Fiction, Thriller

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I began reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after the movie was announced (though before watching it) after one of my friends recommended it. Based on my knowledge of the friend who offered the recommendation, it was nothing as I expected.

Synopsis

It’s about the disappearance forty years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden… and about her octogenarian uncle, determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder.

It’s about Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently at the wrong end of a libel case, hired to find the underlying cause of Harriet’s disappearance… and about Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old pierced and tattooed genius hacked possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age – and a terrifying capacity for ruthlessness to go with it – who assists Blomkvist with the investigation. This unlikely team discovers a view of nearly unfathomable iniquity running through the Vanger family, astonishing corruption in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism – and an unexpected connection between themselves.

Review

I don’t read mysteries or thrillers for fun. They freak me out and give me nightmares. I have a great deal of difficulty getting the villain out of my head. It’s even worse when they’re exceptionally well crafted and convincing, as is the case in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.

I typically try to read a book before I see the adaptation and I really wanted to see the movie (my hang-ups with thrillers mentioned above don’t seem to apply to film) so figured that I should read the book first because there was a good chance I would miss some important detail throughout the course of the movie (which is probably why I love, but can rarely follow, Bond films – I’m never paying enough attention). However, to understand the world in which Vanger, Blomkvist and Lisbeth are living, I needed a crash course in Swedish elitist politics or I would miss something important.

Never had I done so much research before reading a work of fiction, but I knew going into the book that I had to familiarize myself with a society that differed from my own to understand the actions and behaviors of the characters, particularly the secondary ones. But what really drew me to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the girl herself, Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is a ward of the state, an orphan with a traumatic background, declared mentally unstable which puts her finances, and therefore life, into the hands of a court appointed guardian – a rare kind man who unfortunately suffers a stroke at the start of the book. The man who replaces him, Nils Bjurman, is quite the opposite.

Lisbeth is highly aggressive towards those who abuse women and when Bjurman forces her into submissive and degrading positions to procure her pre-determined allowance. The revenge she takes on him is magnificently cruel and degrading, equal to the treatment he forced upon her. Lisbeth is fierce, and perhaps more than a little crazy, but her talents are unequaled in the art of hacking and manipulation. But her heart is pure, hidden though it may be, and she is capable of suffering heartbreak, despite her cold exterior and extremely introverted personality. Lisbeth is the heart and soul of the book and without her, the corporate espionage and possible murder plots mean little.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Mass Market Paperback • $9.99 • 9780307949486 • 644 pages • first published in English in September 2008, this edition published November 2011 by Vintage Books • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 stars • read in January 2011

Stieg Larsson’s Website

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Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 

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

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

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Millennials, my generation, are defined in some small part by their relationship with Harry Potter. Almost all of us have a story about when we were first introduced the the boy wizard who changed our reading lives. I was 10 years old, in 5th grade, and it was shortly before Thanksgiving when my friend Brendan brought a book and a letter into school. He had found this book and had liked it so much, he wrote a letter to the author, and SHE WROTE BACK. He shared the letter with the class, and asked if the book could be our next classroom read aloud. Needless to say, Mrs. Kluck agreed, and when we left for Thanksgiving break, I made my mom hunt down a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for me. The rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Synopsis

Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley – a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry – and anyone who reads about him – will find unforgettable. For it’s there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… if Harry can survive the encounter.

Series Review

This is a difficult review to write as I grew up with the Harry Potter books and characters. I was 10 years old when I was introduced to 10-year-olds Harry, Hermione, and Ron. When I was 10, my life was challenging – my parents were getting divorced and I just wanted an escape and the wizarding world presented itself to me at the perfect time. I would spend hours reading and rereading the books in my bedroom, trying not to think about the challenges of my young life. Because of this association, the tales of Harry Potter and his friends’ adventures will always hold a special place in my heart, but it was only for Harry’s friends that I finished the series.

As I grew up, I wanted Harry and his friends to grow up with me. I camped out at midnight for books 5 through 7, I dressed up as Hermione for more Halloweens than I care to admit, but the moment I was waiting for never really came. Harry never convincingly grew up with me. We were both supposed to be 17 when the final book was released – I had just graduated from high school and was excited to see Harry finish school and get excited for life after the final battle with Voldemort. However, while I was ecstatic for the next chapter in my life, Harry doesn’t have goals, he doesn’t have any direction in his life. Now granted, his primary focus was survival so that pushed some other dreams and ambitions out of focus, but I would have latched on to them – I would have latched on to my hopes of the future, for a world without Voldemort.

At 10, Harry and I had so much in common. At 13, this was still the case, but at some point, during the fifteenth year of my life/the fifth book, our paths completely diverged. I quickly grew to loathe Harry and his whiny, moody tendencies. While Harry “grows,” he doesn’t ever mature and that made it exceedingly difficult to remain engaged with the stories for any length of time after I finished reading them initially. By the time the seventh movie (split into two) came out, I was so disenchanted with Harry and his misanthropic tendencies that I didn’t even want to see it in theaters. I wanted to see an older Harry, a Harry that I could relate to, instead of a character that was stuck in middle school, stuck at thirteen so that he would be more accessible for later generations. In a way, this makes sense, no other generation will be waiting for years between books – years in which they grow up and expect Harry to grow up as well. Is it fair to tell my 10-year-old step-brother he must wait until he’s 17 to finish the series? No. But I feel like it pulled my fellow millennials away from Harry. It led some of us to abandon him in the dark basement of our minds because he didn’t keep up. Like Peter Pan, he didn’t grow up.

Hermione, on the other hand, was always the brains of the operation, the logically minded one keeping Harry and Ron on track and explaining the ways of the world, and girls, to them, as they remained stuck in their world of perpetual early adolescence. Hermione and her books and knowledge and love of school helped me express my own love of intelligence and learning. Hermione ensured that the stories of Harry Potter would be relatable for boys and girls. And that is, to me, the real magic of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. He brought so many kids into the magical world of reading and books and that, regardless of the quality of the books being read, is always a good thing. Reading the adventures of Harry will always be a rite of passage. If I ever have kids of my own, I will read them the stories of Harry Potter as my mother and teacher did for me. And I will be incredibly offended if they dislike them, but will be equally offended if they obsess over them blindly and refuse to read anything else as I had done.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780590353427 • 312 pages • originally published 1997, this edition published 1999 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in January 2000

J. K. Rowling’s Website

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Harry Potter (2)

Essays, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Short Stories

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Fantasy author Brian Staveley once told me he was haunted by the yellow coat on the cover of The Opposite of Loneliness, and for good reason – he was one of Marina Keegan’s high school teachers. He knew her before the rest of the world knew her. The Opposite of Loneliness would never had been published had Marina Keegan not been killed in a car accident shortly after her college graduation. But because she did, we, the world, and specifically millennials, have a tome of her works to pour over and continually hypothesize about what could have been.

Synopsis

An affecting and hope-filled posthumous collection of essays and stories from the talented Yale graduate whose title essay captured the worlds’ attention in 2012 and turned her into an icon for her generation.

Review

The Opposite of Loneliness is a book that should not exist. The Opposite of Loneliness is the book that I’m glad I didn’t write. These two statements may sound contradictory and my logic and reasoning are complex and circular to say the least. But most importantly, damn can Marina Keegan write. Could. Marina Keegan could write.

Marina Keegan is the new enigma and “could have, would have, should have world of possibilities” now haunting my mind. Her fiction is the writing of a slightly angsty, yearning-to-be-edgy college student exploring the themes of young love, changing families and drug use. She explores complex themes and extended metaphors that a fellow millennial can relate to. Her work, though, sadly leaves so much room for more. There is always room for more to the story. Her work doesn’t end neatly and cleanly wrapped up with a bow on top but open-ended and messy. By all accounts, her life was stereotypical in many ways, her experiences perfectly relatable which leads her fiction into a trap. She doesn’t have the life experience to make it credible.

Following the dozen or so fiction stories come some hard hitting and brainy non-fiction works, including the one about the artichokes that set Wall Street and the world of post-graduate consulting firms and hedge funds on edge. But my favorite, is “Stability in Motion,” Marina Keegan’s ode to her car. There’s a special bond that a teenage girl forges with her car and everything Marina said rang true of my experience as well. I think it’s funny that of all the pieces included, it was that one that stood out to me most. Marina’s writing is sarcastic and sharp, a literature or English professor’s dream. Unfortunately, she’ll never have the chance to grow, to evolve. She will always be a good college writer but held to the standards of what she could have been. The Opposite of Loneliness is worth a read for millennials, but I fear others just might not “get it.”

Marina Keegan, author of The Opposite of Loneliness, and I were born 39 days and 400 miles apart (I was first and further south). By a stroke of luck and the persistence of my mother, I wound up in the graduating college class of 2011 and Marina in the class of 2012. I went to the University of Pittsburgh, Marina to Yale (though I applied, I didn’t have the necessary background and stature required for admission as Marina did). I moved to southeastern Pennsylvania 5 days after my college graduation on May 1, 2011. A year later, five days after her own graduation, Marina died in a car accident.

I don’t know what I was doing on May 26, 2012 – it was the Saturday before Memorial Day, odds are I was shopping or possibly helping my grandmother get ready for her annual picnic to be held that Monday. I didn’t feel any great cosmic shift in the universe, I just went about my business on a typical, hopefully warm, May Saturday. But on that day, Marina Keegan died. And my millennial generation lost a giant that we weren’t even aware of, a literary giant who had spent the last two years of her life sitting in the hallowed halls of my dream school, doing what I love to do more than anything – writing. Writing stories, essays, everything. Marina put a voice to the generation who isn’t sure what they want to do with their lives but is sure of one thing – we wish to make a difference.

I’m heartbroken that Marina’s death is what brought her work to the masses, I’m heartbroken that I can never stand in line at Book Con or an NYC Barnes & Noble hopping up and down excitedly on the balls of my feet, anxiously waiting to meet her and ask her to sign my book. Anxiously waiting to tell her how much I identify with her writing and then getting tongue tied when the moment arrives (invariably this happens to me anytime I meet anyone I really respect in the literary world).

I flew through The Opposite of Loneliness and it was like reading a letter from a long-distance friend. I realized, while reading, that Marina said all the things I was never brave enough to say in college and that the way her professors described her is probably very similar to how mine would have described me. Would Marina and I have been friends if I went to Yale? Probably not – we seem to be too similar – but we would have respected each other, of this I am certain.

Marina’s path represents, to me, one of my many paths not taken. I’ve been writing like a fiend since I was 12, but never thought to do so as a career except for a marvelous three months while studying film at Pitt and indulging in my screenwriting passion and then realizing that I’d never take a screenwriting class at Pitt (long story…) – I wasn’t heartbroken, I moved on to history and theater and political science and studio arts – my interests were (and still are) quite varied. But there is always a thought that strikes me every time I start teaching a new writing class – I absolutely cannot imagine a world without writing. I cannot imagine not having the opportunity to put pen to paper and tell a story or share my thoughts. Such a world is incomprehensible and I’d rather, well, I don’t know what I’d rather, but I refuse to bear witness to such an atrocity as the world without writing.

And that brings me to my ever-eventual point of tying everything in my life back to education. Without writing, without a strong literary culture, the world would have never cultivated the great mind and talent of Marina Keegan. So, I plead with schools, never forsake the written word. Never give up on teaching 2nd graders the importance of writing.

Rating: Essays 8 out of 10 stars, Short Stories 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.00 • 9781476753911 • 256 pages • first published April 2014, this edition published April 2015 by Scribner Book Company • average Goodreads rating 3.82 • read in May 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness Website

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Opposite of Loneliness

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis had been on my TBR list for a very long time, probably since I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation (which I still haven’t seen) at an art theater in the town I grew up in. When Emma Watson, one of my personal heroes, decided to make it a selection for her Goodreads’ Book Club, Our Shared Shelf, I decided to make it a pick for my book club, The Modern Readers, as well.

2 - January 2016 - Persepolis

Synopsis

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming – both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of  girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her county yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Review

Persepolis sheds a great deal of light on a time and place with which most Americans are terribly unfamiliar. Satrapi’s memoir makes the situation more relatable for international audiences through her use of comic strips and content material relating to her childhood and the challenges facing every young girl trying to grow up. Her journey into adulthood is one is equal parts familiar – the desire to listen to music, hang posters in one’s room and have space of their own – and unfamiliar – family members are taken by the revolutionaries, having to live a completely different life with family and in public, and fearing for one’s life on a daily basis.

Overall, the content material was very eye-opening, not just in regards to what life was like in the 1980s in Iran, but also in regards to the role that Iran has played in recent world history both before and after the revolution. We had a very lively discussion at our book club meeting about the difference between a true revolution and a devolution masquerading as a revolution and came to the conclusion that the latter was a more apt description of the situation in Iran described by Satrapi. It is not difficult to understand why both the book and film has become staples of modern world history classes in high school and college alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $24.95 • 9780375714832 • 341 pages • published October 2007 by Pantheon Books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in January 2016

Persepolis on Goodreads

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Persepolis

 

Fiction, Historical

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I enjoy a well written WWII narrative as much as the next person – there’s a reason there is a whole sub-genre of historical fiction dedicated to the time period – 70+ years later it still holds the world’s attention, particular in the current world climate that seems to threaten WWIII. I picked up The Nightingale not only because it’s a WWII story, but because it is the story of two sisters and as an older sister, it is a character relationship I can relate to well.

Synopsis

France, 1939 : In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France… but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can… completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and time again to save others.

Review

The Nightingale is a tale of the women’s war. With few resources and even fewer allies, the women of France fought back against the Nazis, oftentimes right under their noses. The Nightingale is a tale of remarkable courage and bravery and impossible decisions. Impossible decisions that, more often than not, only make things worse.

Our two protagonists, sisters Vianne and Isabelle, could not be more different. Ten years apart in age, their lives could not be more different. Vianne is mother and wife, steadfast in her ways in her small village and Isabelle is rebellious student, constantly moving and finding new directions, new paths, to follow. But The Nightingale does not start with their differences. It begins fifty years later, in the 1990s, with one of the sisters, we do not know which one, narrating and beginning to tell the story of the sisters’ experiences in France.

It begins with an exploration of family and love and how crucial such things are to surviving unbelievable adversity and hardship. The story quickly jumps back to the “beginning” of the story in 1939, and the decision making begins. Really, what is life, besides a constant stream of decision making? Over the course of 500+ pages, Vianne and Isabelle are forced to make decision after decision, the outcome of each and every one having incredible effects on the trajectory of their lives.

The sisters’ love for each other is constantly put to the test, and they do not always respond to such challenges with love and compassion. More than once, their arguments are of the strength that one or the other walks away doesn’t look back or come back for quite some time. But The Nightingale is not, at its heart, a book of regret, but a book of hope. A book of hope that no other family is put through the trials and tribulations that faced the women, and these two particular women and their families, of France ever again.

Over the course of the coming months, there will be a number of reviews of World War II fictional works populating this space. They are all unique and different, but certainly with many similarities. I have enjoyed each one, and I have bawled my eyes out while reading each and every one. As the granddaughter of a German woman who survived growing up in Nürnberg during such a difficult time and has had to live with the stigma of being a German of that generation, it is important to me that I hear as many voices from that time as possible to try to do my part to make sure that the world does not experience such horrors again.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250080400 • 592 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published April 2017 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in March 2016

Kristin Hannah’s Website

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Nightingale

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Royally Matched by Emma Chase

I’m a hopeless royalist, so when the sequel to Royally Screwed was announced, and that the main female lead would be named Sarah and the prince, Henry (FYI, did you know Prince Harry’s real name is Henry?), my seventeen year old self emerged after a decade to jump up and down excitedly.

Synopsis

Some men are born responsible, some men have responsibility thrust upon them. Henry John Edgar Thomas Pembrook, Prince of Wessco, just got the mother-load of all responsibility dumped in his regal lap. He’s not handling it well. Hoping to help her grandson rise to the occasion, Queen Lenora agrees to give him “space” – but while the Queen’s away, the Prince will play. After a chance meeting with an American television producer, Henry finally makes a decision all on his own.

Welcome to Matched: Royal Edition. A reality TV dating game show featuring twenty of the world’s most beautiful blue bloods, all gathered in the same castle. Only one will win the diamond tiara, only one will capture the handsome prince’s heart. While Henry revels in the sexy, raunchy antics of the contestants as they fight for his affection, it’s the quiet, bespectacled girl in the corner – with the voice of an angel and a body that would tempt a saint – who catches his eye.

The more Henry gets to know Sarah Mirabelle Zinnia Von Titebottum, the more enamored he becomes of her simple beauty, her strength, her kind spirit… and her naughty sense of humor. But Rome wasn’t built in a day – and irresponsible royals aren’t reformed overnight. As he endeavors to right his wrongs, old words take on new meanings for the dashing Prince. Words like, Duty, Honor and most of all – Love.

Review

Today the world is remembering a particularly tragic royal story. And while I’ve been reading every Prince Diana in memoriam magazine, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that for the vast majority of us, it’s just a story. We didn’t know her – she inspired us, but we didn’t know her. But to her sons, to her family, even to the Windsors, she was vibrant and full of life. And we, the common folk, the Americans who wish the Windsors were ours as well, still cry over the person we’ve lost.

This might seem like a very strange way to start a review of a new adult romance. But I think it’s the fact that the princes of Wessco, the shirtless men on these two covers, are thoroughly based of of William and Henry, and call it what you will, but Emma Chase uses their own loss in her stories to inform their actions in her stories. And while the first in the series, Royally Screwed, was enjoyable, it didn’t really stick with me for long after reading as Royally Matched has.

The reason, I believe, is the way Chase created and wove together the story of Henry and Sarah. Yes, as a new adult romance, it has it’s fair share of bedroom romps, but there’s actually a well thought out plot, one that is far more complex than the synopsis on the back would lead one to believe, and the characters are richly developed and remarkably well-rounded. Both characters feel they have a greater purpose, a responsibility to help those around them and to lead productive lives. And if you’re going to use the loss of a real figure and the lives of the British princes to influence your storytelling, I’m so glad that Chase decided to give one of her Wessco princes a desire to use his title and influence in a positive way.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781682307762 • 276 pages • published February 2017 by Everafter Romance • average Goodreads rating 4.2 out 5 stars • read in August 2017

Emma Chase’s Website

Royally Matched on Goodreads

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Royally Matched

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Wrath and the Dawn duology by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn was a book I picked up after seeing/listening to a panel about diversity in books. Along with Sabaa Tahir, Marie Lu and Aisha Saeed, Renee Ahdieh shared some very insightful points about diversity in books. I’ve now covered three of the four author’s debut books and I look forward to reading Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars very soon!

Synopsis

Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch… she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.

She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.

Review

When I decided to start a YA book club for teenagers at the book store I work at, I really wasn’t sure what sorts of books they would really take to. We selected The Young Elites by Marie Lu (review to come!) as the first book and thankfully all the girls (all 3!) who attended raved about their love of fantasy. It made me seriously wish there had been such a breadth of choices in the genre when I was in high school. After The Young Elites, we moved on to The Wrath and the Dawn, because I was also trying to make my way through all of the authors I had seen speak on a We Need Diverse Books panel at Book Con and like Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, I was just so excited to read about some ethnically diverse characters in The Wrath and the Dawn.

Renee Ahdieh is officially one of my favorite storytellers. She has a way of telling a story that hearkens back to the times when oral storytelling was the only way of storytelling. As I’m currently reading her newest book, I found it only appropriate to rave about her first duology. The synopsis accurately captures the essence of the plot, but the characters are very complex and the publisher’s marketing materials (the synopsis) doesn’t quite capture their essence. Shazi is a fiercely loyal and very opinionated character who does not change her mind easily. She is easily one of my favorite female protagonists and is exceptionally well rounded. Khalid is rich in his depth and motivations and the two are very well matched both in temperament and strength of will and character. The characteristics of the romance aspect of the story make it very accessible for readers who are looking for a more “traditional” YA and it’s a great transition into fantasy for those who aren’t entirely sure how to flex their imagination muscle (i.e. brain) to enjoy a magical world that has it’s roots in our own world but with some delightful twists and turns that are both unexpected and spectacular.

The first book ends on a pretty huge cliffhanger, but as both books are readily available, you won’t have to wait long to know what happens!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780147513854 • 432 pages • originally published May 2015, this edition published April 2016 by Speak • average Goodreads review 4.16 out of 5 • read in May 2016

Renee Ahdieh’s Website

The Wrath and the Dawn on Goodreads

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Wrath and the Dawn

Contemporary, Fiction

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The bookstore that I work at has a number of book clubs, the largest being the original, with 25 to 30 members and last night, they celebrated their 14th year in existence. Typically, they read former bestsellers, which they vote upon every three months or so. Last November, they voted overwhelmingly to read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I don’t normally pick up the book for the book club, I have my own, The Modern Readers, but after everyone at the store, staff and customer alike, started raving about it, I figured it was one to pick up!

Synopsis

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over – and see everything anew.

Review

I have recommended this book at the store and given it as a gift more times than I can count since reading it in November last year. Gabrielle Zevin’s storytelling is top notch, the pacing is very measured and the page turning comes quite quickly. I laughed, I cried, a shared in A.J.’s joy and despair. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry runs the full gamut of emotions.

The story centers not just on life in the bookstore, but the publishing world and life on a small island as well. Zevin expertly weaves together the stories of not just A. J. and his family, but all of the richly developed and intriguing supporting characters as well. From A. J.’s unexpected best friend, his former sister-in-law, the dynamic and lovely publishing rep, and the seasonal and regular bookstore customers, each is given utmost love and care from their creator, their author. It is clear to any reader that Zevin cares about her characters and she does not take their fates lightly.

It is a perfect summer vacation, beach or airplane read and is a quick one at that. I strongly recommend it for people who enjoy an intriguing and fulfilling story.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.95 • 9781616204518 • 288 pages • originally published April 2014, this edition published December 2014 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Gabrielle Zevin’s Website

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry on Goodreads

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Storied Life of A J Fikry