Saturday, March 25, 2017

Vienna Prelude by Bodie Thoene

genre: Christian historical fiction

I first read this series of books twenty years ago (literally within a month of twenty years, I just looked it up!) and when I saw three of the middle books on the shelf at the thrift store, I snatched them up.  Back then, I fell in love with this set of stories for their multidimensional characters, the thorough historical setting and for the romantic interplay between our main character, the German violinist Elisa and John, the American journalist.  I also liked that faith is a part of the story, that people choose to use their faith to give them the strength to stand up, in whatever way they can, to the evil that they are surrounded by.

In this first book, we learn Elisa is Jewish but her appearance allows her to have an Aryan stage name.  This allows her some safety within the growing cloud of Nazi power but, living in Vienna and playing in the orchestra there means that she is not far from a violent that is nearly boiling over into her beloved adopted homeland of Austria.  John Murphy, meanwhile, is abreast of all political developments and he can see the writing on the wall.  Elisa's best friend is openly Jewish and sees Palestine as an option but Elisa knows that her heart remains in Europe - but at what cost?  And what of the danger she can't help but see?

I like that the authors are certainly Christian but see all faith as important.  I like that they do not shy away from the violence - if they did, I couldn't believe their story - but they aren't trying to shock me.  There is a lot of political stuff in here, straight up history that these characters are a part of.   They aren't perfect - sometimes a little repetitive, sometimes the romance is a bit to romance-novely-flip-floppy but I just kind of love it anyway.  I am going to read this whole dang series again, I think.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (audiobook)

genre: historical fiction

Three women.  Three countries.  One war.

Caroline Ferriday lives a glittering New York City life, volunteering at the French Consulate and supporting whatever other charities catch her fancy.

In Lublin, Poland, Kasia Kuzmerick is a typical teenager when Nazi forces invade her homeland and her heart forces her to take a stand.

Herta Oberheuser is trying to make a place for herself as a doctor and a female in an increasingly hostile Germany.  When she sees a job opening at a reeducation camp, it seems like the perfect place to begin to get some real medical experience.

After two different friends from very different parts of my life recommended this book to me over a short period, I decided to make it be my next audiobook.  I was hooked from the start.  The three distinct voices (all very well performed) helped me to immerse myself in this World War II story of destruction and unthinkable evil that somehow produces stories of hope, courage and kindness.   I have to say that our author did well having Herta as one of the narrators.  It is HARD to read the point of view of the enemy - it humanizes them in a way that makes swift judgements complicated.  I feel like it made the story far deeper and more powerful to have some sense of her side of the story - not that it frees her from blame but that it gives us a sense of how complicated it was to be a German, especially a woman trying to practice medicine, at that time.

It took a while for me to figure out how all three of these women would come together but I really was engaged in how it did and I especially like that it is based on true events. I appreciated that our story went far beyond the end of the war, not shying from the emotional implications of experiencing the kind of trauma that concentration camp survivors endured even though they were freed. Sometimes the big jumps in time felt a tiny bit discombobulating but it didn't ever take long for me to feel settled again.. I wept at the end, amazed at the power that truth and knowledge can give to us.

If you enjoy World War II literature as I do, I'd suspect you'll find this a unique addition to the genre. I thought the audio was excellently done.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

genre: historical fiction

Moth's life in the slums of New York City is harsh and, alone with her mother, both lonely and joyless.  Set just post Civil-War, there few opportunities available for girls on the dirty streets of the Lower East Side.  When Moth is left to fend for herself she manages to find her way to food, shelter and safety - but the price will be so hard to pay.

I chose this because I enjoy stories of early New York and it was on sale for a dollar on my Kindle - I didn't really read very closely what it was about and so I didn't know what to expect.  Here's what I liked: the historical setting and the world that Moth lives in, I liked that I learned some things and whenever I Googled something, the author was spot on, so I felt like it was pretty historically accurate.  I liked one of the secondary characters, a female doctor, a lot.

Do I LOVE to read books about prostitution, especially involving young girls?  I don't so much, so people should know ahead of time that's much of the story.  You'd THINK I'd have guessed it from the title but I just totally didn't even pay attention to that. Although it's not particularly graphic, it's still hard to read about such heartbreaking decisions and, truthfully, as much I felt sad for Moth, the writing style just didn't help me get completely attached to her.  It's told with a lot of stops and starts as we have some journal entries from other characters and newspaper articles and advertisements.  I liked the information and the overall flow of the story but the ending wrapped up really quickly with at least one serious loose end, I felt rushed out the door.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Twelve Little Cakes by Dominika Dery

genre: memoir

When Dominika is born, her country of Czechoslovakia is under the iron fist of Communism.  Her parents, however, are dissidents which makes Dominika's life a struggle, to say the least.  In a world where her neighbors are ready to report any movement her family makes, where every project requires bribery of some kind and there is only ever money to barely get by, Dominika somehow ends up with a loving and, strangely enough, charming childhood.  Beginning in her very early years, Dominika's memoir of living in the outskirts of Prague during the late 70s and 80s paints a unique picture.  She is a clever and naughty one, sometimes her antics made me cringe or laugh out loud!

Especially as she gets older, I truly got a sense of what life must've been like living in Prague during that time period.  The clear juxtaposition between party elite and those who do not support the regime.  It's almost comical, how her father had to finagle everything because he refused to give in to the pressure.  When I put it together that she's only about 18 months older than me, I had to wrap my brain around how different our two upbringings were, despite the fact that we were going through it all at the same time.  Sometimes it even felt nearly dystopian, like 1984, the way you were watched, interrogated, fired from your employment.  I can't imagine the relief when the Velvet Revolution finally created a more open government - little Dominika's entire childhood was a shifting and growing awareness of how different she was because of her family's decision to not support the Communist government.

I really liked this - it's an incredibly readable story and while I always have a hard time with memoirs that are so descriptive when one was so very young that you can't possibly remember EVERYTHING, even the tone of the book, Dominika's experiences at school and with her family, they just were good reading whether they were perfectly accurate or not. She a refreshing little heroine and despite her family's hardships, she seems to have been given an incredibly solid foundation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

genre: fiction short stories

I'm not the biggest fan of short story collections, I should just put that out there.  This was a book club choice and I probably wouldn't have chosen it off the shelf, I find that I loose interest and when I'm done, I never really know how to sum up a collection of short stories.  Each one is so incredibly different, with no real overarching theme except maybe the idea the every one of us is hiding something - and each of us will need something particular to unlock it.

I like that they all had a foreign glaze (well, foreign to me as an American) - one seeped us in Spain, others in London, several in the Czech Republic and Prague in particular, some that clearly aren't HERE but aren't really anywhere we know either.  Her writing is both beautiful and lush.  I had to look up words I didn't know and when I did, my reading experience was richer for it.  Her characters are sometimes so blah that they are intentionally impossible to understand and other times they are intriguing and full of life.  Nearly every story has characters who are of color or LGBTQ without that being the point.  I really liked how in so many instances there were characters that we would meet in one story that would pop up later, which just made the threads in my head race around trying to place people and events in some kind of context.

There are puppeteers.  There are washerwomen and artists who possess keys to secret gardens.  There are feminists and readers and peasant women, office workers and psychologists.  The pages of this collection drip with magical realism, which I usually really like but was hit or miss here.  Sometimes they were just too much of a stretch for me or they ended before I was invested enough to super care. Maybe her depth and the just-strange-enough-names of her characters made my brain work too hard for me to fully enjoy myself.

note: there is language and a few graphic scenes

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward (audiobook)

genre: adult fiction

The Same Sky is told in alternating viewpoints: Alice, a Texas bbq restaurant owner and Carla, a twelve year old living in Honduras with her grandmother and twin little brothers.  Worlds apart, in so many ways, but they both long for what they can't have.  For Carla, she wants her mother, she wants enough food to eat and to feel safe in her home.  For Alice, she wants a child, with a longing so fierce it might break her.

How can we move forward when we don't have what we want most?  At the heart of this really moving story, both Carla and Alice have to decide if they are brave enough to either move forward into the terrifying unknown, or to be still and accept an incredibly painful reality, both of which require a kind of bravery you can only find if you dig deep inside yourself.  This is a story of poverty, the kind that is hard to imagine and read about.  It's a story about what you are willing to do to make a dream come true. It's raw, at times - especially Carla's storyline.  Her life made me ache, it made me go online and read about if people really and truly do live this way.  And they do.  It makes me sympathetic in a way that feels almost embarrassing, needing to acknowledge how privileged of a life I have.

And Alice - I felt her pain too.  I liked her arc as a character and I believed in her voice and while sometimes her decisions were frustrating, I got it.  I feel like I have SUCH a better appreciation for the desperation one must feel to try and leave your home and come to America - and a better appreciation of the courage it takes to make the journey.  I like how this is also a Texas story - I'd recommend it to anyone looking for an emotional and meaningful book about this unique area where cultures are colliding and especially for someone interested in the plight of the undocumented.

I listened to the audio and the voices of both Carla and Alice were really well done.  My only complaint is that sometimes Alice would backtrack - like, in the middle of a conversation she'd tell us a different story from her past before zipping back to the present and it was sometimes jarring.  But, in the end, I found myself really feeling for their characters and I did have a few tears of both sadness and joy.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Eyewitness Travel Prague by DK Publishing

genre: nonfiction, travel

I'm being obsessed with Prague right now.  I've never actually read a guidebook from cover to cover because I typically use the internet to learn about places but, in this case, I actually just wanted to learn all I could about the city without anyone's opinions on it.  Not only is this where Daughter of Smoke and Bone takes place,  but at the turn of the century, my mother's family immigrated from towns just outside Prague that DON'T have books about them so reading about Prague, I felt, would give me the best sense of the history of the area without actually having to read a textbook :)  

And I was right!  There is a great historical section at the beginning of this book with lots of pictures and timelines that are great reference - plus, as you read about different buildings or areas, they provide the original historical page numbers so you can go back and remind yourself about what you learned and place it in historical context.

I really loved learning about this ancient city.  I feel like I have a sense of the basic conflicts and resolutions as well as the actual geography of the space - the different districts and major landmarks. The graphics in this guide book are quite good and there MANY colorful maps and diagrams. My only complaint (why it gets 4 stars instead of 5) is that sometimes things felt a bit out of order. In general, there would be a map of a district, say New Town, and on that map are lots of numbers that correspond to different paragraphs about that specific place.  Almost always, it would go map then paragraphs (so you could go back and forth to reference).  And then a couple times, there would be additional numbers that weren't on that initial map and so I'd search all around and find that number on a later map and that was annoying.  Consistency would've been better - or a notation to see map on pg. # whatever.

Of course, at the end there are practical sections for people who are actually going to travel there, which seem to be very thorough and up-to-date, but probably I would always look online first before traveling to make sure things haven't changed. I did skim through most of that stuff but there appears to be lots of suggestions for hotels/restaurants, etc.   I don't actually know if they skipped anything important but it was really full of information and for places of larger significance (the most popular cathedrals/art galleries/palaces) they would get their own two page spreads with suggested walking routes and particular things to look out for.

I think this book is really well done and an awesome resource for people who either are going to travel there or just want to learn about this major city and the surrounding area.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (audiobook)

genre: young adult fiction

One day. Is it possible for one day to change everything? Both Natasha and Daniel believe it is, despite all the things they feel differently about: like how Natasha puts her faith in facts, observable and record-able, and like how Daniel feels things so deeply, knowing that falling in love can happen in an instant. Even with two totally different ways of looking at a situation, they both know that, despite having just met, something is THERE - even if this happens to be a horrible day for that kind of magic to happen.

THIS BOOK. Oh, it made me feel things. The chaos and beauty and power of that first, real love. I hurt for Natasha and her family, preparing to be deported back to Jamaica, their relationships so full of unsaid disappointments. And I ached for Daniel's family, who all live together in America but life in Korea is seeped in everything they do and every choice they make.

I loved the narrative format that let me alternate listening in the heads of both Natasha and Daniel. Short forays in the stories of minor characters fleshes out and deepens the idea that we ALL have a story - and that every choice we make can affect others in ways we'd never dreamed.

I loved this book - it doesn't shy away from family dysfunction, immigration issues, racial issues - but there is heart in there so deep that you can't help but feel compassion even with all the trickiness.

Note: the readers are AMAZING in the audio but be aware there is strong language

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

genre: young adult fantasy
The Fate of the Tearling is the third and final book in a series (book one here and book two here) so, obviously spoilers ahead.
Kelsea is in the grips of the Red Queen.  Alone and powerless, her only solace is that in giving herself up she has bought her kingdom time - at least, she thinks she did.  But Mace, left behind in New London, knows that only she is fated to lead.  And he will do whatever it takes to put her back on the throne - but at what cost?  With the Red Queen still a force to be reckoned with and a dark magic leaking from the mountains, even if she is saved, Kelsea may have nothing left to rule.
There is some interesting time-travely-stuff going on in this book again.  Because not only are we reading Kelsea's story, but in her head she keeps going back to the time of William Tear and the initial community he designs after the Crossing - and here is where things get complicated.  It is one thing to imagine a Utopia, it is another to convince very fallible people that they want to stay in one.  I found this particularly interesting, finally being able to put all the pieces together that we'd been getting snatches of for two books.  It's a well-done narrative device, I think.  Not perfect and sometimes a little bit of a stretch but I think in the end, it worked for me.  Yes, it would'be been cool to get more nuts and bolts of HOW and WHY for various things but what we got was still good.  And then end, while not as tied-up-with-a-bow as maybe it could have been, actually felt strangely satisfying and hopeful.  If I can suspend my disbelief to go along with all the other crazy things that happened in this book, then the ending should be absolutely not a problem to swallow.
I enjoyed this series.  I think with a bit more romance I would've liked it more - this is definitely a darker story (more graphic sexual content and language than your average YA series) but with a really simple and important question at its' heart: what would you give up to make a better world?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Unbearable Lightness of Being By Milan Kundera

genre: philosophical fiction

Dear Mr. Kundera,

I read your book.  It got rave reviews from everyone and so I thought I would give it a try - I'm trying to learn about your homeland because it's where my ancestors are from.  People tell me that yours is one of the quintessential Czech novels.   And while yes, it did take place in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) for the most part, I'm just not feeling the quintessentialness of it.   Your book has four main characters who are, both individually and collectively, a mess.  Self-centered and with few redeeming qualities, it was hard for me to ever super care about what happened to them.  Tomas, especially, with his inexhaustible need for women, never really made me feel deeply (except for that scene with the DOG - THAT'S the only scene in this entire book that made me feel something REAL!).    Okay, that dog scene was good.  But seriously!  All the philosophical discussion, while in short snatches made me THINK, often it just dragged and clogged up what slow-moving plot we had going on and I felt like you were trying really really hard to appear deep and philosophical instead of just BEING it.  Sometimes entire concepts were actually beyond me which was uncomfortable and while I just plowed through it, it didn't make me eager to pick up the book.

I DID like when you stepped out of the omniscient narrator role and became a watching and engaged character for little snippets.  That was interesting.

Sometimes things got very irreverent and coarse and I felt like you were trying to shock me, which sits uneasily but perhaps that was your point?

To sum up, it was really slow reading because it was, truthfully, somewhat boring but there are two things that make this book deserve three stars despite the many many graphic sexual scenes I had to skim through which got annoying.  Okay. Two things.

#1.  I did get a sense of the timeline of more modern Czech history through the eyes of your characters. Not a sense of the PLACE so much, I don't feel like I really KNOW Prague or the Czech Republic that more much than I did before, but I do feel like I better understand what happened there.  The fear and the frustration.

#2. Some of your book is just so beautifully written.  It's been a long time since I wanted to read with a pen in hand, but I did for your book, so that really is something.  I recognize that I am reading your work in a translation but even the ideas themselves were sometimes brilliant - I especially like the one about decisions - about how we can never really know which of our decisions are good and which are bad because we never get to find out the alternative - without second, third, fourth lives to live in which we try out the other things we MIGHT have done, we can't really make judgements about our choices.  That's an intriguing idea.  Of course, I think there are MORAL ways to answer the question of good/bad decisions - but especially when it comes to world events and government actions, it really does make you think.

Also, I appreciated all the sections where you lay out how two people can see the same thing so very differently.  My favorite part was in the section Living in Truth.  You said, "What does it mean to live in truth?  Putting it negatively is easy enough: it means not lying, not hiding, and not dissimulating...For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves not to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful...For Franz, living in truth meant breaking down the barriers between the private and the public.  He was fond of quoting Andre Breton on the desirability of living 'in a glass house' into which everyone can look and there are no secrets."  WOAH. That is deep and really made me think.  Both ideas resonate.

In closing, I will tell you that even though I wanted to be done way before I hit the last page, I DID finish it. Did your ending leave me feeling refreshed or satisfied?  I can't say it did.

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