Category Archives: 3 stars

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Review (Amazon):  It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: blah

This book has been on my To Read list for ages, but boy did it not live up to the expectations! A month after reading it (I’m getting caught up from my vacation!) and I can barely remember what the book was about or what the point was. I feel sometimes like you could set any book in Nazi Germany and it will somehow be a winner.

This book was far too long with characters that were so dull, you forgot about them before you even closed the book. Oh, and the narrator of the book? It’s death. Like grim reaper death. -_- I hated that.

The main character, Liesel Meminger, is 10 years old and lives with Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The Hubermanns have a few older (out of the house) children, and to make a little extra money, they agreed to take in Liesel. They were supposed to also take his brother but unfortunately he died on the trip to their house. Liesel and her mother bury her brother, and Liesel “steals” her first book–one she finds about grave digging. Liesel’s parents are communists so it’s not a safe time for them to live in Germany. Luckily Liesel has blonde hair and “looks German” so she can blend in. Her best friend is named Rudy, and he is a bit of a troublemaker. They play soccer in the streets and Liesel works hard to catch up in school.

Her father realizes that she is behind and also that she wants to be able to read her books so he has late night sessions with her to learn to read her books. Hans was a soldier in WW1 but he can’t seem to figure out where to stand on the Hitler movement despite his son being quite involved. Hans had a great friend in the war who was Jewish so he has a hard time prejudicing them.

Rosa helps out Hans’s painting jobs by doing laundry for some wealthy families in town. As times get tougher in Germany with the war efforts, she sends Liesel to drop off and collect the laundry assuming that people would be less able to cancel on a little girl. Liesel befriends the mayor’s wife who has a giant library. Ilsa gives Liesel books to read, including the journal which she writes her story (which Death is narrating), but eventually Ilsa has to stop her laundry service. This upsets Liesel who starts breaking into the library with Rudy’s help to “steal” books.

One day, a strange man shows up at the Hubermann’s and it turns out to be the son of Hans’s WW1 Jewish friend. The Hubermanns decide to shelter him in their basement where he and Liesel become great friends. She reads to him, and Max paints and writes stories for her.

The war progresses and the times to go to a bomb shelter become more frequent. The Hubermanns have to go to a neighbor’s as their own basement is not deep enough. While in the shelter, Liesel reads to the group of neighbors to keep their minds occupied. “Parades” of Jews are also brought through the town. It is during one of these that Hans makes a huge error and shows sympathy to one of the Jews. He knows then that he, and especially not Max, are no longer safe. Max leaves their house to find a different place to hide. Shortly thereafter, both Hans and Rudy’s father are drafted into the army. Hans ends up with a broken leg and is sent home.

One evening, Liesel is writing in her journal in the basement, and bombs strike her town leveling her house. For some miraculous reason (in her not-bomb-proof basement), she survives but neither the Hubermanns nor Rudy do. Ilsa picks her up from the officers and she then lives there. When Rudy’s father returns from the war, he also takes Liesel under his wing. Eventually once the war is over, Max returns and finds Liesel at Rudy’s father’s shop. This just seemed really awkward to me.

The book then ends with Liesel living in Australia with her husband, children and grandchildren, and finally Death finds her.

Verdict: 3 stars

I felt like this book could have been easily condensed to about 2/3 of the final product. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the book per se, but there also wasn’t anything about it that I was totally smitten about. I thought the characters were very vanilla which made me not care very much about them. It is rare that you read a story set in one of the worst wars in the history of humanity and you don’t really care whether the characters live or die. Or maybe you only care if they live because you don’t want to hear Death’s narration of them dying. I expected so much more based on everything I had heard about this book, and I came up sorely lacking.

 

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The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Philipp Sendker

Review (Amazon):  A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.

My Review (Spoilers!): This review has some big spoilers at the end, so if you do want to read the book, you might refrain from reading my review!!! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Executive Summary: Odd

So this was our romance/love story for this year’s book club, and I really thought it had a lot of potential. It’s a lot different than the standard story from this genre, and it had an unfamiliar setting. However, at the end of the book, I was left scratching my head about things.

Julia, a young professional lawyer, decides to take a sabbatical from her job to figure out what happened to her father. She grew up in New York City like her mother, but her father grew up in Burma. One day he up and left his family, his trail running cold in Bangkok. Her mother didn’t know anything of her father’s childhood, and Julia decides to see what she can find out. Her father was a lawyer, and by the time he disappeared, he and Julia’s mother did not get along well.

Over the next four years, nothing turns up of her father. Her mother one day sends a package of some remaining items of her father’s. Julia looks through them, and finds an envelope addressed to Mi Mi, in Kalaw, Burma from 1955. It’s a love letter, and the first key to the puzzle. When she tells her mother she is leaving, her mother is annoyed. She doesn’t understand what Julia expects to find, and she is bitter. She tells Julia that her father never wanted to marry her, and that he left her (and them) long before he physically did. Julia decided to go anyway.

When Julia gets to Kalaw (a very long and difficult journey), she meets an old man named U Ba at the tea house. He claims to know her father and begins to tell Julia his tale.

Tin Win (Julia’s father) was born to very superstitious parents. His mother had watched her brother die as a child and went to the astrologer regularly to seek guidance. Tin Win was born on a very superstitious day. Following his birth, bad things began to happen, and eventually, his parents sought the astrologer. The astrologer told them that the child will bring great sorrow to his parents. Not long after, Tin Win’s father died in a work accident, and his mother, knowing that she could not handle any more sorrow, left the boy. Eventually a neighbor, Su Kyi, comes to rescue him and moves into his house to look after him. He’s a strange boy, not having any friends, but spending most of his time playing outside. But over time, his eyesight begins to deteriorate.

Su Kyi takes him to the monks as she has a good friendship with the head monk, U May. She asks him what to do, and he suggests that Tin Win stay for a few weeks with the monks. During that time, he learns to deal with his blindness, letting his other senses develop so that he can manage in the world. He’s a good student but has no friends. He begins to develop extraordinary hearing, but he cannot identify the sounds he hears. He asks Su Kyi to investigate, but she can never get him the info he wants. And then one day at the monastery, he hears something new–a heart beat. He goes to identify the source, and he finds a girl. He speaks to her briefly, and then her mother calls her away. Her name is Mi Mi.

Eventually he finds her again at the town market, and he asks her to help him identify a sound. She agrees but she needs his help to put her on his back to investigate that the sound he is hearing is of an unhatched chick still in its shell. Mi Mi needs help because she cannot stand, nor walk, on her own due to a birth defect. Tin Win continues to meet her every market day, and they develop a symbiotic relationship–he is her legs, and she is his eyes. Over the years, it developed into the most intense love that Mi Mi’s parents and Su Kyi could even imagine.

But one day, Tin Win’s uncle, U Saw arrives from Rangoon. He volunteers to take Tin Win to a doctor in Rangoon to help restore his sight. He goes to see Mi Mi before he leaves, and they have a romantic encounter. He leaves with his uncle, who is only helping Tin Win because he believes it will help his own luck in business. Tin Win’s sight is repaired relatively easily as he had cataracts. He writes to Mi Mi every day, and she writes about the same, but his uncle intercepts both sets of letters before they reach their rightful owner. The surgery has helped U Saw’s luck, so he wonders what else he can do to boost his luck, and he doesn’t want this juvenile love to get in his way. He enrolls Tin Win in school where he excels. Following that, U Saw sends Tin Win to New York for college.

He then continues on to law school, and then is pressured into marriage by Julia’s mother. They have two children–Julia and her brother. Mi Mi continued her life in Kalaw, becoming a sort of astrologer herself. Julia doesn’t understand U Ba and his decision to quit university and return home to his mother who was growing old. She doesn’t understand why her father didn’t just disregard U Saw and go back to Kalaw for Mi Mi. U Ba claims that it is just a different culture. She learns that U Saw died in 1958, a chance for her father to come back, but by then, her father, for reasons unknown on his end, was already married, and her brother was about to be born.

U Ba tells her that her father returned there, to find Mi Mi, and when he arrives at her house, she is on her death bed. She has been waiting for him. He crawls into bed with her, and when the doctor finds them the following morning, they are both dead. Per the time and culture, the two lovers were burned side by side on separate pyres. Julia is not prepared for the news, but she still wants to see where her father and Mi Mi grew up and where they died. They happen to arrive on the anniversary of her father’s death, which has become a sort of celebration in Kalaw for the two long lost lovers. She learns that U Ba is her half-brother–the product of the romantic night that her father and Mi Mi had before he left for Rangoon. They attend the celebration together and the book ends.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to read this book because Burma is a country which has been so shut off for so long. I thought it would be an interesting glimpse into a place that would be unfamiliar. It was, but in a way that I didn’t understand. The timeline of the book is very unusual as well because at the time when Julia would have supposedly been visiting, Burma was under fierce military rule which most likely would have deterred her from going, but this aspect wasn’t mentioned in the book whatsoever. Also, I just hated how weirdly fairy tale it was. Tin Win and Mi Mi–a love story so strong that he married another but yet they die together and their story is celebrated each year with a holiday. It’s baffling.

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The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

2052

Review (Amazon): When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: familiar

We picked this book as our mystery for the year, however, I’d say that it’s not so much a mystery as it is a detective story. Apparently this book was the start of the noir genre, and reading it after being exposed to so many stories which have used this theme, it seems a little cliche. It was written in 1939 so it is obvious that it was what created these cliches, but it is still strange to read.

The detective/main character of the book is Phillip Marlowe, and this was his first book appearance. He’s a sharp talking, scotch drinking, lady ogling sort of guy. You know the type. He’s the original. He’s hired by General Sherwood to find out who is blackmailing Sherwood’s youngest daughter Carmen. Sherwood is on his death bed, and is very wealthy. When Marlowe meets with him, Sherwood mentions that his older daughter, Vivian, was married to Rusty Regan, but Regan has disappeared. Marlowe likes Sherwood and agrees to take the case of investigating the man who is blackmailing Carmen. Carmen has been blackmailed before, by a man named Joe Brody, but this time it’s by a bookseller named Arthur Geiger. When Marlowe’s leaving the house, he meets Vivian who is convinced that he has been hired to find Regan.

Marlowe heads to Geiger’s bookstore, and realizes after asking the clerk, Agnes, a few questions that the book store is definitely a front. While he is there, a man came in and dropped off a package which was then delivered to the back of the store. Marlowe follows the man and realizes that the store is a front for pornographic books. Marlowe stakes out in front of the house to wait for Geiger and eventually sees him enter and eventually leave the store. He then proceeds to follow him to his home. Eventually a woman pulls up to the house and goes inside. The car window is open allowing Marlowe to determine that it’s Carmen’s car. Marlowe continues to wait, and he sees a flash of light and hears an odd scream from the house. He goes to the door and as he’s about to knock, he hears three shots fire out followed by footsteps running away.

Marlowe lets himself into the house where he finds Geiger dead, and Carmen naked and completely dazed. There is a camera set up pointed directly at Carmen although it has no film in it. The flash of light Marlowe saw was obviously the camera, and the shots were someone’s response to it. Marlowe dressed Carmen and takes her home and then walks back to Geiger’s. When he returns, the body is gone. He takes a little time investigating the house, but the only real thing of interest is Geiger’s notebook of customers.

The next morning, Marlowe is awakened by a phone call from a cop friend to let him know that one of the Sherwood’s cars is being pulled up from the pier. And there’s a guy inside. Marlowe immediately assumes it’s Regan so he heads down to see. He finds that it’s the Sherwood’s chauffeur.

Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s shop to talk to Agnes. He asks if Geiger’s in, and she stammers and tells him that Geiger’s out of town. He notices the boy who was driving Geiger’s car loading some boxes of books into a truck, so he gets a taxi to tail them and finds out that the boxes are going to someone named Brody. He heads back to his office where he finds Vivian awaiting him. She continues to press Marlowe about why her father hired him, but he doesn’t relent. She then shows him the envelope that she received of the picture of Carmen from the previous night. It accompanied a phone call asking for $5000 (~$85000 today). They discuss what happened with the chauffeur, but Vivian doesn’t know anything. It wasn’t his night off, and she was gambling at Eddie Mars’ casino. Everyone thinks that her husband ran off with Eddie’s wife Mona which is why he’s nice to her.

He returns to Geiger’s house where he finds Carmen snooping around. Carmen tells Marlowe that it was definitely Joe Brody who shot Geiger, but she’s just playing along. While they are there, Eddie Mars arrives. They talk about what happened to Geiger, Eddie playing along in hypotheticals to see what Mars knows.

From there, Marlowe goes back to Brody’s and gets Brody to talk by offering up the customer list. Once he’s inside, he realizes that Brody and Agnes are in on it together. Marlowe’s pressing him hard about the pictures of Carmen when she arrives there too. Between the two of them, they manage to get the pictures from Brody. Carmen leaves and Marlowe questions Brody a bit more to learn that he blackmailed Vivian because he’d already hit up their dad before and he’s short on cash. The chauffeur found out about the blackmail and because of his crush on Carmen, went to Geiger’s and shot him. Brody was there and followed the chauffeur, but didn’t see how he ended up off the end of the pier (No one knows who killed the chauffeur or whether it was suicide.) and took the opportunity to take over Geiger’s dirty business. As Brody, Marlowe, and Agnes are wrapping up the story, there’s another knock on the door. Brody answers the door thinking it is Carmen and is shot twice. Marlowe races out the door and after the perp, eventually finding the boy from Geiger’s. Turns out he was Geiger’s gay lover who kept a secret room at Geiger’s house. (seems quite scandalous for 1939).

Marlowe instructs him back to Geiger’s house where they find Geiger’s body which the boy hid to keep him protected. He believed that Brody had killed Geiger so he decided to take matters into his own hands. Marlowe reaches out to his police friend who takes over from there.

And then with the real mystery over, Marlowe decides to look into what happened to Rusty Regan which is where the story gets a bit confusing in my opinion. He goes to talk to his cop friends to find out what came out of the missing person investigation which isn’t much. No one saw him take his car out and the only lead is that Eddie Mars’ wife also went missing. So Marlowe goes to speak to Mars. Vivian is at the casino winning big.

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The House of the Scorpion – Nancy Farmer

Review (Amazon): Matteo Alacrán was not born; he was harvested.
His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium–a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster–except for El Patrón. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself.

As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: OK

One of the categories which wasn’t chosen in book club this year was surprisingly the young adult category. So when we had a mix-up in months, we decided to add a young adult book to our year, and this book was chosen. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it did not live up to expectations.

On the plus side, it was a light read, and it had a different setting and plot (although similar) than a lot of the YA I’ve recently read. On the negative though, I didn’t feel like any of the characters were well-developed and I felt like the plot was full of holes.

Matteo Alacrán is a clone of El Patrón, the dictator of Opium, named aptly as it’s used to grow poppies and thereby Opium. It’s a country which developed because El Patrón, a drug dealer, advised both the USA and Mexico to set up a country where any illegal would be turned into a Farmer and there was an agreement to not sell the opium in either country. Because that seems reasonable that the USA and Mexico would be like “yeah OK this drug dealer seems to have a good idea”.

Matt grew up hidden by El Patrón’s cook until he got out one day to play with some children he saw outside. When he was caught, he was treated worse than an animal (since he was a clone), stuck in a room with sawdust like a chicken coop and abandoned. Eventually his nurse and his only friend (Maria), rescue him. El Patrón is furious that someone would treat Matt this way, and the nurse who was in charge of him is turned into an eejit like the rest of the farmhands. The eejits have implants in their brains so that they are under complete control. They work until told otherwise. Most clones are also eejits since they will eventually be harvested for parts, but El Patrón did not want Matt to have the procedure done. Matt is also given a body guard, Tam Lin.

Matt turns out to be very bright, going to eschool (since no one would want to teach a clone) and learning how to play music. He goes about mostly unnoticed since people completely ignore him. He and Maria develop a friendship. She doesn’t live at the house with him, but her father is an important person to El Patrón so she comes around often.

As he grows older, he begins to understand further what is going on within the household and with himself, and eventually when El Patrón has had another heart attack, he and Maria try to flee. Unfortunately they get caught by Maria’s sister who takes Maria back to the convent, and Matt is taken to the hospital where El Patrón tells Matt that he is only to be used for his heart which he is going to give to El Patrón. Celia pipes up to say that she has been slowly poisoning Matt with arsenic just so that he can no longer be an organ donor. Tam Lin is instructed to take care of Matt but instead, he gives Matt supplies and allows Matt to escape.

Matt gets caught at the border and sent to some sort of juvenile detention center. (This is where the book really derailed for me). The prisoners are governed by older boys who it turns out are just high all the time. The front of the whole camp is that they harvest plankton, but in reality, they are trafficking drugs. For whom and why, it never says. Eventually Matt and a few of his new friends from the camp escape (after Matt and another boy are deposited in the whale bone pile (also unexplained and really bizarre) and end up in the town where Maria is at the convent.

They make their way to the convent/hospital (I was really confused by this point) and Maria and her mother are there. (This is odd because Maria learned that her mother was still alive only recently from a book of Matt’s and she presumably lived in California, but here she just mysteriously appeared). She is interested to know about the center where Matt came from because apparently people have been trying to shut down the drug trade business for years but didn’t have enough evidence to arrest them or something (despite the entire premise of building the country of Opium being that the drugs were going to be sent out of North America). Annnnyway, Maria’s mom tells Matt that Opium has been on a complete lock down for months and that he needs to go figure out what’s going on. Since he and El Patrón have identical genetics, he shouldn’t have a problem getting in.

OK no problem, he gets back into Opium to find out that El Patrón died and during his wake, Tam Lin brings out some wine which El Patrón had wanted to have at his funeral. Tam Lin instructed another of the guards to not drink it, however he and everyone else did, and everyone died. The end. Not really, but it gets even more unrealistic. Now because Matt is technically El Patrón, he becomes the new ruler of Opium. Um, what? The book ends with him speculating about how he can disable the eejits and fix the country.

Verdict: 3 stars

This book has excellent reviews on Amazon, but frankly I don’t know if I read the same book as those people. I was sorely disappointed. Some of the ideas were good, but it did not feel like the book was thought through, and it felt as though the ending was rushed and too coincidental (never resolve a plot with a coincidence; it always feels disingenuous.) There is a sequel to this book, written many years after the original, but I don’t think I care enough to read it.

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The Speed of Dark -Elizabeth Moon

  Summary (Amazon): In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult, is a member of the lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the rewards of medical science. He lives a low-key, independent life. But then he is offered a chance to try a brand-new experimental “cure” for his condition. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music—with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world—shades and hues that others cannot see? Most important, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world . . . and the very essence of who he is.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!):

Executive Summary: almost

So this is our science fiction pick for the year, and it’s not really science fiction. It’s set in a future world where all people who will have autism have been corrected before being born. There is a gap generation who were too old for the full correction, but have had some procedures, allowing them to work and have semi-normal lives. No robots, aliens, or flying cars. Just a story about an autistic man named Lou.

Lou has an apartment, a car, and a job. He works in a job in a special office with only other autists. They have some special perks which the other “normal” employees do not get, but this allows them to fully channel their concentration into their work and find patterns and sequences that others cannot.

A new big boss, Mr. Crenshaw, arrives at the company, and his goal is cutting costs. He decides that this group of autists is too much work, so he comes up with a (really contrived) plan. He is going to cut costs by eliminating the perks that these autists get by making them all sign up for an experimental medical procedure which makes them “normal”. Their direct boss, Mr. Aldrin, who has a severely autistic brother, gets to work foiling his plan.

Speaking of foils, Lou’s main past time is fencing. There’s a group he goes to once a week at Tom and Lucia’s house. It took Lou a while to get the hang of it physically, but he now is quite a good competitor as he can deduce the opponent’s pattern. A bunch of others go to the fencing group, but the story focuses mostly on two–Don and Marjory. Don’s a jerk, and Lou doesn’t really see it. The others defend Lou when Don makes crass jokes about him being a retard, but really this just makes him madder that they like Lou better than they like him. Marjory is a love interest of Lou’s although it takes him a while to realize it. He struggles to understand how to manage that situation, and Tom and Lucia explain to him that “normal” people also have a lot of difficulty in this situation!

His situation at work is getting more dire as he and the others in his group don’t know that their manager is working behind the scenes to fix things, and now Lou appears to be being targeted by someone who has slashed his tires and broken his windshield. The final piece comes when someone leaves an explosive jack in the box inside his car where the battery should be. After only slight investigation, they realize that it’s Don, and he is arrested when he tries to shoot Lou at the grocery store. Lou struggles with this as Don’s punishment is to have his brain altered so that he won’t want to do bad things. Lou has been reading a lot of books that he had borrowed from Lucia about the brain to understand better his own possible treatment, so he additionally knows what will be happening to Don.

It turns out that the big boss is fired when the rest of the C levels find out what he is up to, and the program is off. Mostly. The autists can still have the procedure done if they would like, and one of them does immediately. Lou struggles with deciding whether or not to do it, and then he eventually decides that he will. He awakes from the surgery and originally has no memory. Tom comes to visit him but it takes a few visits for Lou to remember who he is, but eventually he does. He starts to remember his old life, but he decides that he wants to get into a PhD program. He eventually loses touch with his friends from his old live including Marjory.

Verdict: 3 stars

The one thing that I did really like about this book was the glimpse into the mind of an autistic person. Reading some reviews of the book, including one written by a high-functioning autist, suggest that this depiction is actually very realistic. (The author has an autistic son.) However, the actual story of the book I found to be very unrealistic and at times very dull (like the detailed pages and pages about Lou reading about the brain). I thought that aside from Lou, every character felt very flat especially Mr. Crenshaw and Don. It also felt like a snap decision that Lou made in the end, and the book ended so abruptly. And in general, I thought it was quite the stretch of calling it a science fiction book.

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Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

  Summary (Amazon): Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train is an unforgettable story of friendship and second chances that highlights a little-known but historically significant movement in America’s past—and it includes a special PS section for book clubs featuring insights, interviews, and more.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: heartwarming

So this is the book that was chosen for my pick for this year’s book club list for the literary fiction category. Unfortunately I wasn’t wowed by it. I found it a little bit overly predictable, and it felt more like reading a movie than it did reading a book (aka everything wraps up neatly at the end). However, on the other hand, it exposed me to a part of American history that I was unfamiliar with. I just wanted more from it. A lot more.

The book juxtaposes two story lines that obviously intertwine–Molly, a teenager in modern time, and Vivian, and old lady in modern time, who was obviously the one on the orphan train. The problem is Molly. Molly’s sections are contrived, unrealistic, and so cheesy young adult, that I nearly almost stopped reading it. And I hated that the book began with Molly instead of beginning with Vivian.

Molly is the most stereotypical angsty teenager of all times. She’s a goth vegetarian “orphan” (technically her deadbeat mother is still alive but she’s in and out of jail) who stole a copy of Jane Eyre from the library, and now she is apparently about to go to juvenile detention unless she finds some community service to do instead. Her boyfriend, Jack, pulls some strings with his mother to allow Molly to do her community service helping Vivian, Jack’s mother’s employer, sort through years of boxes. (Is that what community service looks like these days?)

Vivian was born in Ireland under the name of Niamh. She, her parents, and her sister and brothers, moved to America in 1927 and lived in a tiny apartment in New York City. Two years after arrival with no real sight of the American Dream, the family perishes in an apartment fire and only Niamh survives. The neighbors, the Schatzmans, take her to the Children’s Aid Society where she is sent on a train to the midwest for adoption. En route, she befriends an older boy “Dutchy” (Hans) who sits beside her, and they promise that no matter what happens, they will find each other later. Dutchy gets picked at the first stop, Minneapolis, where they are put through all but a sale. Niamh boards the train for the next stop, Albans, MN.

in Albans, she is selected by an Irish man and his wife, the Byrnes. Mrs. Byrne runs a clothing shop, which Niamh, now Dorothy, works at. She doesn’t go to school, but she is treated OK until the stock market crashes and she is “returned” and sent to live with another family, the Grotes. The Grotes are a hot mess. The mom sleeps all day. The dad wants to basically live off the grid. (He doesn’t have a job. He just hunts and forages for food.) Niamh sleeps in a pile with the rest of the skinny children. But she is allowed to go to school. There she befriends the nice teacher, Miss Larson. It’s a good thing too because in not too long, Mr. Grote assaults Niamh and Mrs. Grote walks in, blaming Niamh and kicking her out of the house. She walks to the schoolhouse with her belongings, and Miss Larson calls Mr. Sorenson, the Children’s Aid Society worker. He thinks that Niamh was being overly dramatic. Luckily Miss Larson stands up for her, and volunteers to allow Niamh to stay with her in her boardinghouse until a new solution can be found.

Mrs. Murphy, the landlady of the boardinghouse, is Irish as well, and she immediately takes a liking to Niamh who stays at the boardinghouse until Mrs. Murphy finds her a new family, the Nielsens who lost their only daughter to diphtheria a few years prior. They initially want her as some additional help at the shop that they own, but over time, they adopt her and change her name yet again, to Vivian. (Creepily their dead daughter’s name). As Vivian grows older, she takes a real interest in the shop, suggesting designs and changes to make the store better, eventually managing the store upon graduation.

One night, she’s enticed by two of her friends to go with them to Minneapolis to see The Wizard of Oz (one of my favorite movies!). She doesn’t go out much, as she has been brought up knowing how severe getting in trouble can be (although this is weird that she has this behavior but yet Molly does not??) but her friends were there mostly to party only under the guise of seeing the movie. In the most eye-rolling moment of serendipity, she accidentally finds Dutchy while at a club in Minneapolis. Shortly after that, they get married. All is going well. They move back to Hemingford where Vivian runs the store and Dutchy teaches music at a local school. And then World War II happens. Dutchy is eventually drafted, and while he is in training, Vivian discovers that she is pregnant. They write regularly, but eventually the bad news come back. A plane crashed onto the fleet carrier where Dutchy was. He did not survive.

Vivian makes the hard decision to place the baby, a girl, up for adoption. After the war, she marries Jim Daly, who brings the rest of Dutchy’s things to her. It’s more of a business partnership, but it worked out for both of them.

Molly presses Vivian to investigate what happened to the rest of her family, but Vivian does not want to embrace the technology. As part of a school project, Molly decides to do it herself, finding out that Vivian’s sister indeed survived the fire and was adopted by the Schatzmans. She had children and grandchildren, but had passed away a few years previously. Molly gets in a last fight with her foster parents and goes to live with Vivian who has a big house with many empty rooms. And Molly only has a short amount of time before she’s out of the system anyway. Molly tells Vivian about her sister, and this information convinces Vivian to embrace technology (way more than seems likely) and tracks down her daughter.

The book ends with the daughter and her family coming to meet Vivian.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to love this book. It was my choice for this year, and the topic is interesting. But I just could not get past the clichéd writing. I know I’m in the minority on this (it has a 4+ star ranking on Amazon), but I just was expecting more.

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

  Summary (Amazon): From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: Almost

I probably started out this book with a bit of a pessimistic attitude because I just do not like WW2 books (specifically the European ones. I thoroughly enjoyed Unbroken because westerners rarely hear stories about WW2 Asia.) Anyway, the story is about an orphaned German boy and a blind French girl. So I was like…OK maybe this will be different. And in some parts it was, but in many ways, it wasn’t. Also, this was actually 5 stories confusingly woven into one. 1) Past tense Marie-Laure, 2)past tense Werner, 3) “current” (1944) time Marie-Laure and 4) “current” (1944) time Werner. 5) Sergeant Major von Rumpel’s obsession with finding the “Sea of Flames”. I’m going to tell Marie’s story, Werner’s story, how von Rumpel fits in, and then what happens when they finally meet.

Marie-Laure, the blind French girl, lives with her father, who is a museum locksmith, in Paris. (Her mother died in childbirth.) Her father is amazing and takes her to work with him where she learns about everything the museum has to offer. One of the things that the museum has is the “Sea of Flames”, a large blue diamond with red at the inside. It is kept in a series of locked doors as the diamond is known to be cursed. It gives the owner immortality but not without great despair. Marie-Laure’s father also makes her wooden puzzles as well as scale models of her neighborhood so that she can learn the paths before actually going outside and taking them.

When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris to head to the town of Saint-Malo (via way of Evreux which was already attacked and looted) to live with her great uncle Etienne who is a recluse and his housekeeper, Madame Manec. Marie-Laure doesn’t know but her father and 3 others are entrusted to take the “Sea of Flames” and hide it away from the Nazis. (3 of the diamonds are fake, but one is the real deal). Shortly after her father finishes his scale model of the region of Saint-Malo, he is called back to Paris to the museum and is taken in by the Nazis en route and taken to prison. He manages to eventually write Marie-Laure and Etienne some letters, one of which says that there is a a gift inside Etienne’s house just like she would get on her birthdays–a puzzle and inside a gift. Despite it being very obvious that the house is the model house, she has no idea what her dad is talking about and just ignores it.

Meanwhile, she is getting to know Etienne much better. He loves learning, music, and radios. His brother, Marie’s grandfather, used to record science programs that Etienne would transmit with his radio. When the Nazis take all the radios, they give up all but that one which they hide in a hidden closet and cover with a wardrobe. Manec has begun to help the resistance with some other town ladies in little ways. She involves Marie who meets some interesting people through this including Madame Ruelle who bakes secret messages into bread, and Harold Bazin, who has a secret hideout full of snails, which Marie loves. One day, Manec grows sick and dies. Yes, that suddenly. It convinces Etienne that he needs to try being brave so he begins sending out the secret codes that are baked into the bread through his radio, and when Marie-Laure one day is stopped by a Nazi soldier on the way home from the bakery, he finally convinces himself to leave the house to find her, and he then takes over the route for her until he disappears.

***

Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta live in an orphanage in Zollverein, Germany. Werner’s father was a miner who died in a mining accident, and he’s always been interested in science. He and his sister scavenge old pieces of equipment and eventually cobble together a radio (the orphanage doesn’t have one) and listen to a science broadcast every night. Werner begins repairing radios for the townspeople until eventually he repairs one for a rich German man who helps Werner get accepted into a Nazi youth military school.  Jutta does not want him to go (she has been listening to the radio and thinks the Nazis are wrong), but he doesn’t really care, and he breaks her radio and goes to the school. He makes friends with a quiet boy named Frederick who joined because his father wanted him to (his vision was poor enough that he could have gotten out of it but he didn’t want to be a disappointment). The Nazi fervor grows and grows at the school, and Werner seems to evade some of it as he is the special pupil to the technical sciences’ professor. However, Frederick does not evade it, and after a few run ins with one of the training officers, he is attacked by some other students and taken from the school in a vegetable state. Werner, for the most part, is unfazed and continues with his job.

Eventually he gets put on a task force with this older student, Volkheimer, and some others to travel around finding people from the resistance transmitting anti-German things on the radio and destroy them. They travel around finding all sorts of “resistance” who they then kill. Werner remains fully unfazed about all of this until they accidentally kill a child who reminds him of Jutta. When they head to Saint-Malo to find a radio that has been sending out codes, Werner pretends he can’t find them.

**

Throughout all of this, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel has been appraising all the treasure that the Nazis have been looting. He’s an esteemed gemologist, and he also has cancer. He has heard about the “Sea of Flames” and its capability of eternal life. He interrogates the museum about it and eventually tracks down the person who made the mould for the fakes who tells him that 3 were made. Methodically, he finds the keepers of 3/4, and of course, the last one to find is Marie-Laure’s, and he tracks her down to Saint-Malo.

**

Marie-Laure is home alone when she hears someone enter the house. It’s not Etienne though she doesn’t know where he is, so she knows it is someone looking for the “Sea of Flames” which she finally figured out was in the model house. She hides in the radio room with the box hoping that von Rumpel will leave, but as hers is the last one and he is running out of time, he has no reason to leave without the stone. She begins to do radio broadcasts of her reading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea which Werner overhears on his scans. He targets her because he is fascinated, but then he and his team end up under the rubble after an attack from the Allied forces. When he hears her broadcast,  “He is here. He will kill me.”, he makes a final desperate attempt to escape. It works, and he goes to her house where he finds and kills von Rumpel and rescues her.

He asks her about the transmitter and tells her about the radio show that he used to listen to with his sister from that same transmission. She tells him that it was her grandfather, and they discuss Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea while eating the last can of peaches. He wears Etienne’s clothes to take her to safety, but she stops at the snail cave to deposit the house with the stone, and then goes to the muster point, giving Werner the key to the cave before she goes.

Werner is captured and believed to be a spy. He is taken to prison and is killed stepping onto a buried mine. Yes, just that fast.

Then the author decides to go to 2 separate “modern times” to try to continue the story, but it adds nothing. In the 1970s, Volkheimer receives Werner’s things from the army and tracks down Jutta to give them to her. He tells Jutta about their last days together in Saint-Malo. One of the items in his pack is part of a model house. Jutta decides to track down the owner of the house, first traveling to Saint-Malo where of course someone knows exactly where to find Marie-Laure 30 years later. She works in the museum. Jutta tracks her down and gives her back the house. Marie-Laure gives her the last of the records her grandfather recorded for Jutta’s son. When Marie opens the house, the key to the cave is inside, so she believes that Werner went back to retrieve the house but leave the diamond. Why?

Then again the author decides we care about old lady Marie-Laure hanging out with her grandson in the early 2000s just to show she made it.

Verdict: 3 stars

The book was just not come together in a way that was enjoyable for me. It was a good idea, but it just never was fully realized. In fact, without the two 2.5 hour flights I took, I am not sure I would have finished it. I didn’t enjoy the style of jumping back and forth between the stories. I didn’t like the extreme amount of closure that the author thought that the readers needed. Leave a little to the imagination. But the worst part was that I didn’t like the characters. They were so blah. Werner was a little sheep that somehow we were supposed to care about. And Marie-Laure never seemed to evolve to have her own ideas. I just wanted more.

 

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Filed under 3 stars, Book Club, Book Review