Non-Fiction, Memoir/Autobiography, Political Science

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Like my present obsession with the Royals (well, persistent obsession since I was 7 years old and Diana died), I’ve recently become entranced by the the American version, and no, I absolutely do not mean the Kardasians, but those who occupy the White House. Prior to the current occupants. Wow, there are a lot of stipulations on my interests… anyway, White House memoirs and bios are my jam lately apparently.

Synopsis

Alyssa Mastromonaco worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, and long before his run for president. From the then-senator’s early days in Congress to his years in the Oval Office, she made Hope and Change happen through blood, sweat, tears, and lots of briefing binders.

But for every historic occasion – meeting the queen at Buckingham Palace, bursting in on secret climate talks, or nailing a campaign speech in a hailstorm – there were dozens of less-than-perfect moments when it was up to Alyssa to save the day. Like the time she learned the hard way that there aren’t nearly enough bathrooms as the Vatican.

Full of hilarious, never-before-told stories, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a “White House official” is supposed to look like.

Review

I had a whole clever introduction figured out in my head earlier today, but, as is the case with my most brilliant phrases, they were lost to the sands of time because I didn’t write them down. That happens more often these days it seems. When I first picked up Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, I did so with the intention of giving it to my mother for her birthday. And then I really hoped she’d read it, and then I’d read it, and we could talk about it. I don’t think she’s read it yet though, so I’m going to share all of my thoughts with you lovely readers!

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly how to classify this book – part memoir, part job search assistant, part political insider knowledge, part humor, part everything, and I enjoyed each and every facet of it. Lately I’ve been trying to find the motivation to take the steps necessary to move back into the world of teaching and, once I realized that the intended release date was meant to coincide with graduations, the job advice part really made sense and stuck. It’s been quite helpful, and I’m glad I’ve finished it before high school graduation season here at the store so that I can recommend it to those looking for insightful and helpful presents.

The timeline of Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is not chronological which, for a memoir, takes some getting used to (I would make memoir its primary genre, though I found it in domestic affairs at a B&N which I disagree with – we shelve it in biography). As with First Women, Mastromonaco tends to share things thematically, which I appreciated. There are some continuing threads, including stories of her cat and family (some of my personal favorites) and travel, mostly with Obama. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an enjoyable book about political life that really has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with growing up and figuring out who you are while you attempt to change the world and bring hope to America.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9781455588237 • 272 pages • originally published March 2017, this edition published March 2018 by Twelve • average Goodreads rating 3.89 out of 5 • read May 2018

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Who Thought This Was a Good Idea

 

Fantasy, Fiction

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Do you ever look at your shelves of books and think “This book has been here too long.”? That’s how I’ve felt about A Darker Shade of Magic – I’ve had it since 2015 and I’ve been recommending it to bookstore patrons for just as long, but without admitting that I hadn’t read it. So now, it’s time, I have read it. And for the life of me I can’t figure out why it took so long.

Synopsis

Welcome to Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, with one mad king – George III. Then there is Red London, where life and magic are revered, and White London, a city slowly being drained through magical war, down to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London… but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler – one of the last magicians who can travel between the worlds – acting as ambassador and messenger between the Londons, in the service of the Maresh empire. Unofficially, he’s a smuggler, which is a dangerous hobby for him to have – as proved when Kell stumbles into a setup with a forbidden token from Black London.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty aspirations, who first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure. But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Review

It’s been quite awhile since I read a fantasy novel, longer still since I read one that is typically shelved on the adult side of the store versus young adult. This fact is one that makes my coworkers laugh, given that I am the staff member most likely to offer recommendations in said section. I’d been meaning to read A Darker Shade of Magic since it first came out shortly before I took my bookstore job in 2015 and first started hearing wonderful things about Victoria/V. E. Schwab.

I certainly was not disappointed. Given how few fiction books have held my attention these days, the fact that I finished it in the first place is a massive endorsement. Kell and Lila are a fun pair of characters, equally matched in cleverness and wits and I appreciated that they were both well developed and quite wonderfully flawed. The plot was quick and enjoyable and, thankfully, the moments of suspense were done so wonderfully – I actually feared for the characters lives, despite knowing that further books in the series exist.

Additionally, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger! I was nearly jumping up in down when I got to the end and didn’t want to chuck the book across the room. Cliffhangers make me nuts – I’ve found I’ve mostly lost my taste for series these days and I enjoy a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. A Darker Shade of Magic can be read all on its own, but for the promise of female pirates in the second, V. E. Schwab has this girl hooked!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780765376466 • 416 pages • originally published February 2015, this edition published January 2016 by Tor Books • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read May 2018

V. E. (Victoria) Schwab’s Website

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Darker Shade of Magic

History, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

First Women by Kate Andersen Brower

I’ve always loved biographies of the royals and, as an #ImWithHer girl, when I realized that First Women existed, I figured it would be one that I should take a look at.

Synopsis

One of the most underestimated – and demanding – positions in the world, the first lady of the United States must be many things: an inspiring leader with a forward-thinking agenda of her own; a savvy politician, skilled at navigating the treacherous rapids of Washington; a wife and mother operating under constant scrutiny; and an able CEO responsible for the smooth operation of the White House resident. Now, as she did in The Residence, former White House correspondent Kate Andersen Brower draws on a wide array of untapped, candid sources – from residence staff and social secretaries to friends and political advisers to the former first ladies themselves – to tell the stories of the ten remarkable women who have defined the role since 1960.

Brower offers new insights into this privileged group of women. The stories she shares range from the heartwarming to the shocking and tragic, exploring everything from their friendships with other first ladies to their public and private relationships with their husbands. She also presents a new portrait of one of the most-watched first ladies of all time, Hillary Clinton.

Review

I poured through First Women with an obsessive attitude. I devoured all of the information about the first  ladies from Jackie to Michelle (I read the hardcover and therefore did not read the afterward about Melania). First Ladies includes glimpses into the lives of the following ladies: Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Rosalind Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush & Michelle Obama with a few illusions to Mamie Eisenhower and the first truly modern first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

I’ve always had my personal favorites, Jackie, Nancy, Hillary & Michelle, and the others I really didn’t know much about. My favorite line emphasizes the regal aspect of the Kennedys, when Grace Kelly’s daughter, and real life princess, Princess Caroline, refers to Caroline Kennedy as Princess Caroline Kennedy. I’ve always been fascinated by Jackie and so learning more about her thrilled me. Learning more about Rosalind, Pat & Barbara, who just recently pasted away, was also enlightening and enlivening.

Each chapter is divided by topic, not by first lady as I anticipated. This was mostly helpful, though occasionally confusing. Brower has a penchant to use lots of pronouns, which means I would often lose track of which first lady she would be referring to. Additionally, her primary source in regards to Michelle Obama was clearly her hair dresser and every time Michelle enters the narrative, Brower feels the need to emphasize, repeatedly, that Michelle did not want to be first lady. Over and over again – we get it, she didn’t want to be there. It seemed like the life of Michelle was shunted aside in favor of Lady Bird and Nancy particularly.

Because of this, what I feel was an, extreme oversight of the value of the first lady beloved by the country, I did not have the most favorable opinion of the book, and yet, I couldn’t stop reading.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062439666 • 416 pages • first published April 2016, this edition published January 2017 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 3.70 out of 5 stars • read in May 2018

Kate Andersen Brower’s Website

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First Women

Non-Fiction, STEM

What If? by Randall Munroe

The audiobook kick continues! My husband recommends this book to just about everyone (despite the fact that he hasn’t read it!) so I figured it was about time I revisit the realm of science and read (welll, listen to) it myself.

Synopsis

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do his deeply researched answers to his fans’ strangest questions. The queries he receives range from merely odd to downright diabolical: – What if I took a swim in a spent-nuclear-fuel pool? – Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns? – What if a Richter 15 earthquake hit New York City? – Are fire tornadoes possible? His responses are masterpieces of clarity and wit, gleefully and accurately explaining everything from the relativistic effects of a baseball pitched at near the speed of light to the many horrible ways you could die while building a periodic table out of all the actual elements. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with the most popular answers from the xkcd website. What If? is an informative feast for xkcd fans and anyone who loves to ponder the hypothetical.

Review

What a fun book! I love hypothetical questions, I am the person who constantly had to ask “Why?” in school, much to the chagrin of my teachers, I’m sure. However, it does mean that, as a teacher, I will always answer my students “Why-s.” The topics covered in What If? range across many different aspects of math and science and is the perfect classroom book – for students who finish early on work, or who just love to question everything about the world around them.

My one gripe – it does get a little highbrow. Between each “chapter” (serious question), there are other questions collected that Munroe doesn’t answer, and instead gives a snarky remark/answer to, basically treating them like stupid questions he doesn’t deem worthy of answering. Downside to this, even the smartest of readers don’t always know why he considers them stupid and would really like to know the answer to said questions. I’d take an answer over a snarky comment any day.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $25.00 • 9780544272996 • 320 pages • published September 2014 by Houghton Mifflin • average Goodreads rating 4.17 out of 5 • read in May 2018

xkcd Website

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Fiction, Historical

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

UPDATED WITH SARAH’S REVIEW!

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

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

Laura’s Review

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

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

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

Laura’s Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Sarah’s Review

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

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

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

Sarah’s Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

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

Annie Barrows’ Website

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Guernsey 2

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Looking for an interesting historical book about Nazi Germany, and knowing that my book club was going to read Dead Wake, I decided to read In the Garden of Beasts. Downside, it is a difficult book to get into, upside, the audiobook is well done and enjoyable.  

Synopsis

The time is 1933; the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance, and – ultimately – horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Review

In the Garden of Beasts is a bit dry. Even for those who are very interested in the time period, and Americans’ experiences in early Nazi Germany it can be a bit difficult to get into. Therefore, I recommend pairing it with another book that covers an alternate perspective during the same time, or close to it. And listen to the audiobook.

In the Garden of Beasts is less the story of the Dodd family and more the story of what was really going on in 1933 Berlin, and Germany as a whole. Even most people with an interest in the time and subject matter do not know of just how atrocious that actions of the Brownshirts/Stormtroopers/SA/SS were at the time. The concentration camps? Already in existence. Jewish purges? Already happening. Americans threatened? Yep. Already hating the Soviet Union? Check. To the point where the US didn’t even want to acknowledge it’s existence. Hitler lying repeatedly? Absolutely. Dissidents disappearing mysteriously or being shot point blank? Anyone who denies any of this, and the war atrocities and Holocaust happening? Remind them that the Nazis gave us one small means of confirming their despicable actions – they were meticulous record keepers.

Like all populist revolutions, the German revolution started off with charismatic leaders and promises that most people could support. As mentioned in my review of Four Perfect Pebbles, however, this seemingly perfect revolution can quickly become dangerous. The same thing happened in Iran as recounted in Persepolis. No one should think that they have to destroy an entire group of people.

Also, Erik Larson does a terrific job of differentiating between the German people and the members of the Nazi party. The Dodds were in Germany at a time when the German army still held loyalty to the president, Hindenburg, not the chancellor, Hitler. The actions of the Nazis were not the actions of all of the German people. As the granddaughter of a German woman who, while not Jewish, still suffered greatly during the war, my sister and I appreciate the distinction being made. My grandmother faced enough adversity in coming to the US without needing to be blamed for killing people, she was only ten years old when the war ended.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408853 • 448 pages • originally published May 2011, this edition published May 2012 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.82 out of 5 stars • read March 2018

Erik Larson’s Website

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In the Garden of Beasts

Memoir/Autobiography, Middle Grades, Non-Fiction

Four Perfect Pebbles by Lila Perl & Marion Blumenthal Lazan

One of my grandmothers grew up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, specifically in Nürnberg and the surrounding countryside. She doesn’t talk about it. As such, I have spent my entire life fascinated by the stories of German children between 1933 and 1945. I don’t remember the first book I read that fit the bill for learning more about that time and people’s experiences, but Four Perfect Pebbles was a book that quickly caught my attention. And when I found out that Marion would be coming to the bookstore I work at, I knew it was going to be a moving moment.

Marion Blumenthal Lazan (r) & I (l)

Marion Lazan

Synopsis

Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s unforgettable and acclaimed memoir recalls the devastating years that shaped her childhood. Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Blumenthal family – father, mother, Marion, and her brother, Albert – were trapped in Nazi Germany. They managed eventually to get to Holland, but soon thereafter it was occupied by the Nazis. For the next six and a half years the Blumenthals were forced to live in refugee, transit, and prison camps, including Westerbork in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, before finally making it to the United States. Their story is one of horror and hardship, but it is also a story of courage, hope, and the will to survive.

Review

Marion describes her story as the one that Anne Frank might have told had she survived past March 1945. Both Anne and Marion spent time in Westerbork and later Bergen-Belsen. Of the 120,000 Jews detained in Westerbork, 102,000 perished before the end of World War II, 18,000 survived. Anne fell into the former group, Marion, the latter. While Anne’s story is typically read by pre-teens and early teenagers in the world today, Marion’s serves as an introduction for those who are just starting to ask their parents and teachers how people can be so mean and intolerant of one another.

In a society that is quickly becoming more divided and more intolerant, Marion’s message of hope, faith, and family strength, is even more important than it was when she first started discussing her experiences a couple decades ago. While most may brush off the striking similarities to the current president’s rise to power and the Nazis, it is hard for those who truly know their history to ignore. It is even harder for those who know that atrocities of WWII still ring loud in their older generation’s ears, and yet their younger generations engage in racist and destructive behavior.

Marion’s story is one of compassion and hope during one of the world’s worst times. My only reason for giving a less than superb rating is that brevity of the book. While written with young children (9-11 years old) in mind, there is only so much that one can remember about those years themselves, particularly 50 years later, as was the case when Marion & Lila wrote Four Perfect Pebbles and Marion recounted her childhood to Lila. Everyone always wants more from a good book, but at 160 pages, Four Perfect Pebbles is incredible concise.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $6.99 • 9780062489968 • 160 pages • originally published March 1996, this edition published October 2016 by Greenwillow Books • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 • re-read March 2018

Four Perfect Pebbles Website

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133-Four Perfect Pebbles

History, Non-Fiction, Political Science, Sociology

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

I’ve decided I might as well just go ahead and start calling 2018 my year of nonfiction. Two full months in and I’ve only read one traditional work of fiction out of the 10 books I’ve read. Also, I’m prepared to lose friends and alienate certain groups of people over this review and if that’s the case, so be it. I’ve accepted it and made my peace with it.

Synopsis

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

Review

I will never support the current president of the United States. He is not the person that I voted for and he is not the person that the majority voted for. I woke up the day after Election Day 2016 in tears, not because we didn’t elect our first female president (yes, I was bummed about that), but because it seemed that a man who lied and connived his way into the top office managed to hoodwink a bunch of my fellow Americans into supporting him. I couldn’t believe it. I cried foul. Because they failed to notice the overt similarities between his campaign and those of the Nazi party and fascists of Europe in the twentieth century.

Now, let me make myself clear – I have nothing against Republicans, hell, most republicans I know do not like our current president. I do, however, have something to say to all those who let themselves be dragged into the media circus that was his campaign. It’s taken me a full year to finally come to terms with my feelings on the whole matter and I’m pleased to report that when I did finally settle into how I feel about it all, after many panic attacks and moments of depression and despair, I realized that this is not solely a gender issue. I’m not a whiny woman sad that Hilary does not sit in the oval office simply because I wanted a female president (someone I had once considered a friend accused me of this). It is, as Timothy Snyder outlines, an issue of tyranny and group behavior that leads to tyrannical leaders landing in power – and staying there.

Those who voted for the current president are supporting a man who acts against just about everything that the Founding Fathers sought to safeguard our country against. Snyder points out repeatedly that we have ignored history. And when we ignore history, especially recent history, we find ourselves doomed to repeat it. When we ignore nationalistic behavior, when we ignore propaganda and language that subverts our freedoms and democracy, when we turn on our neighbors and judge them by their race, religion, sexual identity, etc. we find ourselves screwed.

I absolutely refuse to sit idly by and watch that happen. I will not stay quite in the face of people who cannot manage a well reasoned argument or defense and simply resort to shouting the same mantra over and over. I refuse to let people degrade others by using harmful stereotypes to prejudge or discriminate against them. And I refuse to be silenced by those who would rather I say and do nothing at all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $8.99 • 9780804190114 • 128 pages • published February 2017 by Tim Duggan Books • average Goodreads rating 4.26 out of 5 stars • read March 2018

Timothy Snyder’s Website

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On Tyranny

Fiction, Historical

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

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

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

Synopsis

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

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

Jennifer Vanderbes’ Website

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Secret of Raven Point

Fiction, Historical, 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

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