Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

genre: middle grade historical fiction

Life isn't easy in post-WWII Eastern Berlin but when, overnight, a wall is built cutting her city in two, Gerta's life gets even harder. What's worse is that on the night the wall was built, Gerta's father and brother were on the western side of the city. Separated from her family and hating the constraints of life under the Stasi, Gerta is well aware of what even thinking of freedom can do. Soon, though, her repressed life has her willing to do anything to escape and be with her father again.

This is a good piece of middle grade historical fiction. Greta is a tough protagonist but realistic - she makes poor choices and has to deal with the consequences and her problems are very real. The harshness of the time period is rendered in such a way that you GET that is scary and horrible without things being overly graphic or upsetting. I liked the focus on her family and relationships and the escape story is harrowing and powerful. While it ended rather abruptly, all the way through I was rooting for Gerta and I'd bet other young readers will too.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Irena's Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo (audiobook)


There are few cities who can claim the level of WWII destruction that Warsaw, Poland experienced.  It's unthinkable, really.  For the Jews in this city, the crime of their identity resulted in first, a life on the brink in the ghetto and then, with sickeningly few exceptions, murder.  For the Poles living during this perilous time, you could either stand by and watch or you could choose to fight.  And there were far more ways of fighting than just holding a gun or making a bomb.  For Irena Sendler, a Polish Social Worker and left-wing activitist, her way of fighting was to rescue children - to take them from right under the noses of the Gestapo and to secret them away to safe houses and orphanages where they could wait out the war.

This book was both astonishing and absolutely horrific. It's a beginning to end look at the Warsaw experience during the war, told from the eyes of its resistance and, most particularly, its cells that were committed to hiding young Jews.  The sacrifices and risks of so many regular people is beyond inspiring.  I had a hard time keeping track of all but the most commonly used names, although the author does a good job of helping job our memory about details, clearly the saving of children was a monumental effort made by many individuals across the city and countryside.

Not only was she helping to smuggle children,  Irena's biggest contribution was her "lists" - her compilation of true identities and locations so that, hopefully one day, families could be reunited. And she knew she was doing all of this at the peril of her own life.  There is so much horror here.  The kind that made me cover my mouth with my hand and try to not be sick.  The atrocities against children just cannot be forgotten.  Not ever.  Any group that slaughters the innocent and vulnerable must be stopped.  This book truly shows how people whose hearts are more committed to the right than they are committed to their own safety and comfort can work amazing things.  And like the starfish being thrown back into the ocean one at a time, every infant carried out of the ghetto in a tool box, every toddler carried through a filthy sewer - for every one of these precious ones, Irena provided them with a miracle.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda

genre: fiction, short story

Jan Neruda, the author of this collection, is a big thing in the Czech Republic.  A street in the Mala Strana (lesser town) area of Prague is named after him because of the kinds of stories that are included in this collection.  Jan is a noticer of people - small details in small lives are at the crux of these stories.  Some in first person, some in third, they are all about individuals and the minutiae of daily living.  Shopkeepers, students, grocers and, especially, landlords and tenants and barkeepers - all of these folks one might interact with on a daily basis are given backstories and dreams.  

As a translation, obviously all the names are very foreign and sometimes I had to just let it go when I couldn't keep people straight.  A few stories were very engaging and others were a bit boring and I felt like I was slogging but when I look at the collection as a whole, what I really have is a sense of what life would have been like in this time and place.  What did one worry about and how did one scrape together a living?  Peddlers and flour shop owners, policeman and beggers - no one is wealthy here, this is a hard scrabble life and Neruda gives everyone their due.  Yes, he is a bit anti-Semetic and some characters feel a bit caricatured but overall, it's clear that he found his passion  in looking into lives and then hashing them back out again on paper.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

genre:  young adult contemporary fiction

Growing up in a tiny Tennessee town, there is no way to keep big secrets, not really.  It's no secret that Dill's father, a pentecostal preacher, made choices that affected both his community and Dill's family. It's no secret that Lydia is an up and coming internet sensation with a blog that is just quirky enough to be her ticket out of town.  It's no secret that Travis, son of lumber mill worker, would rather live inside a fantasy novel than in real life.  But there are little secrets, the ones that sometimes you're even afraid to admit to yourself - those secrets can change you in ways both destructive and electrifying.  For these three, at the beginning of their senior year and just on the cusp of the wide open world, it's time to take stock of all that's both revealed and secret and decide who and what they want to be.  If they can be brave enough to dream it.

I did not expect to like this so much.  I don't know why. I think the title threw me, maybe.  But this book had me both weeping at some points and absolutely back in my own first real teenage love the next.  The friendship here is so solid and realistic - how we know SO much about each other and yet, in our teenage selfishness, there is also so much we miss either because it hurts to much to look or because we're so caught up in our own stuff that we don't even know we're missing it.  He captures this so well and while this book is actually painful at some points (I was literally weeping), I feel like it caught me in its grip - I CARED about this three teenage kids and what happened to them.  The contrast between all the parents seemed a bit extreme but not in an unrealistic way - just in the way I would've noticed as a teen myself - hating my own life and wondering "why can't I have parents like that?"  The writing is refreshing - quirky and passionate.  Lydia has some awesome one liners that I had to highlight as I read.

While there is enough language and sexual tension that I'd hesitate to give it to a young teen, there is a lot of heart in this book and to step into the heartache that can live in a rural and outcast life is, I think, a good thing.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Long Way From Home by Saroo Brierley

genre: memoir

When Saroo is five years old, he becomes separated from his family - and not separated like lost in a store.  He accidentally ends up on a train that takes him hundreds of miles away from the familiar streets of his Indian neighborhood.  After being adopted in an Australian family, Saroo's journey to find his family is an astonishing one.

I first heard this story when my daughter showed me a trailer for the movie - I was floored by it.  How is this even possible?  And while I can't give the book five stars because the writing is a bit repetitive and not particularly beautiful, this is a five star miracle, in my opinion.  Several times I was brought to actual tears, trying to imagine the emotions not only of Saroo but also of his birth mother and his adoptive mother.  I appreciate Saroo's honesty in this memoir and the sense it gave me of just another way of life.  His experiences while in India are just so foreign compared to my own, he and I were born at about the same time and his early life might as well have happened on another planet with how similar it was to mine.  What we have in common? A mom that loves us.  Siblings that we watch out for and that watch out for us.  And those most precious things are what he left behind on that horrible train ride.

I loved that we get know the story from beginning to end. The audio version I listened to was well performed and compelling and I found myself wanting to talk about Saroo with all my reader friends.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

genre: novella, fiction

Gregor Samsa has a problem.  He woke up one morning and found, to his surprise, that he'd changed into a bug overnight. On the outside he now looked like some kind of huge nasty bug, but on the inside? He's still Gregor.  And he can't speak but he still has to interact with his family and that's tricky.  Because not only is he silent but he now LOOKS LIKE A BUG.  It doesn't go particularly well for him even as he allows himself to try and use this new body to create surroundings that he feels comfortable in - since he doesn't live in a vacuum, he has to rely on the patience and kindness of others, not the best position to be in when you're a bug.

Woah.  This story.  It's incredibly readable, rather gut-renching sad and also, obviously, a bit strange. Magical realism? To be sure.  No one seems particularly freaked out that he's an insect now, they just think it's a giant shame.  I found the way Gregor's family reacted very interesting - no doubt it is symbolic of his own relationships and his own feelings within the sphere of Kafka's personal life.  When I finished I immediately wanted some analysis beyond what I could tease out myself, and in my reading I wasn't surprised to read how deeply and frequently the story is studied in school - so many themes and ideas to discuss in here. Kafka certainly created a rich and layered text within a rather simple story.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

genre: young adult fantasy

The Dragon lives in his tower, aloof above Agnieszka's beloved village.  Of course, he's not really a dragon - he's a man, a wizard, whose power the village depends on in order to stay safe from the toxic corruptions of The Wood.  The Wood that almost has a life of its own as it reaches out to ensnare those who wander too close.

When The Dragon and Agnieszka's fates become entwined with the kind of magic needed to fight the wood, truly everything beautiful in her life is at stake.

Wow.  This book was an interesting ride.  I loved it's Polish-ness, the names and the foods and the earthy scent of the magic.  And so creative!  To have a FOREST be the antagonist?  I wasn't sure how it would work but it ended up sometimes startling me with its depth - some seriously dark magic happening here.  Agnieszka is an intriguing heroine, purposefully wary of anything too feminine, she knows where her power lies and it is NOT in being beautiful or captivating anything with her wiles.  Her strength is in her connection to the land and her love of home and family.  While there were a couple scenes that were graphic enough that I would hesitate to give it to my 14 year old son, I really liked the plot and resolution here.  Good stuff.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Dreams of Gods and Monsters (Daughter of Smoke and Bone #3) by Laini Taylor (audiobook)

genre: paranormal fantasy

For the second time I have listened to this third volume and for the second time I have been astonished.

The breadth of this story, the ambitiousness of its scope - it's almost TOO much, the way all the tiny pieces fall into place with such precision. The parts that made me weep the first time, with their beauty, made me weep again. For myself, I especially love the creative particulars, the images that astonish me with their rightness even in the midst of so much death and hopelessness.

But it is those characters that don't just overcome hopeless but DEFY it, refuse to let hope die even when there is no reason to do so, THAT I love. This is a story of war and the price of peace and the willingness to be grateful for whatever redemption you can muster.

It's got its teeth in me, this series of books. I don't doubt that I'll listen again someday.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Munich Signature (Zion Covenant #3) by Bodie Thoene

genre: historical fiction

In this third installment, we are still following Murphy, Elisa, Leah and Shimon as Hitler begins his plans to take over Czechoslovakia.   While the fate of nations is in the hands of just a very few, there are millions feeling the effects of their choices.  While there are those who want to stand firm against Hitler, their voices are getting harder and harder to hear.  In their own ways, our four main characters are trying to stay alive and keep hope that peace is still possible - all the while fearing the poisonous reach of Hitler and his Gestapo.

I like these books because they put human faces, albeit fictional ones, onto the masses of ordinary people whose lives were upended - both normal German citizens and all Europeans.  This installment certainly splays open American intolerance and hesitation to help take in refugees - a situation that feels eerily familiar right now.  This book feels a little more politically-heavy as opposed to plot-driven and I wasn't as engrossed in it as I have been in others but I did like it and by 2/3 of the way through was more eager to pick it up.

Days of Blood and Starlight (Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2) by Laini Taylor (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy/paranormal

Yes, this is my third re-read of this book.

It still astonishes me, how deep it goes.  How dark.  How Karou changes - HAS to change - in order to be the person that fate (and Brimstone) have set her up to be.  Both she and Akiva make the kind of choices I've never had to make, because I don't live in a world that is ONLY hate and war, with no alternative.  I was telling my husband about how much these books make me think about really big existential ideas, as I try to imagine what WOULD it take for people at war to JUST STOP.  Let it go!  BE NICE!  HAVE MERCY!  I think what's hard about this book is that Laini Taylor doesn't shy away from how black the soul can get when a person decides that mercy is not a choice - the things you'd do when all you have is hate and a fierce believe that YOUR idea of right is the ONLY one that counts.  It's terrifying, really, and certainly applies to parts of our world today.

Second books are hard to read because not only is there not resolution but because we only go into more ugly places before we can come back out.  There is little levity here, but there IS beauty, when unthinkable sacrifices are made and when there are moments when mercy and love are allowed purchase.

I can't wait to finish the series again.
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