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, 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

A. C. Gaughen’s Website

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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

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I may need to reread Rose Under Fire – when I first read it, I was “broken” on World War II novels – I’d read so many, I didn’t really “feel” anything when I read them anymore. There are things that happen in Rose Under Fire that are absolutely horrific and I just kept turning the pages. SO, if you decide to pick this wonderful book up, I advise doing so when you have not, like me, been binge-reading WWII novels.

Synopsis

While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?

Review

I feel emotionally broken by books about World War II. But not in the way one would expect. I’m out of emotion. I’ve exhausted all the “feels” that come along with reading about the war by reading every book I can get my hands on with a female protagonist and a setting in the ten-year period from 1935 to 1945. I’ve tried so hard to find my grandmother’s story in book form that I’ve stopped connecting to the characters.

Time of truth: I didn’t feel anything while reading Rose Under Fire. “What?” You cry, “A book about a young woman suffering through Ravensbrück- RAVENSBRÜCK! and you felt… nothing?” But it’s true. I didn’t care about Rose. She seemed entirely too self-absorbed. Her friends died, and I didn’t shed a tear because I felt like I didn’t know them – I have enough people I know about to cry for, and Rose didn’t give them much life. But her writing is stupendous – Elizabeth Wein is one of the best writers that I have ever had a pleasure to read and for that reason I’ve rated this reasonably well and why I will still read anything and everything she writes. But back to the book.

Survivors’ accounts of the concentration camps and the Holocaust are incredibly moving because they are true, and I think Elizabeth Wein took on a massive challenge in trying to recreate a fictional survivor’s account and, by public opinion poll, she was incredibly successful. I think I found it less successful because I’m too close to it – my grandmother lost so many people in her hometown of Nürnberg during the war – real people that she loved and cared for. My love for my grandmother makes her tragedy part of my history, part of my cultural identity. My annoyance with Rose made it incredibly hard to care about the trials and tribulations of her and her compatriots. I kept wondering if it was the overall story I didn’t connect with or the character and ultimately, it was the character. Rose bores me when compared to the literary juggernaut who appears in both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire and I’m not talking about Maddie, but I don’t want to give anything away. I would have loved to read that story. Any chance of a third book from a certain German’s perspective?

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423184690 • 384 pages • originally published September 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.13 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

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Rose Under Fire

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper

My sister told me I absolutely had to read these books, and while being told to read something is not usually a good incentive, this time I am so happy that she introduced me to these books. These are three of my favorite books I have ever read and much of that has to do with how easily I was able to relate to the narrator, Sophia.

A Brief History of Montmaray Synopsis

Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.

Series Review

Laura’s Review

It had been a long time since I had read a series where I cared so much about the characters and felt as though I were on their journey with them. From the very first pages of A Brief History of Montmaray when Sophie states that one of her birthday presents was a new copy of Pride & Prejudice, I knew that she and I would get along quite well. Anybody who loves Jane Austen scores points with me; but that was only the beginning. As Sophie chronicled her life on Montmaray and later in England, I was always thinking, finally, an author who wrote a character that was basically me but living in the 1930s and ’40s. Sophie’s feelings and responses to situations always made sense to me because I believe it is how I would have acted as well.

Sophie loves books and writing, and did not want to associate with the catty debutantes that she was forced to interact with – which is basically how I felt the entire way through high school. I was always wondering why I did not have friends that cared about the same activities that I did instead of having a debate about that idiotic Twilight series. Sophie has now become my favorite literary heroine of all time (sorry Elizabeth Bennet!) and I have now read these books more times than I can count in the past few years. My sister had originally lent me hers and as soon as I finished reading them, she of course wanted them back, so I bought my own copies. I believe all three books deserve a five star rating, however, if I had to choose I would say that the second in the series, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, is my favorite. I love the first one; however, it takes a little while to really dig deep into the story, but after about that it is nonstop through all of the books. The second book is the when the characters really become fleshed out and due to the horrific events at the end of the first book, everyone starts to experience the tribulations that accompany adulthood. In The FitzOsbornes in Exile Sophie experiences so many different events, meets new people, (all of whom are very different) and begins to live her life on her own terms (as long as Aunt Charlotte can be persuaded to be amenable).

Michelle Cooper blends historical events and people wonderfully into the fabric of the story – of course Sophie would become friends with Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and partake in helping refugee children from the Basque region which was practically demolished during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the novel the family begins to try to have the option of returning to Montmaray, and it ends with a sit-on-the-edge of your seat, cannot-put-the-book-down adventure in order to have their story heard by leaders of nations all around the world and to expose the viciousness of the Nazi Regime. The final book, The FitzOsbornes at War, captures every feeling one could possibly experience as Sophie lives through the Second World War, including the Blitz, having family serving in the armed forces, and being forced to spin a positive outlook on rationing. Overall, you cannot go wrong picking up and reading this series. I wholeheartedly recommend it and I cannot think of anything even remotely negative to say about it.

Sarah’s Review

The title of this trilogy, The Montmaray Journals, refers to the written chronicle in which the protagonist, Sophie FitzOsborne, lets the readers in on her life on the island of Montmaray and her family’s experiences during World War II while residing in London and the family house in the English countryside. Her life differs greatly in all three locations as she and her family must try to cope with being forced out of their homeland and overlooked by the European community when they fight to have their home on Montmaray restored to them. An intriguing narrative that only gets deeper and more emotional as the terrors of the war hit home for all the members of the FitzOsborne family.

Sophie shares her adventures with her older brother, Toby, younger sister, Henry (Henrietta) and cousin, Veronica, all members of the royal family of Montmaray, a tiny island in the middle of the English Channel. Each and every characters is fully and richly developed and when misfortune strikes, they band together as a family to overcome any and all adverse situations. However, no family is immune to loss when it comes to World War II in Europe and the FitzOsbornes are certainly not exempt from overwhelming heartbreak. Their loss felt like my loss, their pain was my pain, as I turned page after page to find out what happened next to the lives of those I came to love.

Michelle Cooper develops a strong and engaging world, believable in its details due to her extensive research (all consulted materials are listed at the back of each of the three books) and the way her fictional characters interact with real people from the era (such as the Kennedy children). All in all, I highly recommend all three books for anyone looking for an intriguing story from the point of view of the young adults whose lives were irreversibly changed when war was declared.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

A Brief History of Montmaray Edition: Paperback • $8.99 • 9780375851544 • 296 pages • first published October 2009, this edition published March 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 3.64 out of 5 • read summer 2014

Michelle Cooper’s Website

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Montmaray

Fiction, Historical

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

I saw this book on one of my frequent trips to Barnes & Noble, and while I do not usually purchase new hardcover books, this one seemed worth it. The story sounded compelling, heartbreaking and full of hope all at the same time. I have been enjoying reading books about people in World War II recently, but this one was unlike anything else I have read thus far. I have enjoyed reading novels set during the war since it tells the story of ordinary people. Too often, history teaches us only about the big picture, but stories like this one teach us about what everyday people experienced – fear, grief, anguish, hope, and love.

Synopsis

Late on a frozen February evening, a young woman is running through the streets of London. Having fled from her abusive boyfriend and with nowhere to go, Jess stumbles onto a forgotten lane where a small, clearly unlived in old house offers her best chance of shelter for the night. The next morning, a mysterious letter arrives and when she can’t help but open it, she finds herself drawn inexorably into the story of two lovers from another time.

In London 1942, Stella meets Dan, a US airman, quite by accident, but there is no denying the impossible, unstoppable love that draws them together. Dan is a B-17 pilot flying his bomber into Europe from a British airbase; his odds of survival at one in five. The odds are stacked against the pair; the one thing they hold onto is the letters they write to each other. Fate is unkind and they are separated by decades and continents. In the present, Jess becomes determined to find out what happened to them. Her hope—inspired by a love so powerful it spans a lifetime—will lead her to find a startling redemption in her own life.

Review

Letters to the Lost is the best book I read in 2015. It took me a little while to really get into the story but as soon as Stella met Dan in 1943, it took off. By that point the story never slowed down and I was completely swept up in the joys and heartbreaks of both Stella and Jess.

Once Jess reads a dying Dan’s final letter to Stella, pleading her to respond if it ever reaches her, and she finds Stella’s old letters in the abandoned house, her fate becomes entwined with that of the war torn couple. As Jess learns more about the American pilot and lonely English housewife, who met in the middle of World War II, she becomes quite determined to help Dan locate Stella so that he can see her one last time before he dies. As Jess starts to work at finding Stella, she makes the acquaintance of Will Holt, a probate researcher trying to find any heirs to whom the abandoned house would be passed. As Jess and Will start working together to find Stella and learn what tore them apart during the war, they begin to fall in love themselves. While Dan and Stella’s story has a heartbreaking conclusion at the end of the Second World War, Jess and Will’s is just beginning and provides hope that they can and will have a happier ending.

I do not know what else to say really, I always seem to have more to say when I have not enjoyed a book, but this novel quickly went to my top 5. I do not want to spoil the end of the story because I believe that this is a novel worth reading and I have been recommending it to all of my family members for them to enjoy. While the story can cause uncontrollable weeping (or perhaps that was just me) it also leads one to believe that hope can exist in the darkest of circumstances and new beginnings are possible at any age.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9781250066787 • 384 pages • originally published May 2015, this edition published May 2016 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in December 2015

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Letters to the Lost

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

I first read A Great and Terrible Beauty shortly after it was first released many moons ago… in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it from the very beginning – it was one of the first young adult fantasy books that was widely available after the release of Harry Potter. 

Synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I have loved A Great and Terrible Beauty for over a decade now, which seems crazy and makes me feel so old. But as one of the first young adult fantasy books to hit the market and stick as a popular favorite, I’m so happy that I’ve been recommending this book series to all of my friends for half my life.

Gemma Doyle, protagonist of the trilogy by the same name, set the bar for all young adult, and adult fantasy books, I’ve read since the fateful day back in 2003 that I first picked up Gemma’s story. She’s full of spunk and self-determination and she’s completely normal. I absolutely love to read about characters who doubt themselves in all things and Gemma has plenty to question about herself, her actions, and her motivations. Gemma’s story begins with the death of her mother and Gemma’s introduction into the shadowy world of the mysterious Order and her discovery of the Realms, a magical, but troubled land, that was once the playing ground of not only the Order, but other magical creatures and beings as well.

As Gemma starts to learn about her (and her mother’s) connection to the Order and the Realms, she must also deal with life at a prestigious Victorian finishing school, and the bullies and privileged girls she meets there. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gemma to make some decent friends and she quickly discovers that appearances are oftentimes deceiving and it is worth getting to know people better before passing judgment on them. There are so many incredible lessons to learn from Gemma and her journey and Libba Bray’s story telling is absolutely exquisite. I can’t wait to reread Rebel Angels so I can finally finish the series with The Sweet Far Thing!

Gemma Doyle trilogy

Finally I have finished the Gemma Doyle trilogy! After reading the first book nearly thirteen years ago and seeing all three books starting at me from my bookshelf for the better part of seven years, I figured it was about time I finished Gemma’s story and learned how it all turned out.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, to this day, remains one of my favorite books that I read during high school. Gemma is a strong and formidable heroine and her adventures into the magical realms she discovers prove that she is worthy of being added to the ranks of great female protagonists of literature. Her friends and fellow characters are fully developed and have personalities of their own that are not defined by their relationship with Gemma.

In Rebel Angels, Gemma and her friends are on holiday from Spence Academy, where they met and first entered the realms, to spend the Christmas seasons with their families. It is in Rebel Angels that were learn more about each character and their motivations in life. And like any good middle book, it ends with a battle, twist and cliff-hanger.

Sweet Far Thing, however, drops the ball that has been rolling on beautifully in the first two books. It tops 800 pages when only about 300 were truly necessary to conclude Gemma’s story satisfactorily. The pacing is slow going and I wanted to give up hope of ever finishing it multiple times during the last month and a half that it took me to read it. Sweet Far Thing felt like Libba Bray didn’t want the story to end, but wasn’t sure what the best way was to draw it out without going overboard. But in the end, Gemma’s story comes to a close with a fairly realistic (for a fantasy book) ending and her story feels complete.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for series

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385732314 • 403 pages • first published in December 2003, this edition published March 2005 by Delacorte Press • average Goodreads rating 3.79 out of 5 • read between December 2003 and January 2016

Libba Bray’s Website

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Gemma Doyle - Great and Terrible Beauty

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review Previously Published, Updated October 16th with Laura’s Review!

Salt to the Sea first came into my hands as an ARC (advanced reader copy) shortly after I was introduced to Ruta Sepetys’ writing when I picked up a copy of Between Shades of Gray at a not-so-little hidden gem of a used book store in center city Philadelphia. When I met Ruta at Winter Institute in 2016, I just knew I would love her books.

Synopsis

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies… and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Review

Laura’s Review

Salt to the Sea quickly became one of my favorite books even as I was in the middle of reading it. I was nervous about reading about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, thinking that the subject matter would be too depressing. Even though I knew Salt to the Sea is a work of fiction, I was also aware that nearly all of the events depicted actually happened.

I do not think I could have read this book if it had not been in the structure that it is. The chapters are all very short and the perspective shifts with each one between four very different teenagers, all of whom end up on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The reason being that the subject matter is so intense (and since I am particularly prone to nightmares) that if it had not switched perspectives every few pages, I think I would have felt overwhelmed trying to comprehend all of the atrocities that happened to just these four people as World War II was drawing to a close. Despite shifting perspectives so frequently, every character was well-developed and I had strong feelings, both positive and negative, about all of them.

The experiences of these four teenagers was different than any other World War II historical fiction novel that I had read, and yet it was also very similar. Three of the four, Joana, Florian, and Emilia are attempting to escape into Nazi Germany, since for them, Nazi Germany was less dangerous that waiting for the Soviets to overtake their lands and ship them to the Gulag camps. The fourth, Alfred was a Nazi officer who had sociopathic tendencies. Ironically, I felt the most sorry for Alfred. He was barely an adult and yet his mind had been corrupted to believe that anyone who was not an Aryan German was inferior, and that it was his duty to enforce the superiority of the Aryan race. He had become highly dangerous, and yet he was essentially still a child. The sections of the book from his perspective were my least favorite because they caused me to feel a mixture of revulsion and pity at the same time. I was much more invested in the fates of Emilia, Florian, and Joana and was desperately hoping that they would survive the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

While trying to escape into Nazi Germany made the experiences different than other characters in the other World War II historical fiction novels I have read, it was also heartbreakingly similar. All they wanted to do was survive, just as the British, French, Americans, and many others. The difference being that their best chance of survival was in Nazi Germany away from the Soviets, whereas the Allies’ best chance was if Nazi Germany was defeated with the assistance of the Soviet Union. Overall, this is one of the best World War II historical fictions books that I have read and would recommend it to anyone at all interested in the genre.

Sarah’s Review

Salt to the Sea is a beautifully written and moving book, written in four alternating points of view, three of whom are refugees fleeing the Soviet advance across East Prussia who are trying to get into Nazi Germany – a new perspective for young adult World War II fiction. The fourth character to offer his take on the situation facing the Germans in January 1945 is a complete and terrifying sociopath and his actions, relayed in his chapters and the others, creates the most friction and anticipation int eh story for those who already know the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff (go on, I dare you not to Google it if you don’t already know). These alternating points of view are woven together with expert hands and for those who already know and love Ruta’s storytelling, Salt to the Sea does not disappoint.

I flew through Salt to the Sea very quickly and would have read it even quicker if I didn’t have to take breaks to sleep and work (I read straight through meals) and for those two days it was all I could think about. Our three refugees, Emilia, Joana, and Florian, are traveling with a cast of characters including an elderly gentleman affectionately referred to as the Shoe Poet, an endearing little boy who has lost his entire family, a salty older woman who views traveling with the group as nothing more than a necessary step to freedom, and a blind young girl who quickly proves to be the bravest and most intuitive member of the rag tag collective.

Ruta (she told me I could call her that in person!) alternates quickly between her protagonists’ viewpoints which leads to anxious reading, wondering furiously what is going to happen next. And while the final action regarding their escape is known to history, the fate of the individual characters and the challenges they face along the way are unknown and I believe that is the true power of Ruta’s storytelling. One can quickly look up what happens in history, but that event is really just that, an event, but it becomes so much more when conveyed as part of the complex and interesting lives of all of Ruta’s characters.

While for many, this is a five/ten star book, and is, by right, a five/ten star book, I still hold all of WWII fiction up against the harsh judgment of my love for Code Name Verity and The Book Thief and while Salt to the Sea is absolutely wonderful, it still falls just a touch behind my two pillar of great YA WWII fiction.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142423622 • 448 pages • first published in February 2016, this edition published August 2017 by Penguin books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in March 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

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Salt to the Sea

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

The Falconer came into the bookstore one day with a blurb from Sarah J. Maas on the cover and it was a pretty quick decision about whether or not I would be taking it home to read it.

Synopsis

She’s a stunner. Edinburgh, 1844. Eighteen-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, has everything a girl could dream of: brains, charm, wealth, a title – and drop-dead beauty.

She’s a liar. But Aileana only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. She’s leading a double life: she has the rare ability to sense the sithichean – the faery race obsessed with slaughtering humans – and, with the aid of a mysterious mentor, has spent the year since her mother died learning how to kill them.

She’s a murderer. Now Aileana is dedicated to slaying the fae before they take innocent lives. With her abilities and her knack for inventing ingenious tools and weapons – from flying machines to detonators to lightning pistols – ruthless Aileana has one goal: destroy the faery who destroyed her mother.

She’s a falconer. The last in a line of female warriors born with a gift for hunting and killing the fae, Aileana is the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity. Suddenly, her quest is a lot more complicated. She still longs to avenge her mother’s murder – but she’ll have to save the world first.

Review

The Falconer took me over a month to finish. Typically, a young adult fantasy takes me less than a week, if not just two or three days. Why it took me so long, I honestly can’t put my finger on it, other than to say that I didn’t love it as much as I thought and hoped I would. All the pieces were there that usually equate to literary obsession for me: fierce female heroine, faeries, a Scottish setting, steampunk elements, etc, but I just wasn’t hooked.

Protagonist Aileana is likeable enough, though difficult to relate to, and her prowess in fighting killer Scottish faeries of lore is explained reasonably enough. The love story is pretty obvious and predictable and the love triangle contrived and unbelievable. The cliffhanger is terrific, but a little mean, so now I must keep reading a trilogy I might have otherwise abandoned.

But, and it’s a big but, Elizabeth can write, and write very well. Any potential plot and character development shortcomings are more than compensated for with exquisite writing. May’s knowledge of Scottish lore is beyond compare and she weaves such knowledge (and vocabulary) expertly into her fantastical story. Here’s to hoping the second book is just as well written and the character’s more developed.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781452128771 • 392 pages • first published May 2014, this edition published December 2015 by Chronicle Books • average Goodreads rating 3.75 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Elizabeth May’s Website

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Falconer

Fiction, Historical

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

A former co-worker first recommended Cinnamon and Gunpowder to me when I told her of my love of pirate tales. It then became a book that sat on my shelf for far too long until I decided it should be a book selection for my book club, the Modern Readers!

4 - March 2016 - Cinnamon & Gunpowder

Synopsis

The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by a beautiful yet ruthless pirate. He will be spared, Mad Hannah Mabbot tells him, as long as he can conjure an exquisite meal every Sunday from the ship’s meager supplies. While Wedgwood attempts to satisfy his captor with feats such as tea-smoked eel and pineapple-banana cider, he realizes that Mabbot herself is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. But there is a method to Mabbot’s madness, and as the Flying Rose races across the ocean, Wedgwood learns to rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: a formidable giant who loves to knit; a pair of stoic martial arts masters, sworn to defend their captain; and the ship’s deaf cabin boy, who becomes the son he never had.

Review

Sarah’s Review

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an incredibly fun book that is not particularly funny. Narrator Owen “Wedge” Wedgwood is press-ganged into “Mad” Hannah Mabbot’s rag tag crew of pirates with the express purpose of cooking a fine meal for pirate captain Mabbot every Sunday from whatever happens to be available in the middle of the open ocean as she continues on her journey to hunt down the elusive Brass Fox, who has been plaguing the shipping lanes in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Told from the staunchly anti-pirate Wedge’s perspective through makeshift journal entries on whatever scraps of paper he can find, Cinnamon and Gunpowder focuses on his relationships with the crew, the Fox, a mute cabin boy, and the captain herself. Despite constant escape attempts, Wedge’s opinion of his fellow shipmates changes, practically against his will, and he gradually finds himself enjoying the company of his compatriots on board.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder was not the book I thought it would be and, for once, it was a very pleasant surprise instead of a disappointment. Eli Brown’s storytelling is superb and his cast of characters are richly developed and thoroughly intriguing.

Laura’s Review

This was certainly unlike any other book I’ve ever read. I did not know culinary-piracy could be a book genre, but Eli Brown seems to have made it one all his own. I was not entirely sure what to expect when it was announced as the next book club read, but after hearing “female pirate captures chef to cook for her” I thought it would provide some good laughs and be a rather light read.

Cinnamon & Gunpowder was a much more serious story than I was expecting. It took an honest look at the life of pirates, the dangers of opium addiction, and the politics and corruption of the East India (renamed Pendleton in the book) Trading Company. There were a few light moments, but after his kidnapping by Mad Hannah Mabbot, Owen Wedgewood’s life becomes extremely difficult, rather depressing, and occasionally infuriating. The story is told entirely from Wedgewood’s point of view as it consists of his musings that he writes down during his time on Mabbot’s ship. I understand that the story is told from Wedgewood’s point of view because he is most like the reader for he is taken from the comfort of his home and thrown into a world of which he knows very little. As he learns more about his captors, he begins to feel less like a prisoner and more as a member of the ship’s crew.

For me, some of the best parts were when he was describing what culinary masterpieces he was making for Mabbot and how he managed to pull them off while living aboard a pirate ship. However, I think the book could have been even more compelling and enjoyable if everything had been from Mabbot’s viewpoint. Hannah Mabbot lived a long, tortuous, complicated, exhilarating life that we only learn through about through Wedgewood, and always through his eyes, whether they be judgemental or sympathetic.

I enjoyed the story; I certainly learned quite a bit about both pirates and the British merchant aristocracy and how neither were wholly good or evil. I just would have enjoyed it more if it had been Hannah Mabbot’s diary I was reading, and not that of Owen Wedgewood.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781250050182 • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2014 by Picador USA • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read March 2016

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