypical plot contrivance, two boys in love with the same girl, forms the basis for a beautiful tale of love, loss, desperation and heartbreaking loss.

The way Cassandra Clare introduces each of the characters residing in the London Institute is rich and inviting. She develops a real sense of family amongst the rag tag bunch of Shadowhunters calling the old and crumbling church there home. Charlotte is the big sister, attempting to keep everyone organized and under control, her husband Henry like a lovable uncle, always tinkering away on his inventions. Jessamine is the vain one, but with a hidden softer side, Will the cold hearted orphan-by-choice who left his family willingly to keep them from harm, and Jem the delicate and fierce Asian fighter, slowly dying from horrid, debilitating disease. And then there is Tessa, a young and spunky girl trying desperately to figure out who she is and why the mysterious Magister insists upon marrying her. All in all, the characters drive the story, even though the plot is exciting and intoxicating, it is the human way the characters all interact with each other is mesmerizing.

Series Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Clockwork Angel Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9781481456029 • 544 pages • first published August 2010, this edition published September 2015 by Margaret K. McElderry Books • average Goodreads rating 4.33 out of 5 • series finished May 2013

Cassandra Clare’s Website

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Infernal Devices

Fiction, Historical, Photography/Art

The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston

Each year for Christmas, my boss at the bookstore lets each of us pick out a book for our Christmas present. It is SO hard to narrow it down to just one, but this year, The War Bride’s Scrapbook screamed my name.

Synopsis

Lila Jerome has never been very lucky in love. She has always been more interested in studying architecture and, more recently, supporting the war bond effort on the home front. But in the fall of 1943, a chance spark with a boarder in her apartment sets Lila on a course that shakes up all her ideas about romance.

Lila is intoxicated by Perry Weld, the charismatic army engineer who’s about to ship out to the European front, and it isn’t long before she discovers the feeling is mutual. After just a few weeks together, caught up in the dramatic spirit of the times and with Perry’s departure date fast approaching, the two decide to elope. In a stunning kaleidoscope of vibrant ephemera, Lila boldly attempts to redefine her life in America as she navigates the heartache and longing of a marriage separated by an ocean and a war.

Review

This is not your typical WWII historical fiction novel. It is nothing like The Book Thief, The Nightingale, Code Name Verity, Salt to the Seaetc. It is the story of the American homefront, a story with many similar elements to stories that my grandmother tells my sister and I about what life was like in Philadelphia during the Second World War. And, if you have a chance to flip through the pages of The War Bride’s Scrapbook, it is, in fact, a scrapbook. It is not laid out like a traditional novel and is beautiful in it’s full-color ephemera splendor.

While I am a frequent reader of graphic novels, this is my first “scrapbook” book and it is a format I would be excited to read again. The storytelling is done primarily with letters between Lila and Perry as most of the scrapbook is dedicated to their time apart during the war. At first I was concerned that I would find the pacing choppy, but it is clear that either Caroline Preston is, herself, an avid scrapbooker, or, more likely, an expert storyteller who can work her craft in a very unique medium.

Given that it is Lila’s scrapbook, we, the readers, get ample insight not only into her head-space during the war, but also of society’s as a whole as she remarks on the activities of her friends and family. Perry is a character of contradictions, which adds to the point that he and Lila barely knew/know each other. There are moments of laughter, particularly when characters come together out of need, necessity or shear coincidence. And, my post 2017 understanding of women’s rights feminist self is very excited about the fact that Lila is her own person, her own character, and is not reliant on Perry for her happiness.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $29.99 • 9780061966927 • 224 pages • published December 2017 by Ecco Press • average Goodreads rating 4 out of 5 stars • read in January 2018

Caroline Preston’s Website

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War Bride's Scrapbook

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

While waiting for a flight to Ecuador, I realized I had not brought a book to get lost in when I would need to get away from the stress of traveling for a wedding. I figured the magical circus would be the perfect escape.

Synopsis

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Amidst the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.

Review

Growing up, I hated the circus. Loud noises, smelly animals, creepy clowns, it was far from my first choice of places to spend a summer afternoon, but for some reason my aunt insisted we go each summer.

The world of The Night Circus is nothing like the smelly, creepy world of the modern circus. It is full of magical, romantic, fantastical elements that find their home, as its name states, at night. The circus is held as a forum for a magical competition between two apprentices of two old and over-the-hill wizards and Celia and Marco, our contestants, manipulate the circus in order to “out-magic” one another and win the competition. Eventually, they realize that neither will really “win” and that failure is equivocal to death. This isn’t the first time such a competition is held and it isn’t the first time the contestants find themselves falling in love – but it is the first time they manage to change the rules in order to prolong their love and avoid the necessity of having one winner and one, dead, loser.

The setting is mysterious, the characters are elusive and the reader never fully understands what’s going on. Usually, I find such premises aggravating, but in this instance, it simply adds to the aura of this magical realm where circuses are magnificent and truly magical!

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780307744432 • 528 pages • first published September 2011, this edition published July 2012 by Anchor Books • average Goodreads rating 4.03 out of 5 • read in August 2012

Erin Morgenstern’s Website

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Night Circus

Fiction, Historical

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

This book may be going out of print soon and as it is one that I love a great deal, I figured best to post this review while it’s still available!

A few years ago, I had to have foot surgery. Not fun. My wonderful mother agreed to come and care for me – and do the week’s grocery shopping for her invalid daughter. As I was hobbling, she left me at the bookstore (this was before I started working there) and as I needed a book to keep me company and I’m a sucker for a good World War II novel, I snatched up The Secret of Raven Point.

Synopsis

1943: When seventeen-year-old Juliet Dufresne receives a cryptic letter from her enlisted brother and then discovers that he’s been report missing in action, she lies about her age and travels to the front lines as an army nurse, determined to find him. Shy and awkward, Juliet is thrust into the bloody chaos of a field hospital, a sprawling encampment north of Rome where she forges new friendships and is increasingly consumed by the plight of her patients.

One in particular, Christopher Barnaby, a deserter awaiting court-martial may hold the answer to her brother’s whereabouts – but the trauma of war has left him catatonic. Racing against the clock, Juliet works with an enigmatic young psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Willard, to break Barnaby’s silence before the authorities take him away. Plunged into the horrifying depths of one man’s memories of combat, Juliet and Willard are forced to plumb the moral nuances of a so-called just war and to face the dangers of their own deepening emotional connection.

Review

I carried this book around like it was my lifeline – without it I felt I would tumble into the abyss right along with Juliet’s patients. For the first time, I didn’t listen in at lunch conversations at work, I read. I read with fervor and passion, anxious to find out if Juliet found out what happened to her brother. In the end, though, it didn’t matter – and that was the most glorious part of the story.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of books that either jump extended amounts of time or cover great swaths of time in a short period in what I can only describe as a diagonal approach. However, in The Secret of Raven Point, doing so enhances the story telling – while being a nurse during World War II was certainly eventful, I have a feeling that most days, the activities were fairly similar – there are only so ways a bullet or mine can decimate a human being and only so many limbs that can be removed. As such, Jennifer Vanderbes skips to times that are relevant to the plot line she is developing, almost like giving a few select cross-sections of the narrative.

While Juliet’s initial and final goal is to learn the truth about what happened to her brother, it is not prevalent on each and every page. The notion is not drilled into the reader to the point where one shouts, “I get it, enough already!” Juliet has a life, she does other things, has a little fun, and does not spend every waking minute focused solely on her goal. The things we care about can consume us, but they do not need to define us.

It is rarely the case where I read a book that I end every page thinking “There’s no way I could have written that sentence,” or “How did she do that?” Words are words, they only gain meaning when we arrange them in particular ways. Typically, I won’t read a book that has any type of gore at night as I am susceptible to nightmares (Night by Elie Wiesel and Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian particularly so) but the way Jennifer Vanderbes wrote about the horrors of World War II was both powerful and palatable. But words cannot accurately describe the sensation of being pulled headfirst into Juliet’s world on the front lines of the forgotten front of World War II, the heart of Italy.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781439167045 • 336 pages • first published February 2014, this edition published April 2015 by Scribner Book Company • average Goodreads rating 3.72 out of 5 • read in May 2014

Jennifer Vanderbes’ Website

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Secret of Raven Point

Fiction, Historical

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Given that the BBC is doing a miniseries of The Miniaturist for the holidays, I thought it a pertinent review for today! A few weeks ago, I admitted to owning a Kindle. For Christmas a few years ago, my father gave me a Kindle – yes, I finally gave in and accepted that some of my favorite authors might only publish eBooks (thank you Viv Daniels/Diana Peterfreund…) and if I wanted to read them, I’d have to suffer through reading them on my laptop or phone (which is far too bright for night reading) so I gave in – I now own an eReader and The Miniaturist is my first electronically read novel. It’s an odd sensation.

Synopsis

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office – leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s life changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist – an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways…

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand – and fear – the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation… or the architect of their destruction?

Review

At first, I was very excited about The Miniaturist. I was intrigued by the plot line and the potentially interesting character of the miniaturist, all sorts of wonderful things to look forward to being promised, but never quite delivered. The Miniaturist is extremely well written, but never really developed. Jessie Burton introduces her readers to a myriad of interesting characters, and then does nothing with them. Events unfold, but nothing changes. No one grows. And a story cannot be successful without change and growth, nothing happens without change or growth. Yes, characters die, it’s pretty much inevitable given the circumstances, but Nella, our main character, does not change or grow, even though she claims she has. We’re not given enough background or knowledge of how her experiences have changed her to know that she is, in fact, any different, or any less irritating.

Nella is married off to a man for his money to save her family from destitution, a common thread in 17th century life in Europe. The man is older and kind and doesn’t force himself upon her (immediately this should point a flashing arrow towards the inevitable plot “twist”) and she manages to adjust to life in Amsterdam and deal with her cold sister-in-law and unpleasant acquaintances. Along the way, Johannes, her husband, gives her a cabinet to fill with miniatures of their life – so Nella enlists the services of the miniaturist to help her populate the cabinet. But it becomes clear, and more than little creepy how much the woman knows about Nella’s life, but the character and all her mysteries never really become known, they remain a mystery – which is completely aggravating as it means that the woman driving the plot never really “shows up”.

Any other part of Nella’s life would have been far more interesting, any other part of any of the characters’ lives would have been more interesting. How did Marin wind up so cold? How did she and Otto really connect? Why did all the interesting bits happen “off-screen”? I thought I loved this book with its flowy words and articulate sentences, dynamic dialogue, and unspoken understandings. Two days later, I realized why it felt so off balance. Nothing really happened, we got a snapshot into a few months of a young girl’s life in which she didn’t really do much until her actions no longer mattered.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062306845 • 432 pages • originally published August 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Ecco Press • average Goodreads rating 3.58 out of 5 • read in February 2015

Jessie Burton’s Website

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20171109_111441-1

Fiction, Historical, Retelling, Young Adult

Scarlet trilogy by A. C. Gaughen

I’d been debating picking this book up for a while and decided to just go ahead and order it. I flew threw it – I definitely should have started it sooner! It has now led to me re-watching all the Robin Hood adaptations I love – starting with the BBC series.

Scarlet Synopsis

Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets – skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood’s band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet’s biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know… that the slip of a boy terrorizing the sheriff’s men is really a girl. Her real identity is in danger of being exposed hen the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men for the last time. As Gisbourne closes in, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more – making this fight worth dying for.

Review

Scarlet took a bit getting used to – her voice is that of a lower-class English girl and A. C. Gaughen writes in completely in first person, from Scarlet’s point of view. Once I could read fluently without lamenting her accent, it was a delight to read. Who is Scarlet and why is she so fearful of Gisbourne? What secrets does her past hold that makes Robin Hood fearful of trusting her? All valid questions, all artfully dodged by the cunning and clever Scarlet.

Scarlet is a love story, an adventure tale, a re-imagining of a tale the English-speaking world grew up with and it is crafted with love and is masterfully told. I, like A. C. Guaghen, never really cared for wimpy, washed out Marion – her character was never fully developed and always full of insipid flaws. Why should the beloved Robin Hood be stuck with a fair maiden he has to save over and over? How can she be a real partner to him if she can’t manage to do anything more than cower behind him or run away? Scarlet is the answer – a strong female character for the testosterone filled bardic tales of Robin and his Merry Men. It’s always all about the men but hopefully Scarlet can change that!

What I truly love about her, though, is she is completely female. When she gets upset, she’s not above tears (though she tries to avoid them) and sometimes, she just wants a little comfort. She doesn’t seek to play games with the guys, she’d honestly prefer they just ignore the fact that she’s a girl, but when push comes to shove, she must admit what she truly feels, to both herself, and the band. And she does it in a way that isn’t sappy and is thoroughly courageous.

I flew through (most of) Lady Thief and Lion Heart in 3 days. I just had to know what happened and I’ll try my best to review sans any major spoilers. It took me awhile, when starting Lady Thief, to get back into the swing of Scarlet’s accent and then as soon as I did, I pulled a classic “great book, can’t stop reading” all-nighter to finish it as soon as I possibly could! As it had been a year since I read the first book in the trilogy, Scarlet, I hoped that Lady Thief and Lion Heart would really flesh out Scarlet as a character as well as all the Merry Men and her relationship with Robin Hood.

Scarlet is forced, from the start of Lady Thief to make a next to impossible choice regarding her marriage to the despicable Gisborne: stay with him for a fortnight and he’d grant her an annulment or be hunted down for the rest of her natural life. Things are not easy with the less-than-Merry Men and Scarlet does everything she can to build a better future for them, even if it means acquiescing to Gisborne for a short period of time. Alas, trouble still finds Scarlet in the form of the evil and impish Prince John and Scarlet is scarred both physically and emotionally by their encounter. But not even the clever Scarlet and Rob can predict the prince’s conniving actions and Scarlet lands herself accused of a crime that appears to benefit her, but that she clearly did not commit, and on her way to prison at the start of Lion Heart. The kindness of the Queen Mother pulls her out of the prince’s clutches and Scarlet and her beloved Rob must, once again, do everything in their power to rebuild and reclaim their home in Nottingham.

The twists and turns of the characters’ actions are amazing and so many terrible things have happened to them that when someone good finally seems to be taking shape, I was constantly turning the pages waiting for the inevitable catastrophe that would ruin the happiest of happy moments. Beloved characters will die, others will be forced to make impossible decisions, but ultimately Gaughen demonstrates just how scarlet Scarlet can get and how that rage and anger she’d been holding inside is finally unleashed to wield good and positive power for the people of Nottinghamshire. My only criticism is that the ending felt a bit rushed, but I was glad that the last bit of thievery wasn’t drawn out or over-extended, I wanted to know that Scarlet and Rob would finally have a slightly less difficult time (one can’t quite call it a happy ending) in Nottingham!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars for series

Scarlet Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780802734242 • 292 pages • first published February 2012, this edition published February 2013 by Walker & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.96 out of 5 • read in July 2014

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Scarlet

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finally realized why I read so many books about young women during World War II. My grandmother grew up in Nürnberg during this time and she has never spoken about her childhood. From what my father has told me about her experiences, I wouldn’t talk about it either. I read so many books because I wonder – is this her story? Liesel Meminger’s tale is probably closest I’ll get to the unknown story of my grandmother’s childhood in Germany.

Synopsis

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed.

Review

The Book Thief is an extraordinary book. Narrated by Death, it chronicles Liesel Meminger’s life from 1939 to 1943 – the time in which she lived with her foster family, the Hubermanns, in Molching, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Liesel is not Jewish, but an incredibly reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. Her daily life, at the start of the war, continues in much the same way as life before and after the war. She plays soccer on the streets with her friends, she attends school, she reads books, and she delivers laundry for her foster mother. But as the war progresses, her life changes in the ways one would expect a young German girl’s life to change due to war – rationing, air raids, knowing people who have been drafted into the army, etc.

However, Liesel’s story is not the typical WWII era narrative as it is, on the surface, the tale of the ordinary German, not very sensational or particularly moving. But Liesel is a literary powerhouse of a protagonist. Her brother dies, and she copes by stealing a book – a book from which she learns to read. And learning to read, that changes the course of her entire life.

It was an interesting choice, on Markus Zusak’s part, to have Death narrate the book – it adds a sense of foreboding but also a tone of almost “hyper-reality” – giving a voice to the one fact that we all know but don’t like to confront – everyone dies. Death is exhausted by World War II, between the soldiers, the Jews, and the civilians, he’s exhausted. But Death is touched by Liesel, the girl who seems to see him and a girl he encounters more times than he believes he should (I use “he” because I listened to The Book Thief and the reader is male).

Personifying Death takes away the fear, Death narrates the book like Liesel’s old friend, not as an inevitable outcome and I believe that makes Liesel’s tale more profound and moving. My words are inadequate in describing the suffering Liesel endures but Markus Zusak does so with a great love for her, for all his characters. Throughout The Book Thief, Liesel is moved herself by the power of words and though she starts as an illiterate child, she quickly becomes a voracious reader. She recognizes the power words have, the words that stay with us long after they are spoken or read, and she learns some valuable life lessons from her words and the words of others. Death reveals the outcome of the book long before the final pages but that doesn’t make the end any easier to accept. While not a direct story about the Holocaust or a novel of expected and imminent danger, the outcome is heartbreaking and completely, harshly real to Liesel and the reader.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375842207 • 552 pages • first published March 2006, this edition published September 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in May 2015

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Book Thief